The wrong sort of rule-breaking

Observations on pop heroes

The death of Maurice Gibb is a tragedy for his family and the end of an era for Bee Gees fans. Judging from the timbre of the obituaries, however, his passing is a disappointment on two levels: the first, that it happened at all; the second, that it was the result not of his legendary boozing, but of a condition that could have been with him since childhood. He was teetotal. His insides have been as clean as a homeopath's for well over a decade. But in the midst of all the national keening, one thing is clear: nobody likes a sober pop star.

We expect an awful lot from our pop heroes: we need them young, single and debauched. Over time, we've come to accept the ageing process, which is why Mick Jagger can walk down the street without being pelted with young fruit. We can also deal, just about, with them getting married, which is how come Jarvis Cocker is still alive. These are all pretty major concessions on our part, but they mask some big ideological demands, all of which have been tossed into disarray by the ugly pincer movement of Pete Townshend and Cheryl Tweedy from Girls Aloud.

To recap, Townshend bought child porn off the internet. He maintains that he isn't a paedophile; he was just doing additional research for some homework that his dog ate earlier. That sounds as if I don't believe him, when the truth is, I do. Crime is no bar to pop heroism, but it has to be the right kind of crime. Total transparency is a must - you can commit murder, but it has to be in a gangland context (witness Biggie and Tupac), and totally out in the open. It has to be conducted boldly, in other words, and with a certain element of pantomime. Anything that happens in the secrecy of the homestead is unthinkable.

More than crime, we demand ideological iconoclasm - you could argue that iconoclasm was the sine qua non of the icon. (What a cute paradox.) However, there are some rules about what orthodoxies you're allowed to break, and in what manner. You can toy with fascism, but only if you camp it up a bit; and you can reject private property, but only if it belongs to a hotel. You can lambaste females and homosexuals, but only if it rhymes in an amusing way.

What you cannot do is allow the idea to get around that you are a knee-jerk, bottom-of-the-heart racist, as evinced by the Tweedy business. Cheryl, according to tabloid reports which she denies, punched a toilet assistant in the face, called her a "f***ing black bitch" and then shouted: "Bring that Caribbean nigger here." Jesus, even without the racism, what kind of monster would punch a woman in the face who has to sit in the toilets giving drunk people soap to supplement her education?

I'd guess, like Townshend, Tweedy is sunk now, though unlike Townshend, I'd like to have seen her sunk at the scene of the alleged incident.

All told, heroism is crumbling before our very eyes. There are two possible readings of this: the first is that pop heroes have been obeying a set of tacit guidelines, whereby they appear to break the rules but actually reinforce a wider social framework by playing to the gallery. The second is that pop heroes used to be just nicer people, with more integrity, more awareness and a genuine, subversive, probably lefty agenda behind all the drinking and breaking things. I like this theory the best.