How to rate pop stars

March 14th, 2011

Barbara Ellen has a piece on the Glee/Paltrow/Glitter story in today’s Observer, in which she attempts, in typically dashed-off style, to make some kind of argument about separating the quality of the art from the behaviour of the artist, while also raking up some unpleasant old stories about artists and musicians. It’s a curious piece, the central message of which seems to be: “He’s not the only artist with a criminal/immoral personal life, look at these other nasty ones, yuck, but do we have to ban everything as a result? Get a life.”

Anyhow, I don’t wish to enter that debate, the answer to which seems to me to be reasonably obvious. I was however rather struck by the description of Glitter as “a fifth-rate pop star”.

Of course, it is fine for people not to like an artist’s music. However, “fifth-rate” seemed curiously specific in terms of ranking, bearing in mind that “second-rate” would be considered something of an insult, especially when applied to the category “pop star”, a term which many very popular and successful musicians might consider insulting in itself.

Bowie fans, for example, would chafe at their hero being referred to as a “pop star”, I imagine, and I don’t believe that the term, a coinage that really only took off in the 1960s, has always been one of pure approbation.

So, if one were to devise a system for rating pop stars, independently of personal taste, what might the contributory factors be?

I can suggest the following:

  • Commercial success, for example number of hit records
  • Global reach
  • Contemporary media exposure
  • Extent of musical influence
  • Longevity (time in charts)
  • Authorship and performance (ie did they do either or both?)

Some of these are open to debate – some great pop stars have burned brightly for a very short while but would be considered to be of the first rank.

Despite his sordid aura now, Glitter as a musician and performer would score pretty highly on all of these counts, and certainly had all the trappings of 70s pop-stardom (even if now that looks like a cheesy contrived glamour at best).

Any system of counting that put him only in the fifth rank would have to have a very large number of minutely differentiated categories in order to have any claim to impartial accuracy.



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