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The Emperor's Brand New Bag

The anointing of UK rock musician Pete Doherty

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The year 2006 has been all about user-generated content dominating the zeitgeist via MySpace and YouTube. However, if this technology has equalized the playing field between the majors and the masses, and physical recordings continue to disappear, it has not wholly eliminated the Romantic myth of the artist as hero.

Or, antihero as the case may be. How else to explain the anointing of UK rock musician Pete Doherty? Just as Hollywood has not dismantled the myth machine derived from its predecessor -- the Romantic's cherished pyramidal social hierarchy -- nor has the blogosphere completely eschewed re-establishing the primacy of arbiters and filters; pop music still craves stars. Even the further dissolution of the album as object, the information boom and bad news of war did not trump the media's voracious appetite in '06 for deconstructing/reifying the supposed mystique of "rock & roll's Aughties Sid & Nancy," Pete Doherty and Kate Moss. The late season arrival from Capitol of the Babyshambles EP, The Blinding (Regal), last week only capped interminable months of being inundated with every arrest and festival sighting of the (supposedly) glamorous, drug-addled pair.

Indeed, this time last year, recap coverage in the leading UK press also focused on Doherty, parsing his importance as a savior of rock, a vital symbolic figure in the cool flux that's buoyed British national identity since the bitter 1950s when the empire was lost and Ian Fleming's Bond novels arose as pop salve just before the outbreak of rock & roll. (Why can't we have a new model rock star as holiday salve to accompany Daniel Craig's fine, fresh turn as Bond in Casino Royale?) And yet, while Kate Moss is known to American audiences as icon and target for Calvin Klein anorexic chic campaigns and tabloid-friendly dalliance with Johnny Depp, Doherty's previous band, the Libertines, was something of a non-starter outside of coastal hip communities. And Babyshambles means even less to audiences whose cultural parameters do not start and stop with Popbitch and Gawker.

Why then is Doherty's abbreviated, uneven release being treated with such premature fanfare? Could it be that -- as the fall season's most prominent pop divorces (Britney & K-Fed, Bobby & Whitney, Kate Hudson & Chris Robinson) show -- who you're fucking is as important a lynchpin to fame now as (way) back in the day when Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary were cavorting about Lake Geneva with Lord Byron?

The spawn of 19th century enslaved Africans, immigrants and illiterate country folk can now be bards on MySpace, wizards fighting simulated dark forces on YouTube, or just opt to log on, tune in and drop out 24-7 -- such are the petty miracles of our times -- and yet the general public is still far more enthralled with the cultural equivalent of court intrigues. Just as Britney is now being pilloried for her excessive partying, Moss was the previous twelvemonth's infamous sullied Madonna, a bad mother whose pop currency as supermodel and association with the jet set elite generated virtual reams of copy debating whether she should pay the wages of living in sin with Doherty by losing her lucrative career. O, how amusing and hypocritical was the moralizing that the "Cocaine Kate" episode dredged up in the media. On this side of the Pond, the parade of accusatory editorials showed that society has not evolved far from Plymouth Colony.

The result is the rot of a bootlegged pair of "rock & roll royalty" used to prop up a moribund genre, and co-existing in an America where the president runs the country like a meta-fiefdom and religious elites, led by postmodern wizards (corporeal and non), have broken ground on fortresses of faith from Florida to California.

The Blinding itself does little to dispel the notion that rock is now at the stage of jazz in the 1970s, fit only as museum culture. As Doherty's unoriginal whine is backed by arrangements suffused with everything from the ghost of the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet to cod-reggae, it becomes clear why the UK press focuses on his revolving door from court to rehab rather than the music. What's less certain is what spark of genius enthralls La Moss and those message board pundits who would champion Doherty after every public disaster.

When the glut of user-generated content has made auteurs out of everyone -- me, you and your dog Boo -- why do we still need Pete Doherty to embody rock star clichés? In 2006, so-called rock stars are on the corporate game, not elegantly wasted like Keith Richards at Nellcôte in the summer of '71. And yet, music writer Robert Greenfield released his account of the drug-fuelled drama around recording of Exile On Main Street close to The Blinding's season. And, as anyone in the Popbitch universe knows, the glue that unites these two releases is Richards' erstwhile Muse, Anita Pallenberg, mentor to Moss. While it's unclear whether Doherty is merely a sham laboring to épater le bourgeois, the distribution and investment in these two projects suggests there's some persistent, deep-seated need for art that seems real and over the edge.

Just as Bush loved the Lord Of The Rings flicks, the average culture vulture seems dangerously invested in the Rock Mythos (in all its cultural iterations) rather than their agency to be a MySpace star for a day -- or 365. But will they follow the postmodern Orpheus that is Pete Doherty to their doom?

www.babyshambles.net

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