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Kay S. Hymowitz
Robos in Paradise
Aging rockers embrace family values and bourgeois respectability.
Winter 2003

Now that MTV’s The Osbournes’ second season is upon us, it’s time to take full measure of the secret of the hit series’ appeal: roboism—or rocker bourgeois respectability. Like a number of other former wild things, Ozzie Osbourne is a countercultural version of David Brooks’s bobo, the bourgeois bohemian who affects the cultural style of Montmarte but lives like Main Street. Ozzie and his ilk are the rocker bourgeoisie who look like vampires (or streetwalkers) but live like PTA vice presidents.

Before his reality program, Ozzie, the former lead singer of the heavy metal band Black Sabbath, was most notorious for biting the head off a a bat at a concert. San Antonio also ran him out of town once after he publicly urinated on the Alamo. But if MTV marketers think they are being ironic when they hype his show on their website as an ordinary family sitcom—the network uses the tag line “The Cleavers, the Bradys, the Cosbys . . . and now the Osbournes”—the joke is on them. The fact is, even if his vocabulary sets off so many censor beeps that the show sounds like a cardiac-care unit on a bad night, Ozzie isn’t all that different from his fifties namesake in his bourgeois aspirations. The devoted father of three, Ozzie seems more happily married than many Americans. He works hard to provide for his family: “I’m very proud I’ve been able to give my kids a great education,” he boasts. He grumbles when his wife spends too much money. He gripes when she sets a curfew for the children that he considers too late. “I think being a parent is the most difficult job on the face of the earth,” admits the rocker. “You hate to say things that will upset your kids, but then sometimes you have to because you can’t let them run around wild,” says the man who sometimes calls himself “the prince of f***ing darkness.”

If Osbourne is the Ozzie Nelson of robos, Madonna is (believe it or not!) their Harriet. Not so long ago, Madonna dressed in space-age underwear and surrounded herself with glistening dancing boys. Scorning marriage, she drafted a body builder to impregnate her before casting him aside as irrelevant to her new role as liberated mother-artiste. Now the mother of two and married to British movie director Guy Ritchie, she has morphed into a “soccer mom,” as Steven Daly puts it in a surprising Vanity Fair profile. Her tastes appear to have gone distinctly Mrs. Grundy—she even prefers people to call her Mrs. Ritchie. She repeats how she and “my husband” wept through It’s a Wonderful Life. Before her robo incarnation, she wrote the X-rated book Sex; now, she informs us, she is busy writing a children’s book. “My emphasis, my priority, is my family, absolutely, 100 percent,” the former boy toy told Larry King.

Clearly, the emergence of the robo reflects the aging of some famous rock stars and their fans. There’s nothing like the threat of Viagra dependency and perimenopause to enhance family values. Moreover, the longer the music business is around, the more that it confirms—even at its most outrageous—that it’s just another business, dedicated not to revolution but to the bottom line. The demonic-looking Alice Cooper, now married for over 25 years, is a dedicated, daily golfer (he’s been known to tee off with Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and members of Metallica). He may still include a beheading and rivers of blood in his act, but he sees it as just “a good Halloween Show.” Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this sort of robo fat-catism—think of Marxoid thrashers Rage Against the Machine—but shock-rock, Ozzie- and Alice-style, is no more a threat to middle-class values than Fear Factor.

Still, there’s more to the robo phenomenon than gray hair and a maturing music industry. The combination of shocking style and bourgeois substance makes the robo the perfect celebrity figure for our age. Once upon a time, rock ‘n’ roll fans expected their favorite stars to act out their own rebellious urges. In their ordinary lives, fans had to wake up with the alarm, do their homework, or suck it up when the boss got under their skin. But the Stones didn’t have to put up with any of that. The rock hero could have sex with 600 girls a year (Motorhead’s Lemmy claims 2,000) and wreck his hotel room during drug-addled nights. Sure, he might land up floating face down in a Beverly Hills swimming pool, but danger, in what Quinton Skinner, author of the recent Casualties of Rock, calls “the world’s riskiest business,” was part of the fantasy of anti-bourgeois excess.

These days, the public, especially the younger set that watches The Osbournes, may have limited interest in a walk on the wild side, as plunging juvenile crime, drug use, and pregnancy rates all attest. Having grown up in broken families and gone to Columbine-era schools, fearing snipers at the local Home Depot, kidnappers in the backyard, and terrorists everywhere else, they’re unlikely to conclude that middle-class life is stifling. When apocalyptic scenarios fill the headlines, few want to flirt with the idea that it’s better to burn out than to fade away. Robo stability, rather than badass thrill seeking, becomes the stuff of fantasy life. “I want what everybody else wants: to love and be loved, and to have a family,” singer Billy Joel confessed recently in a New York Times Magazine profile. If the success of The Osbournes and Madonna’s superlative commercial instincts tell us something, his fans will agree.

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