The 11 year old fangirl who will be calling herself “Camille” in another decade or so has done her typical slapdash job on math homework while spinning More of the Monkees with a Tiffany chaser. She followed that up by devouring the latest Lurlene McDaniel feel good novel about childhood terminal illness with the speed and reflective nuance of your average wood chipper. Another day of 5th grade nerdiness and social isolation awaits her, and her Dad’s overdue for a seizure to boot. Before turning out the lights, the girl stands on her bed to reach the 36×24 orange poster that looms over the room, surrounded by other pinups and photos. Under her lips as she kisses four times, the poster feels both slippery from the coating and a little sticky from the dozens of good night kisses before that one. She turns out the light and as she drifts off, she once again wonders why, exactly, life is worth living. She mopes for a few minutes, and then she remembers. Whether on TV, in the songs they sang, or in what little she knows of their real lives, the guys on her wall never gave up, even when they screwed up or the whole world was against them. And somehow things had gotten much better for each of them. If they didn’t quit, then she couldn’t quit either. Holding on to that truth (or at least what she believes is the truth), she drifts off to sleep.
In that way, 24 hours at a time until the moment a year or so later when I abruptly outgrew both that dark space and (for almost 10 years) those 4 guys, I always decided not to quit. And somehow things got much better for me too. But here’s you’re a question to bake your noodle (if I didn’t still ponder it at times, would I be writing a pop culture blog?)—was it, as I believed at the time, really the Monkees (or any of my other early celebrity loves) who saved me from my depression, or was I motivated by four half-real (if even that) symbolic constructions that lived rent-free in my head? If the latter, didn’t I really just save myself?
So right after I enforced a Fandom Hiatus on myself in the wake of the overwhelming reaction to my previous post, I checked in with one of my favorite analysts of current affairs that actually matter in the grand scheme of things, Andrew Sullivan. While skimming the archives, I bumped into this fascinating discussion of a nursing home in Japan that is using therapeutic robotic pets as companions for their residents, and the emotional connections that those elderly men and women appear to be forging with machines. The whole article Andrew linked to is worth reading, but I sort of got stuck on this passage (which proceeded to spark the rest of this post):
Do you find the idea of getting a robot companion when you check into Shady Acres a little unsettling? It shouldn’t, because the choice isn’t between Bernice in room 248 having a robot stuffed animal, and Bernice’s children and grandchildren visiting every day. It’s between the robot and nothing, or if not nothing, at least a rather limited and probably emotionally unsatisfying degree of connection with other people.
Now really, if we’re honest, how different is a holding pen like a nursing home from a holding pen like middle school? You go home from school at 3:00, but the nursing home hopefully has a better cafeteria, so it probably evens out. Between the age of about 9 and 13, I had no (as in zero) friends my age, or at least couldn’t bring myself to trust anyone enough to consider them a true friend. So…I subconsciously improvised with my own self-constructed versions of robotic stuffed animals, built out of the bits and pieces of pop culture that could make me giggle when I really wanted to scream. Accomplished adult though I may be, I still turn to some of those artificial constructions in times of trouble. (see also: 95% of my online activity between May 2012 and early 2013)
I spend a fair amount of time on Tumblr when real life permits—perhaps more than is healthy for my sanity and/or IQ. Even at its most idiotic (and we all know the Tumblr zeitgeist can get mighty idiotic), it’s a fascinating real-time stream of symbolic interactionism, as you watch adolescent girls make sense of their lives and struggles through the metaphorical frameworks of Hunger Games or One Direction. However, whatever our age or gender, We ALL use celebrities and fictional characters to view and make sense of our lives—That reflex is probably inevitable given they’re part of the cultural stew of signs, symbols, and metaphors in which we all swim.
That sort of narrative sensemaking is also, according to a long-ago undergrad mythology course, something we’ve done since we started telling stories to each other. Ancient Greeks might not have walked around wearing mass-produced LiveStrong wristbands from the Heracles Foundation, but you can bet they asked themselves some version of “What would Perseus do?” when stumped with a challenging situation. The symbols may change, but the impulse is identical. A common, recurring meme in fan culture (particularly Tumblr) that I find fascinating right now is:
“*insert celebrity name* wouldn’t want me to engage in *insert self-destructive activity*.”
Whatever the negative behavior, a kid has somehow found a way to short-circuit it by invoking their favorite celebrity as a role model to whose standards they want to live up. And you know, really it doesn’t matter whether or not Justin Bieber cares about the bulimia struggles of a 13 year old girl from Albuquerque. She believes it, and if it keeps her from throwing up lunch, my pragmatic nature (and Pragmatic worldview) leads me to believe that’s all for the good. Of course, I’m speaking as a person who is very grateful that her ten-year-old self followed that similar bit of optimistic “logic” described above.
The problem, of course, is that those constructed personas, built through a combination of the Celebrity-Industrial Complex and our own imaginations as fans, are eternally linked to the real human beings who “perform” their celebrity personas (not to mention whatever fictional roles those people might be portraying on top of their public Personas). That’s a lot of levels of identity to get mixed up, even before we get to the outright misrepresentations in the media that Nez mentioned yesterday in his FREAKING INCREDIBLE ROLLING STONE INTERVIEW (which. by the way, I read AFTER writing 99% of this post). To complicate ontological matters further, said human beings will inevitably behave in ways that contradict what their fans believe about the celebrity’s constructed public self/selves. And of course, most fans have a much close knowledge of and connection to the Persona than the Person, to the point that they confuse the latter with the former.
Because of this inevitable disconnect between the constructed Celebrity persona and the person themselves, the knives come out whenever a celebrity behaves “badly”, whether in matters large (Lance Armstrong’s doping, or Kevin “Elmo” Clash’s alleged sexual misconduct), Medium (Paula Deen’s nostalgia for a plantation-style wedding staffed by “cute little N—s” in the distant and far less racially enlightened year of 2007), and small (Justin Bieber’s note in the Anne Frank house guestbook, or Michael Nesmith’s “Jimmy Fallon is gonna sing Daydream Believer on the 2012 Monkees Tour!” practical “joke”). While I prefer this sort of Rage Reaction to many fans’ instincts to hide from reality regarding their heroes (see also: the hordes signing up for a Paula Deen cruise as some sort of protest move), I still think the Paula Deen Implosion and many other ritualized public floggings are often over the top, make fans and fan culture look idiotic, and that they sometimes spring from a basic misunderstanding of the difference between the wo/man and the mask.
(Disclaimer time: I am not demeaning the very serious and real nature of all but one of these misdeeds, particularly Armstrong’s and the allegations facing Clash. They should be investigated to the fullest extent of the law. It also sounds like the Paula Deen empire was a mighty hostile work environment, whether or not she was a premeditated Racist or simply dumber than anyone who’s been in the limelight for 11 years has a right to be. But really—however stupid “Monkee Mike’s” joke was—and even seldom-apologetic Nez ultimately admitted it was MIGHTY idiotic–that pre-tour meltdown by many Monkees fans was self-indulgent, unwarranted, and made me embarrassed for my Once and Future Fandom.)
Those over the top Shaming Rituals also highlight another trait of our interactions with famous people. As fans, we seem to expect a lot from our celebrities in return for what they give to us, even though in reality they don’t have much more “authentic” connection to us than those robotic seals have with the nursing home residents. That impulse is why it’s so hard not to be disillusioned when our role models either act or are accused of acting in ways that go against our images of them. However, I learned something a couple of years ago that might provide a route out of this dichotomy.
In August of 2011, I started one of my favorite PhD classes, Organizational Theory. Davy would still be alive for about another 6 months. Anissa, who was busy with grad school herself, would be with us for almost another year, but I doubt either of them had really crossed my mind since Anissa and I (I think?) shared a Passing Derisive Snort on Facebook when the 2011 tour fell apart. However long it had been since I really thought of either of them, I can guarantee you that Monkeedom was pretty much the last thing on my mind that night. That said, I learned something in my first evening of class that actually inspired the name of this blog, and informed the whole way I moved through and made sense of The Year of our WTF.
After discussing the concept of theoretical lenses and how different ones might be more or less useful for making sense of particular situations we might encounter as administrators, our professor led us in an exercise that helped bring this concept home. She divided the class into thirds, instructed some of us to sit or stand on top of the desks, some to lie on the ground, and the rest to stay seated. After 60 seconds of looking around the room, we took our seats and wrote brief descriptions of what we had seen. (the clock, a mark on one of the ceiling tiles, a chair leg, whatever) As you can imagine, each of the groups described a very different view. Now, I’ve read plenty of cultural theory in my day. On a more pedestrian level, I’ve long been a fan of the “two sides to every story” argument, and even instinctively knew that “the truth” can often appear very different depending on how you look at it. However, for some reason that concrete exercise helped me understand that one doesn’t need to latch on to one way of viewing the world at the time, but rather can use an ever-evolving set of “lenses” through which to view the world, knowing that different things will “light up” depending on the lens you’re using. Using a framework to view the world is not an either/or proposition, but rather a both/and, utilizing the framework(s) that make sense for making sense out of a given phenomenon.
Hence, the name “Fandom Lenses”. I’m sure you always wondered. 🙂
Why that seeming digression? Because in my opinion, cultivating the ability and insight to view a celebrity as their cultural personality and/or as an inevitably flawed and mundane human being depending on the circumstance can provide a fan with an escape route from a lot of the nonsense at play. I consciously used this approach last week as I struggled to make sense of Eric Lefcowitz’s revisions to Monkee Business, and while I doubt I arrived at “The Answer” regarding his allegations, I did come to a logical conclusion that gave me (and others, from what I hear) some peace about Davy Jones the human being and “Davy Jones” the persona. To use a more well-known recent example, In my opinion, Paula Deen’s mildly racist comments certainly aren’t bad enough to qualify her as a member of the KKK (faint praise indeed) or possibly not even the extent of public excoriation she’s endured (though she absolutely deserved some of it). However, I also think that her ignorant actions from the 1980s up through last year’s (when she publicly lamented that the emancipation proclamation drove her “good slave owner” great-great-grandfather to suicide) have likely destroyed the “Paula Deen” persona’s already-waning power as a brand for selling cookware, Butter, ad space, and anti-diabetes drugs—at least until the celebrity-industrial complex rehabilitates her a la Robert Irvine.
All that said about our responsibility to consider these issues critically, where do a celebrity’s responsibilities as an artist and/or public figure start and end? My go-to knee-jerk response in most cases (because many average fans appear to be entitled beyond all sense of reason) is that stars don’t owe us squat beyond providing us the intellectual property that we pay for at the highest quality they are capable of. But then again, we often pay quite a premium for given intellectual property because it’s from a given person, and not (just) because of their perceived aesthetic talents. For instance, I love Mumford and Sons, rank their work highly from an aesthetic point of view, and would love to see them live. On a similar note, I catch almost every Weird Al tour that visits Tulsa because I’ve been a fan of his even longer than I’ve been a Monkees fan and he puts on the second most entertaining show I’ve ever seen live. I would NOT however fly my airplane-loathing butt halfway across the US to see either of those acts. Twice. The second time while still getting over some horrible Plague I caught on my flight back home from Manchester after my vacation/conference paper.*
So if I rank Nez, Mumford and Sons, The Monkees and Weird Al as rough equals from an aesthetic standpoint (radically different acts though they may be), why did I react so viscerally to the prospect of seeing Nez play live? Obvious issues of scarcity aside, I flew halfway across the county (twice) in part because of the high-quality music, partly in honor of that kid who kissed that poster good night, but mostly because of the woman I became and the friends I acquired through the process of interacting with four jointly constructed symbols who have evolved dramatically in complexity and nuance over the last 26-ish years.
In other words, the persona (as I understood/constructed it) informs how I react to the person, to the point that I’ll probably never separate them fully even if I ever met the “real” Nez, Alton Brown, Gene Wilder, Peter Tork, Mayim Bialik, or any others of the dozen or so celebrities whose humor, intelligence, and/or creativity I resonate deeply with. Even though I will never “truly” know these people, and occasionally am confused by or disagree with some of their actions or beliefs, I will think of them all fondly, and inevitably through slightly rose-tinted glasses, because of the meaning I was able to make of myself and the world by viewing it through the lens(es) of their public personas.
To bring it back to you all, I’ll wrap with two questions. What have you learned about yourself and/or the world by being a fan? Also, how has fandom made you a better person? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, or on my facebook or tumblr pages. More next time, which might not be until the review of the Tulsa Monkees concert.
* Insert lame, smartass, (and based on yesterday’s Nez comments quite possibly inaccurate) “Davy Jones’ revenge from beyond the grave” joke here. Never would have thought I’d be so glad to have NOT gotten a Conversation reception pass to meet one of the seminal artistic and intellectual influences of my life. Forget getting a whiff of his cologne (my nose was still closed for refurbishment anyway), I’d have been terrified of breathing on him.