The Rock Star’s Secret Ingredient

I’ve never made it a secret that I prefer musicians to rock stars. I see them as two completely different kinds of entertainer, and the former satisfies me more than the latter.

A musician is relatively solemn and serious about his craft, and labors long and hard to ensure the product he presents you is as genuine as it can possibly be. A rock star is all about the show. He wants to excite you, shake you up, make you scream, and leave you gasping for more. The rock star is serious about entertaining you. If he hits all the right notes in the process, well that’s just a bonus!

Most people in the music world decide to become musicians or rock stars. Rarely do those two worlds collide in the same person. When it does happen, it’s always something pretty special.

I’m fairly serious about music. I have fun with it, but I want it done right. That’s why I lean toward musicians. That being said, I wish some musicians had a little more of what makes rock stars what they are. I like to call that mystery element swagger.

Swagger is a state of mind. It’s an attitude. It’s a way of being that elevates the mere interesting into must-see entertainment. It’s a gift from the entertainment gods, bestowed on a select few. Swagger gets the hips moving and the rumps shaking. Swagger makes the fans lightheaded and totally captures them in The Moment. Swagger is the difference between a performance and a show.

When I see King Crimson in concert, I’m enjoying a group of supremely talented and highly confident musicians. I’m loving every note. But I’m not seeing swagger, per se. Swagger transcends tricky notes, which makes me think of Steve Vai, a supremely talented musician with the attitude of a rock star.

But most music fans didn’t look to virtuosos for swagger. They want someone with style and pop appeal. Who the first artist with swagger was is the subject of a long debate for which I am not qualified (Mozart? Jelly Roll Morton?). I tend to think of artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and — of course — Elvis Presley. I give each of these artists the credit they deserve.

But for me, the best “old school” swagger comes from James Brown, as this compilation video demonstrates.

In 1967, a young guitarist from Seattle, Washington set the world on fire with not only his instrumental ability, but the boatload of charisma he brought with him. Men wanted to be him, and women wanted to be with him. Jimi Hendrix personified swagger.

The seventies is probably my favorite decade for musical swagger. It came both individually and in groups. One of my favorites was Queen’s Freddie Mercury, who was a natural born frontman. He had it all: ability, style, charisma, and presence. Wherever Freddie went on stage, your eyes had no choice but to follow.

My other favorite was David Bowie. He had the same gifts as Freddie Mercury, and took them to multiple bands. He’s one of my earliest influences for a reason.

Sometimes, the best swagger came in group form. Each member brought his own gift to the group, be it open-shirted macho from the frontman, six-string pyrotechnics from the guitarist, the mysterious cool of the bassist, or the rhythmic pulse coming from the drum riser. Swagger poured from the stage, and we lapped it up. Led Zeppelin had it …

So did The Who …

But my favorite seventies group swagger came from The Rolling Stones. They always struck me, particularly in their prime, as the band who dared you to mess with them. If you did, it wasn’t going to end well for you. Best you let the masters do what they did best. Few brought it like these guys.

People are often surprised when I credit Stone Temple Pilots (specifically late frontman Scott Weiland) with having swagger. But the band had more than a couple of tunes that swelled with attitude and got the hips gyrating. I saw a lot of cool onstage when this number was being played.

Is swagger something you’re born with, or is it something achieved over time and with experience? Many musicians I’ve spoken to believe it’s a combination of both. Many artists are incredibly shy and withdrawn when they’re not performing. But the instant the spotlight hits them and the band takes off, that bashful young artist becomes a whirling dervish of skill, style, and charisma. Some would say the performer is displaying his true personality on stage, while the offstage personae is little more than a mask worn 22 hours a day.

So who has the most swagger? Like so many other things in music, the answers are subjective and personal. For me, my Swagger crown belongs to the late, great Prince. He had it all: talent, sex appeal, style, presence, AND the ability to make the spotlight his own in any context, whether it was meant for him or not. Take, for example, this incredible moment from the 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:

Naturally, the work Prince did with his own bands defies belief. He fired on all cylinders, all the time. It’s impossible for me to pick a favorite, so I’ll pick something I really, really like as an example.

My friend Ed Wehrenberg summed it up best: “Swagger, thy name is Prince.” I can’t argue with that!

I’m sure you can name more than a few other artists who fit the swagger bill. Feel free to share them with me. And I’m sure somebody has noted that there are no women on my list. Well, that’s an entirely different story. We’ll talk about that some other time.


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One comment

  1. On the whole I prefer my music without the showmanship. Of the samples here The Who and the Prince/Petty/Lynne/Winwood collective were brilliant. Most of the rest either failed to grab me or the unashamed posing put me off. The worst offender is Prince in that last clip. There’s no doubting his talent but I simply can’t get on with his music or his shows. Sorry.


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