Celebrities are breaking in front of us and we’re watching it happen.
A week ago, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock in the face - at The Oscars - on live television. Embedded into the memory of that particular awards ceremony, forever now: “Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth.”
Earlier in the year, Charlie XCX called a fan “C*NT” on Twitter. Kanye West (though Kanye’s another story altogether) pasted his face on to the body of an Avenger, across from Pete Davidson (also an Avenger): “Kanye West: Civil War” it read. The air was filled with chaos. PR Managers had seemingly taken a holiday. Celebrities were running wild.
And who can really blame them?
Last week, Wesley Morris wrote of the Oscars incident in the New York Times, nailing this particular moment in time.
“These are now the times of our lives,” he wrote, “Anybody could snap, even a man who was once one of Earth’s most beloved humans.”
He was right.
But the plight of the tarnished celebrity – at constant boiling point to perform for the world – is deeply impacting the relationship they have with their fans. It’s spawning a flurry of takes (just like this one), discourse and unneeded political discussion. The source: celebrities, tired and broken from adjusting their lives to fit the pandemic (just like the rest of us) would like to take a break from their fandoms.
It reminds me of recent moments in conversations with musicians - a group of people I often meander with as part of my job. One thing has become irrefutably different over the last few months: how artists respond to the relationship they have with their fans.
Overwhelmingly, most speak of a general withdrawal from it all. They’re less inclined to please the masses. What they’re looking for, instead, is a movement towards their own interests.
Masked musician Orville Peck said last month that his new album was a form of liberation. “I didn’t care if anyone liked it or not,” he told me, quite resolute, “I need to be good with myself, and care... I need to be gentle with myself.”
“I see a lot of disappointment online. I don't know if I'll ever be the kind of person that tours 200 days out of the year anymore, because there’s things in my life that I want to enjoy now.”
Likewise, singer/songwriter Rex Orange County paraphrased a similar thought.
“I feel like the first time I ever put music out, no one was listening, right?”
“As soon as I started thinking about it, it became painful for me.”
“If I’m being honest, I spent a long time worried about what other people were thinking. So it was the first time I was writing really freely and just not caring about what it sounded like or what other people would think.”
Of course, in the face of an audience desperately looking for something to take their attention away from the chaos of the world, celebrities have been experiencing the brunt of global fandoms the more they try to hide. Particularly online.
Last week, revered Californian rapper Doja Cat found herself in the ditches of an online war: “This shit ain’t for me so I’m out,” she tweeted at its peak, “Ya’ll take care.”
A few days earlier, Doja was set to perform in the Asunciónico festival in Paraguay before severe weather warnings forced organisers to cancel. When she failed to show face after fans gathered outside her hotel, they took their displeasure to Twitter.
“Doja, about 4 years ago you started to achieve fame and all thanks to TikTok - what happened to your humility queen? I loved you,” read one tweet.
“I fuckin quit i can’t wait to fucking disappear and i don’t need you to believe in me anymore,” she responded.
Celebrities have forever been victim to the chokehold of fans' wants and needs. After all, it's the element of their work that brings in the bread. But why do fans think celebrities owe them at all?
The success of celebrity culture has long been reliant on the celebrity / fan relationship, and to deviate from fan expectation is game for celebrity suicide. In recent years, social media has changed how celebrities interact, creating a more personal, familiar connection through the screen.
People like Doja Cat and Lil Nas X have mastered these platforms, especially ones like Twitter and TikTok, to strengthen that connection. Their outputs are raw and their content is unfiltered. They’re a new wave of celebrity - one that understands the nuance and power these platforms hold.
But for decades, the entertainment industry has built a set of rules around the celebrity, demanding they act in a certain manner to be successful. Because this relationship is so reliant on fans, following the formula is important.
“Consumer capitalism creates the idea that, basically, everyone feels like their life is okay but could always be better. When you get a better job, it's going to be better. Or when you find the right romantic partner, it’ll be better,” said Peter Strumbourg, anthropologist and author of the book Caught in Play, which explains how the entertainment industry works to subconsciously shape our lives and values.
“So celebrities are people who we have actually entered that world of perfection - that world that we're always one step away from.”
Celebrities have (for the most part) always maintained a figure of “good” - an almost mythical being that can do no wrong. They have set foot in both the human realm and an otherworldly, perceived utopia. In other words: a place both in reach and just out of touch, all at the same time. And that’s where they must stay for the relationship to work.
“They’re attractive, they're surrounded by good looking people and everybody fawns over them. Everyone loves them,” said Strumbourg.
“They live in a world of perfection, but they’re just like us. They have all the same problems we do - or more. But that’s the image of celebrity.”
Hand in hand with this idea is the notion that we can be connected to this otherworldly figure. It’s the idea of the “parasocial relationship” – a term that’s become a bit of a meme lately, said often by those in media and the general public. The term refers to that feeling of an intimate connection to a celebrity you have never met before.
“Once a celebrity refuses to acknowledge a fan, it breaks the persona of them being an otherworldly “good” entity,” said Strumbourg. “They’re telling fans that they’re not their friend.” And basically, that that level of success is out of reach.
While Doja is still active on Twitter, her plans of quitting still seem to stand. One of her last posts noted that she was getting the last of her content out and then was going to “dip”.
Now that the relationship between fan and celebrity is so intertwined on social media, making room to escape is almost impossible. The famous people want a break - who can blame them? It’s perhaps the clearest indication we’ve ever seen that they’re just like us.
Pre-pandemic, celebs were (mostly) willing to follow the rules, condoning the give-and-take relationship with their fans that amounted in monetary gain and worship. They were polished, branded, media trained – their social accounts controlled by second parties.
And throughout history, celebrities have broken out of the mould – Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Brittany Murphy. Plenty of people have shown cracks in their godliness, leaving themselves bare to the world of human weakness.
But it’s those who have chugged along unceasingly who have been the most successful. They’re not quite familiar, veering just close enough to reality to uphold what the celebrity is. Think the picturesque Dolly Parton, or the apparently “controlled” Anne Hathaway. If you really wanted to push the boat out, we can throw in Lady Gaga, too.
With the world still shaking in the constant shudder of the pandemic, and with fans looking to the rich and famous for a reason to believe that all is still good, the celebrity is bowing under immense pressure. And for an era in the grips of unfiltered social media connection, the distance between celebrity and fan is ever-closer. We are pushing the boundaries of what a celebrity is - and who they should be.
In the end, celebrities don't owe fans anything, but if they want to be a celebrity they have to play along with the rules.
It’s when the rules start changing that things get difficult.
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