There are those who look and never see, listen but never hear, and then there are those—those with discipline, curiosity, determination—who can pierce the spectacular (in the most literal sense; see G. Debord) faade that is the hallmark of modern society and approximate the shadowed substance of our lives. And so Billy Idol: ostensibly a slick rock & roller, but in reality—if you know how to read cultural signifiers, to tie together the threads and shadows and nets that drift through the real (secret) history of the modern world—a slick rock & roller embodying centuries of calculated revolutionary theory, an unsung soldier fighting on a semantic level so submerged it's deadly powerful, if you can hear it. Says mythohistorian Joseph Campbell, "It's the ideal, not the idol."
It all goes back to Billy's childhood in Goring, U.K., as the son of a stern typewriter salesman/tools-for-hire steward father (accounts vary) who disapproved greatly of any pop music: the young William Broad (last name cognates in German to Breit, phonetically translates to "bright"—perhaps a hint of little Billy's future brilliance?) takes the name Billy Idol when he sheds his baby fat. Billy himself claims it came simply from an unfavorable school report explaining that "Billy is an idle student." But consider a deeper resonance: Billy changes his name after spending six months studying English literature at the University of Sussex and after making connections with the nascent punk community the Bromley Contingent, ground zero for both the Sex Pistols and Malcolm McLaren's Situationist (situationism: an obscure French anarchophilosophy dedicated to the complete reinvention of modern life; see G. Debord, above) manipulations. Even the densest college students' eyes open wide during their first semester at school; young Broad was immersed in not one but two intensely intellectual and experimental subcultures. And then he changed his name. To indicate what?
First: the ritual of name changing (called abrenuntiatio) was used during pagan times in England to mark a new Christian convert, akin to baptism—with the caveat that the names of pagan idols were themselves also often changed to stay one step ahead of church inquisitors. And so Billy changed his name to Idol. Factor in the Situationist penchant for embracing the perversely contradictory (see Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces), and it makes perfect sense: a convert (Wm. Broad) who must stay one step ahead of the converters (the culture manipulators, firstly McLaren), a perfect metaphor for the anti-pop pop star—pop idol?—Billy would become. Also, consider author Natalia Ilyin's theory of the Apollo Blonde—that blond is the hair color of the heroic (in the Campbellian sense) life—and then consider Mr. Idol's famous hair color, adopted about the same time as he underwent abrenuntiatio. Obviously, as a student of literature for six months, Billy would have been at least tangentially aware of all of this. His image was never an accident, even then.
And this is the key: yes, Billy Idol is a pop-star-as-hero (to be discussed below), but more important is the means by which his heroism manifests—not the cumbersome phallicism of the guitar (which he played in his band Generation X) or the motorcycle (the Harley he named "Rude Dude," which nearly cost him his life) but his very visage. A hero needs a weapon, and Billy Idol's face is his weapon. More than that, even: as Burroughs posited in Nova Express, Billy Idol's face is a virus, a self-replicating meme that spreads surreptitiously through all of society.
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Consider: it is easier to find more references to personages resembling Mr. Idol than to Mr. Idol himself; superficially, bad news for a pop star, but as a report on the currency currently held by Mr. Idol's image, intensely favorable. To penetrate a culture's visual lexicon (i.e., "That guy looks like Billy Idol!") is to achieve visual triumph, to transcend mere humanity and become something almost . . . idol-ic? And consider also the extremely numerous references to image and face that limn Idol's career (his album covers, the "White Wedding" video featuring Idol as a cartoon-like image, instead of simple live performance footage; this is Idol accelerating the transcendental process from the mundane to the iconic), most important the song (his first Top 10 U.S. hit) "Eyes Without a Face": "Eyes" offers the first hints at both Billy's life-as-image self-perception ("Got no human grace/you're eyes without a face") and his Situationist-inspired desire to tear apart the rusty shackles of modernist thought/reason with "I spend so much time/Believing all the lies/To keep the dream alive/It makes me mad at truth."
But on 1993's Cyberpunk, we find the most coherent statement of the message attached to Idol's medium (face/image). While a commercial flop (as opuses tend to be), this tightly focused song cycle (with cover art featuring Idol's distorted face; an apt metaphor after the career and life twists he endured during the late '80s) is nothing less than the culmination (free from the deal-with-the-devil pop-industry machinations that killed his old contemporaries the Pistols) of Idol's agenda, an overarching portrait of a human history constrained by modern technology and modernist thought (cf. Philip K. Dick's idea of a "permanent Rome") yet vulnerable to a small cadre of committed, free-living individuals: as the album's hit single explained, a "Shock to the System." Just as his spirit-name Idol references the age-old rebel-paradigm (cf. 1983's Rebel Yell album, perhaps?) of using the tools of the converters to save the converts (cf. the pagan abrenuntiatio), so does Cyberpunk posit the use of modern technology to save its own dehumanized victims: Idol's face as a virus infected with the message—a computer virus, even.
And that message? "You could be king/I could be king," he sings on "Shock to the System," echoing not just Bowie's relatively timid "We could be heroes," but quoting one of the oldest, boldest anti-authoritarian mantras extant in Western culture, stretching back through the Situationists all the way to the Guild of Assassins that skulked through the Byzantine shadows. Really, it's nothing less than a dismantling of the traditional concept of hero, a snarled re-definition designed to imbue every listener with the power and instructions they need to remake the world as their own—"[to] be a king." In Idol's sneer: revolution, centuries in the making. In Idol's peroxided hair: untapped heroic potential. And in Idol's face? Nothing less than the future—for those who can recognize it.
Billy Idol performs at the House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583. Wed.-Thurs., Dec. 27, 9 p.m. $42.50. All ages.