Fame

Bowie and Branding

“I am very anti-consistency,” David Bowie says in an interview clip in the middle of this obituary.

It is a good thing no one told Bowie back in the 1970s that he needed to “find his platform” and “build a brand.” Or, if they did, it is good that he didn’t listen.

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Shooting for Significance

I have been busy this week, and therefore I did not have time to watch the latest mass shooting unfold as a media event on my screen. I find that I am unable to summon any genuine emotion about it besides vague anger and frustration. Tim Kreider did a good job articulating this anger in The Week. His article was written in May 2014, but I had to read for a while to realize that because these events blend into one another and the same articles tend to work for any of them.

It seems that the perpetrator of the latest mass shooting was seeking fame. “This is the only time I’ll ever be in the news I’m so insignificant,” he allegedly wrote.

As I noted here in 2014, Ethan Watters, In his book Crazy Like Us, describes the work of the Canadian scholar Edward Shorter.  “Shorter believes that psychosomatic illnesses (such as leg paralysis at the turn of the twentieth century or multiple personality disorder at the turn of the twenty-first) are examples of the unconscious mind attempting to speak in a language of emotional distress that will be understood in its time. People at a given moment in history in need of expressing their psychological suffering have a limited number of symptoms to choose from— a ‘symptom pool,’ as he calls it. When someone unconsciously latches onto a behavior in the symptom pool, he or she is doing so for a very specific reason: the person is taking troubling emotions and internal conflicts that are often indistinct or frustratingly beyond expression and distilling them into a symptom or behavior that is a culturally recognized signal of suffering.”

Mass shootings are now part of the American “symptom pool.”  Of course there have always been isolated cases of people going mad and acting out in extreme violence. The difference is that now, we have a well-established blueprint for how young men full of pain and impotent rage can express their psychological suffering. Unlike leg paralysis or anorexia, it is destructive to innocent strangers.

Saying that killers want to be featured on the news is not really enough. A deeper question is why they want to be on the news. Assuming that the shooter did write the social media post attributed to him, it is interesting how being in the news is equated with being significant. Being known means that you matter.

David M. Friedman credits Oscar Wilde with ushering in our modern celebrity culture, which he describes in Wilde in America: “It is a worldview where fame isn’t the end product of a career but the beginning of one. It is the part of modern life we call celebrity culture.”

Fame isn’t the end product, it is the beginning.

We are not, for the most part, a nation that manufactures things. We are a nation that sells things. We are not a nation of companies that train and raise up talent, we expect workers to have “portable skills” and to market themselves. Becoming known is a survival skill– a first step in a career not the result of achievement. From there it is but a small step to believing that only people who are known to many people are significant. It doesn’t matter how one becomes famous. It matters that one is famous. The most reviled reality TV star can probably launch a perfume line and have a career, or so it seems.

This is the part of the article where a writer is expected to close with a call to action– here is what to do about it. I don’t have one. None of the ingredients in the mass shooting soup are going to change easily. Gun culture and politics don’t seem to be on the verge of any sort of change. The TV news networks will continue to answer our curiosity about perpetrators of violence and in the process will unintentionally be giving the next mass shooter a blueprint for action. People will continue to suffer from mental illness, and it will always be hard to act before the event. Our cultural assumptions about the value of known-ness and of masculinity and power will not change overnight. But we can’t be entirely powerless to stop this, can we?

The Attention Based Economy

We live in an attention based economy.

This realization struck me a couple of weeks ago when I was speaking to a sponsorship agent. I was trying to line up a sponsor for our coast-to-coast ballet master class tours. As we talked about “markets” and “reach” I thought about all of the television commercials and the stadiums and theaters with brand names on them and I began to imagine an Uber for attention. Instead of paying networks or stadiums to carry messages that consumers might or might not see why not monetize attention directly– create an ap where a company can pay individuals directly for a bit of their undivided attention? Cut out the middle man.

Increasingly artists of all kinds are told they need to work for free in order to gain “exposure.” The Huffington Post pays writers in exposure. American Idol pays its entertainers, with the exception of the winner, with “exposure.” I think it is about time we develop actual units of “exposure” so that artists can pay their landlords with it. Maybe we could call it “FameCoin.”

Young people, especially seem to feel that this free artistic labor is worth it because exposure is so valuable. But is it really? Professor Barrie Gunter of the University of Leicester studied the question and found “The idea that being on a television talent contest is a guaranteed route to fame and fortune is not supported. While this can happen, it applies to only a minority of contestants.” Gunter points out that few winners of The Apprentice lasted beyond the first year of employment with Donald Trump and few went on to develop their own businesses.

The fashion competition program Project Runway has run for 14 seasons without launching a breakout star.  As Robin Givhan wrote in The Washington Post:

“Project Runway” returns…with yet another Emmy nomination for best reality television show, respectable ratings and a modest list of upcoming celebrity guest judges. What it does not have are bragging rights to a dazzling designer success story. There is no true-life example of the wondrous fairy tale that has been at the heart of the show’s premise since its premiere in 2004…

“Project Runway” hasn’t told a story of triumph as much as it has, over time, offered a nuanced tale about what success means in today’s fashion industry, why it is so difficult and why it mostly has nothing to do with having one’s name up in lights — or on the New York Stock Exchange.

In its particular failure to produce another Michael Kors, the show has brilliantly illuminated the realities of fashion for the public to see.

Whenever a mass shooting gets heavy news coverage people express outrage not only at the violence but that the shooter has become famous. Even notoriety is considered valuable.

A study by Adam Lackford does implicate the importance Americans place on fame as one of the ingredients that leads to our high rates of mass shootings compared to the rest of the world. So we respond with a “don’t say the killer’s name” policy. For those who would do violence in order to earn some notoriety, here’s some sobering news: It doesn’t work. Most mass shootings do not even make the national news these days.  As Shane Ryan wrote in The Daily News:

Without the audiovisual and social media elements, this would barely register as a blip on America’s overburdened radar. In an incredible piece of data-based journalism, Vox’s German Lopez showed that there have been 885 mass shootings (with at least four victims) in the U.S. since the Sandy Hook massacre in late 2012, and we’re averaging about one per day in 2015. The Roanoke killings stand out because many of us actually saw the killings take place, but aside from the strange amount of documentation, nothing about it was exceptional. It was ordinary. In fact, it barely even qualified as a “mass shooting” by Vox standards, and would have fallen short of that metric if Flanagan hadn’t turned the gun on himself.

So to the angry guy who is building up his arsenal right now with a “this will show the world” drive– don’t do it.

In the literary world authors are constantly told to get out there and blog, blog, blog. The key to success as a writer is to build up a huge social media presence. But all of this is quite at odds with the traditional role of the writer as a silent observer of life.

“It’s very important for a writer to be unnoticed,” Edith Pearlman told The Boston Globe in 2012, when she was 75. “As quiet and unnoticed as possible.”

This is, of course, the opposite of what we are told we need to do in order to have any chance of having a writing career. So we turn to social media in an attempt to earn some FameCoin. This desire to be noticed and followed has an impact on the type of work we create.

Pew Research Center shows that social media actually stifles discussion on important issues. That is probably not surprising. What is of greater concern is that the researchers found that social media users were less likely to share their opinions even in face-to-face discussions. We get used to framing things in the least controversial manner in order to avoid being unfriended or unfollowed. It is reasonable to assume, then, that writers who are frequent social media users will also get in the habit of thinking and writing in more conventional, less challenging ways.

A Cornell study makes the case that social rejection is actually good for the creative process. The act of being rejected can liberate creative people from the need to fit in and allow them to pursue their interests. Barry Staw, a researcher at the University of California–Berkeley business school who specializes in creativity told Salon that a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”

I propose that it is time to rethink some of our assumptions about the value of attention and exposure. We are dealing in a currency that buys very little.

To Be Forgiven for Fame

Stop, Christian passer-by!—Stop, child of God,
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.
O, lift one thought in prayer for S. T. C.;
That he who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death!
Mercy for praise—to be forgiven for fame
He asked, and hoped, through Christ. Do thou the same!

 

640px-Samuel_Taylor_Coleridge_by_Washington_Allston_retouchedSamuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his own epitaph. Years of addiction to opium, debt, illness and divorce had not dulled his instincts as a poet. He summed up his life with a beautiful chiasmus “That he who many a year with toll of breath/Found death in life, may here find life in death!”


He adopts a humble tone “A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.” (One is tempted to wonder how sincere his humility was, given that this epitaph is carved in stone for posterity.)


The line that jumps out at me today is “mercy for praise- to be forgiven for fame.”
(There was a time when poets were famous.)


It is a strange request, as praise and fame are not something you do, but something others bestow upon you. He is being asked to be forgiven for how he was received by other people.
To be forgiven for fame is not something modern western people often ask. Leo Braudy writing in The Frenzy of Renown observed, “John Lennon of The Beatles caused a scandal by saying that his band was more famous than Jesus. As far as immediate fame goes, he was right. But the outcry over Lennon’s remark is instructive because it implies that fame is by definition a positive category: if Jesus is the greatest man, he must also be the most famous.”


Few of us hope that when we die our stories will not be told.


The book The Artist’s Quest for Inspiration by Peggy Hadden suggests artists use a quest for immortality as a driver.


 “Thus, the desire to break out of the limits of our life span prompts us to create, to leave something behind us… None of us thinks of retiring from making art. It seems too much like living itself. Visiting a museum is not like going to see dead people. Rather, it is like going to a place where we can instantly revive the artists, hear their views, see what they have to say. To be included in their midsts would be a way to live forever.”
The book then goes on to some other source of inspiration without having the candor to note that very few artists will actually achieve this or to give any thought as to what aspect of the artist really can live on or whether the artist would recognize or approve of the story future people tell about her.


Reaching the end of his life, Coleridge came to believe that this type of immortality was a chimera. That kind of renown does nothing to extend the life of the artist’s soul. If posthumous reputation exists at all it only preserves the public persona, the false self, its posing and vanity.  The only real “life in death,” he says is through Christ, and so he asks or mercy and asks, with some urgency, that his readers do the same.

When Your Shame Becomes My Self-Expression

I’ve been reading a lot of articles of late on the subject of shaming. A new book is out by Jon Ronson called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.  Ronson spent the past three years traveling around the country and meeting with the targets of high profile shamings. As the description says, “The shamed are people like us – people who, say, made a joke on social media that came out badly, or made a mistake at work. Once their transgression is revealed, collective outrage circles with the force of a hurricane and the next thing they know they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, jeered at, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job.”

Today I read an article on the TED blog about Monica Lewinsky’s re-emergence as a spokesperson for those who are shamed online. Nadia Goodman wrote:

As TED’s social media editor, I have seen a lot of nasty comments. I’ve seen grown men and women deride a 14-year-old girl for her choice of dress. I’ve seen them say they’re revolted by a beautiful transgender woman. On every talk about race, I’ve seen a slew of racist comments. But none have ever been as bad as the comments we got when we published Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk, The Price of Shame. At least at first.

I learned through my Facebook feed that somehow I had missed an uproar over Trevor Noah’s old tweets.

Most of the articles I read about trolling, media shaming and viral online shaming campaigns make the same assumption, an assumption I believe is mistaken. People generally assume that we shame people who transgress in order to bring them back into line and to compel them to behave in socially agreeable ways, in much like the Puritans did when they put people in the stocks.

I don’t think this is actually what is happening. I came to this realization today while reading an old article I’d stored in my “to read” program. (I have about 180 pages of articles there and I thought it might be time to clear some out.)

The article was published in Insights by Stanford Business with the headline Why Seeking Common Ground Can Backfire.

Research shows that conversations between people seeking common ground can influence which ideas and people gain cultural prominence. The best baseball players don’t always get elected All-Stars. And the Nobel Prize doesn’t always go to the most deserving member of the scientific community. This, according to a pair of recent studies, is because such recognition can depend upon how well known an individual is rather than on merit alone. Moreover, because it’s human nature for people to try to find common ground when talking to others, simple everyday conversations could have the unfortunate side effect of blocking many of the best and most innovative ideas from the collective social consciousness…the more people are talked about, the larger a role they play in society — and the more they will subsequently get talked about. This creates a self-reinforcing ramping up of social prominence that is not necessarily deserved.

The researchers in the study referenced in this article found that when people were given the choice to speak with people they had not met before about baseball players who were well known, but were having mediocre seasons, or those who were not as well known but were having very good seasons, they invariably talked about the more famous players because they served as a common point of reference.

Well known people and their scandals serve as common conversational currency. We no longer read the same books. We do not share the same religious beliefs and the stories that are handed down through those traditions. We do not have a common store of mythological characters that we can use as common frames of reference for our ethical discussions. In fact, it often seems that all discussions of ethics and values only take place in a context of political polarization and a left/right team sport. So the fraternity brothers with their racist song become fictional characters that we can all use to discuss what we will stand for, what we want to be associated with, and what behavior is appropriate.

We are using these episodes, not to control the behavior of the perpetrators, but to define who we are either in support or opposition to the figure being shamed. Their “fat chick” tweets or extramarital affairs or offensive videos give us an opportunity to blog, to present ourselves on Facebook, to tweet our reactions and to generally exclaim what type of people we are. (In much the same way that a woman felt compelled to tell me at a book signing that she did not approve of the subject matter of my book. She didn’t say this to persuade me of anything but to define herself as the type of moral person who would not read such a book.) We care very little about the people we shame. They are not people we know, but stories we are told. We aren’t going to live with them, and their behavior will generally not affect us directly at all.

If you need proof of this hypothesis, watch this clip of Jon Ronson being interviewed on The Daily Show. In it, Ronson notes that most people give little thought to the people who have been shamed once the firestorm has passed.  If you do not want to watch the entire interview, go forward to about the 6:50 mark. Ronson says that when he asks people how the victim of a public shaming is now, years later they say “Oh, I’m sure she’s fine.” Often that is not true.

In this clip Monica Lewinsky makes a call for a cultural shift. I think a lot of people share her concern that our media culture seems to thrive on these types of vicarious morality tales with little regard for the consequences to the individuals involved. If your particular brand of bad behavior seems to strike a chord with the passions of the moment, you may become good copy.

Lewinsky talks about changing the narrative– her personal narrative. But perhaps we need more fictional narratives, more characters, folk tales, modern myths that we can hold in common and discuss and debate. We need common stories.

Fame, Free Fall and the Size of the Frame

April is national poetry month. Last year I posted a poem each day. They were the least viewed posts I ever put up! So this time around I am going to do something a bit different and use various poems as a jumping off point for further reflection. Today’s poem is Musee des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden.

Musee des Beaux Arts

W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

—-

We have an amazing capacity to remain blissfully unaware of other people’s struggles and suffering. Hardships we have not personally experienced are unreal to us– invisible famines. We have stuff to do. We are focused and busy. In a famous experiment back in the 1970s, a team of researchers had seminary students plan a talk and then go to another building to deliver it. En route they passed a man in distress. Half of the students were told they would be speaking about seminary jobs, the other half were told they would be speaking about the parable of the Good Samaritan. The researchers wanted to know if concentrating on the parable of the Good Samaritan would make people more likely to offer aid. It didn’t. What did impact the likeliness the students would offer to help was how much time the students thought they had to get to the other building and give their presentation. When the students thought they had lots of time 63% of them offered to help, regardless of the topic of their talk. When they thought they were in a hurry only 10% offered to help.

Researchers have also found that the more people there are who witness an event, the less likely anyone is to offer help as everyone assumes someone else will do it. Scientists have tested this, but artists already sensed it. In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold everyone in town knows that a member of their community is about to be murdered. No one wants it to happen, including the killers, and yet no one manages to stop it. The very fact that everyone knows seems to persuade each individual that it won’t actually happen.

And the old masters understood it. About suffering, they were never wrong.

A few days ago, I wrote about our oft thwarted desire to be seen and noticed. “We want to know and be known, to love and be loved, to lock eyes and be in the same moment together.”

149120_10150089505605948_5921817_nAnd yet our life and death battles take place “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”

We live in a culture that places a high value on fame, on known-ness. This value is in direct proportion to the anonymity most of us feel confronted with among so many neighbors who do not know us at all.

I propose that our desire for fame is not really a desire to be observed. It is, rather, a desire to be the central figure in the painting on the wall of the Musee des Beaux Arts and not the guy who happens to be steering his boat completely unaware that a moment of mythic significance is happening right beside him. We want to believe that we will be the central character in the novel and not the friend who appears in one scene on page 285.

We want to have the sense that he dramas of our lives matter. We do not want to accept what Shakespeare’s assessment in MacBeth that:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

People seek fame in order to feel that their lives matter.

“I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention… And even though you fool your soul your conscience will be mine.”-Adam Ant, “Stand and Deliver”

The quest for fame often leads to disillusion. In the immortal words of the philosopher David Bowie, “Fame puts you there where things are hollow.” (Yeah, actually, I have never understood what that song was talking about.)

Even though he may fool his soul, the rock star looks flash and grabs your attention for only a moment. Even in the brief moment that the star has attracted your gaze, you only see a shadow of the man behind the mask. The public goes on with its day to day tasks unconcerned with the life of the artist who creates the image.

The star trades some of his or her privacy for a species of known-ness that fails to live up to its promise. As the ploughman labors on, Icarus falls from the sky after flying too close to the sun.

Is there an answer then to this crisis of meaning?

In my first novel Angel, I wrote the following epigram: “Where does a mountain end? Mountains draw our focus to their snowcapped peaks and present us with the illusion that they are isolated, individual objects. We send postcards and take pictures and try to put a frame around them. But whatever border we create for the natural object we fine beautiful is our own projection. The mountain spills out in all directions. It dips into the valley, which rises to the next peak There is no place where you can stop and say, ‘The mountain ends here.'”

In other words, what appears in the center of the painting depends entirely on where you place the frame.

Around you at this moment are a few people who do take an interest in your victories and struggles. Your immediate family: your parents, spouse, children, lovers, intimate friends. It is a small world, to be sure, but a loving and compassionate one. It is here that you find the people who will stop plowing if you are plunging from the sky.

When you start to feel unnoticed and invisible, try a smaller frame.

“Rock Star” vs. “Musician”

David Bowie is a rock star.

David Bowie is a musician.

Both of these sentences refer to the same profession, and yet the image and associations are quite different if you use one phrase or the other.

I got to thinking about the nuances of these two words after a comment my brother made after reading a review of Identity Theft which included a bit of my description.

“His rock n’ roll lifestyle mostly consists of finding ways to keep his laundry from stinking while on the road and trying to remain anonymous while buying Preparation-H.”

My brother felt this characterization was unfair to poor Ollie.

“I see him as living  the life of a moderately successful professional musician…. He actually has an office and at least two full-time staff working for him. There’s an  active fan base that fawns over him online, and he’s touring to international venues.”

This is quite true.

By any objective standards he is quite a successful musician, as most musicians struggle to make a living at all.

He is, on the other hand, not as successful as a “rock star.” Being a “musician” is about making a living by making music. Being a “rock star” is about generating fame. Only a handful of celebrities manage to maintain that level of known-ness over the course of a lifetime.

In the public consciousness there are only two kinds of rock stars. Those at the height of their fame are almost mythological creatures. The term “rock star” itself is synonymous with magnetism, sex appeal, excitement and glamor. Those who have seen their fame diminished are often described as “washed up.”  The post fame rock star brings out a Shadenfreude response. He elicits scorn in direct proportion to our envy of his once exalted status.

One of the challenges with the character of Ollie (stage name Blast) is that he must be a rock star, with all the glamor that implies, to the main female character Candi. He is more of a “washed up rock star”– but still a rock star– to his employee Ethan. To himself he is simply a working musician. Touring is his every day, mundane life.

Because the notion of a “rock star” is so potent and so synonymous with glamor, it was important to show Ollie taking part in the most mundane aspects of the life of a touring musician. He is introduced on laundry day. (I am on the road five months out of the year with my ballet project and I can tell you from personal experience that there are few things more pleasant after a month on the road than having a free day and a guest laundry in the hotel. Mmmm. A suitcase full of clean clothes!)

Ollie, in fact, likes his more reasonable level of fame. For the most part, it gives him positive opportunities. Occasionally though, as when he would like to buy personal hygiene products without undue attention, it is inconvenient. The Preparation-H thing? I included it in the blurb because it de-glamorizes his rock star fame and it is funny.  It highlights the fact that the tone of the book is more humorous overall than tragic.

But I see now that de-glamorizing the life of a touring musician while juxtaposing it with the term “rock star” inadvertently pushes the right set of buttons to call to mind the “washed up rock star” archetype. This probably says more about our collective lust for fame than it says about any particular musician, including the fictional Ollie.