Number One-itis and Lead Singer Syndrome: how popular music kills its own

With the 20th anniversary of the death by suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, I’ve been thinking about pop and rock’s capacity to self-harm, to disable its own. I write about what I’ve called this ‘destructive economy’ in Shakin’ All Over: Popular Music and Disability. Here’s an extract from chapter 5.


Melody Maker kurt-and-richey-cover-april-8th-1995… It is apparent that there are [music] industry-specific conditions, which tend to target certain kinds of pop workers: singers—frontmen and women—appear most vulnerable. Why the singers? Perhaps because there is arguably a closer relation between their instrument, which is the voice, and the body; perhaps because they are the focus in the band of fans’ attention, and feel the adulation and pressure more; perhaps because the singer is often also the lyricist, who writes the band’s subjective and expressive text….

Pop stardom is an illness that can seriously, even fatally, threaten health and undermine ability; to do well in this career is frequently to be or to get a bit or a lot fucked up. Its workers employ medical terminology to express the condition. His then manager described the unattractive transformation of Ian Dury, following the chart-topping success of the single ‘Hit me with your rhythm stick’ in 1979, as the result of him suffering ‘a very bad attack of number one-itis’. Shortly afterwards Dury himself wrote a song called ‘Delusions of grandeur’ in which he sang of the egotistical pleasures and symptoms of the career—‘I’m a dedicated follower of my own success … I’ve got megalomania’—as well as of the insecurities—‘Oh, look at me, just another pathetic pop star’. When a band member congratulated him on the astute self-confessional lyric Dury, extraordinarily, vehemently denied the song was about him, arguing that it drew on what he had observed in others. He did though himself say, of the industry’s traditional trajectory to success and beyond (usually back), ‘after people make it, a malaise sets in’.

Deborah Curtis notes that, round the same time (the punk scene had inscribed within it a self-referential narrative about its own relationship with the industry, a symptom of its political unease with its own commercial imperatives), as Joy Division became more successful in late 1970s Britain, her husband and that band’s frontman ‘Ian [Curtis] contracted what was known as LSS (Lead Singer Syndrome)’. Number one-itis and LSS are the medical metaphors that describe the industry’s sheer damagability, which may be focused most on, but is not restricted to, those who make it.

The pop and rock industry has a notable capacity to facilitate the ruination of its workers; it’s a high-risk, hi-vis workplace culture where one is never quite safe. And, extraordinarily, it seems where there is never quite enough trust to go round. This feature is a neglected area of research in popular music studies. Consider the kings of the scene, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley (died 1977), and the King of Pop, Michael Jackson (died 2009), whose own controversial physicians prescribed the fragile men in their care huge amounts of drugs in the periods leading up to their deaths. Dr Feelbad. Pop’s unsettling medicine is a repeat prescription, a systemic regicide for the subjects to follow….

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Film, Carnivalising the Creative Economy: AHRC-supported Research on and with British Jazz Festivals

Am delighted with this new 15-minute film about jazz festivals research, featuring academics and leading jazz festival directors talking about how they collaborate. It is made by Gemma Thorpe. Funded By the Arts and Humanities Research Council, as an output of the Creative Economy Showcase at King’s Place, London, on March 12 2014. Thanks to all who contributed—hoping to see it available on the websites of all the festivals and universities involved very soon. Enjoy!

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AHRC Research Network on Community Music, final report meeting, 27 February 2014

‘Music is good for you’?… ‘The music [created] could be crap or not crap’…

The culmination at Whitechapel Gallery, London, of a national set of workshops for community music (CM) scholars, practitioners, policy makers and funders through 2013. These took place in Norwich, Leeds, Manchester, London. The network was funded by AHRC, and was part of the Connected Communities Programme. The function of the day: to present a report and findings produced. The report will be available soon as a downloadable PDF on the Resources page of the Connected Communities website.

CM meetin group shot Feb 2014


Here are some notes I made on the day.

This report confirms the continuing ‘definitional reluctance’ of community music (CM). CM has a ‘chameleonic identity’—which has been seen as wilful, or strategic. My question: But how is it also, eg, after decades of activity, lazy, non-reflexive, even anti-intellectual? Or, if these are just too powerfully accusatory, at least exasperating?!

Myth-making, attractive mystery of some CM practice, not least around social impact. ‘Mysticism’ over pragmatism? ‘The appeal of the charismatic?’ An ‘opaque umbrella’? But where is the robustness of definition and understanding? Instead: a set of ‘mythologies’.

‘Quiet radicalism’, which seems to both confirm and undermine the alternative and cultural democratic history of CM. Not in fact much evidence of CM’s radicalism among today’s practitioners. The community musician as service provider rather than cultural revolutionary. GM: How can it be ‘quiet’ when CM is (sometimes) so noisy? Does any ‘quiet radicalism’ mean it loses its distinctive values and practices? Practitioners agreed on ‘unseen’ or ‘unrecognised’ outcomes of CM activities—but are they also lost, ignored? The importance of the intangible.

CM as music education: CM nowadays to an extent is accepted within formal music education, or are these still ‘uneasy bedfellows’. Is CM music education, even, or does it work through music for social education, say? Compared with formal music education (cf National Plan for Music Education), which remains more ‘obedient’, and ‘elitist’.

‘Quality’ of CM music—how do other Community / Participatory Arts address this? How does CM access and illustrate and measure evidence of quality? Anecdotes, stories and quotations abound, even in reports. Is there advocacy rather than evaluation, and sometimes ‘deliberate blurring’ by community musicians and their organisations?

Next steps ...

Potential next steps …

How can academic researchers help? It’s such a fuzzy field, esp for the uninitiated—can there be a contribution here? This could also help articulate the benefits of CM, for funders and policy-makers, and the place of cultural value. Is a chameleonic state unconvincing to the sceptical?

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Marabouparken lecture, Stockholm, April 23rd, 6 pm

Just confirmed, a lecture as part of an exhibition at the Marabouparken Art Gallery in Sundyberg, Stockholm, in April:

Marabouparken logoOn Invasive Grounds

Katja Aglert

22 February–19 June

In the exhibition On Invasive Grounds, artist Katja Aglert explores some of the ideas related to the widespread notion of a lost natural, primordial state, characterised by harmony and balance, which we strive to re-establish. The exhibition traces the human hand in the proliferation of artificial light, explores the Arctic of male myths and the flora of the World Heritage site of Suomenlinna in neon-based work and video installations. Eventually a completely different idea about the earth’s original state emerges: a world that has always been, and continues to be, in perpetual flux, a world characterised by constant interaction between animals, nature and human beings, the latter of which may be regarded as the earth’s most invasive species.

As part of the program related to the exhibition …

George McKay gives a lecture based on his book Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the Garden of how parks and gardens were favored locations for alternative, radical cultures like music festivals, the peace movement and various kinds of political activism. McKay is a professor in Cultural Studies at Salford University in England. George says:

Marabouparken is a wonderful place to be talking—with its links with the Bourneville garden city movement and Cadbury’s, around a Swedish chocolate factory and green spaces for the workers. I’m hugely looking forward to visiting.

Chocolate factory workers relaxing in the Marabouparken, c. 1950s

Chocolate factory workers relaxing in the Marabouparken, c. 1950s

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