The Vintage and the Vogue: Phoebe Bridgers and earning godhood

Created by Asli Kocak

Michael: Hey Robert, how’d you enjoy the Phoebe Bridgers concert?

Robert: Let’s just say that I would march to war for her if she asked. I’m no different from a feudal peasant, am I?

Michael: I suppose not. The cult of personality surrounding celebrities is not so different from the elite feelings of aristocracy in other periods of history. Music itself is one of the most Lindy things out there, but our modern conception of concerts and fame are fairly Lind-not. Electronic technology is largely responsible for that change. 

Robert: If music is oh-so-Lindy, how could electronics make it so Lind-not?

Michael: Recorded music changed everything. Before 1878 and Edison’s phonograph, any music had to be created by people, live and in the moment. Even back in the early 20th century, people feared how this might affect the landscape of aural art. For example, John Philip Sousa, the famous and visionary composer, argued against its proliferation in a 1906 essay.

Robert: Does that mean concerts in the era of recorded music were changed too?

Michael: Absolutely. With the invention of technologies like radio, along with better recording equipment, the music industry as we know it today flourished. And alongside it, the growth of the entertainment industry at large worked to foster the idols in celebrities we see today. Furthermore, the industry’s business model means that easily recorded music isn’t very profitable. After all, artists make most of their money from marketing their personality: selling out concerts, self-released music and branded merchandise.

Robert: But what does all this mean for a Phoebe boy like me? 

Michael: It’s like a hero cult, which isn’t anything new. In Ancient Greece, that was literally how people would worship their semi-mortal heroes, like Heracles. And outside of mythology, people could be deified for accomplishing great feats. Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus are two famous examples. 

Phoebe hasn’t actually been made into something divine, but I would argue that her influence (and that of all cultural icons) over the general public reflects a kind of modern-day deification. Ordinary people accomplishing impressive feats have created a new hero cult, and with it a new aristocracy. 

Robert: You know, this does remind me of textbook aristocracy: “rule of the best,” a political system where a select few rule, and those in charge are believed to be somehow better than the citizenry. The disproportionate wealth and power held today by an upper class of elites — like corporate lobbying and tax loopholes — suggests that a tiny minority can wield outsized power, even in a modern democracy.

Michael: Exactly. And generally, this is hereditary, but today we elevate individuals to the elite class by praising merit — for example, electing politicians for how well they might govern — and that makes them wealthy and powerful. Perhaps it’s better now that eliteness can be earned, because history shows what happens when aristocrats inherit it. But there are dangers, too, if we expect more from people who are basically the same as us (Who really cares how often Jake Gyllenhall bathes?). So when they inevitably fall short of our heroic expectations, we risk disappointment or worse. 

Robert: Yeah, I sure hope none of my cultural idols shatter my worldview by contradicting the perception I have of them in my head!

Michael: Me too. Can’t wait to see Dayglow next week!

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