Fandom rules are changing. Celebrities don’t know how to go about it.
Celebrities are rolling in front of us and we are watching it happen.
A week ago, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock in the face – at the Oscars – on live television. Embedded in the memory of that particular awards show, forever now: “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.”
Earlier in the year, Charlie XCX called a fan “C*NT” on Twitter. Kanye West (although Kanye is a whole different story) stuck his face on an Avenger’s body, opposite Pete Davidson (also an Avenger): “Kanye West: Civil War” was read. The air was filled with chaos. The public relations people had apparently taken a vacation. Celebrities were going wild.
And who can really blame them?
Last week, Wesley Morris wrote about the Oscars incident in the New York Timesnailing that particular moment in time.
“Now are the times of our lives,” he wrote, “Anyone could crack, even a man who was once one of Earth’s most beloved humans.”
He was right.
But the fate of tarnished stardom – constantly boiling to perform for the world – has a profound impact on the relationship they have with their fans. This spawns a flurry of takes (just like this one), speeches and unnecessary political discussions. Source: Celebrities, tired and broken from adjusting their lives to the pandemic (just like all of us) would like to take a break from their fandoms.
It reminds me of recent moments of conversations with musicians – a group of people I often walk around with in the course of my work. One thing has become irrefutably different over the past few months: the way artists react to the relationship they have with their fans.
Overwhelmingly, most speak of a general withdrawal from all of this. They are less likely to appeal to the masses. What they seek, on the contrary, is a movement towards their own interests.
Masked musician Orville Peck said last month that his new album was a form of release. “I didn’t care if anyone liked him or not,” he told me, rather resolutely, “I have to be good with myself and be careful…I have to be gentle with myself -same.”
“I see a lot of disappointment online. I don’t know if I’ll ever be the kind of person who shoots 200 days a year, because there are 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 released music, nobody was listening, right?”
“As soon as I started thinking about it, it became painful for me.”
“To be honest, I spent a lot of time worrying about what other people thought. So it was the first time I really wrote freely and didn’t care what it sounded like or what others would think.
Of course, faced with audiences desperate for something to distract from the chaos of the world, celebrities take the brunt of global fandoms the harder they try to hide. Particularly online.
Last week, revered California rapper Doja Cat found herself in the trenches of an online war: “This shit ain’t for me so I’m leaving,” she tweeted to her climax, “You’ll be careful.”
A few days earlier, Doja was scheduled to perform at the Asunciónico festival in Paraguay before severe weather warnings forced organizers to cancel. When she didn’t show a face after fans gathered outside her hotel, they expressed their displeasure on Twitter.
“Doja, about 4 years ago you started getting famous and it’s all thanks to TikTok – what happened to your queen of humility? I loved you,” one tweet read.
“I quit, I can’t wait to disappear and I don’t need you to believe in me anymore,” she replied.
Celebrities have always fallen victim to the stifling of fans’ wants and needs. After all, it is the element of their work that brings the bread. But why do fans think celebrities owe them anything?
The success of celebrity culture has long hinged on the celebrity/fan relationship, and deviating from fan expectations is game for celebrity suicide. In recent years, social media has changed the way celebrities interact, creating a more personal and familiar connection across the screen.
People like Doja Cat and Lil Nas X have mastered these platforms, especially those like Twitter and TikTok, to strengthen that connection. Their outputs are raw and their content is not filtered. They’re a new wave of celebrities – one that understands the nuance and power of these platforms.
But for decades, the entertainment industry has built a set of rules around fame, requiring it to act a certain way in order to succeed. Because this relationship is so dependent on the fans, it’s important to follow the formula.
“Consumer capitalism creates the idea that basically everyone feels like their life is going well but it could always be better. When you get a better job, it will be better. Or when you find the good partner in love, it will get better, ”said Peter Strumbourg, anthropologist and author of the book taken into play, which explains how the entertainment industry works to subconsciously shape our lives and values.
“So celebrities are people who have entered this world of perfection – this world that we are always one step away from.”
Celebrities have (for the most part) always maintained a figure of “good” – an almost mythical being who can do no wrong. They set foot both in the human realm and in a perceived otherworldly utopia. In other words: a place that is both accessible and just out of touch. And that’s where they need to stay for the relationship to work.
“They are attractive, they are surrounded by beautiful people and everyone loves them. Everyone loves them,” Strumbourg said.
“They live in a world of perfection, but they are like us. They all have the same problems as us – or more. But that’s the image of celebrity.
Along 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 has become a bit of a meme lately, often repeated by the media and the general public. The term refers to that feeling of an intimate connection with a celebrity you’ve never met before.
“Once a celebrity refuses to acknowledge a fan, it shatters the personality of a ‘good’ otherworldly entity,” Strumbourg said. “They tell the fans that they are not their friends.” And basically, that level of success is out of reach.
Although Doja is still active on Twitter, her resignation plans still seem valid. One of her last posts said she was posting the last of her content and then going “dive in”.
Now that the fan-celebrity relationship is so intertwined on social media, making room to escape is nearly impossible. Famous people want a break – who can blame them? This is perhaps the clearest indication we have ever seen that they are just like us.
Before the pandemic, celebrities were (mostly) willing to play by the rules, tolerating the give-and-take relationship with their fans that amounted to monetary gain and worship. They were polished, branded, media trained – their social accounts monitored by third parties.
And throughout history, celebrities to have out of the mold – Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jimmy Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Brittany Murphy. Many people have shown cracks in their piety, leaving themselves naked to the world of human weakness.
But it was those who kept teasing each other who did the best. They’re not quite familiar, veering just close enough to reality to confirm what stardom is all about. Think quaint Dolly Parton or the seemingly “controlled” Anne Hathaway. If you really wanted to push the boat out, we can add Lady Gaga too.
With the world still shivering in the constant thrill of the pandemic, and with fans looking to the rich and famous for a reason to believe all is still well, fame is bowing under immense pressure. And for an era struggling with an unfiltered connection on social media, the distance between celebrity and fan is ever closer. We push the boundaries of what a celebrity is – and who it should be.
Ultimately, celebrities owe nothing to fans, but if they want to be a celebrity, they have to play by the rules.
It’s when the rules start to change that things get difficult.
Follow Julie Fenwick on Twitter and Instagram.
Learn more about VICE Australia.