Where has all the Mystique gone?

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MORE HISTORY = LESS MYSTERY: Rock stars lose their mystique
As we’re buried in backstage footage, blog entries, MySpace pages and unreleased tracks, we lose interest

I was 7 when I got my first real record album, a gleaming collection of KC & the Sunshine Band’s greatest hits.

Inside the record jacket was a smattering of band shots — dim, dark concert photos with faces that could barely be discerned. For at least a year, I scrupulously studied those images while wearing out the record of bouncy disco-pop, to the point that I could probably accurately sketch most of them to this day.

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A voice in the speakers, a handful of photos on a record sleeve. That was it. The group remained otherwise untouchable, enigmatic. And so for a young kid who had no clue what to call it, or that it was even called anything, KC & the Sunshine Band possessed something very important. Mystique.

You can’t blame the 7-year-old for failing to find the right word. Mystique is a slippery notion, hard to get your hands around. Even articulate adults have a tough time defining the concept, which is why we often just call it “it” — as in, you’ve either got it or you don’t. In popular music, mystique is the lifeblood of other important qualities, such as glamour and cool. Whether you’re talking about Bob Dylan or a hook-happy disco group.

What does seem clear is that in today’s buzzing Information Age, mystique — that intangible it — is getting harder and harder to pull off.

There’s a reason they call the Internet the great leveler: As technology increasingly lets us get a glimpse into the star machine, peeking behind the scenes and absorbing all manner of minutiae about our favorite acts, the gap between audience and artist gets ever smaller. Details and developments are recorded, shared and analyzed at a dizzying pace and volume.

YouTube, MySpace, message boards, band chats, DVDs, reality shows — for a fan, it’s all hard to resist. Knowledge is tempting. Information promises relief, the chance to unravel mysteries and satisfy questions. But today’s rat-a-tat-tat multimedia culture presents us with a hard question about our relationship with our artists: Is more actually less?

The barrage of easy information makes it difficult for the mystique to stay intact. We get access, the mystique takes a hit, we quickly lose interest, we move on.

“Sometimes it just feels like there’s too much now. That reality is hurting the whole thing,” says Scott Guy, general manager of Ferndale’s Web Entertainment and an industry veteran who has helped break artists such as Soundgarden and Sum 41. “When your heroes are brought down to the same level as you, it takes that star quality away. Type a name into Google, and it’s all there. It takes the discovery out of the equation, and sometimes that was the magic of it all. That’s what made it special to be a fan.”

A handy benchmark will show up in stores Nov. 6. The Beatles’ 1965 film “Help!” is at last getting its proper release on DVD, latest in the band’s ongoing digital updating of its catalog. The disc is a welcome treat for Beatles fans, its gorgeous restored color and surround-sound mixes providing snazzy new thrills.

But look close, and you’ll notice something about the package’s bonus features: There aren’t a whole lot of them. We’ve grown accustomed to extras with our DVDs — deleted scenes, outtakes, on-set interviews. But with “Help!” there simply wasn’t a choice. In 1965, surplus Beatles footage wasn’t just left on the cutting room floor, it was swept into a trash bin.

That scenario isn’t unusual. The Beatles phenomenon was as well-chronicled and publicized as any big news event of its time. But pop music itself was regarded as temporary, even disposable. Unimaginable as it seems by today’s standards, few people of the era thought in terms of preserving every move for posterity. There was no rock press to speak of. Young fans accessed their artists via records, radio play and the occasional television gig.

“There was no thought given to recording behind-the-scenes stuff,” says Howard Kramer, curatorial director for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. “It just wasn’t done. I don’t think someone would have even proposed that back then. ‘Shoot behind the scenes? What do we need that for?’ “

In other words, there’s probably more backstage footage of the typical “American Idol” contestant than there is from the Beatles’ entire career. Or contrast “Help!” with “Popmart,” the latest concert DVD from U2. Released last month, it’s a typical modern music release with a typical grab bag of extras: nine previously unreleased live songs, four documentary features with interviews and backstage footage, a batch of audio-visual goodies for home computers.

“Popmart” is a product of its environment, a multimedia bonanza for a multimedia age. In 2007, it’s not enough to simply peddle a music performance. Fans bred on MTV, the Internet and reality television want a virtual backstage pass. They expect to be privy to the scene behind the scene. They want access.

“There used to be a profound difference between the star and the audience,” says Kramer. “Now there are very few artists who maintain any kind of mystique. Celebrity has changed. Now it’s grist for the mill.”

But are we losing something valuable when we keep the curtain pulled back? You don’t have to be a cynic to suspect so. Mystique long played a special role in the music fan experience. It helped build tighter bonds to artists and their music. It strengthened their grip on our imaginations. It gave them staying power.

“To me part of the magic was that you imagined what John Lennon was like, or what these songs were about. You read your own meaning into the music and the people who were making it. That was part of what made you an active fan — you engaged on a personal level,” says Glenn Gass, 51, a music professor at Indiana University. “When you get a little too close they get a little too ordinary. And you don’t want your stars to be ordinary.”

The title of another new DVD, “The Unseen Beatles,” shows that marketers fully understand the power of mystique. The hour-long disc, which sprinkles snippets of home movies and snapshots among well-worn archival footage, tantalizes with the promise that something hidden is about to be revealed. It’s enticing, because we want to see. But then there’s a problem: Once it’s been seen, the thirst has been quenched. There’s no going back. You can’t un-see it.

That might sound like an obvious point, but it’s crucial to this whole mystique business: After a point, there’s no hidden stuff left.

Multiply that by an ever-expanding Internet, a smorgasbord of cable channels and a sophisticated marketing machine, and you’ve got a recipe for a music world that’s been thoroughly demystified. If there had ever been a chance for Britney Spears to create an air of mystery, it’s long gone now, obliterated by tabloid news saturation, homemade video escapades and rambling online letters to fans.

Nodding to Elvis, Dylan and Led Zeppelin before them, there are performers who still recognize the value of restraint. Radiohead, R.E.M., Prince, Pearl Jam, Tool — all built careers and artistic reputations by purposefully laying low, holding back on press interviews, videos, promotional campaigns and anything else that might reveal too much. They’ve let the music do their image-making. For their fans, an album release remains a highly anticipated event, like the latest glimpse into an ongoing secret.

For a certain breed of band, however, there may be real benefits to opening up the access. Like other groups that came up through the grassroots rock scene, the Barenaked Ladies regard fans as part of the team. For these bands, the Internet has grown from a helpful networking tool into a core feature of the fan experience. It’s probably impossible for such bands to spread themselves too thin.

“We’ve taken the viewpoint that the day of the rock star is done, and so we need to be more like a next-door neighbor,” says Craig (Fin) Finley, the group’s tour manager. Like the band’s members, he’s a frequent poster at the web site BNLBlog.com.

“I still pine for a bit of the mystique of the rock star, because growing up that was such a big part of it all,” he says. “You liked putting your stars up on a pedestal. So much of that is lost these days. We’ve found that being more like the guy-next-door has worked much better for us.”

It’s not just newer-generation artists. Since the home-video boom of the 1980s — and since the subculture of rock evolved into a mainstream business — classic rockers have discovered the value of chronicling their careers. Many of these bands once struggled to scrape together enough vintage footage to fill a single video. Today they extensively record as they go.

In the early 1970s, “people just weren’t really thinking about it along those lines yet,” says Don Brewer of Grand Funk. “It was a very be-here-now kind of mindset. Live was everything. Records were everything. But video? Nobody had the foresight that there would be DVDs, reissues, MTV, any of it.

“Now everything is video’d. We could walk away with a top-notch video every night we play.”

Still, there’s something to be said for the powerful intrigue cultivated by a band such as the White Stripes, whose rise to fame came with a dose of old-school mystique. For Jack and Meg White — with their fanciful tall tales and fiercely guarded private lives — it was as if the modern era had never come to be.

But here’s the deal: There’s no turning back the clock, and until somebody unplugs the Internet, the changes in our relationship with artists are probably here to stay. The idea of pop musicians as untouchable icons might one day be seen as a dusty relic from a time when artists had mystique by default. For those future musicians who want to conjure that old-time magic, the trick might be working hard to make a name — then working hard to hide in plain sight.

Indiana University’s Gass is a devoted Wilco fan who wishes he’d never watched the band’s acclaimed 2002 documentary about the recording of its album “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.”

“I realized I didn’t want to get that close to it,” says Gass. “I think there’s a danger that everything happens so immediately, so shed of its mystique, that it limits the experience. I like heroes. I grew up in an age when these stars were bigger-than-life heroes. I think it would be hard under this microscope to ever have that again.”

2 Responses to “Where has all the Mystique gone?”

  1. A very very insightful post. On a light note, one could argue the less known about the White Stripes the better, but thats just a personal opinion!

    Its been a steady progression, and most of it downhill. American Idol, and its forerunners that began life in the UK, were the natural continuation of what had been happening behind the scenes in record companies for years, with the advent of manufactured pop stars such as Steps, New Kids on the Block etc. This took an already vacuous industry into the public eye. Its all devouring media coverage has had the effect of marginalising “proper” music. Will a genuine talent like the Beatles ever emerge and develop as naturally as they did again? Never in our wildest dreams. The reason the 60s and early 70s were so creative is that they were allowed to be. It used to be the MUSIC business. Now its The Music BUSINESS.

  2. You’re absolutely right. When I was a teenager in the 70s I listened to CCR, The Moody Blues,Grand Funk Railroad and so many other bands. They had a compelling mystique about them since there was so little information available .
    I would spend hours in record shops, gazing at the vinyl, making agonizing choices over which album was the best choice for my linited budget,reading the album covers, absorbing any snippet of information I could.
    Today, there is so much music information its almost a turnoff and like you say, it shatters the mystique every band should try to aquire.

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