Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Prison on a Pedestal
I read Chris Richards' concert review in the Washington Post today (Bieber Live: Less Than Believable) about last night's Justin Bieber concert at Washington DC's Verizon Center. The fans had a great night. The business side of the Bieber Empire had a great night. Apparently, The Biebs did not have a great night. Richards wrote, “The star didn’t seem to want to be there. His audience didn’t seem to want to be anywhere else.”
One photo that ran with the article showed Bieber descending onto the stage, strapped into a harness that sported 15-foot "angel wings" fashioned from cymbals, guitars, and other musical paraphernalia. This was no angel, just an 18-year-old kid who had posted a little music video on YouTube just a few short years ago, and who had been transformed into a hugely successful commercial product.
Beiber's fans have created an image in their own minds of what he must be like, incorporating a large dose of their own hopes, dreams, and needs, with a small sprinkling of what's left of the actual human that is Justin. The business end of his mammoth commercial enterprise relies on the human that is Justin to occupy this larger-than-life persona, born of the union between preteen fantasy and savvy marketing, in order to continue generating the huge amounts of money that the enterprise needs in order to perpetuate itself.
Bieber did not work his way up through smoky bars and small-town auditoriums. He is not grounded by a small following of fans who have been with him since the beginning, and who know him close-up. No, he burst into international fame overnight through the magic of social media. His far-flung fans enjoy a one-sided familiarity, the illusion of knowing this person whom they have never met. Like Sovietologists, they search out and dissect the tiniest factoids for some small insight into this mythical being. One wonders if they would turn away in disappointment if they caught an accidental glimpse of the man-boy behind the curtain.
Chris Richards immersed himself in this online world in preparation for yesterday's concert and wrote an article about it earlier this week. Says Richards, "On Twitter, Bieber’s name is tweeted roughly every second of the day, and he’s amassed more than 29 million followers. ... Tweeting at Justin Bieber is like sending a prayer to God. You hope you’ll be answered, but the real comfort comes from believing he can hear you.”
Quoting one of Bieber's Twitter fans: “Dear Justin Drew Bieber...can you notice me and follow me? I EXIST.”
Watching Bieber perform, Richards mused, "Makes ya wonder: Did Bieber even want to be onstage? Were his dreamy doe eyes actually spaced-out stares of exhaustion? His vocals — a mix of live singing and pre-recorded backing tracks — lacked a pulse and frequently sounded Bible-paper thin." The commercial persona had grown so large that it was becoming too heavy for the human being to carry.
I have no idea what this kind of dual existence must be like on this scale. Not even close. I do know, however, what it's like to be burdened with someone else's expectations of what I should be like. I know how miserable I can make myself when I try to be the person that someone else expects me to be. Someone sees some small part of me that they like, or that fits in with their agenda. They don't really know the rest of me -- my hopes, dreams, needs, and desires. Nor do they want to know.
Sometimes, it goes beyond not caring enough to find out. I once dated a young man for more than two years before I could no longer bend and distort myself to satisfy his demands that I become the ideal woman that he had created in his mind. I was just as deluded about him as he was about me. I had mistaken his ego and coerciveness for confidence and leadership. I had thought that he would continue to care about me after I became a "sure thing". Had he bothered to know me on an intimate level, however, I would have ceased to be the blank slate on which he could draw his fantasy woman. Not knowing me was central to his agenda.
More recently, my need for comfort and support in the face of an impending job loss (mine) revealed the weaknesses in my year-long relationship with a man who had made his life into a shrine memorializing a traumatic event from his teenage years -- 30 years before. Again, I was just as deluded as he was. I mistook his appearance of vulnerability and his willingness to talk about his trauma for true sensitivity and openness. When I became the vulnerable one, however, it became apparent that he had no interest in reciprocating my care and concern. The painful story that he had shared with me was well rehearsed and intended to solicit empathy from tender-hearted women. When I allowed myself to step back and observe him, I heard him recite his tale many times, almost exactly word for word, and then bask in the rescue fantasies of his carefully selected audience.
One of my discoveries about the government contracting world is the extent to which contracting companies engage in creating a shiny, enticing product with which to win over the government agents in charge of awarding the contracts. This includes recruiting and hiring highly credentialed people to back up a rosy picture of what the contract could be at its most ambitious and innovative. Once the ink is dry and reality sets in, the job usually turns out to be much less challenging and satisfying than the picture in the contract proposal. The "science communications" job turns out to be aggregating dry prose for quarterly reports and cobbling together exhibits for trade shows. If your manager knew how deeply you yearned to write informative, engaging articles about research and its context in society, he or she would be forced to acknowledge how deeply unsatisfying your actual job was. It would be that much harder to report up the chain of command that all is well, and the worker bees are happily productive. So much easier just not to know. Your boss is not your friend.
I have also experienced real friendship and real concern for others in my life. The biggest difference that I see is that the more I find out about the person, the better I like them. I don't have to agree with the person, nor do I have to share all of their interests. Getting my preconceived notions blown to bits feels like a good thing. Here are real human beings, with all their strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and personal histories, and I like them better the more I know.
I do not normally join celebrity fan groups -- I left breathless boy-band worship behind with my adolescence. However, I am following the emerging career of Andrew De Leon. Like Justin Bieber, he became famous overnight (he auditioned for America's Got Talent, and the videos are all over YouTube). He has a very active Twitter account. His fan base spans around the world.
Unlike The Biebs, he was not immediately picked up by a high-level talent scout and catapulted to platinum-record fame and fortune. He's back home now, working his way through small-venue performances and sessions in a local recording studio. His family and long-time friends are in close proximity, and he still has time for trips to WalMart and The Cheesecake Factory. He makes videos for his fans, but they are the musings (and belches and funny faces) of a very normal 20-year-old, not the lavishly produced performances of a rock superstar. I find that very reassuring. Andrew is still a human being.
Recently, he released a song, "The Devil's Knight", that he wrote himself. If you had really listened to his earlier interviews, the dark style and lyrics of the song would have come as no surprise. Andrew may have sung opera, art songs, and Ave Maria during the talent competition, but he made no secret of his admiration for Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie as well. He toned down his Goth makeup for his television appearances, but he also let it be known that he was a makeup artist for low-budget horror flicks.
Predictably, some of his fans were scandalized and let it be known that they would no longer be following him. I check in now and then on his Twitter page, and I could see it coming. The fans who had cooed and fussed over him, the ones who tweeted him as if they were sending prayers to a deity, the ones who begged him for just one little reply -- how much of their version of Andrew was really a creation of their own minds? The hyper-religious fans who left him because of the dark metaphors in his song -- well, really, what did they expect? One especially astute line from his song states, "Perfection to the blind, true devil lies inside. No lies when I tell you that my soul is in the night."
Unlike The Biebs, Andrew did not don the angel wings and dutifully shoulder his public persona for the fantasy-fulfillment of his fans. Part of the reason that he did not go further in the talent competitions is that he refused to be the clean, neatly packaged product that fills up the seats in the Las Vegas theaters. Andrew's reaction to the loss of his disillusioned fans? "Apparently I have lost my 'Christian' fans due to The Devil's Knight. How many f***s given? Zero. I still have you guys <3." (That's a sideways heart at the end, in case you didn't know.) Mr. De Leon isn't much of a diplomat. I find that very encouraging.
Update: On November 17, Andrew De Leon tweeted me: "I came across your article about me. I wish more people could be as understanding as you. <3"