Janne Mäkelä
John Lennon Imagined: Cultural History of a Rock Star

(New York: Peter Lang, Music/Meanings, 2004)

Review by David R. Shumway

The incipient field of star studies has yet to clearly distinguish its object or method. While Richard Dyer is generally credited with establishing star studies as a distinct branch of film and cultural studies, his example remains more praised than imitated. Dyer's essayistic approach both allows for energetic prose and interesting speculation, while it tends to limit the degree to which Dyer's interpretations can be supported by historical or social evidence. For Dyer, stars are like texts to be read, and he reads them more like a New Critic than a literary historian.

Star texts are not, in Dyer's conception, the historical individuals who become stars, but rather the image of the star as it develops in various media. Janne Mäkelä asserts that "Dyer's theory of media texts is of limited us for studying pop stardom," but he doesn't offer an explanation of this claim. While his statement implies that popular music stardom is significantly different from film stardom, Mäkelä doesn't make this case. But his book, John Lennon Imagined: Cultural History of a Rock Star, clearly seeks to take star studies in a very different direction. His alternative to Dyer's conception, the "starnet," shifts the focus from image to something like reality or, at least, history. The result of this shift, if John Lennon Imagined is a good example of it, is that it becomes hard to distinguish star studies from biography.

I don't mean, of course, that Mäkelä's book is simply a biography of Lennon. It is both more and less than that. It is more since the book tries to explain the conditions under which Lennon emerged as a star and how his stardom developed in the face of the rapidly changing cultural landscape of the 1960s and 1970s. It is less because it lacks the minute details of daily life that, especially these days, seem to be the definitive feature of the biographer's art. Mäkelä is not telling a simple narrative of his subject's life; indeed, somewhat more narrative would have helped make this a more compelling book. However, the book as a whole is organized chronologically, and it follows the major public and artistic events in Lennon's life.

While I don't believe the definitive biography of John Lennon, much less of the Beatles, has yet been written, his story has often been told and his life minutely investigated. Mäkelä does not claim to be adding to this basic knowledge about the star, but what he is trying to do is less clear. The book does not try to explain what Lennon meant as a cultural icon or an object of fans' emotional investment. One of the book's chief weaknesses is it failure even to describe the latter or to convey the power of the star to his fans. Rather than interpreting this relationship, the book's primary focus seems to be something more like how John Lennon the individual became "John Lennon" the star. This explanation is not to be found mainly in Lennon's childhood, family, or character, as traditional biography usually has it, but rather in social and cultural forces or factors. It is as if "John Lennon" were a major historical event, such as a war, about which historians might debate the causes. The result is a mechanistic study that seems far more interested in process than product, and which renders the star a faint object far distant from the reader.

While Mäkelä's discipline--he works in a department of cultural history--may be partly to blame, many cultural historians have been able to move beyond this kind of explanation. Perhaps the desire to make popular music studies academically respectable is the source of the difficulty. John Lennon Imagined probably should have been called John Lennon Documented. To his credit, Mäkelä seems to have read everything even remotely related to his subject, but it is not to the reader's advantage that he also seems to cite all of it. While it is essential for an academic book to acknowledge its place in a professional conversation, this one devotes too much prose to arguing with positions that often are only tangential to the author's own. Mäkelä is often convincing on these points, but in winning these skirmishes he loses the battle for the reader's attention. And there are other instances where the microcosm seems to displace the macrocosm. For example, in a chapter on the "signs" of Lennon's stardom we are told, "John Lennon clearly contributed to the emergence of eyeglasses in the iconography of popular music." The sentence is part of a thirteen-page section on the topic mainly devoted to Lennon's feelings about them. While the glasses are also said to be connected to certain "themes," such as "the reevaluation of masculinity" "nostalgia," and "intellectualism," the glasses are discussed as if they were more significant than what they represent.

Mäkelä suggests of his book, "this entire study could be considered a case study." Is there in fact anything we can learn from it about popular music stardom in general? While the idea of the "starnet" does not seem to me to be theoretically significant--the recognition that stardom results from the activity of multiple agents is hardly new--Mäkelä's discussion of authenticity does contribute to our understanding of that historically vexed topic. Here, the author analyzes Bob Dylan's role in the emergence of an authenticity specific to rock:

The main reason for the Dylan cult among British musicians was that Dylan's star image, which reconciled various cultural binaries such as high/low and authentic/commercial, provided solutions for dilemmas of pop culture. He wrote his own songs and seemed to enjoy considerable artistic freedom, despite being signed to a major recording label, Columbia. Moreover, he was fun! . . . His metamorphosis from a folk hero to a folk rock idol signaled that the musician could indeed be the auteur and the star simultaneously.

Dylan, according to Mäkelä, "inspired Lennon and encouraged him to reconfigure his status and identity as a pop star." The emergence of the rock--as distinct from the pop--star, is an important cultural phenomenon of the 1960s to which Dylan contributed significantly. One could argue, however, that the Beatles were already moving in this direction before Dylan transformed himself. Moreover, Mäkelä fails to observe the irony that the "Jokerman" should be the one to establish the possibility for the rock star's authenticity. Nevertheless, Mäkelä's account of the emergence the value of authenticity in rock is a significant advance over worthy predecessors such as Simon Frith and Lawrence Grossberg. For example, the author improves on Grossberg's "inauthentic authenticity" formula: "The history of Lennon demonstrates that just as the star is constructed, produced, and circulated, so is authenticity." What in Grossberg is a paradox in Mäkelä becomes a simple extension of constructivist assumptions. There can be no authenticity--nor any other value--that is not constructed.

Mäkelä's conclusion that Lennon is the "ultimate embodiment" of rock authenticity, however, does not follow from his discussion of the star or the concept, and his analysis of the specific character Lennon's authenticity seems superficial. It remains for others to put Mäkelä's contribution to the theory of star authenticity to good use.

  © IASPM 2008  
  Back to list