Hearts and Stars is Slate’s pop-up blog about celebrity relationships.
I’ve never exactly understood the cultural mania around celebrity couples. But then I read a bunch of romance novels—and suddenly, I got it. The “rock star romance” is a subgenre in which a regular person falls in love with a famous musician. In these books, you can sense authors feeling out the asymmetry between famous and not-famous people—that “what would it be like to date that superstar?” frisson that makes the whole phenomenon of celebrity coupledom so voyeuristically interesting. How does their talent and charisma, which does so well in the public sphere, translate to their private world? And what would it be like for that person, who has every option in the world, to love you?
Romance novels, as a genre, do a lot of thinking about the way power (wealth, intelligence, competence) drives attraction—for the women swooning over the male heroes, but also for the men themselves, who (in romance novels written recently, at least) often fall in love with heroines who can match their qualities of personal strength. Given that thematic interest, romance between civilians and stars is a natural fit. These rock stars are “alphas” in the “best at their jobs” sense; they need the women they meet to help them develop their private selves.
In rock star romances, the rock star’s celebrity charisma, always depicted as an undeniable force of nature, is foundational to the attraction between the hero and the heroine. Even as the heroine falls in love with the star—or tries desperately not to succumb because this guy always looks like bad news—she observes the superhuman pull the hero has over his fellow humans. “As usual, he took up all the space,” Evelyn muses of David in Kylie Scott’s Lick. “I don’t know how he did that. It was like a magician’s trick.” Trudy watches Jake onstage in Samantha Towle’s The Mighty Storm: “Everyone in this room is eyes on Jake, and it’s in this exact moment, I truly see just the level of power he has over people.”
It’s the heroine’s job to understand the nature of that power, and to resist it, while falling for it at the same time. In Faleena Hopkins’ Cocky Rockstar, Paige wonders how much of her response to Gabriel is a natural interpersonal attraction, and how much comes from her fandom of his music: “There’s a history of false intimacy attached since I’ve loved his music since he first came on the scene. You don’t really know him. It just feels like you do,” she tries to tell herself. Paige, unlike the “groupies” Gabriel has been with before, separates his public charisma from their private attraction.
If the hero brings hot fire onstage talent to the pairing, it’s the heroine’s total lack of interest in stardom that draws him. “Even when she’s nervous, something about her feels grounded and centered. Like she doesn’t need my opinion of her to tell her who she is. In fact, she doesn’t give a shit what I think about her. Never met a woman like that before. Ever,” Gabriel muses to himself about Paige. In two of the four stories I read during my mini-binge, the women meet the men and don’t recognize them as famous; the men love that. David explains why he was attracted to Evelyn: “You treated me like a normal person. We just talked about everyday stuff. You weren’t angling to get anything out of me. You didn’t act like I was a different fucking species.”
The heroine, of course, is an avatar the reader can identify with, but in rock star romances her normalcy becomes a strength. Take the internal monologue of Skye, a doctor and abuse survivor, in Ellie Master’s Heart’s Insanity as she wonders why guitarist Ash would pick her over anyone else: “She wasn’t supermodel hot. She wasn’t tall, sexy, and lean. She was simply herself. She spoke her mind, took care of her patients, and had only ever loved one person”—her foster brother. This, of course, is why Ash wants her, and is an argument for the superiority of regular life over fame. These novels go back and forth between slobbering over fame and money—descriptions of fancy hotel rooms and special snacks flown in from Paris abound—while also arguing that fame and money aren’t everything. And isn’t that how we all feel about it?
There’s a derogatory and simple way to talk about this kind of wish fulfillment when it’s provided for female readers by female authors, but I don’t think this is the whole story. In a conversation on Jezebel about the place of the “alpha male” in romance novels, Kelly Faircloth told Natasha Vargas-Cooper: “I have this pet theory that in romance, alphaness is a fantasy about men living up to the disproportionate level of power and authority they have in society.” It’s hard to imagine what male celebrities, free of even the constant fear of weight gain and aging that plagues female celebrities, could want from any mortal woman. In the rock star romance, the star turns all that power toward a person who deserves it—and that’s the ultimate dream.
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