Richard Dyer's Star Theory applied to Pop Stars

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust
David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust star persona - still a recognizable icon 40 years later
The terms "pop performer" and "pop star" have become interchangeable — strictly speaking, in media terms they are not the same thing. The study of stars as media texts/components of media texts demands that the distinction be made between those who are simply known for performing pop music and those who are known for being pop stars, who have an identity or persona which is not restricted solely to their musicianship.

One of the reasons so many pop performers are described as pop stars is that they are quickly promoted to this status by their management. This is easily done courtesy of a few judiciously placed stories, a famous boyfriend/girlfriend, attendance at premieres/parties and a feature in HEAT magazine. It can be easy to forget about the music in the light of the outfits or love affairs. There are some who appear to leapfrog the performer stage entirely, but they do have to go through it.

HOWEVER, a true pop star does have a lasting significance, and has "brand awareness" amongst a wider market over a period of time. Many of the so-called pop stars populating the top forty currently have not made a sufficient sociological or cultural impact to be classified as true stars if we return to Richard Dyers’ definition. They will be forgotten by all but their most avid fans within a few years.

Stars as Constructions

Stars are constructed, artificial images, even if they are represented as being "real people", experiencing real emotions etc. It helps if their image contains a USP — they can be copied and/or parodied because of it. Their representation may be metonymic — Madonna's conical bra in the early 1990s, Bono's 'Fly' sunglasses, Britney's belly, Justin Bieber's bangs. Pop stars have the advantage over film stars in that their constructed image may be much more consistent over a period of time, and is not dependent on the creative input of others (e.g. screenwriters writing their lines).

Dyer proposes that:

A star is an image not a real person that is constructed (as any other aspect of fiction is) out of a range of materials (eg advertising, magazines etc as well as films [music]).

Yet that construction process is neither automatic nor fully understood. Record companies think they know about it — but witness the number of failures on their books. TV programmes such as The X Factor show us the supposed construction process, how an ordinary person is groomed, styled and coached into fulfilling a set of record company and market expectations.This is not true stardom, which must happen through a combination of factors. None of them labelled 'X'.

Imagine showing us 15 years ago to Simon Cowell! That's the problem with Pop Idol. They're auditioning cabaret singers. It's not pop music. It's Batley Variety Club.”
The Pet Shop Boys, quoted in Q, March 2002
“[Cowell is a] dreadful piece of crap who drags the music business down whenever he rears his ugly head... Pop stars today have no longevity. Rock 'n' roll is not about singing perfect notes or being a showbiz personality. It's about the anger and the angst. I hate what Pop Idol has done to the business.”
— Roger Daltrey [of The Who], ibid

As a record buying public, we prefer to believe in stars who are their own and our constructions rather than a transparent offering designed explicitly to appeal to our blander tastebuds served up by a record company interested only in our wallets.

Industry and Audience

Stars are manufactured by the music industry to serve a purpose — to make money out of audiences, who respond to various elements of a star persona by buying records and becoming fans. Stars are the cogs around which a plethora of record company gears find themselves turning. Record companies nurture and shape their stars — as the TV talent show processes have shown us. They tend to manufacture what they think audiences want, hence the 'photocopied' nature of many boy bands, teen bands etc.However, there are whole markets out there who are not convinced by the hype and don't want to spend their money on blandness.The record industry also has a duty to provide bands/artists who are perceived as 'real' (for 'real, maybe read 'ugly' or unpolished) for these audiences.Stars can also be created by this route. Pop stars, whatever their nature, are quite clearly the product of their record company — and they must be sold.

Dyer says:

Stars are commodities produced and consumed on the strength of their meanings.

The music industry is well aware of the range of audiences it caters to, the perky pre-school Tweenie fan to the ageing hippy, and it does its best to keep us all happy. Historically, the industry has provided us with a range of commodities all with different appeal. One way to achieve this is by producing new stars of different types playing constantly mutating genres of music - there's always something and someone fresh to choose from (important for the younger audience). Another way is to produce a star with long-lasting appeal, who, once their brand is established, can cater to a fan audience for decades (in the way U2 or the Rolling Stones have done).

Unfortunately, these methods are oppositional. The 'conveyor belt' approach to new stars means that talent isn't developed, and a star's value may be very short-lived. A star may only be significant or relevant for two years, or two albums. Too much focus on 'golden oldies' means that younger fans can't identify with stars, whom they see as belonging to their parents' generation. A healthy music industry develops both types of talent, and generates a diverse range of stars, who mean different things to different audience segments. Many pundits who say that the music industry is in the doldrums claim it is because this range of meanings is absent, or because the meaning of the modern star is superficial and transient.

Ideology & Culture

Stars represent shared cultural values and attitudes, and promote a certain ideology. Audience interest in these values enhances their 'star quality', and it is through conveying beliefs ideas and opinions outside music that performers help create their star persona. A star may initiate a fashion trend, with legions of fans copying their hairstyle and clothing. Stars initiate or benefit from cultural discourse (e.g. via their Twitter feed), and create an ongoing critical commentary. Now more than ever before, social networks give pop stars the opportunity to establish their own values outside their music. Lady Gaga tweets frequently about LGBT issues, and expects her Little Monsters to engage with that discourse just as much as she expects them to listen to her music.

Stardom, and star worship in general is a cultural value in itself. Ideologies drawn upon include materialism and sexuality. Whole sites of institutional support (eg radio & TV shows, magazines, websites) are devoted to star scrutiny, and it seems we can never get enough information.

Stars also provide us with a focal point for our own cultural thinking — particularly to do with Youth & Sexuality.

Character & Personality

A star begins as a "real" human, possessing gender & race characteristics, and existing against a socio-historic background. The star transformation process turns them into a construct, but the construct has a foundation in the real.We tend to read them as not-entirely-fictional, as being are very much of their time and culture, the product of a particular generation. Stars provide audiences with a focus for ideas of 'what people are supposed to be like' (eg for women, thin/beautiful) - they may support hegemony by conforming to it (thin/beautiful) or providing difference (fat/still lovable).

Much of the discussion of stars in celebrity magazines is about how stars compare to the current hegemonic ideal, and how we compare to the stars.

Dyer says

In these terms it can be argued that stars are representations of persons which reinforce, legitimate or occasionally alter the prevalent preconceptions of what it is to be a human being in this society.There is a good deal at stake in such conceptions. On the one hand, our society stresses what makes them like others in the social group/class/gender to which they belong. This individualising stress involves a separation of the person's "self" from his/her social "roles", and hence poses the individual against society. On the other hand society suggests that certain norms of behaviour are appropriate to given groups of people, which many people in such groups would now wish to contest (eg the struggles over representation of blacks, women and gays in recent years).Stars are one of the ways in which conceptions of such persons are promulgated.

Richard Dyer — The Stars (BFI Education 1979)

Film stars are represented primarily through their roles — written by faceless screenwriters. The personality and characteristics making them similar/different are created for them by others, and their overall image is constructed from many fragmented parts, which may or may not contradict each other. They may indeed represent a perceived appropriate norm of behaviour but it takes several similar movies to create this effect.Film stars may survive individual flops — there are always other movies in the can — and embody several different values simultaneously. It's more difficult if you're in the music industry.

Pop stars, on the other hand, establish their character and personality through songs and performance and will strive for immediate star identity with a first album. They appear to have more control over their persona in that many of them write their own songs, and that their body of work develops, chronologically over time, along with society. Pop stars don't do aberrant costume dramas or science fiction movies which take them out of place in time and space and confuse their audience. They produce 45-74 minutes of music which gives a clear indication of their interests, moods, appetites and lifestyle at a particular point in time; audiences read music=person, and will base their understanding of the star's persona on the sentiments expressed by their songs. This understanding may be very personal and intimate, the star's music can infiltrate every corner of a fan's life. Albums are continually read and re-read as texts think of the 100+ times you might listen to a track, whereas films tend to be watched once or twice only.

Because a pop star's persona is constructed on the basis of a narrow text, continually re-read and reassessed, this may lead, in many cases, to second album syndrome, when an artist is unable to sustain their persona over a period of time (largely because they got rich off the back of the first album and bought all the houses cars etc they'd ever wanted) and they are unable to create a consistent account of their character and personality in their second major release.The rootspring of their persona then disappears, or becomes confused.

A pop star's persona, therefore, as depicted in terms of character and personality, is a fragile thing which needs constant nurturing, and is the product of constant discourse between the star and his or her audience.