Joey Ruckus: A Pop Artist’s Struggle to Stardom
If you’re listening to the song for the first time, you probably wouldn’t know that “Shut//Up” is about gay hook up culture. But when Joey Ruckus sings, “72 and West End, I never get it wrong. Eleven street lights away before I string you along,” you know that he’s up to something. In the next verse, he repeats the phrase, this time switching the words: “72 and West End, I put you in my phone. February silence, our secret’s safe and sound.”
What songwriting, I thought. So honest and deep, yet perfectly contained within the buoyant bounce of a pop song. Joey Ruckus, a pop artist from New York City (uptown, to be specific), is not the first to bridge the gap between high and low art, but he is one of the more successful contemporary artists to do so. Why, then, haven’t you heard of him?
Indeed, “Shut//Up” is a song about Grindr, a dating app for the LGBTQ community. This is not actually a surprise, given Ruckus’ openness about being a sexually active gay male in New York City, but the subtleties of the songwriting don’t necessary scream out: “Say it loud, I’m gay and I’m proud!” Not to say that Ruckus isn’t proud–he most certainly is–but such proclamations in Ruckus’ realm are unnecessary. That is, Ruckus exists as a 21st century social media maven in a city and culture where being gay isn’t an issue. Yes, the rights haven’t been fully won, but “Shut // Up” reminds us that Ruckus, like many young gay males in New York, aren’t exactly phased by it. Grindr represents the confidence and playfulness of the contemporary gay scene, at least in New York City, and Ruckus’ artistic image as expressed in the song’s lyrics signifies a new group of twenty-something gay males, not unlike those in the 1970s, who aren’t going to take it anymore. They’re young, they’re horny, and if Ruckus has anything to do with it, they’re going to hook up.
Check out the music video to the song below:
The best thing about the song, it seems, is Ruckus’ nonchalant approach to the subject matter. Gay themes are surely present, but this is not a politically correct It Gets Better message. Rather, “Shut // Up” is a dirty, sweaty song about a hook up that is based primarily on physical attraction and sexual desire. “Shut up, you’re cute, and that’s all you got,” Ruckus sings in the chorus. And maybe so, but the song, like the rest of Ruckus’ art, isn’t just surface level. There is a depth and artistry to Ruckus that demands discussion, and despite being a relatively well known social media presence, Ruckus has not become the pop star that I think he deserves to be.
Consider, for instance, his song “Glitter // Coal” off of his LP More Famous than You:
A haunting, elegiac meditation on fame and celebrity, the song exposes the destructive nature of the glamorous life. Ruckus brilliantly uses digital technology to create an eerie sound that evokes the song’s sad, sorrowful tone. The track closes More Famous than You, and if we probe deeper into this pop art masterpiece, we can see how Ruckus, before getting a glimpse of the high life, turns his back on everything it represents. Ruckus isn’t as popular as, say, Lady Gaga, but they have a lot in common. Both artists combine pop music, digital technology, social media, and campy, glam-rock theatrics, and they both (like Madonna, Warhol, and others who came before them) scrutinize fame and celebrity.
The album’s first track, “HOLLYHOOD,” for example, highlights the hypocrisy of Hollywood life. “The picture is so pretty, the underneath is gross. Just another stage, a song that’s overplayed,” Ruckus sings. After the YouTube Channel What the Buck? featured the song, it garnered over 18,000 views, remaining Ruckus’ most popular song to date. For good reason, the song has become a moderate success, but the fact that it is better than anything being played on U.S. pop radio right now makes you wonder why some pop artists rise to the top and others do not.
In “Sweet Millions,” Ruckus tackles American greed, but the title of the song suggests the album’s complex themes. On the one hand, fame is alluring, and the millions are indeed “sweet.” Still, Ruckus asks, at what cost? When we see what fame and wealth do to celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, who has sadly become the poster child for celebrity excess, it is easy to understand why Ruckus is so opposed to the Hollywood lifestyle. As more young people are allured by the glitz and glam, Ruckus points out how meaningless and damaging it is. This may not be an original statement, but for a pop artist, it is bold and daring.
The paradox of the Ruckus star image, however, is that he opposes exactly what he needs to become in order to have a successful career as a pop artist. Fame and celebrity, by default, define pop art. Even innovative and transcendent artists like Warhol and Madonna have become iconic figures. The question that Ruckus poses so daringly, it seems, is how a pop artist can become a star without falling prey to the lifestyle with which we’ve all become so familiar?
I suppose another way to approach this question is to consider the extent to which Joey Ruckus is a constructed star image. In Stars, Richard Dyer argues that stars are not real people, but images crafted out of a range of materials including but not limited to promotion and performance. For instance, Madonna is known for reinventing her image with each album release, but it can be argued that Madonna the private person is responsible for constructing Madonna the public star image, and that the Madonna public star image has very little in common with Madonna the private person. In other words, the Madonna we all think we know is an invention that is constructed for profit, and there is another Madonna, a human being, who we don’t know at all, but who profits from the Madonna public star image that we’ve grown up with over the years.
What Ruckus understands so well, and what is often easy to forget, is that fame and celebrity is show business. To be a pop star is to be a self promoter. Madonna, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Miley Cyrus are so successful because they work just as hard, if not more so, on the construction of their public image than they do on the music they create. That is, the product isn’t the latest Justin Bieber album, the product is the Justin Bieber image.
Consider, for example, Joey Ruckus’ single “Roof // Top” from his second album. The song is a party anthem for the wild and rebellious, not unlike “Shut // Up” or even his trashy, greasy, 3 AM tunes “TTRainReck” or “The Young & The Ruckus.” Much of Ruckus’ songs condone behavior that conservative society might condemn as unacceptable or inappropriate. In effect, Ruckus is an artist for the underground misfits and social outcasts who dare to be different, and his star image embodies these iconoclastic characteristics.
His more recent single, “PARTY JACKET,” experiments with a louder, more aggressive sound, but the image remains the same:
A case can be made that Ruckus’ music is better than contemporary pop artists like Ke$ha, Britney Spears, or Miley Cyrus who address similar themes and promote similar star images, as Ruckus’ lyrics are often thematically rich and his sound is fresh and unique. “Anonymous,” for example, is a disturbing song about a stalker, and it contains a complex narrative that surpasses the quality of most pop songwriting today.
However, what makes Ruckus such a great pop artist, I think, is his willingness to be in on the joke. His knowledge that fame and celebrity is an ephemeral illusion allows him to create a star image that at once satirizes, parodies, and attacks Hollywood culture whil also acknowledging its allure and attraction as he attempts to achieve a celebrity status of his own. Ruckus, like Gaga, Madonna, and Warhol before him, exposes the superficiality of the thing of which he needs to be a part. Unlike the aforementioned pop artists, however, Ruckus has not become as famous as he would like. That is, he has not become a star.
The star image, whether it be Snookie on The Jersey Shore, Madonna on the Superbowl, or Gaga on the red carpet in the egg, is a calculated artistic construction co-authored by the individual behind the star image (Madonna Ciccone the human being, Nicole Polizzi the human being, and Stefani Germanotta the human being) and a team of publicists, managers, and other representatives who attempt to profit off of the image. We must remember that nearly anything a pop star does is well-planned far in advance. When Miley Cyrus tweets “Merry 4/20” to her fans, she reinforces her rebellious image to the public, and when Madonna exposes her body on stage, she reminds the world that she is still a no nonsense provocateur who loves to push our buttons. What I want to suggest, however, is that both Cyrus and Madonna probably do not act like this in real life, and only promote these images in an attempt to remain stars. The same can arguably be said about any pop star or celebrity including Ruckus.
What we should start thinking about, then, is why some are successful at becoming stars and others are not. Why, for example, is Lady Gaga a phenomenon and Joey Ruckus a rising underground presence who is relatively unknown to the mainstream public? If both make similar music, expose similar truths about fame and celebrity, and promote similar star images that are consciously crafted artistic constructions, what makes one a pop star and the other just a pop artist?
I don’t know the answer to this question but I pose it because I am often baffled when talented pop artists like Ruckus struggle to achieve the level of stardom that Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and Ke$ha receive when Ruckus is arguably just as creative, talented, and ambitious as them.
They say that if you make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. I don’t know if that is true. Ruckus has made it just fine in New York, and his presence in the uptown art scene (as well as his performances in the village) illustrate his local popularity. What Ruckus hasn’t done, and what remains to be seen, is if he can make it anywhere else.
What do you think? Leave a comment.