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

by justindburton on September 20, 2011

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

Popular Music Prophesy and the Fame Monster

“Music is prophesy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible. It is not only the image of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future. For that reason musicians, even when officially recognized, are dangerous, disturbing and subversive; for this reason it is impossible to separate their history from that of repression and surveillance.”

–Jaques Attali

“I operate from a place of delusion—that’s what [debut album] The Fame is all about. I used to walk down the street like I was a fucking star. I want people to walk around delusional about how great they can be and then to fight so hard for it every day that the lie becomes the truth.”

-Lady Gaga in Rolling Stone (issue 1080; 11 June 2009)

For the past century, anyone with access to mass media of any kind has been relentlessly exposed to fame and its workings. Indeed, every facet of fame—from its benefits to its discontents—has been endlessly scrutinized in an ever-expanding array of magazines, books, films, entertainment news shows, celebrity gossip websites, tell-all interviews and biographies, social media outlets, and satirical weeklies. Despite this pervasiveness, however, I would argue that popular music holds a special position as the realm where fame is most consistently, deliberately, and insightfully thematized (and universalized, as advocated by Lady Gaga above). Stars and fans of popular music thus may take on the role of organic intellectuals, analyzing the “fame game” at the same time they participate in it.

One of the very few things that unites popular music—a term applied to a kaleidoscopic range of musical styles and cultures—is the fundamental importance of the star-fan relationship. No matter how popular any given popular music is in reality, a key marker of music labeled as “popular” is how the star-fan relationship, and the concept of fame in general, is essential to the music’s creation, dissemination, and consumption at almost every level. And while fame has been key to the development of almost every art form in the 20th and 21st century, there is something to the fact that popular music is inherently defined by its intended popularity and/or populism (in fact, the grand majority of “popular music” is not very popular) whereas no such qualifying preface is routinely applied to other mass cultural forms.[1. For instance, despite the astronomical budgets required for most movies, and the much higher batting average they have in terms of mass popularity, they are not typically described as “popular movies.” Likewise, university film departments do not cordon off professors and classes under the umbrella of “popular film,” in contrast to “art film” or other type of cinema. In visual art, while there is a school of art commonly known as “pop art”, it is a much smaller niche than popular music, and one that is marked as much by its avant-garde tendencies, and its high art pretensions, as by its overtures to wide-reaching popularity or widely-relevant populism.] Thus, popular music is at the very heart of Celebrity 2.0, perhaps the key domain where the celebrification of daily life has been rehearsed and made familiar.

From groupies to fan subcultures, remixes to mashups, DJing to karaoke-ing, and Rock Band to Garageband, the field of popular music has long been rooted in the celebrification not only of its stars but also its fans. By turning consumers into creative producers in an ever-expanding number of ways, the boundaries between “star” and “fan” are routinely blurred in popular music. When it comes to popular music, being a fan can require as much artistry as what’s expected of the artists themselves; this expectation of “productive consumption” doesn’t seem to be present to nearly the same extreme in other arts and media. On the other end of the spectrum, popular music stars routinely take on the position of “fan” by citing, or sampling, musical influences; aligning with a particular genre or subculture; and asserting their “authenticity” by reassuring fans that they’re just like them.

Given the central role that popular music seems to play in Celebrity 2.0, it makes sense that popular music has also been at the center of social media and its development. Again and again, the evolution of Web 2.0 has been practically synonymous with the evolution of popular music in the Internet Age. First, Napster familiarized the world with file sharing and social networking, using popular music as its driving force. As the tipping point for interactive Web 2.0 technology, the music-sharing application encouraged millions of users to share the contents of their hard drives, leading directly to the birth of mass social networking. At its 2001 pre-lawsuit peak, 25 million Napster users shared 80 million songs. These songs provided a map not only to users’ musical preferences, but also, given the deeply felt impact of music for many listeners, a somewhat detailed map of their memories and identities as well.

With the rise of music sharing tools like Napster and its P2P-based progeny, a huge number of users became adept for the first time at amassing, enumerating, filtering, and sharing massive volumes of music. In the process, the collector’s mindset was taken mainstream. This mindset, already a core element of popular music subcultures, crossed over to a new level of dominance through online music trading, all of this years before the collector mindset was routinely applied to other media and, eventually, to human beings and social relationships. In other words, the shared playlists and the musical archive anticipated the shared lists of contacts, friends, and preferences that are a key element of the social media universe. The idea of looking up old favorite songs online and building an atemporal collection likewise anticipated the ability to look up old friends and add them to our current array of Internet contacts. In this way, music served as a sort of “prophesy” revealing emerging forms of socialization. Without the trial period provided by online music sharing, nascent social networkers might have found it too strange and potentially alienating to transfer much of their personal lives onto the computer—past and present—and upload its contents to the Internet.

Moving on to the next social media phenomenon, MySpace, at its peak in 2006 played host to 100 million regular users (one in four Americans were said to be on the network). While not dedicated primarily to music, music was a key ingredient for turning MySpace into the dominant Web 2.0 application of its time. Not only were a sizable percentage of pages either band pages or fan pages, but even non-music pages were typically festooned with favorite songs or user-generated playlists. Also, thanks to the Myspace media player, you didn’t even have to download the digital music files to your computer; music could be streamed directly from the Internet, and paired with text and visuals. The MySpace model  transformed the music business in the mid-2000s, serving as an equalizer of sort since amateurs and unsigned bands could set up pages just as easily as major acts, even if their “plays” were vastly lower.

The gradual transition from physical media to virtual media has been a key component in Celebrity 2.0: making celebrity more interactive, creating the notion of “viral” celebrity, and opening up celebrity-style modes of discourse to all. Again, music led the way in terms of getting millions of people to adapt to the non-physical realm. For instance, the replacement of records, tapes, and CDs by digital media was soon applied to other media such as films, television, and literature. Likewise, the swift disappearance of most record stores presaged the movement away from physical sites of commerce in other industries, as well as the rise of the online bazaar-style economy, and, when it comes to social media, the movement of the public sphere into the virtual realm.

And finally, YouTube. As the second most visited website in the world behind Facebook, YouTube would not be the dominant force it is today if not for music. Despite its TV-inspired visual bent, recent data indicates that music videos are the single biggest draw on the video-sharing network. Like MySpace before it, YouTube meets many users’ needs as a celestial jukebox, with the added benefit of being more comprehensive and integrating video. Also, YouTube has been the single-biggest driver of the Internet celebrity phenomenon, and thus a key aspect of Celebrity 2.0 in general. As often as not, the fame of these Internet celebrities is rooted in music—whether bestowed upon actual musicians (Tay Zonday and “Chocolate Rain”), or DIY music commentators (Chris Crocker’s “Leave Britney Alone”), or meme-based celebs whose fame derives from a well-chosen soundtrack (Dramatic Chipmunk, the Numa Numa guy, Ricrolling,[2. Rick Astley, of course, was already a star before Ricrolling came around. But he has taken on an entirely new level of fame, and a new breed of fame, due to his new Internet meme status.] etc.).

But why music? Why should music, and popular music in particular, play this foundational role in the development of social media and Celebrity 2.0? To begin with, music has long been noted for straddling both personal affective investment, and sociability in a particular cultural setting—in other words, acting as a key expressive form through which people’s private and public selves are integrated. And since new social media and new regimes of celebrity are very much about the reorientation of public vs. private selves, it follows that popular music would be in the middle of the mix. Furthermore, the mobility and malleability of music makes it ideal for integration in social media, and ideal for a Celebrity 2.0 culture that demands “productive consumption” in terms long made familiar through popular music (remixes, playlists, etc.). New musical technologies, associated primarily with popular music, only increase this mobility and malleability (for instance, without the miniaturized, easy-to-trade and easy-to-manipulate MP3 format, there would be no online music trading, no mashups, and so on). Furthermore, each new technological popular music innovation pushes the contradictory extremes of Celebrity 2.0 culture further—further isolating musicians and listeners, at least in physical space, while providing new avenues for intimacy—in a way that foreshadows more general cultural shifts.

Given this link, it isn’t too surprising that fame and celebrity have been constantly thematized not only in popular music cultures, but also in the music itself and in popular music lyrics. Tracing US popular music back to its most oft-acknowledged starting point, the dual celebration/critique of fame was a key element in the popularity of blackface minstrelsy as far back as the 19th century. Although minstrelsy was dependent on both idealized and burlesqued images of rural Southern blacks, the perceived authenticity of blackface was routinely juxtaposed with the blackface characters’ desire for adulation, renown, and influence. Stock characters who straddled this line include the interlocutor, the self-important emcee and interviewer in the first act; the stump speaker in the middle Olio section who took on the parodic role of a celebrated “expert” on some subject, revealing himself as a pompous and incompetent fraud; and the boasting backwoods Jim Crows and hipster, trickster Zip Coons who rounded out the minstrelsy menagerie. Thus, both the humor and sentimentality of the minstrel show was based in no small part on the dissonance between rural, regional, and racial “authenticity” on one hand, and emergent notions of fame and celebrity on the other hand.

Although African-Americans were the primary targets of the minstrel’s shows stereotyping humor, aristocratic figures and Europeans were likewise lampooned for their excessive self-regard and celebrity-like carriage. Minstrelsy scholar William J. Mahar notes that “blackface adaptations of operas, operatic scenes, and other stage works were an important part of the minstrel repertory…[especially] contemporary English theater pieces.” Again, these parodies depended on juxtaposition—crossing the fame and renown of works of high art, and artists, with the brashness and disrepute of “low” vernacular American culture—in the process, contrasting two very different systems of cultural capital and criteria for bestowing fame. Mahar goes on to note that Thomas D. “Daddy” Rice, composer of the song “Jim Crow” and acknowledged Father of Minstrelsy, created just such a high/low parodic piece that became his most popular work: Bone Squash (1835). In this comic melodrama the titular character is a chimney sweep who overcomes his low standing by selling his soul to become a moneyed and respected gentleman. Mahara concludes that “the piece is important because [it] relates directly to a common theme in American popular culture, namely, the desire for instant wealth and peer-group respect, the same theme found in Dan Emmett’s Hard Times (1855).” In other words, this key work of minstrelsy, and thus, key work in the birth of modern American popular culture, was focused on the emergence of a distinctly American approach to fame and celebrity.[3. central role of race in these depictions is something that beckons for further research.]

It hardly seems coincidental, then, that the famous origin myth for the “King of the Delta Blues” also involves a Faustian bargain made for fame. In an Americanized take of the Papa Legba myth, the story goes that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil himself at the crossroads in order to be granted skill, success, and fame (the story is central not only to blues and rock lore, but also to the considerable body of scholarly discourse analyzing or dismantling the myth). In making this deal, Johnson was granted access to the secular, capitalist equivalent of the West African spirit world, inhabited by both benign and malevolent gods. Notably, in these West African and West African-derived religions, the proper musical setting is required in order to to cross over from the physical to the spiritual realm. Likewise, popular music serves a similar role in contemporary secular society, providing a space where the rarified, idealized world of fame directly crosses paths with the more commonplace existences of fans and aspiring musicians.

Given that the blues is the wellspring of much of what followed in American popular music, one could argue that the entire history of 20th century popular music is firmly situated in this metanarrative of fame. Indeed, from the Irving Berlin Broadway standard “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” the Beatles’ “Drive My Car,” Glen Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Prince’s Purple Rain, Nirvana’s In Utero, Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP, Lady Gaga’s The Fame and The Fame Monster, Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne, and innumerable other songs and albums, popular music songwriters have provided a century-long master class on the perks, the perils, and the paradoxes of fame. And the fascination only seems to be growing, given that celebrity is perhaps the most consistent lyrical theme of the biggest recording artists of the 2000s (Eminem) and the biggest artist so far of this decade (Lady Gaga). What’s more, stardom is probably the single most popular subject for narrative-driven concept albums (see the examples cited above); the first song played on MTV was a satirical comment on the popular music fame in the age of video (the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”); and, finally, film and TV biographies of musicians (e.g., VH-1’s Behind the Music) almost always place the rise-and-fall fame narrative at their very center, tracing the narcotic rush and crash of achieving celebrity.

Moving beyond the lyrics of individual songs or the themes of concept albums, musicals, and bio pics; the discourse around almost every genre of popular music takes on the star-making process as a major source of interest. From the chorus girls and understudies trying to make it on Broadway, to slicked up Nudie suit-wearing celebrity cowboys, to glam rockers who pay tribute to and parody rock stardom, to rap star fixations on playas and playa haters, fame and celebrity are central to the mythology and the self-understanding of practically every music culture of the 20th century.

While it’s easy to see why many music stars would “write what they know,” what is more difficult to comprehend is why these fame-based songs and surrounding discourses would appeal to audiences in the way they apparently do. Hopefully, the preceding pages, I have helped to provide an explanation for why “celebrity” would resonate with a broad audience who are gradually adapted to Celebrity 2.0 culture. Moving slightly beyond this explanation, it’s also the case that songs about fame usually deal secondarily with a set number of topics—isolation, exploitation, and alienation on one hand; and transcendence, desire, and desirability on the other—that are widely applicable outside the rarified world of the famous. Thus, as presented in many songs, celebrity is something more than only a construction of the culture industry. Instead, it’s presented as a totalizing way of life—an empowering, dizzying, and sometimes horrifying lifestyle conveyed in lyrics and, just as importantly, expressed in musical sound. In this sense, then, “celebrity” often seems to act as a sort of metaphor for modernity more generally (within which, the rise of new regimes of celebrity might be considered a constituent part).

Utilizing 20th century recording technologies—from the microphone and gramophone early in the century, up to the latest tricks of the modern recording studio—popular musicians are able to oscillate wildly between overpowering and awe-inspiring sounds, and on the other hand attunated and highly-nuanced sounds. These extremes, impossible to convey in a live setting, represent the secular sublime of the pop star. And while the dual existence of overwhelming magnitude and almost-impossible closeness could be read as a sonic signifier for many different phenomena, it is notable that these extremes of alienation and intimacy are often joined to lyrics describing the juggernaut of fame, and, even more so, joined to star texts that are rooted in the experience of fame itself.

Finally, placing celebrity at the center of the popular music historical narrative may seem paradoxical, given the value ascribed to “authenticity” in much popular music.[4. As Hugh Barker and Yval Taylor note in their genre-spanning history of authenticity in popular music: “Whether it be the folklorist’s search for forgotten bluesman, the rock critic’s elevation of raw power over sophistication, or the importance of bullet wounds to the careers of hip-hop artists, the aesthetic of the ‘authentic musical experience’…has played a major role in forming musical tastes and canons, with wide-ranging consequences.” Barker and Taylor break popular music authenticity into three component parts, three types of authenticity that are often directly at odds: representational authenticity (is what you are hearing on record what the musicians actually played, or are capable of playing?), cultural authenticity (does the music grow out of and reflect a “real” cultural group?), and personal authenticity (does the music speak to and about the performer’s life and identity?). Fame often leads to cries of “Sellout!” where a desire for fame is purported to lead musicians to use studio trickery and misleading marketing, link themselves to cultural “roots” that may not be theirs or may be wholly fabricated, and/or mislead listeners as to circumstances of their own life. But on the other hand, seeking fame and/or singing about fame may be at the same time “authentic” in the three respects described above—in terms of  being forthright and representing one’s own ambitions honestly, in terms of realistically reflecting the public’s fascination with fame and the increased celebrification of every day life, and in terms of honestly describing, once fame has been achieved, the circumstances and emotional impact of being as a music star. Again, then, celebrity status is marked by contradictory criteria and practices.] But why is authenticity such a major concern to popular musicians and their audiences? In a word: fame. For without fame, there could be no accusation of “selling out.” So while it’s fame that makes it possible for popular music to speak to a broad audience, fame is at the same time what makes “authentic” music valuable and exploitable to outside interests. And while fame helps popular musicians connect with a like-minded audience, it is also viewed as the factor that leads musicians away from their populist “roots.”

In the 20th century and even more so in the 21st century, the double-edged sword of celebrity, as popularly perceived, has direct relevance not only to the lives of the famous but also to those who are not famous. As outlined in the previous section, social media, in tandem with other 21st century technologies and trends, operate along the same line of “one hand giveth and one hand taketh away” in binding together free expression with pervasive surveillance; emotional intimacy with physical remoteness; and economic opportunity with vast inequalities. The dissonance produced in this Celebrity 2.0 culture can lead many subjects to question their own social realities and sense of personal authenticity. Given how popular music has anticipated many of these changes, and will likely continue to anticipate future changes, it is important not only to look at the celebrity-inspired culture all around us, but to listen to it as well.

Jason Lee Oakes received his Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Columbia University in 2005. He has taught classes at Columbia, John Jay College, Marymount Manhattan College, and, since 2008, the Cooper Union. His work on musical reenactments, tributes, impersonators, and karaoke has been published in several academic anthologies and journals.

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