Dripping with salty charisma, as his bandmates hold aloft the alarmingly fragile glass trophy, the Apollonian frontman, Damiano David triumphantly screams: “We just want to say to the whole of Europe, to the whole world, ROCK AND ROLL NEVER DIES!”
Eurovision 2021 was an unexpected triumph in many ways, but none more so than for rock music. This year, I was press-ganged into previewing all the Eurovision entries and watching the semi-finals. Consequently, I was a few weeks ahead of the trend of falling for the Italian entry, Måneskin. Their punchy rock diatribe Zitti e Buoni (roughly, ‘shut up and be good’) was infectious, slick, refreshing, and decidedly not Eurovision. Entering the competition, they were my firm favourites, but I was sure that their music would seem too jarring for the mass Eurovision public, too heavy for Eurovision’s comfortable cringe. Little did I know that in a matter of days, I would not be able to escape Måneskin’s inexorable invasion of my newsfeeds and timelines.
To my great surprise, despite an unusually strong crop of candidates, Måneskin emerged as the undisputed champions. It was an impressive feat, given their unorthodox, androgynous image, the choice to perform a heavy rock song, in their native language, and the curse of the big 5. However, despite this victory, no one could have predicted the global success of Måneskin off the back of Eurovision. A success that far transcends the competition and that of most Eurovision winners. If this trend continues, they may well prove David’s victory speech correct.
Rock has been in hibernation for some time now. Occasionally a band like Royal Blood and the Black Keys will break through and score a few hits with the classic formula but the golden era of rock ‘n’ roll hegemony is long decayed. Every band that succeeds, makes some grandiose mission statement about the immortality of rock music but few convincingly live up to these aspirations before fading into obscurity. Perhaps I have just fallen for their charms, but I have more confidence in Måneskin’s longevity than most of their predecessors, not because of how well they imitate traditional rock tropes but because of how they challenge them.
Rock artists and their fans are an elitist bunch. The acolytes of a music genre, on a long downward spiral, rock music fans are often reactionary and defensive. When I was a teen, obsessed with Hendrix and the Doors, I was as guilty as any other pretentious adolescent of creating contrived and contradictory justifications for my bad opinions. I argued that older music was more artistic, more authentic. Like some malcontent middle-aged uncle, I always declared that ‘they don’t make music like they used to’, referring to a period 30-40 years before I was born. However, my greatest contempt was always reserved for talent contests and their progeny; and particularly the X Factor and One Direction.
I was wrong, of course. We probably wouldn’t have Måneskin without Harry Styles, of once maligned One Direction fame. Styles’ own music is a joyous celebration of 60s and 70s sounds, suitably adjusted to modern tastes and to (narrowly) avoid pastiche. To his immense credit, few have done more to promote classic artists such as Joni Mitchell and even cult heroes like Shuggie Otis to a wider audience, by wearing his influences on his sleeve. His famous dress sense is well informed by 60s and 70s fashion and he has done much to spark its recent revival.
The snobbery of rock audiences is a huge barrier to any resurgent popularity. By placing itself in opposition to modern music and forcing audiences to choose camps it alienates a large potential fan base. I am sure that my own pugnacious attitude turned a few people off the music I loved, that would have been open minded to it, had I descended my high horse. I know far too many brilliant musicians whose stubborn pretentions about integrity hamper musical careers. They insist on following the traditional, overgrown, and faint path to musical stardom, as part of a masochistic, tortured artist fantasy. Rock fans would be wiser to embrace artists like Styles rather than gatekeeping authenticity.
In this respect, Måneskin are refreshing, in their willingness to be part of popular culture, to be accessible and embrace mass appeal. They were already familiar faces in their native Italy, where they came second in the X Factor before their Eurovision success. Many rock musicians would dismiss the X Factor and Eurovision as competitions no serious musician would consider. Even when rock acts such as Owen Campbell (Australia’s Got Talent) deign to appear on talent shows they shoot themselves in the foot by treating the competition with aloof disdain.
By treating the X Factor and Eurovision seriously, as legitimate routes for rock musicians, Måneskin have proved that there is a large and willing audience for their music. Instead of nostalgically rejecting the modern music industry, they have used its systems to become successful as a rock band in 2021. Måneskin achieved talent contest fame without sacrificing authenticity. The band has varied tastes, with David favouring pop while bassist Victoria De Angelis prefers hard rock. It isn’t rock ‘n’ roll purism but in acknowledging their influences they are authentic to themselves.
Hand in hand with the rock god superiority complex is an inherent macho misogyny. In recent years, I have found myself growing increasingly uncomfortable with the attitudes and actions of the ‘heroes’ I once idolised. Women seemed to be the oft forgotten casualties of rock ‘n’ roll hedonism and excess. The examples are widespread from casual sexism to illegal and disgusting acts. From lambasting One Direction and the youthful Justin Bieber because their intended audience was teenage girls, to the well-supported rumours that Jimmy Page kidnapped and then imprisoned a 14-year-old child. As the ‘me too’ accusations against Ryan Adams reveal, rock’s treatment of women is not just an artifact of a previous era. Most Rockstar biographies begin with the classic story of learning guitar to pick up girls and recent biopics such as Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt (2019) made light of domestic violence and a general disrespect for women they sleep with as good rock ‘n’ roll fun. The lyrics of songs like the Rolling Stones ‘Starfucker’ speak for themselves.
That One Direction were considered effeminate and ‘girly’ by a group of men whose heroes wore shoulder length hair and loved sporting lycra bodysuits and velvet trousers, exposes the uncomfortable contradiction. The rock ‘n’ roll androgynous image was only acceptable if the end goal was bedding unimaginable numbers of women.
I am in several guitar player Facebook groups, and in them, most members are men. Regular posts are made about hiding guitars from ‘the wife’ and divorcing partners because they would rather play guitar with their boys. There’s plenty of Taylor Swift and One Direction-bashing and dismissal of the guitar skills of pop musicians. Fundamentally, the guitar solo is that most masculine of sports; guitar neck aloft in a phallic stance, an electric dick measuring contest. In a list of 100 greatest guitarists of all time, Rolling Stone magazine only mustered two women in the rear end of their list. I often wonder what it feels like to be a female guitar player and see these posts and lists that clearly say women aren’t welcome. Though 50% of new guitar sales are women, the rock community is still very much a boy’s club.
Again, Måneskin succeed by challenging that formula. While there certainly have been rock bands with female members, it is rare for them not to be the frontwomen, perpetuating the myth that ‘girls don’t really play instruments’. In the vast rock canon, only Tina Weymouth, Kim Gordon and Christine McVie spring immediately to mind. Måneskin aren’t the first to have mixed membership but it is still the exception to the rule in the rock world. Victoria De Angelis, the band’s bassist, is David’s copilot, the Richards to Damiano’s Jagger. She is an integral part of the band and her and David are exhilarating to watch play off each other. De Angelis is a much-needed icon to inspire young women to get into rock music and she brings a fresh fight to the old stereotypes.
Måneskin are also a positive influence for young men. They present masculinity in an androgynous way that takes its visual cues from the classic rock artists of the past but leaves behind the baggage. The message is simple: Men can be masculine and be pretty, wear makeup and skirts. Given the moral outrage surrounding Harry Styles’ Vogue shoot, unfortunately this message needs re-stating. Masculinity and sex appeal, in this case comes from their confidence and comfort in their own skins.
In many countries that Eurovision is broadcast their image seems radical and controversial. Hungary recently dropped out of Eurovision because of concerns about being (as one pro-government journalist described it) ‘a homosexual flotilla’. As the end credits rolled David gleefully winched his bandmate Thomas Raggi in a moment that must have triggered many a Conservative dad. As a rock fan, who has been turned off by the toxic masculinity and bigotry of the rock community, I welcome their fresh revitalisation of the genre. They offer a rock ‘n’ roll masculinity for modern men to aspire to, without emulating its sordid culture.
Eurovision has changed too. The Eurovision movie and the success of Daði Freyr suggest a new-found cultural zeitgeist and relevance for Eurovision. Eurovision was the largest in-person event in Europe since Covid began, in a year where many highlights (including the previous Eurovision) were cancelled, it was a phenomenal success, scoring its best ratings in seven years. The special circumstances of this year’s competition of course helped with the event’s popularity but that should not take away from the noticeable improvement in quality. James Newman deserved to be last, though in other years he would have been perfectly average. Unfortunately for him, he was the worst of a good bunch, this year’s Eurovision boasted an impressive calibre of artists. Indeed Måneskin, Barbara Pravi, Daði & Gagnvamagnið and the brilliant Jeangu Macrooy all delivered that rarest phenomenon, a Eurovision song that stands on its own feet as good music.
Måneskin have also found success on TikTok. TikTok as a medium encourages people to be less judgemental of music. It takes away contextual boundaries such as genre, era and even language. Through repetition they create the familiarity necessary to embrace unfamiliar sounds. Niche music from children’s TV songs to obscure 2000s Scottish band Life Without Buildings has found surprise success and TikTok trends have delivered hits for classic anthems including Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’. It is a fickle medium but as the success of Olivia Rodrigo and Lil Nas X shows it can be utilised to build genuine careers in the music industry. For Måneskin, the Eurovision winning ‘ZITTI E BUONI’, ‘I WANNA BE YOUR SLAVE’ and ‘CORALINE’ have become huge TikTok songs, bringing chart success in Europe and beyond and earning them a spot in the top 500 artists.
TikTok is also a visual medium and the immaculate, empyreal features of Damiano David and bassist Victoria de Angelis are hardly a disadvantage. Much of the content on TikTok is sheer aesthetic and the band’s undeniable sense of style, an irresistible modern take, via Gucci, on vintage fashion and rock ‘n’ roll liturgy, has a strong appeal. Harry Styles was the undisputed master of the imaginative, androgynous, vintage patchwork but he manages to look flimsy and a little cutesy next to Damiano David. A series of viral TikToks have even heralded David’s usurpation of the crown of ‘White Boy of the Year’ from Styles.
Time will tell whether Måneskin will save Rock music, or whether their success will be confined to the venerable gallery of Eurovision One Hit wonders. The barriers to success for a band, whose first language is not English and whose best known and better music is in Italian, are considerable. Add to that the sad reality that Eurovision winners often find themselves tarred with the Eurovision brush, associated with one song, one performance, and treated as part of a gimmick.
However, if anyone can do it, Måneskin have good odds. Their take on rock music is fresh and appeals to a younger generation that value authenticity, self-expression and live in an aesthetic focussed world. They are already surpassing the expectations of talent show success. Måneskin may just have found the perfect blueprint to renew interest in an old-fashioned genre. It is also very exciting to see a ‘foreign language’ act do so well in the heavily Anglocentric music industry. They may be unpopular with diehard rock traditionalists but they offer the genre a future that seemed unlikely before.
[Ruaraidh Campbell – he/him – @roux_campbell (instagram)]
[Photo credits: Dom Gould]