How ‘Rock Star’ Became a Business Buzzword

From New York Times Magazine:

By Carina Chocano
Aug. 11, 2015

Once, a long time ago, a rock star was a free-spirited, convention-flouting artist/rebel/hero/Dionysian fertility god who fronted a world-famous band, sold millions of records and headlined stadium concerts where people were trampled in frenzies of cultlike fervor. Someone who smashed guitars, trashed hotel rooms, developed Byzantine drug problems and tried to mask evidence of his infidelity with the strategically applied scent of breakfast burritos. Despite what his ‘‘Behind the Music’’ episode would invariably reveal, a ‘‘rock star’’ — or the Platonic ideal of a rock star — was not just a powder keg of charisma and unresolved childhood issues, but a revolutionary driven by a need to assert the primacy of the self in an increasingly alienating commercial world.

Now, 60 years, give or take, since the phrase came into existence, ‘‘rock star’’ has made a complete about-face. In its new incarnation, it is more likely to refer to a programmer, salesperson, social-media strategist, business-to-business telemarketer, recruiter, management consultant or celebrity pastry chef than to a person in a band. The term has become shorthand for a virtuosity so exalted it borders on genius — only for some repetitive, detail-oriented task. It flatters the person being spoken about by shrouding him in mystique while also conferring a Svengali-like power on the person speaking. Posting a listing for a job for which only ‘‘rock stars’’ need apply casts an H.R. manager as a kind of corporate Malcolm McLaren; that nobody is looking for a front-end developer who is addicted to heroin or who bites the heads off doves in conference rooms goes without saying. Pretty much anyone can be a ‘‘rock star’’ these days — except actual rock stars, who are encouraged to think of themselves as brands.

This bizarre transposition goes back to the turn of the millennium, when the idea of a ‘‘creative class’’ was popularized in books like Paul H. Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson’s ‘‘The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World’’ and Richard Florida’s ‘‘The Rise of the Creative Class,’’ which argued that innovation would drive growth in the 21st century. The creative class, according to these thinkers, valued the cool things in life. More than money and status, they cared about authenticity, activism, ecology and the interconnectedness of all things. They were more egalitarian, more into personal growth. Whereas the popular business literature of the 1980s urged managers to imagine themselves as fierce, merciless warriors (Sun Tzu’s ancient treatise ‘‘The Art of War’’ was required reading for many American executives and business students), by the end of the century, consultants at McKinsey had declared a ‘‘war for talent.’’ Business writers in the new millennium reconceptualized men in suits (or hoodies) as social revolutionaries.

According to a 2013 study in The Human Resource Management Review, ‘‘talent,’’ in its new usage, could refer to qualities, like natural ability and technical mastery, or it could refer to talented people, as in a subset of elite, superskilled workers, or it could mean all people, no matter how untalented. On the HBO show ‘‘Silicon Valley’’ (in which, in a recent episode, a pretty event manager introduced the benightedly dorky programmers Dinesh and Gilfoyle as ‘‘rock stars’’ to her sexy, unimpressed stunt man boyfriend), Nelson Bighetti, known as Big Head, is a prime example of this last category. Big Head is an inept app developer whose swift rise through the ranks of his company, Hooli, makes no sense to his colleagues — which of course it shouldn’t, because it’s all just part of a cynical legal strategy. But Hooli, a very loose spoof of Google, is a faith-driven ‘‘culture’’ led by a ‘‘visionary,’’ Gavin Belson. To doubt his talent for spotting ‘‘talent’’ would border on apostasy. Belson is a ‘‘rock star,’’ and Big Head becomes a rock star by association. ‘‘Silicon Valley’’ nails this particular lexical puffery: the way that language can create power in the most ridiculous, illogical ways. Rock star ad absurdum.

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