How do stars turn their emotional wounds into musical masterpieces? British-German music journalist and former MTV host Steve Blame gets to the bottom of it in his new book, "Emotional Vaseline."
Early in her career, Tina Turner was physically abused by her husband, Ike Turner. Years later, she released songs with deeply personal lyrics, like "What's love got to do with it?" and "I don't wanna fight no more." Both became instant hits.
During the casting for "Good Times," the sitcom which starred Janet Jackson when the future star was just 10 years old, she overheard an offensive comment regarding her physical appearance. As a result, she became obsessive about her weight. Jackson's musical response came later with the rebellious track and an album, both entitled "Control." Critics see the album as a turning point in her career.
These are just a few examples of how pop stars creatively work through their own emotional injuries, dragging the fans to empathize and share in their experiences. This issue is now closely explored through biographical facts and psychoanalysis in music journalist and critic Steve Blame's new book "Emotional Vaseline." DW caught up with the author after the presentation of his book in Cologne.
DW: Steve, how did you come up with the idea of writing "Emotional Vaseline"?
Steve Blame: Vaseline is a metaphor, of course, used for healing one's "emotional wounds." We all have our individual identity based on our DNA and our experiences stored in our brain. Like a supermarket with shelves that fill up at the most critical points of our life. We are able to grasp pop stars' identities through their music, videos, images, and words. Basically, this is their Vaseline.
I looked at all the interviews I've done with the stars throughout the years and saw that I had a connection with many of them. And I thought, "That's really weird." Somehow I connected with them because of the music I was listening to and then I saw that they have something in their past which connected to me. I did a lot more research about their early years and after discovering this connection, I thought I have to write a book about it.
Over the years you have interviewed dozens of the biggest names in the music industry. Have you ever had a feeling that some of the stars were maybe not that sincere in their answers?
Very few artists are direct and honest. Everyone presents the picture they want to present. But a lot of what they're saying you have to see through. For instance, in a televised interview, as a viewer, you take information from the body language.
Madonna was a very interesting case. During my interview with her in Milan she talked about herself in third person. She said, "Oh, how would Madonna answer that question?" as if Madonna were an invention and not the real person. In a way she was protecting herself by developing this idea of the whole Madonna image.
Most of the artists mentioned in your book, like Boy George, Stevie Wonder or Elton John have already been around for many years now. Why aren't there many "fresh faces"?
The reason I chose those artists was that, firstly, I've interviewed most of them and had a personal connection to them. But secondly, people until their 30s don't start thinking about their lives. It is all new for them. But all of that is still in their music. These are subconscious things that are always there.
Look at Adele, who is 25 today. I'm sure she will discover it all later. So for me it was important to take older artists because they talk much more openly today. And the younger artists haven't got the experience to talk in that way.
After reading your book, one might get the impression that show business is predominantly filled with artists who are constantly struggling with their childhood, drug abuse, violence, sexuality, or alcoholism. Aren't there any "average" people with an "average" life in the industry?
I believe that creativity only comes from some point of pain in a person's life. There's going to always be something in the past. Cologne psychologist Guido Dossche, who contributed to the book, says that artists like Sting or Peter Gabriel have sorted their problems out, so no one cares about their music today. I believe those artists, after resolving their problems, have decided to do music only for themselves without trying to reach the masses anymore.
Do you agree that image plays a much less important role for the new generation of pop stars?
It does play a completely different role. When MTV came out in 1981 in the US and in 1987 in Europe, it brought image to the forefront. That's why artists like Madonna or Michael Jackson did so well. Artists don't sell huge amounts of music today. If you look at the current music playlists on the radio or on TV I would say that they are dictated by a much younger audience. Some 20 years ago they were reflecting tastes of 16-to-25-year-olds. Now they're dictated by 9-year-old kids who want to hear songs without any meaning or content.
It is very difficult to generate a mega-star these days. DJs are the pop stars of today and everything has moved away from the personality issue. But all those old artists are still successful. More people go to Madonna's concerts when she's on tour than ever before. She made the most money out of any artists in 2012. She doesn't attract young fans with her new music but there's a lot of interest about her whole background and "catalogue" from the people who grew up with her.
Music videos and MTV once were key instruments in developing the image of pop stars. Now that MTV doesn't play much music, how do pop stars get recognized?
Today there can be no comparison to the innovative broadcaster where I had worked. The first big change came with the start of regionalization when each country got its very own local MTV. Instead of continuing its pan-European approach, MTV decided to go national, looking inwards on their own market.
At the same time a new tool - the Internet - provided exactly the opposite. MTV effectively went against the flow of the greatest technological development of our era. I think it was a huge mistake. Suddenly you could only see your local content but not what was going on in the rest of Europe. What MTV didn't realize is that they were the ones making the stars successful. People would actually stay up one night to tune in to a new George Michael video. It is quite bizarre when you think of this today.
Once this change happened, the artists didn't really need MTV, so they wouldn't give their new videos to be premiered. And when Youtube came out in 2003 you didn't really need MTV anymore because you could watch any video you wanted. Eventually MTV went to reality show formats.
In 1994 you career on MTV was at its peak. But then you decide to quit MTV, leave London and move to Germany. Looking back, how do you feel about this relocation?
I just wanted to change my life and do something different. At the time I would say it was a mistake. I hated living here for the first three years as my career went downhill and I lost everything. Starting from zero again, I began to like living here. Now I have a strong connection to Germany. It's a great experience to dive into a new culture. I think it changes you a lot. And I really appreciate Germany because of that change.
Steve Blame was born in 1959 in Chelmsford, England. From 1987 to 1994, he was an MTV News editor and presenter. Over the years he has interviewed dozens of celebrities and politicians, like Whitney Houston, Nina Hagen, David Bowie, ABBA, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Naomi Campbell, Mikhail Gorbachev, Dalai Lama, and others. Blame has lived in Cologne since 1994.