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  • Georjia Ashleigh

THE LIFE OF A MUSE


Almost Famous revolves around a rock band, but it's Penny Lane who embodies the true spirit of rock n roll. The lively character played by Kate Hudson introduces herself by who she’s not “We are not groupies, groupies sleep with rock stars because they want to be near someone famous. We’re here because of the music.” Indeed Penny is not a groupie or even just a fan, she’s much closer to a muse; an important and most often overlooked figure in the creation of art. While these musicians may not reciprocate Penny’s respect and devotion, what she provides is crucial to their survival and success with them saying, “She’s a fan of this band, much more so than us.” Without Penny around to create it, the wild glamorous life they longed to lead simply wouldn’t exist. Here’s my take on how Penny Lane fulfills the role of the muse and what her idea of the band-aid tells us about the magic of bringing the music to life.

Long before rock bands roamed the earth, the greek poets sang of the muses who were nine goddesses which were the source of all inspiration. In his epic poem, “Theogony” Hessia defined the muses as lovely creatures who breathed inspiration into singers and guitar players across the earth - “Blessed is he whom the Muses love…”. Right away he forgets his troubles and does not remember single care. We come to think of the rock muse as someone who inspires the artist to write songs about them, but Penny and her other band-aids personify the more traditional way of the muse: a divine creature with the power to make the real world disappear so the artist can fly free. Penny performs this role for two men, she frees the aspiring rock journalist, William Miller, from the structures of his home life, facilitating his passage into this wild libertine realm. To the budding rockstar, Russell Hammond, Penny gives her adoration encouraging Russell to see himself as extraordinary, although Russell might pretend he wants something real and William similarly dedicates himself to the truth, what they both really want is an escape into rock n roll fantasy. To them and to everyone within their world, Penny gives the gift of mystique, she takes the drudgery or tour buses and hotels and transforms them into something glamorous and unpredictable, something worthy of the rock myth.

Long before rock bands roamed the earth, the greek poets sang of the muses who were nine goddesses which were the source of all inspiration. In his epic poem “Theogony” Hessia defined the muses as lovely creatures who breathed inspiration into singers and guitar players across the earth - “Blessed is he whom the Muses love…”. Right away he forgets his troubles and does not remember single care. We come to think of the rock muse as someone who inspires the artist to write songs about them, but Penny and her other band-aids personify the more traditional way of the muse: a divine creature with the power to make the real world disappear so the artist can fly free. Penny performs this role for two men, she frees the aspiring rock journalist, William Miller, from the structures of his home life, facilitating his passage into this wild libertine realm. To the budding rockstar, Russell Hammond, Penny gives her adoration encouraging Russell to see himself as extraordinary, although Russell might pretend he wants something real and William similarly dedicates himself to the truth, what they both really want is an escape into rock n roll fantasy. To them and to everyone within their world, Penny gives the gift of mystique, she takes the drudgery or tour buses and hotels and transforms them into something glamorous and unpredictable, something worthy of the rock myth.

In the era Almost Famous depicts, that spirit is slowly dying as the critic Lester Bangs tells William that indefinable thing that makes rock music great is increasingly being suffocated by the trappings of success by saying, “They will ruin rock n roll and strangle everything we love about it and then it just becomes an industry of cool.” When the band Still Water embraces success, it loses touch with that spirit and nearly kills it completely and without the muse to inspire them about lit them up that’s when everything begins to fall apart.

In the era Almost Famous depicts, that spirit is slowly dying as the critic Lester Bangs tells William that indefinable thing that makes rock music great is increasingly being suffocated by the trappings of success by saying, “They will ruin rock n roll and strangle everything we love about it and then it just becomes an industry of cool.” When the band Still Water embraces success, it loses touch with that spirit and nearly kills it completely, and without the muse to inspire them about lit them up that’s when everything begins to fall apart. m is welcomed into the Still Water folds yet they don’t consider him fully apart of their circle - they are both being used, kept close as long as they make the band feel good. This creates an implicit bond between William and Penny. Russell treats them both as disposable, casting William aside when his article threatens his reputation and callously allowing Penny to be traded away as a prize in a poker game after she develops a genuine attachment that leaves behind the fantasy and gets too real. Similarly, while William does try to get Penny to be real with him, he falls in love with her without ever really knowing her just as taken in by the fantasy; he even uses Penny himself kissing her while she’s drugged and helpless.

Cameron Crowe has pushed back against criticism that Penny is a manic pixie dream girl: an impossibly quirky ethereal woman who exists solely to inspire a male character. But it’s clear that Penny is some kind of dream girl, we get to see her less as a real person than as a projection of these two men’s desires. In this way, Crowe uses Penny too as she’s a metaphor for the spirit that William’s trying to save and a symbolic way to bring opposing forces together. In recent years we’ve come to recognise how the film’s treatment of Penny raises troubling questions about objectification and consent.

Yet these issues are an important part of Penny Lane’s story. Penny is a composite of the main real-life women who really did sleep with rock stars, many of them while they were underaged, and Almost Famous forces us to consider the more uncomfortable realities of how artists used these women like muses but discarded them like groupies. Penny Lane is a portrait of these women and their complex relationship with the musicians they loved with the devotion that so often went unreciprocated. And because Penny doesn't choose to be with William or Russell, instead of fulfilling her own desires, her escape from this fantasy feels less like a retreat than a triumph, she’s finally made whole and wholly her own. And thus allowed to be real.

Many famous real-life rock muses like Marianne Faithful and Yoko Ono went on to enjoy music careers of their own and even Kate Hudson can carry a tune, but as Penny Lane illustrates these members of the music world didn’t have to make music to be an essential part of it. One of the real-life inspirations for Penny, Pamela De Barr, went on to perform her own band, The GTOs, with other groupies at the urging of Frank Zappa who saw them as a vital part of the rock scene. But it was De Barr’s 1987 tell-all “I’m With The Band” detailing her exploits that arguably left the bigger impact on the rock music history, helping to develop the larger than life mythology that’s depended on our appreciation of rock n roll ever since that keeps drawing newer generations to its flame, with De Barr stating “The musicians were magic to me, they were crating this music that just sent me spinning. And they’re all magic.” Almost Famous shows us the entire ecosystem behind the musician, the manager looking out for them, the journalists bringing them to a wider audience, the fans who worship them.

Penny Lane’s story underscores just how crucial fans are, young women music fans especially and just how long they’ve struggled to be taken seriously. Even today we dismiss their fandom as intense yet fickle. We think they lack serious taste, as Pitchfork’s Brody Lancaster sarcastically suggested “The musicians who appeal to teenage girls don’t earn our respect until they move on to the right kind of fans: adult men.” In a 2017 interview with Rolling Stone, Harry Styles defended the unfairly dismissed power of the teen girl fan “They don’t lie, if they like you, they’re there. They don’t act too cool, if they don’t like you, they’ll tell you.” Almost Famous is above all else a movie about the perils of being too cool. Looking cool is all that the members of Still Water care about and it only ends up holding them back. By trying to be cool, William loses sight of himself and his own ambitions and Penny Lane herself may be the outward epitome of cool but she presents something more real, purer and far more powerful; she loves music genuinely and without people like her, none of the rest of it would mean anything.

Today we’ve become more attuned to the power of the fan in the armies of Taylor Swift stans who swarm critics who don’t sufficiently praise her albums or the thousands of K-Pop fans who mobilise to frown out a racist hashtag on Twitter but Penny Lane suggests that the true power of fans lies in being something like a band-aid, acting as a sort of collective muse. By being here for the music, not for all the cool trappings that surround it, we inspire the art that makes life worth living. Penny Lane’s story shows us how the role of the muse can often be one-sided and unappreciated. It acknowledges both the exhilaration and the heartbreak from generously dedicating ourselves to inspire someone else, but it also shows us how important that role can be. Ancient Greeks worshipped the muses as much as they did any other deity, in his elegy to the muses, the Greek statesman, Solon, implied the muses not only gives us art, they give us prosperity and friendship: all the basic components of a good life. Without muses, life loses all spirits and mystique. With everything being better with a Penny Lane around.

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