Our culture has a celebrity problem.
I’m not suggesting this is a new issue: an insidious expectation that famous artists can, and will, provide whatever we want of them has pushed people ranging from Greta Garbo to Thomas Pynchon to purposefully, and painstakingly, avoid the public spotlight. However, with the turn of the social media age, greater visibility has led fans to believe they can take ownership of their favourite celebrities’ lives in ways we haven’t seen before.
All-time great artist and recluse Lauryn Hill put it better than anyone else could in a 2021 Rolling Stone interview:
“The idea of artist as public property, I also always had a problem with that. I agreed to share my art, I’m not agreeing necessarily to share myself. The entitlement that people often feel, like they somehow own you, or own a piece of you, can be incredibly dangerous.”
Eminem’s “Stan” is the infamous—and very extreme—example of a fatally unhealthy parasocial relationship, but it is nevertheless exemplary. Think of how Ariana Grande’s fans reacted when the married singer was rumoured to have started dating another married man, or Taylor Swift’s when she started seeing Matty Healy. I really don’t believe it is any fan’s business to direct their favourite singer on who they should or should not go out with. Yet for Swift and Grande’s fans who wanted the stars’ relationships to end, the fragile balance sustaining their idolatry was momentarily thrown off, and they scrambled to set things right so they could recover that stabilising balance. The fans, many of them young and impressionable, were using distant, seemingly flawless celebrities as their moral centres—if Swift and Grande weren’t appearing to stand for what was right, how could they?
The issue with parasocial relationships becomes harder to interpret in Lizzo’s case, being accused of weight-shaming her dancers and creating an abusive environment. Lizzo is outspoken as a believer in body-positivity, and thus if the allegations were true, they would undoubtedly make her a hypocrite. Idolising celebrities can hardly be the right choice, as no one is perfect and we’re all hypocritical in one way or another; however, you also can’t expect fans to ignore everything that artists say for fear that they might one day turn out to not be who they seemed. Parasocial relationships clearly aren’t easy to navigate.
Although these examples come from this year, the same moral and social debates served as the backdrop for Kendrick Lamar in his 2022 album Mr Morale and the Big Steppers. The crux of this album is Lamar rejecting his celeb-saviour status, instead offering himself up as a sacrifice. He does so by laying bare the generational trauma he has borne as a result of sexual abuse and racism, and the ways in which it has made him act, making himself an example so that black Americans as a whole might be excised from the cyclically destructive consequences of abuse.
Lamar follows in the tradition of Lauryn Hill, who in that same 2021 interview opined that “the celebrity is often treated like a sacrifice”. In the past, Lamar resented this position of public responsibility, announcing himself to the scene in 2011 as “not the next socially-aware rapper”. Then, thanks to his work’s intense, considered, poetic and nevertheless commercially-viable critique of American race relations, Lamar was propelled to super-stardom—with many seeing him as the socially-aware rapper. And yet, he refused to publicly comment during the height of BLM protests in 2020, which of course drew the ire of disappointed fans and other rappers. In fact, he was more-or-less off the map for five years. In Mr Morale, he dove into why he’s been so secluded.
Lamar sees social media activism as being performative, more often than not (in case you are wondering what he was doing in June 2020, Lamar was seen at BLM protests in Compton). He poignantly snaps back at the allies to African-Americans who criticised him for not speaking up: they may protest for one day, but he has to live that protest three hundred and sixty-five days a year. What gives them the right to criticise him? Further, he reminds the listener that talent is not equal to integrity, implying that regardless of how he may be perceived, he does not feel qualified to be a guiding moral figure.
In a world where (social) media and celebrities, rather than religion, are relied on to pass moral judgements, Kendrick Lamar broke through his generational trauma by retracting from that world. Struggling with the weight upon his shoulders to be everything to everyone, Lamar embraced the spiritual teachings of Eckhart Tolle, meditating by himself and undergoing therapy in order to reconcile with God and his family.
The responses to celebrity of Lauryn Hill and Kendrick Lamar can be placed in the lineage of James Baldwin, who was one of the key social and literary voices in the Civil Rights Movement. He wrote about how he was “spat on” (and effectively treated as sub-human) by being “defined and described and limited” by the white gaze—a remarkably similar sentiment to Hill and Lamar’s accusations that the public tries to “box in”, and thereby define and limit, its celebrities.
Baldwin’s writings yearned for African-American agency and self-identification. Kendrick Lamar sacrificed himself before anyone else could, and thereby reclaimed his own agency.
Lamar and Hill’s rejections of fame aim to achieve the same goals as Baldwin did: an accession to the empowerment and embracement of the self, however, it is they wish to define it, enabled by a refusal to become public property.
Words + Image, Joe Deitch, he/him