Silk slips, cigarettes and electric guitars… who is she?
Introducing the rockstar girlfriend, the latest aesthetic to whip TikTok into a frenzy. The hashtag has amassed more than a million views, as creators try to manifest the jet set, party girl lifestyle for themselves through aspirational montages set to opening riffs from AM-era Arctic Monkeys. Musician adjacent female celebs and influencers like Alexa Chung, Kate Moss and Camille Rowe dressed in fur coats, platforms and morning-after makeup pose with cocktails and roses in videos that rack up thousands of likes.
An extension of indie sleaze and the Tumblr girl aesthetic, the rockstar girlfriend is yet another 2022 trend that glorifies a 24/7 party lifestyle. Many predicted this post-lockdown return to excess and hedonism, even if it sometimes only exists as a fantasy. But of course, the aesthetic itself isn’t new. The rockstar girlfriend has existed for as long as the modern rockstar. In the 1960s, OG rockstar girlfriends Anita Pallenberg and Pattie Boyd dated members of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, while also having successful careers of their own. Today, influencers like Devon Lee Carlson and Suki Waterhouse embody the effortlessly cool look.
But whose fantasy is the rockstar girlfriend? While many female TikTok users are proliferating the trend, its name defines women through their relationship with men. “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,” writes John Berger in Ways of Seeing. In the rockstar girlfriend universe, men create, make music and perform, while beautiful women become accessories for them to show off to the world. “The name of the aesthetic needs to go,” says trend forecaster and writer Mandy Lee, who specialises in naming trends on TikTok. “Women don’t need to be reduced to the men in their lives.”
The male gaze is so pervasive that it seeps into how women see themselves and other women. It even enters our fantasies. “When we live by the male gaze, we stop living authentically and start living performatively in a way that doesn’t honour our true selves,” says eating disorder specialist Ruth Micallef. In fact, studies show that seeing yourself through the male gaze can lead to self-objectification and a narrow definition of desirability, both of which can have a negative impact on self-esteem.
“In some ways, this trend is more problematic than the indie sleaze and Tumblr aesthetics,” says Jane Macfarlane, art director at creative agency and internet and youth culture specialists The Digital Fairy. “It’s super heteronormative, typically glorifying white, cis and straight relationships. On top of that, the aesthetic usually promotes being super thin and a ‘cigarette for breakfast’ lifestyle, which is pretty triggering for a lot of people.”
The music industry’s excessive hedonism has been well-documented (Kill Your Friends, anyone?) and the archetypal rockstar girlfriend lifestyle is rarely sustainable. Many of the high-profile relationships the trend idolises were toxic. Kate Moss and Pete Doherty’s tumultuous on-again-off-again relationship ended with her setting fire to his childhood teddy bear and him calling her a “nasty old rag” in an interview with The Daily Mirror. And if you read almost any rock biography about a 20th-century male musician, you’ll find out how they really treated the women in their lives. Spoiler alert: not very well.
The rockstar girlfriend aesthetic romanticises a fatalistic “I would die if you left me” kind of love. So far, so fan fiction. But you only have to look at Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly to see it in reality today. The couple’s emphasis on the darkness of their romance might come across as cringe, but there has always been a cultural fascination with celebrity couples that seem publicly and intoxicatingly in love. It’s dramatic and extravagant, a refreshing counterpoint to celebs who like to keep their private lives private. But imitate it in your love life at your own peril.
It’s also unfair and misogynistic to only view women who date rockstars as passive accessories to their partners. They’re also icons in their own right, with lucrative careers separate from the men they’ve dated. “I don’t think aspiring to this fantasy can be written off as totally disempowering,” says Biz Sherbert, Culture Editor at The Digital Fairy. “In the age of social media, a high-profile relationship of any kind, and the followers that come with it, can be a starting point to a lucrative career. That may sound cynical, but social media has allowed for non-famous women dating musicians to develop their own followings and platforms, and subsequently make their own money and determine their careers.”
As the iconic fictional rockstar girlfriend Penny Lane says in Almost Famous, “We are not groupies. Groupies sleep with rockstars because they want to be near someone famous. We are here because of the music, we inspire the music. We are band aids.” Rockstar girlfriends are both muses and collaborators. Julia Fox’s recent much-memed interview brought what it means to be a muse back to the forefront of the cultural conversation. In her interview with The Cut, Fox maintained that she was more than Ye’s muse. The pair were collaborators and, as her friends added, it was actually Fox who was invited to dinner with Madonna and to sit front row at Schiaparelli.
And of course, many high-profile relationships began because the couple were already mixing in the same creative social circles. Rockstar girlfriends are often rockstars themselves – Courtney Love, Sky Ferreira and Suki Waterhouse, for instance. There’s a long history of wives and girlfriends aiding their partners’ creative work, with or without credit.
When James Blake released his latest album last year, for example, his girlfriend Jameela Jamil was credited as a producer. Yet many people commented that she couldn’t possibly have helped with his music and he just credited her to be nice. Responding to the backlash, Jamil wrote on Instagram, “An additional hilarious side to this misogyny is that they only don’t believe in my musical input when they love the songs. If they don’t like a song then suddenly I CAN produce and it’s all my fault, and I produced the whole thing alone!” Also adding that she used to be a DJ and studied music for six years, the incident served as a reminder of how quick people are to dismiss women’s contributions to their famous partners’ work. Society often isn’t kind to rockstar girlfriends and wives – just look at how Yoko Ono and Courtney Love have been treated in the past.
Like many recently revived aesthetics, the rockstar girlfriend reveals the tension between fantasy and inclusivity. Alex Quicho, associate director of cultural intelligence at Canvas8, links the trend to the bimbo and sugar baby aesthetics, suggesting there is an ironic undertone to those who aspire to it. “We’ve seen an interest in adopting an ironic relationship with these archetypes rather than belonging to their full reality,” she says. Being a nepotism baby is a similar aspiration. Both fantasies provide the opportunity to be an it-girl and live an A‑list lifestyle, without necessarily pursuing a particular creative talent. However, Quicho adds that “reclaiming once disempowering behaviours or aesthetics requires a certain fluency in their social implications and a degree of progression from when they were compulsory.”
While it might be hard to escape the male gaze entirely, the rockstar girlfriend can be an expansive fantasy if we want it to be. While everyone’s relationship to the trend will be different, this could be an opportunity to make the aesthetic more inclusive of all body types and sexualities. We could even progress away from calling it “rockstar girlfriend” altogether. Mandy Lee, who coined indie sleaze, twee and Parisian ballet, has a few ideas: “leather mommy, rockstar bimbo, rockstar (yes, just rockstar!), modernist rockstar, biker chic and Bowiecore or Ziggycore.” Or, to quote many comments on rockstar girlfriend TikToks, “Fuck being the rockstar girlfriend, I wanna be the rockstar!”