Screw the system: sex, drugs and rock & roll

Bob Dylan was a prominent ‘f**k the system’ artist

When I was about twelve, with a haircut I’d rather forget and a personality even more awkward than mine today, I could think of nothing cooler than being a rockstar. The fame, the success, the outlandish stunts in their social life; all this seemed impossibly amazing for a wide-eyed kid who could just about play a few songs on drums. My heroes were old-school and the antithesis of the bubblegum-pop that was popular at the time (and still is), from Kurt Cobain to John Bonham, they all had a reputation for rebelling against the norm.

Nowadays, though I might be a couple of inches taller and have ditched the bowl haircut, a part of me still loves hearing about the rebellious antics of the rockstars of years past. My favourite story is of Chad Smith, when he’d just joined the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and was still the quiet outsider of the group. He was found by his bandmates sat silently in his room, fully clothed, but hitting three naked girls with a spatula as they danced around him. However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg; Ozzy Osborne killed bats on stage, two members of Led Zeppelin supposedly pleasured a girl with a fish, and the Rolling Stones pretty much did everything.

The rebellion went beyond the simple disription of standard social etiquette. When politics and music mix, the result can either be a little bit embarrassing at times (*cough* Enter Shikari *cough*), or the eclectic voice of a movement. In 1964, Bob Dylan sang, “come Senators, Congressmen, please heed the call […] there’s a battle outside, and it’s ragin’”, just one of many lyrical criticisms of the US government’s war in Vietnam. Rage Against the Machine’s guitarist Tom Morello attended Harvard as a student of Social Sciences and remains a political activist. Notably, he wrote an incredibly eloquent open letter to Paul Ryan (Mitt Romney’s running mate) explaining, in detail, why Ryan should not and could not claim to like Rage Against the Machine’s music with his political views. Perhaps most importantly, let’s not forget punk; a genre that personifies rebellion and steps beyond music and into a lifestyle, with even lighter punk bands like Green Day writing songs that criticise the government.

Ossy Osbourne is the ultimate symbol of rebellion

However, in contemporary times, music and rebellion just don’t seem to go hand in hand in the same way. I mean, sure, Kayne West goes on a strange rant every so often. Occasionally, we watch the deteriorating mental health of celebrities like it’s a spectator sport. Justin Bieber pissed in a bucket. But much of the sheer lunacy of musicians’ stunts have simply disappeared from our day-to-day awareness of artists; either they don’t happen anymore, or they’re covered up exceptionally well. It’s getting harder and harder to think of a modern-day rockstar who does the same kind of weird nonsense as those in decades past, and this makes my inner twelve year old a little sad; it was always comforting to know that you could be both completely bizarre and successful. Is it because we’ve simply seen it all with rebellious musicians? Is there simply less to rebel against? Or is it because we have come to expect our celebrities to be more of a cookie-cutter role model figure?

Maybe there’s less of a need to have musicians who embody a rage against conformity, because conformity nowadays may not be all that bad. After all, little things like having brightly dyed hair and a sleeve of tattoos are hardly symbols of rebellion anymore; they’ve become fairly commonplace. You could certainly make the case that our society has moved to the most accepting and open point it’s even seen; sexism, racism and general awfulness certainly still exist, but they’re arguably on the decline. I, however, don’t know that I buy it. I still see enough Facebook statuses, pissed off pub arguments and dubious Daily Mail articles to convince me that people aren’t entirely happy with the swing of things.

Perhaps part of it is due to the sad, but inevitable, darker side of rebellion. It’s harder to mock bands like White Lies, who largely don’t take any intoxicating substances whatsoever, when you think of all the beautiful people we’ve lost to their struggles with addiction; Hendrix, Cobain, the list is frighteningly long. After all, the ridiculous drug-addled stories you hear are only fun when nobody gets hurt. When you consider the potential personal consequences of rebelling against the norm, things become a little more solemn. Naturally, this depends on the individual artist in question; plenty have survived the rock and roll lifestyle without coming close to the brink of death or destruction. But, when you think about the number who haven’t been so lucky, perhaps we can’t blame modern day musicians for wanting to choose a different path.

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