After reading the nostalgia-tastic list of 12 terrible celebrity bands over at ScreenJunkies, I got to pondering that age-old question again: Why do celebrities make such shitty music? When combined with some thoughts I had over the course of making the movie, I came up with an answer that’s so simple it’s avoided detection over the years.
Rock stars quite often make the jump to acting, some with success, some with failure. Usually a good toe-test is their presence in a music video – do we believe the emotion of their song while they lip synch on a soundstage nonsensically holding a pig’s hoof and licking an old radio mic? Well, that took some acting, my friend. More importantly, did they seem believable in a concept video, something where they were not necessarily singing but actually acting out something either directly related to their song, or even completely abstract? Either way, one reason for actors’ music suckage seems clear: from the early 80s to the late 90s, acting actually became a prerequisite to being a successful musician. If you didn’t have video presence, you weren’t a star. With the decay of MTV, this is less relevant, but musicians are still clinging to the music video for now. Even without the advent of the music video, stage presence is and has always been the invisible selling point of all music. If your shows suck, it doesn’t matter how good your album was, everyone will lose interest – just ask Third Eye Blind. Going a bit further, rockers like David Bowie incorporated things like actual theatrics, costuming, and character creation into their shows and media presence. It’s no wonder he could successfully transfer that magic into playing characters like Pontius Pilate and Nikola Tesla.*
Which makes my second point obvious: being a rockstar is just plain harder than acting. To be a successful actor merely takes presence, the right look, and memorizations skills. You’re basically a smarter model. Sure, there is a craft, and some people elevate it, but that’s not necessary to be successful or a superstar, in fact, just the opposite. Someone who is a star is usually pretty, and an adequate actor with a lot of presence or looks – Tom Cruise is at best believable, but does not become someone else. Jack Nicholson plays Jack Nicholson in every movie (most of which have him playing someone named Jack). No matter how believable, likable, or amazing they are, they are recognizable, which means they’re not really doing their jobs. But that is how people start to go see your movies for you, instead of for the movie. That’s how you become a star.
A rockstar, by contrast, has all of those responsibilities, because truly ugly people rarely become popular musicians, and even if they could would not get record deals anyway. Whole bands have been replaced so that an attractive lead singer can be signed. On top of looks, presence, and memorization skills, rockstars must master a truly technical craft. Once again, there are actors who treat acting as a craft, but they are either not stars or are Johnny Depp and Robert Downey, Jr., and even they are still only acting. A rockstar must act, and must at least sing as well, and possibly play an instrument and write good lyrics. The lyric part is usually the deal-breaker, seeing as most celebs cannot write a decent one to save their lives. They are not going through anything resembling a visceral, genuine life. At best, their lyrics are genuine but from an unrelatably positive place, like Christian Rock. Their lives just aren’t that bad. At worst, they are hamfisted attempts at mimicking their favorite band’s type of lyric, without truly understanding the emotions involved, because they no longer have to go through them, the way we do. I know, I know, rockstars are rich, too. But they are also seriously fucked up, because being a musician is a fucked up business. Acting is fucked up in ways to which only other actors can relate.
And then there is the fact that music is a personal, intimate journey whereby the musician/singer is rewarded for being genuine and real and flawed – that truly great music is solace, but that acting and celebritism is escapism, it is about disengenuity, about hiding your flaws from the public, or they will crucify you. It is easier for an honest person to act than it is for a liar to expose themselves.
But all this is conjecture based on outside perspective. The truth is that my movie has helped me answer this question. While in the pre-stages of making my film, as different people read the script, I was surprised at some of the questions raised. My movie is about geeks as heroes, in one of the only situations where their geekiness comes in handy – a full scale zombie assault. I’ve always liked fringe characters (don’t we all), and I like making them my protagonists as an attempt at re-enfranchising them and showing them respect that they deserve but rarely are afforded. Geeks, punks, freaks, and the homeless need lovin’ too. It amazed me how many people who related to the main character defended him as “not being a geek”, when this was clearly the case. Certainly, he was not as hopeless or out of touch with reality as some of the secondaries, but he was in no way above or beyond them.
In the original script, there were a few scenes dealing with the main characters being in a Weezer-style band together. Many people who think they are not nerdy would ask me after reading it, “Do you really think these guys would be in a band?” My answer was invariably, “Yes.” I knew while writing it that it would be surprising to see that, but I know plenty of geeks in rock bands, and in fact the better bands I’ve known were composed entirely of geeks. I wrote it into the movie because I’d never seen it portrayed and I felt it was one more reality that was being conveniently ignored so that so-called “cool” people could continue thinking there was nothing cool about us. Everyone wants to play music and be a rockstar. I wanted to show these kids drinking and getting high and playing music so that everyone could see that geeks are people too, but no one bothers to find out.
While pondering this, it finally occurred to me: Actors can’t be rockstars, because rockstars are all geeks. Celebrity actors are the popular crowd – the pretty ones who’ve always been pretty who got into modeling and then went on to act. The jocks, the cheerleaders, the student council leaders. Theater nerds are the ones who turn out to be “character actors,” you know, those actors who actually act. But more importantly, rockstars were in band and chorus. They were the geekiest of the geeks. If they were not marching with their susiphones or being the uncool types of sopranos, then they were the weird kids in leather and trench coats in the corner using the math centers of their brains to master that Jimmy Page solo on the live version of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” or thinking “Only Trent knows how I feel.”
Actors cannot be rockstars, no matter how badly they want to, for the same reason a jock cannot tell a truly funny joke – they simply have the wrong lives. They will never understand the pain involved, because they were the source of that pain. They are the sought after, but unattainable fantasy. They are the hallway tormenter. (This is also why girls need to have gone through some serious shit, be a lesbian, or have been ugly or fat at any point to write a good love song that actually talks about the object of their affection instead of themselves. Pretty girls are usually the cause of true emotional torment, not the receiver. If you think I’m being sexist, I want you to do a little exercise: think of your favorite love song written by a girl. Rule out lesbians, because those poor gals actually know what loving a girl is like, and remember, “Me & Bobby McGee” was written by a man. Think about the lyrics. Do you get a single image of the guy in question or an event involving said man which would force you to think of a guy in the least? 10 times out of 9, you have none, because the girl spends the entire “love song” talking about what she would do for them, how great she is, or how she fucked it up already.)
Exception, if slightly: Jared and Shannon Leto’s band 30 Seconds to Mars is actually getting stigmatized despite being a pretty good band worthy of attention. People actually don’t want to like their music because they know Jared’s in it. I know this because I heard their first album over a Blockbuster Music speaker and inquired what it was. When I was told, having known the name of Leto’s band, I was shocked. I had actually been enjoying it. Their second effort was slightly more mainstream and less for the prog rock inclined, but still in no way as unlistenable as 30 Odd Foot of Grunts or Dogstar.
*What an awesome character resume, btw: Pilate, Tesla, Jareth the Goblin King, Lord Royal Highness in SpongeBob, Andy Warhol, the demon Baal, and a Martian.