If contemporary celebrity culture is the modern Olympus, then pop is the youth wing, where the jacks and princesses hang out and squall: except that these deities are not psychological abstracts, but human flesh. While pop's icons are never static - like standard texts, they are redefined by each successive generation or micro-generation - they do contain something of the godlike, or at least the symbolic. The icon’s level of abstraction is different from either fame (earned) or celebrity (unearned notoriety): it has to do both with achievement - capturing the national or global imagination through a cultural product - and the way in which individual characteristics and/or life stories tap into the reservoir of archetypes.
An important part of Elizabeth Peyton’s work operates in this interface between persona and person, between abstraction and life in all its messiness. An unashamed fan, Peyton casts an idiosyncratic, feminine gaze over icons that might already be over-familiar: in her often record-cover size portraits of Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Liam Gallagher and Jarvis Cocker, she invites you to look at these angsty, over-exposed white boys in a way that is true to their usually hidden androgynous essence. Working often from newspaper photos, video freeze-frame or iconic images in books, Peyton imposes a curiously uniform look on her chosen few: button eyes, luxuriant hair, bright peacock clothes, lips as red as those that have just been kissed for a long time. (Believe me, Sid was never that cute in real life.) There is a hint of kitsch about this uniformity, and another hint of those folk-art fan portraits that used to win Beatles and Rolling Stones teen mag competitions: the forgotten, votive, feminine response to pop.
Unlike these artists, however, Peyton has both painterly skills and a keen conceptual sense of her work: ‘If you look at pictures of John Lydon when he was a teenager, and then the year he started writing, you realise that he became beautiful so suddenly. Maybe it was drugs - he was getting that almost-dead, unearthly beauty - but I also think that what he was doing and what was going through him suddenly made him beautiful.’ This accords with my experience within the iconography of the Sex Pistols in particular. Working through thousands of photos for picture research, I was struck how the look of the group changed from month to month, if not week to week; and how much these changes were concentrated in Johnny Rotten. More so than the other four players, Rotten was rarely the same in any set of pictures: at once proud, obnoxious, imperial, snivelling, defensive, bored, ecstatic, an avant-garde fashion plate and an Irish-English scruff from Finsbury Park. The most extraordinary photo of all was taken by Kate Simon at a July 1976 all-nighter: John in a destroyed gold lamé jacket, with S&M stud bands and cigarette burns on his wrists, a crown of spiky golden hair and a finely-etched face of total concentration - an utterly convincing, Dickensian twist on the glamour of David Bowie. Beauty and androgyny is not something you would associate with the Sex Pistols, but there it was.
In John (1996), Peyton takes this look - the same aureole of hair and sensitive concentration - to construct a Johnny Rotten dressed in a floppy shirt and tank top pullover, with the idealised, half-profile expression of a Renaissance prince. She has an uncanny ability to choose a key moment from a chaos of images. Her John Lydon and John Beverley (1994) freezes one of the few affirmative moments in The Great Rock‘n’Roll Swindle, where Lydon - in the middle of a disastrous tour where his once best friend has become worse than a liability: competition - suddenly looks at Sid and cracks open a wide smile. Peyton turns this portrait of male bonding into a picture of two sprites: with their baby bird hairdos and semi-nudity, dead ringers for the lost boys in Peter Pan.
The story of the Sex Pistols - now, after dozens of books, fairly well wrapped up - is still an object lesson in the progress to iconhood. As the first public face of the group, John Lydon remains famous as Johnny Rotten despite his 20 year attempt to gain control of his public image. His latest recombination of the Sex Pistols is entirely consistent with this desire for control, tinged with the knowledge that nothing he will ever do again, now that he has survived into adulthood, will be as powerful as what he wrote and sang at the turn of his 20s - that moment in 1977 when his image flashed around the world as the shadow of Queen Elizabeth II, riding for a fall in the delusional hubris of the Silver Jubilee.
Despite his extraordinary, vigorous refusal of his allotted role, he remains to some degree a prisoner of his youth. John Beverley had no qualms about refusing celebrity. His terrible achievement was to surrender his entire being to the demands of his mass media persona. As Sid Vicious - the punk Frankenstein - he became more popular in America than the sarcastic, elusive Lydon: his subsequent descent into violence, prison and death has only sealed his romantic status. He delivered on the promise and the threat of his name. And yet, at the same time, John Beverley was raw and sexually unformed when it all hit him at the age of 19. Behind the cartoony image of goofy stupidity was a sharp, idealistic young man. Peyton’s 1995 Sid Vicious catches the glee that he felt when he first joined the Sex Pistols, a curiously innocent energy that made him the public face of the group in its terminal phase. Swept up in this motion, Beverley's addiction was entirely consistent not with dumb hedonism, but the refusal of everyday life by a closet romantic.
The androgyny of Peyton's subjects - which need not be anything to do with homosexuality, although it is often to do with virginal males - is so often ignored in mainstream boy accounts of pop, especially those afforded to rock groups. It’s all right for disco divas to take off the slap when they get home, but rock stars have to be who they are, offstage and on. This absurd state of affairs crucifies lives and stunts individual and collective growth. Peyton is careful to emphasise male tenderness, beauty, bonding, as in her picture of Liam Gallagher kissing Noel at Earls Court (1996). These qualities are, of course, desired by the ardent fan, but also, secretly, by the protagonists themselves - sick of an archaic gender system that requires men to be tough, macho and unfeeling. It’s my experience of Oasis that their persona masks sensitivity and intelligence, that women find them attractive as well as lads, and that Liam can resemble nobody so much as John Lennon in 1966: well‘ard on the outside, but confused, druggy and beautiful in his granny glasses and bangs. Who knows what will happen to him.
To Southerners, the young men of the North and North West of England - a matriarchal society, viz Coronation Street - can seem very camp behind their crim exteriors: those floppy fringes, those baggy clothes. In person, Jarvis Cocker accesses the gritty feminine extravagance of Soft Cell era Marc Almond (Southport and Leeds). From Sheffield, a tough industrial centre with an honourable (and dishonourable) tradition of socialism and electronic music, Cocker is ultimately reminiscent of his city's greatest sons: Phil Oakey causing outrage in the early 80s with his floppy haircut, lipstick and haughty demeanour, or the human spider, Dave Berry, who shocked his audience in the mid-60s when he refused to show anything but a wiggling arm and leg for the first minute of his TOTP lip-synch for Little Things.
Propelled to celebrity by his upstaging of Michael Jackson at the 1996 Brit Awards, Cocker is a graceful, sharp survivor under considerable pressure, sustained by his comparative older age - early 30s when first successful - and his ability to express a collective, political impulse: whether it be in Pulp (who share writing credits equally) or at the Brits themselves, where he enacted the wish of the audience. It is not only in the nature of performance, but also in the nature of pop itself that the male star - whatever his sexual orientation, which is usually heterosexual - must take on androgynous characteristics. Part of this is to do with the headlong rush into an active sexual life by the still unformed, part to do with the actual exchange involved in the postwar, commercial display of masculinity, where men find themselves the object of the viewer’s gaze, a state for which women have been developing a language for thousands of years. There is also the nature and volume of female fandom, to which adequate space still has to be given: aspiring not - like the boys - to be the star, but to use the imagination and construct an ideal out of the raw materials at hand. Look, they might say to the local boys, thinking of the posters on their walls, this is what you could be and we'd all be a lot happier for it. The continuing power of this fantasy is shown by the level of androgyny that remains in pop, despite the best efforts of Chris Evans, or the self-censorship of teen dreams like Crispian Mills of Kula Shaker proclaiming in vain that ‘You treat me like a woman/ But I feel like a man!'’
This hysterical denial - of masculine femininity - saturates England and America and, in turn, engenders extreme reactions. Often these are expressed in youth culture, as real-time teens come up against severe identity questions like, should I act like I feel or like I'm told to feel? (The inability of the wider culture to address these questions is what keeps 30- and 40-somethings, many of whom are continuing to struggle with their identity, returning again and again to what is still considered a teen arena or even worse, a more 'adult' locus of sheer consumption.) Elizabeth Peyton's pictures restate the primacy of androgyny in pop; in relation to her other painted icons, Ludwig II, Queen Elizabeth I, Rupert Brooke and Napoleon, they make it clear that contemporary stardom is only the latest twist on an age old story. The subjects of these pictures deserve their privilege because they perceived and fulfilled their destiny: having placed their very lives on the line, they remind us that to change is to survive and, indeed, that a time of change, while scary, is often when we feel most alive.
First published in Issue 31