How Musicians Invented the Antihero: In this section from my new book ‘Music to Raise the Dead’, I probe the hidden musical origins of Hollywood protagonists (TED GIOIA, NOV 29, 2023, Honest Broker)
[T]he musical connections of the antihero are more than just a matter of origins. In a very real sense, musicians stand out as the most powerful representatives of the antihero concept in popular culture. Back in the 1950s, Elvis Presley was a far more influential (and controversial) antihero than James Dean. In the 1960s, Mick Jagger shook up more people with his moral ambivalence than Clint Eastwood. A few years later, Sid Vicious and Kurt Cobain lived the antihero contradictions in ways that make Johnny Depp and Harrison Ford look like pretenders to the throne.
Just listen to the defining songs of these artists, from “Jailhouse Rock” to “Sympathy for the Devil” to “Anarchy in the U.K.,” and all those other antihero tunes still in non-stop rotation on playlists worldwide decades later, and consider their impact on the modern psyche. And it’s not just rock. Every music genre needed to find its own antiheroes to maintain relevance in the marketplace.
Country music fans called them outlaws and although this genre is supposedly a bastion of traditional values, its greatest legends are bad boys like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash—who famously sang of killing a man in Reno “just to watch him die.” Or what about reggae and Bob Marley, who announced, in a famous song, that “I shot the sheriff.” And you couldn’t even begin to count the songs boasting about murder and violence in hip-hop and blues.
Robert Johnson is an antihero. Tupac Shakur is an antihero. Billie Holiday is an antihero. Even Glenn Gould is an antihero. Their mythos is as big as their music.
As the last example suggests, the songs themselves don’t need to be violent, or even have lyrics, to convey this ethos. If I had to pick the biggest musical antihero of all, I’d opt for trumpeter Miles Davis. Miles may have been famous for cool jazz, but was hot and intemperate in almost every other sphere of his life.
Yet that’s the paradox that drives the whole antihero meme, those simmering, unpredictable interchanges between fire and ice, sympathy and rage, the raw and the cooked. It’s the most potent persona in contemporary narrative, and it’s never lost its ties to music, although on the surface the two concepts—songs and antiheroes—appear to have nothing in common.