Pop Talk: “Listen to Me Now: Social Media, Celebrity, and Popular Music (Part I),” by Jason Oakes

by justindburton on September 19, 2011

This contribution to our Pop Talk series will be presented in two parts. This, the first part, examines and theorizes social media and celebrity, while the second part addresses these topics in the context of popular music.

Dr. Oakes teaches at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

Part One summary: Celebrities dominated much of the public discourse of the 20th century with endless media coverage of their every triumph and tribulation. In the 21st century, many of the same costs and benefits of being a celebrity have bled over into the lives of the non-famous, with certain aspects of everyday life coming to resemble the rarified world of celebrities (e.g., the reconfiguration of public vs. private, the art of survival in a jackpot-oriented “gig economy”). Celebrity culture can thus be thought of as an emergent formation whose function has been not only entertainment but also enculturation. On its way to becoming a dominant formation, the era of “Celebrity 2.0” has been ushered in both by the intertwining of fame and everyday life, and by its close ties to Web 2.0 and social media.

Part Two summary: Popular music has played a central role in these cultural transformations, for it is the realm where fame has been most consistently, deliberately, and insightfully thematized. Stars and fans of popular music have often taken on the role of organic intellectuals, analyzing the “fame game” at the same time they participate in it. This is perhaps more true than ever with the rise of Web 2.0. When it comes to social media, popular music has been a focal point of most major developments and new platforms. Music has also been a key means through which these technologies have been naturalized and ultimately integrated into other aspects of our lives. In conclusion, it appears likely that popular music will continue to anticipate future developments in the rapidly evolving social and technological landscapes of the 21st century.


In January 2010 Animetrics Inc. released FaceR Celebrity, an app that uses facial-recognition technology to give smart phone users their closest celebrity match in visual terms. The company markets the product as a fun diversion that determines if you look more like “Brad Pitt or Brad Garrett? Kirsten Dunst or Kirstie Allie?” (in other words, Hot or Not). [1. Once again, “Hot or Not” is being used here to introduce the world to a transformative new technology. If one takes Mark Zuckerberg’s Facemash as the starting point for contemporary social networking, then “Hot or Not” and its application of dominant beauty standards could be viewed as the wellspring for 21st century social networking.] In an effort to discover my own patron celebrity saint I plugged in a photo and, after a short but tense wait, it was revealed that I am an unholy amalgamation of Kenny Chesney, Joaquin Phoenix, and Robin Williams. [2. My upcoming one-man show will open with abarnstorming production of “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” complete with gyrating dancers on John Deere rigs (okay, forget the one-man thing). After the intermission, I’ll impersonate an impersonator impersonating Johnny Cash, and then suddenly fly off the rails and threaten to start a rap career all while wearing rainbow suspenders.] (Switching to another photo, this one with bald head exposed, I more closely resemble Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner, and Kenneth Branagh. Go figure.)

Over 30,000 customers have downloaded the free Face R app as of August 2011. While this isn’t a huge number by app standards, it does seem to offer yet more proof of “man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions” to quote Aldous Huxley. Moving from the Brave New World implications of the technology to its more Orwellian implications, Face R Celebrity uses the same biometrics technology developed for a more exclusive client base—namely law enforcement, military authorities, and other clients with an interest in surveillance and suppressing agitators. Perhaps to counter nervousness over such technology—use of the technology was widely praised and criticized in the wake of the recent English riots [3. Such nervousness may stem from concerns over privacy, and worries over misidentification and misapplication, especially given the recent publicity this technology received during the 2011 rioting. During and immediately after the riots in London and elsewhere, face recognition technology was utilized both by both government authorities and cyber-vigilante groups.]—biometric companies are making it a point to present facial imaging as a fun, leisure-oriented, and life-enhancing activity.

The press release for FaceR quotes the Animetrics CEO describing how “we are very pleased that our customers will be able to experience the power and value of…facial biometrics technologies in such an entertaining and unique application,” along with a colleague who praises the “addictively entertaining application” as a “wonderful showcase for the Animetrics technology and platform.”[4. The full press release.] Besides FaceR Celebrity, some other biometric products designed for the public at large include Third Eye, an interactive game that identifies players as vampires or slayers depending on their “faceprint”; SceneTap, which provide real-time stats on clientele at camera-outfitted bars, including the number of patrons and their gender and age breakdown; and, coming soon, TVs outfitted with Viewdle, a seeing-eye TV Guide that identifies the watcher and “customizes programming accordingly.”[5. Keep your fingers crossed for an Impress-A-Date feature that stops Benny Hill from popping on when you enter the room.]

The common selling point of these apps seems to be the way they cross fame with the familiar, linking the allure of celebrity with social media and interactive technologies: revealing celebrity look-a-likes on the basis of personal snapshots; dropping us into the latest Twilight movie through our smart phones; transforming local bars into a “scene” with the help of hidden cyber-paparazzi; or instantly recognizing our faces in order to cater to our leisure-time whims. But is drawing a link to fame enough to sell customers on invasive new technologies, all in the name of escapist entertainment or gratuitous convenience? While it’s a truism that everyone wants to be famous these days, how many people long for the well-publicized drawbacks of celebrity: the loss of privacy, the shallowness of celebrity-bating social scenes, or typecasting based on past actions and choices?

I’m A Celebrity 2.0…Get Me A Facebook Page!

The introduction of these new technologies, and the ways they are used, have led some observers to argue that we are all celebrities now.[6. Among these factors cited for bringing this shift about are social networking sites, expanding and evolving cultures of oversharing, sophisticated data mining and imaging technology, angst over terrorism and more general social unrest, and policies responding to and stoking this angst—in other words, a perfect storm of contemporary technologies, desires, and fears.] Assuming this statement to be in any way true, it would mean a shift from merely identifying with famous people to also identifying with fame itself. But to what purpose and to what effect would this shift be taking place? Could the “culture of fame” of the 20th century have been something more than a diversion, or an instigator of false consciousness, but instead more like an early, environmental adaptation that is now spreading through the populace? Or, put in non-Darwinian terms, could it be that celebrity is transitioning from an emergent formation to a dominant formation? One could argue that something quite similar to “celebrity” is experienced by a growing number of citizens in highly mediated, monitored, and technologized societies, and that this new social formation is instrumental in preparing us for certain political, social, aesthetic, and economic transformations.

In support of this point, as a result of long-term exposure to celebrity culture, a readymade vocabulary has been created that can now be applied to more widespread phenomena.

In the 20th century it was nearly impossible to ignore the trials and triumphs of celebrities—the adulation, the paparazzi, the stalkers, the bully pulpit provided by fame, and the financial uncertainty of achieving or maintaining fame—as obsessively covered in various media. Moving into the 21st century, it’s nearly impossible to ignore how many of these same “trials and triumphs” have bled over into the lives of the non-famous. Consider, for instance, the gradual rise of the surveillance state and resulting loss of privacy for the average citizen; the power provided by social media to broadcast one’s thoughts, actions, and movements to a limitless audience; the addictive pull of self-validation from friends, strangers, and acquaintances; the dread of being ignored, or harassed, by one and the same; and, finally, the need to make it in an unstable jackpot economy with increasingly long odds at success (but ever more outsized rewards). On this latter point, the US economy—with its winner-take-all shrinkage of the middle class and drawing up of the social safety net—has increasingly come to resemble the economy of celebrities and celebrity hopefuls.

Before I address the centrality of popular music in birthing this “new regime of celebrity,” it is necessary to first consider the new regime itself. The remainder of this section will be dedicated to the task. In critical writings on the subject, the appeal of fame is usually portrayed as a desire for the exotic—a delusional aspiration for status, wealth, and self-affirmation often based on the flimsiest of pretexts. The second part of such criticism, at least in the past decade, points the finger at the growing number of Internet-bred celebrities who allegedly make fame look even more attainable and enticing. Since these Internet-created stars exist at the crossroads between traditional celebrity and the new regime of celebrity I am introducing here, they are worth examining in a bit more detail.

The new breed of Internet stars are remarkable not only for how they attained celebrity— bestowed largely through digital “word of mouth”—but also in terms of how their stardom is about celebrity itself. In many cases, their fame is a sort of meta-fame, a “fame about fame” that highlights the absurdity of celebrity and celebrity-making at the same time it creates an entirely new firmament of second-order stars.[7. This meta-fame commentary extends also to pre-existing celebrities, some of whom achieve a second-order celebrity through the circulation of filmed outtakes, gaffes, and past work they may wish to be forgotten or have actively suppressed. For example, Orson Wells is probably as famous today for his shitfaced Paul Masson TV ad outtakes and for tangling with the producers of a frozen pea commercial as he is for directing some of the great works of 20th entury cinema.] In other words, what commonly gets overlooked is how most Internet-driven celebrity is, paradoxically, highly critical of celebrity, existing somewhere on a continuum between ironic appreciation and satirical dismantling both of fame itself, and of people who try to be famous. These stars are “viral” not only in their rapidly infectious spread, but also in their dependence upon a host organism (the first-order celebrity) that inspires and plays host to their mutations.

Consider, for instance, the great number of Internet celebrities who become famous for their awkward efforts at becoming famous. Sometimes this takes the form of “acting like a famous person” in an inept fashion (Rebecca Black is the best example du jour), or by imitating, commenting on, or otherwise making allusion to other famous people (Star Wars Kid, Tron Guy, Chris Crocker) in similarly inept fashion. Thus, the attraction and/or repulsion of many Internet celebs derives precisely from their being non-celebrity material—and being memorably ridiculous in their misplaced desire—provoking a complex, often conflicted response from the public who create and comment on the new breed of stars. Most tellingly, the public’s conflicted identification with, and hostility towards, these Internet celebrities seems to barely mask similarly mixed feelings towards celebrity itself, feelings that are likely heightened by the growing “celebrification” of everyday life.

By using a word like celebrification, I do not mean to suggest that we’ll all receive our promised 15 minutes of fame. Internet celebrities and reality TV stars are just as aberant as traditional stars, and what’s more the numbers simply don’t add up that this could ever be possible.[8. A little math: while the phrase “15 minutes of fame” garners over five million hits in a Google search, a problem arises in that it would take over 8,000 years for every American to experience their designated time in the spotlight, assuming we got to inhabit it one person at a time. Assuming 15 people at a time could be famous for 15 minutes, the time required drops to a bit over 500 years.] Instead, what is much more possible is that we all be famous to 15 people (or to 150 Facebook friends, or to 1500 Twitter followers, etc.). In other words, the possibility of forming 15 or more relationships that resemble, more than anything else, the relationship between star and fan, albeit with more fluid movement between the two poles, is quite real for those of us privileged enough to have access to a computer and a social media account.[9. While something quite similar has existed for decades in the realm of local and niche music scenes, as well as underground media such as zines and underground film, these scaled-down star-fan relationships have proliferated to an exponential degree due to the ease and availability of digital media.]

How does this fame in miniature work, and what does it feel like? As the current social media platform of choice, Facebook provides the best case study. One masterstroke of Facebook’s design is in presenting friends’ observations, opinions, insights, aphorisms, pictures, songs, videos, etc. as a “news feed”—thus linking the everyday mundane with the exclusive world of fame. Individual posts unspool across the screen like do-it-yourself press releases on a ticker—which can then be arranged according to “most popular” or most timely.[10. Twitter, of course, further whittles down the bite-size press release model to even shorter teaser-like pronouncements, the headlines in the newspaper of own lives.] Items, once posted, continue to be treated like news stories, evaluated and commented upon, and in some cases forwarded to “affiliates” via a user’s own followers. The Facebook page thus resembles a scaled-down media echo chamber, enabling social networkers to take part in a familiar fame-and-mass-media-oriented dialogue based on the 24-hour news cycle.[11. The similarities between social networking and the media echo chamber is the source of some hand-wringing among social media pundits, both for the tendency to become isolated among like-minded social contacts, and the reliability of information within the hive mind.]

The centerpiece of these interactions is “the wall.” The wall is built primarily of words—both a repository of past communication and, like any wall, a means for establishing boundaries. The social media user’s profile is shaped over time as a palimpsest of inscriptions and re-inscriptions—a collage of written comments, comments on comments, tags, and pointers to other media. Over time, on an active account, an overlapping discourse is created that is only shaped into a meaningful narrative through the interpretive efforts of readers. The writing on the Facebook wall is thus akin to a “star text,”[12. In Richard Dyer’s highly influential Stars (1979), he introduced the term “star text” to describe “an intertextual construct produced across a range of media and cultural practices, capable of intervening in the working of particular films, but also demanding analysis as a text in its own right.” In other words, the star text is the sum total of cultural products involving a given star and the surrounding discourse around that star and their products—which taken together results in a fragmentary semiotic text that is filtered and further shaped by subsequent commentators and by individual fans, detractors, and other observers.] where the body of discourse created by and around an individual can be in turns reinforcing or contradictory, amenable to a multiplicity of meanings and associations.[13. film stars, Richard Dyer refers to this form of image building as “structured polysemy.”] On the receiving end, Facebook wall readers are placed in a position similar to fans and critics—with the option of demonstrating approval (most simply through the ubiquitous “thumbs up” symbol), and in piecing together a fragmentary series of written statements and other media into a coherent projected identity.

Ultimately, though, despite the celebrity-like status Facebook affords its users, neither the account holder nor his or her friends own the wall. Despite the pretense of authorial authority, the wall and all its contents are leased from the social network itself. Much like stars whose creative labors are owned by movie studios, record companies, and other media institutions,[14. The periodic flare-ups over Facebook’s alleged violation of privacy rights and exploitation of user’s profiles—for example, a facial-recognition algorithm was recently installed on all accounts to allow automated tagging, and inserted as a default setting with no notification and no instructions on how to disable the feature—resemble nothing so much as similar controversies in the music industry over intellectual rights and ownership, transparency, and the many less-than-ethical practices associated with much of the music industry.] most social networkers willingly sacrifice their intellectual rights for the benefits of access and exposure, and “sell out” to the advertisers who fund social media sites. Like the more traditional celebrity, the social media user is left with little choice in the matter. At a time when the very concept of public is under attack, provoking McCarthyite cries of “socialism” and “welfare state,” social media sites are all the more valuable for their ethos of free exchange and, paradoxically, their sense of “liveness,”[15. Besides the real-time appearance of new comments and messages, the compulsive appeal of Facebook can be traced in part simply to seeing which of your friends are signed on at any given time, as well as the “liveness” provided by the chat function, “poking”, and giving the “thumbs up” acknowledgement to a friend’s posting.] even if they are privately owned and commercially exploited. Again, paradoxically, the main selling point of commercial social network sites is their role as the 21st-century public commons.

Growing out of these paradoxes, much like the realm of traditional celebrity, social networks offer a strange mix of unbreachable distance and starling intimacy (to illustrate these jarring juxtapositions, check out the billions of personal photos on flickr or the thousands of penises on ChatRoulette). In adapting to these schizoid virtual spaces—where identities are ever more transparent and ever more opaque—stardom provides a familiar and highly applicable model. For, if anyone has experience at bridging distance and intimacy, it is the star and their fans.

Given the vast advancement of celebrity’s reach and relevance, in moving from a residual to a dominant formation, the concept itself could stand to be upgraded. While it’s beyond the reach of this short article to perform the task adequately, I would suggest the introduction of a Celebrity 2.0 reboot. At the risk of tacking “2.0” onto yet another social trend, Celebrity 2.0 as conceived here is an upgrade in the software sense of the world, a distinctly new version built on a past iteration. As with software upgrades, version 2.0 would be impossible without the previous version—while at the same time adding an entirely new layer, reconfiguring how the previous version works, re-imagining its purpose and relevance, and re-branding the previous version for a vastly expanded audience.

As a starting point, here follows a partial and provisional breakdown of the two versions: whereas Celebrity 1.0 trafficked in a largely (but not entirely) one-way flow of information and influence; Celebrity 2.0 is more interactive and participatory. Whereas Celebrity 1.0 was bestowed in large part by established cultural gatekeepers, and once bestowed, was likely to endure for some period of time; Celebrity 2.0 is more often “viral” and is more likely to wax and wane erratically. Whereas Celebrity 1.0 tended to be rewarded economically, to a greater or less extent; Celebrity 2.0 isn’t necessarily, or even usually, correlated with wealth or power. Related to the preceding point, and most crucially, Celebrity 1.0 was directly correlated with fame, whereas Celebrity 2.0 doesn’t have to be attached to fame at all. Also crucial, under Celebrity 2.0, the roles of “star” and “fan” are fluid and, at times, almost entirely interchangeable. Whereas fame does provide the core conceptual framework for Celebrity 2.0, the new version detaches the experience of celebrity from actually being famous. Instead, under Celebrity 2.0, fame serves a structuring agent for an entire cultural formation rather than a reward for the lucky or talented few. Celebrity 2.0 is thus not experienced as an escape from “normal” existence; but instead, it sets into motion the pervasive celebrification of everyday life.

Continue to Part Two

{ 1 comment }

Judy Core October 11, 2011 at 8:33 am

I can’t seem to find the like button….. 😉

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