A few weeks ago I was watching my very first (and subsequently last) episode of American Idol and I had a thought which I believe is relevant to the nature of that show in relation to the artists the contestants cover. Some young, handsome, theater-raised idol was covering Satisfaction. He’s initial vocal was inspired by Chan Marshall’s performance with her band Cat Power. It was slow, sultry and hypersexual. I liked it right away. Then he ramped up and started in with a Jagger-esque performance and my enjoyment began falling down ladder rungs with each passing second. I mean this quite literally. I was more and more appalled with every clock tick. A more calamitous collapse can only be seen in games 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the 2004 American League Championship series. (Sorry, but summer is here and I always look for a baseball reference.)
All things considered, his performance was fine if overly practiced. What bothered me the most about his stage presence wasn’t his dancing or his vocal. It was his looks. He was simply too pretty to cover a Stones jam. Just too pretty. Rock and Roll is really only about 50% talent. If the ingredients for prime time, heavy-hitter, Hall of Fame-style rock were presented visually in a pie graph, talent, song craft, and musical acumen would only occupy about half of the graph. The other half is based in part on mythology, gimmick, and ugliness. This is why the prettiest bands in the world will never make it to the Hall. This is also a relatively unfair comparison because American Idol is firmly entrenched in pop music, but that doesn’t dimish my point.
The Rolling Stones are nasty, filthy, absolutely heinous-looking drug vacuums, able to snort up the better part of Bolivia in over the course of a three-day weekend. This was especially true at the time they introduced Satisfaction to the world at large. (June, 1965) You can’t be downright, Brad Pitt-handsome and write that lyric let alone do it properly on stage. There is a long precedence here. Some years ago a science think tank did a study based on what society generally perceives as attractive and how well they do in their chosen professions. (A group of scientists standing around determining how hot the CEO of Wells Fargo is absolutely baffles me, but it did happen.) Their findings: people commonly considered attractive get paid about 20% more than do normal or unattractive people. Keep this in mind the next time you’re dealing with the manager at your local bank.
Rock stars are almost expected to be ugly or they’re expected to behave in such absurd and outlandish ways as to overwhelm their attractiveness. They get away with things no one would ever be able to get away with. What would your reaction be in a man rolled into your office wearing assless, yellow leather pants and matching high-heeled shoes ala Prince? Or how about a your assistant coming into work wearing 8-inch high platform boots with a demon on the toe, a leotard, and a bass guitar resembling an axe while he spewed fireballs into the air like Gene Simmons? Clearly I don’t need to go into more detail. They do ridiculous things. Absurd things. They nail furniture to the ceilings of hotel rooms. They drink their body weight in vodka just to stop the shakes in the morning. They snort lines of cocaine so long you’d think they were FIFA World Cup officials.
In the rock world you can half of the pie and not go anywhere. But you have to have some schlock and some ugliness to make it work to full effect. Steven Tyler for example. The man is absolutely disgusting to look at but he sets the bar absurdly high for front men. Kurt Cobain is not what one would call attractive. Couple that with his songwriting and the introduction of what would be called grunge and BAM! He’s in there. Radiohead is perhaps the ugliest band this side of early Rolling Stones with a lead singer who looks like he was dragged around the block by a cement truck on top of the fact that he looks as though he may have an extra chromosome. They are the best working band in the world today.
Of course there are some artists who do amazingly well in spite of their great looks. Early Elvis is a prime example. But then he got remarkably disgusting and the world realized that he was human after all. Jim Morrison got fat and gross at the optimal time to assure his sainthood in the rock pantheon. The Beatles were all reasonably good looking but then the drugs took hold and their beards got long and they ceased to be the good looking, clean-cut boys mothers would be proud to sit down at their dinner tables. Besides that, the Beatles wrote more great songs this side of anyone named Bob Dylan…who is quite ugly, by the way.
Bottom line: Being ugly AND writing good songs is the best thing one can do for their music careers. You can’t have half the pie and nothing else and expect to go down in history. Either be really ugly and write amazing songs, be mildly attractive and write superb songs, or be very handsome and write the greatest shit ever. You have to have more than one piece of the pie to make it all work.