Mick Jagger turns 70 today – which begs the question, where have all the front men gone?

Whatever happened to the charismatic, effeminate, mysterious frontman?

Today, the most charismatic front man in Britain turns 70. Yes, Mick Jagger, the epitome of flamboyance, has reached the big 7-0. Yet despite his rapidly advancing years, in terms of his natural ability to entertain, Jagger remains head and shoulders above anyone.

How depressing. Of course, one can still enjoy and treasure Jagger. As his Glastonbury performance demonstrated, he remains a force of nature, a man whose bravado borders on the offensive. However, he is 70, and the fact that he is still the best we have to offer only serves to expose the current dearth of young front men.

And it is not just Jagger who the front men of today have failed to eclipse. Icon after icon of decades gone by, the likes of Bowie, Mercury, Cocker and Morrissey are in no danger of being surpassed. So why are young, male, lead singers, just nowhere near as exciting, as magnetic, as alluring as they used to be?

First, and rather ironically, the very existence of these musical giants from past decades has handicapped today’s batch. The constant comparison of modern day performers to past legends by aged music journalists has served only to pigeonhole every promising young artist into a particular type. If you're Jake Bugg you’re the "new Bob Dylan", if you’re the Strypes you’re the "new Beatles", if you’re the Palma Violets you’re the "new Libertines", or the "new Strokes", not a new and exciting artist in your own right.

This has created a very rigid set of front man ideal types which constrain how today’s front men can act, perform, and even dress. You are either an Elvis, a Bowie, a Morrissey or another artist, with every attribute that accompanies that type. There’s no freedom to chart a new course, no license to break the mould.

Lead singer of the Vaccines, Justin Young sums this up. He and his band emerged in 2010 looking exactly like what they were: an exciting, frenetic, pure, naïve, electric guitar-toting rock band. They looked like they’d cut their own hair, bought their clothes in charity shops, and knew a thing or two about old French movies. They were charismatic. 

However, then they became an ideal type. After constant comparisons with the Ramones, and what appears to be Young’s own personal obsession with the New York City foursome, they ditched their very primitive, raw, artsy look and adopted the uniform of a traditional rock band. Now dressed in double denim, the Vaccines appear to be actively pursuing the "new Ramones" label, a far less intriguing prospect than they had originally promised.

Yet in truth, for several reasons, modern day front men can never really fulfil these ideal types anyway.  Most prominently, thanks partly to the aggressive macho posturing of the likes of Liam Gallagher, front men have lost touch with their feminine side. Performers like Jagger always had something so intriguingly androgynous - an effeminate edge. Whether it was Jagger’s penchant for dresses, Morrissey’s gladioli, or the whole Bowie package, past front men’s femininity added a certain flair.

Compare that to the likes of the Arctic Monkey’s Alex Turner, who with his current quiff, snake skin boots and denim jacket looks like a mechanic at a wedding, or Kasabian’s Tom Meighan, who actually unveiled the new England away shirt in 2010, wearing it a live show in Paris. How macho. How straight. How boring.

Yet aside from questions of artistic direction and individual flair, the business of music and in particular, the rise of illegal downloads, must also take some of the rap.  Free music has reduced the amount of money up-and-coming artists can make as a result of selling records. Consequently, the tour bus has become the prime source of income, as bands jet set around the globe for months on end. As a result, music is now a game for the dependable, a game for those who can be on time and ready to perform every day. The unpredictable, reckless, mischievous performers would no longer survive.

Moreover, the exposure that the internet brings removes so much of the mystery that charisma often relies upon. You can now find out everything from an artist’s school to their formative musical influences, preventing performers from creating an aura of uncertainty, that alluring and exciting sense of intrigue that so many before have had.

To go back to the Justin Young example, upon the release of his first Vaccines album, all you had to do to remove his rock-star ruse was Google him. His previous exploits as Jay Jay Pistolet, a soft-spoken, priory-bead wearing, folk singer, were then revealed. His cover was blown, the intrigue was lost, and his charisma was dashed.

All in all, a concoction of trends have made today’s front men boring descendants of the musical geniuses we so miss. Unless we can end an obsession with the past, and ideal types of front men, unless we can once again find front men with an extravagant femininity, unless we can put money back into the record industry, and simultaneously keep musician’s own past away from the prying eyes of the internet, by the time Jagger reaches 80, we may still be in need of a successor. Better not hold our breath eh?


Is Jagger, at 70, still better than most other front men? Photography: Getty Images.
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.