The Making of Lorde

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Ella Yelich-O’Connor is a 16-year-old girl who sings. Lorde is a pop star. The difference between the two? A whole bunch of well-crafted publicity.

What’s different with Lorde, then, is that her publicity is marketed as anti-publicity: here’s a girl who hates manipulation, who exercises meticulous control over her image, and has no qualms about speaking her mind.

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And I have no doubt that Yelich-O’Connor does all of those things.  But the celebrity apparatus takes those very things — that commitment to non-manipulation — and turns it into overarching theme of Lorde’s image.  And that image is so persuasive, especially to a certain cadre of consumers, because it effaces itself: non-image as image.

Many Hollywood stars have accomplished similar feats. Most recently, Jennifer Lawrence’s seemingly unmediated “cool girl” antics have been held up as an example of what natural stardom can look like.  (When I asked my Twitter feed for examples of unmediated stardom, I received 20 suggestions of Lawrence).  Anne Hathaway was polished and over-prepared; J-Law was natural and off-the-cuff and, as such, much easier to like.  (I write more about them here).

Lorde has really only been on the (American) scene for a few months: her hit song “Royals” slowly took over the late summer, but it wasn’t until the release of her first full length album,  Pure Heroine, on September 30th that she really drew the attention of the American press.  (If you’re unfamiliar with her style, see “Royals,” “Team,” and my personal favorite, “Tennis Court.”)

From the beginning, Lorde was differentiated from her peers.  The lyrics of “Royals” did much of the  heavy lifting: here’s a girl who, instead of buying into the dreams of consumption proffered by most hip-hop, finds herself alienated.  Lorde was 16 (she turned 17 last week), but she was no Disney product: she’s from New Zealand (!) and actively resisted the sort of bubble-gum packaging that typifies her contemporaries.  She writes her own songs; she calls the shots.  In early interviews, reproduced across the internet, she criticized the holy three of teen pop: Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Taylor Swift.  But these weren’t offhand comments — they were rooted in overarching criticisms of the industry:

On Bieber: ”I feel like the influences that are there in the industry for people my age, like Justin Bieber or whatever, are just maybe not a very real depiction of what it’s like to be a young person.”

On Gomez (and her song “Come and Get It”): “I’m a feminist, and the theme of her song is, ‘When you’re ready come and get it from me.’ I’m sick of women being portrayed this way.”

On Swift: “[she's] too flawless and unattainable.”

Every celebrity has image has two major components: their product and the discourse about them and their product, also known as publicity.  Even reality stars have the “product” of their program and the way they “appear” (read: perform) on it.  Usually the product is more important in dictating the tenor of the celebrity image, but sometimes the publicity overwhelms the product.  Hollywood stars rely on publicity to keep them in the public eye between projects; reality stars generate stories and photo-ops, usually through relationships and pregnancies, to keep them relevant between new reality opportunities.

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Until recently, Lorde had blockbuster product but little by means of publicity.  A collection of quips, sure, but those had started to overdetermined her meaning.  Until, that is, last week, when the Australian music site Faster, Louder (think Pitchfork) published a longform, all-access profile, entitled “Lorde: Pop’s New Ruler,” the result of months of reporting.  This reporter had gotten in at the ground floor — before “Royals” became anything big — and stuck around to the very recent past.  He spent a lot of time with “Ella,” as he refers to her, and talked with all of her managers, had dinner with her family, and traced the trajectory of her rise to fame.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this profile is going to be as widely read as, say, a Vanity Fair cover story.  I do, however, think it will function as a sort of ur text of her celebrity — the first large scale piece from which other profiles, however brief or lengthy, will draw.  Like all skillful celebrity profiles, it establishes a few new themes in her image and reifies existing ones.  It’s fun to read — like getting to know your best friend — and never descends into fluff.  It is, in other words, an excellent example of the genre and, as such, an amazing piece of image management.

So let’s take this apart.

Over the course of the profile, several overarching themes emerge: Lorde is a natural, Lorde is extraordinary, and Lorde is authentic.

AS ‘NATURAL’: 

You know how you prove that someone has natural talent?  You tell a story about them as a child.  But Lorde wasn’t just singing to the video camera. She was a genius:

LATE one night, years ago, her mother Sonja was woken by a light going on in the room Ella shared with her sister Jerry. She shook her husband awake. “Oh my God, Vic! Someone’s just gone into the kids’ room!”

“He opens up the door and there’s this 18-month-old, at two or three in the morning, with a pile of books. Just sitting there, reading them……”

[Description of  counselors encouraging Lorde's parents to take her to aptitude testing when she was six or seven] 

….The resulting report is couched in restrained academic language, but remains arresting reading.

“[Her] artwork demonstrates not only a high skill level but a mature perception of the world and a highly original perspective… Clearly a busy and highly creative mind at work… demonstrates leadership skills… sets high standards for herself and does not tolerate mistakes… Extremely advanced reading and writing, verbal, reasoning, listening and processing skills.”

By some measures, she had the mental age of a 21-year-old. 

The profile goes on to emphasize the 1000 (yes, 1000) books Lorde had read as a child, which accounted, according to a friend, for her mastery of words and “natural” songwriting ability.

The profile also emphasizes her perfectionism, but it’s not a perfectionism born of parenting style or industry pressures.  Lorde just has the perfectionism innate to many gifted kids, complete with an intolerance for shoddy work or incompetent collaborators.  She has what it takes to succeed as a pop star, but it’s not from effort — it’s just always been there. 

AS ‘EXTRAORDINARY’: 

Before you get 500 words into the profile, you learn that “Ella is no ordinary 16-year-old, and ‘Royals’ no ordinary hit single.”  To back up the claim, the author, Duncan Grieve, goes into the past.  Lorde’s parents had unique New Zealand upbringings (her mother is Croation; her father is Irish) with little room for creativity, and when they met, they were determined that their children would have the artistic freedoms and voices they were denied.  It wasn’t a coddling, per se, just a celebration of imagination and creativity.  Lorde’s mother is a celebrated poet; her father is an engineer — which, we can extrapolate, is how Lorde came to be so artistic and precise.

We’re also to understand that Lorde is no ordinary teen.  She acts like an adult, and converses naturally with adults:

“She was exceptional in every way,” says [family friend] Allen. “Not an extrovert by any means, but she couldn’t be thrown.” From drama she learned to interact with adults, and to retain poise on stage, attributes which would prove handy in years to come.

And then there’s the way she interacts with the interviewer himself.  During one of many days in the studio, he dared to make a small production suggestion:

When I forgot myself and issued an opinion on a production effect at the studio, she turned and said “So you’re Rick Rubin now?” quick as a cat. It’s pretty disconcerting being reprimanded by a teenager when you’re in your 30s.

She’s not afraid of adults! She has quips, really great quips! Can you imagine yourself at age 16 with that sort of poise?  I was still way, way too concerned with my acne.

AS ‘AUTHENTIC’: 

Part of Lorde’s extraordinariness comes from her authenticity — unlike other pop stars, she’s rooted in her “true” identity.  When we talk about celebrities and authenticity, we’re talking about a sense of unmediated realness.  What we see is who they are, the “real thing.”  The problem with this understanding is pretty clear: that sense of authenticity is, itself, mediated.  Meeting the star in person is often thought of as the only means to access the “real” real — first hand celebrity accounts are used as a means to buttress a certain understanding of a star — but even those are mediated through the lens of the celebrity’s self-awareness.  Put differently, the celebrity knows she has an image to uphold; he/she’s not going to suddenly “be real” because you’re standing in the elevator with her.  The desire for the real is why we love scandal: it sheds light onto the part of the celebrity that was truly never meant to go public.  The more hidden, the more real.

Lorde’s authenticity — or, more precisely, her image’s authenticity — stems from her vocal and unapologetic rejection of the music industry and its publicity apparatus.  The profile is riddled with soundbitey comments:

“I don’t care about hair and makeup.”

[A manager] pulls Ella aside to inform her that EDM star David Guetta wants her on his next album. “No,” she says sharply. “Fuck no. He’s so gross.”

When Maclachlan first watched that Belmont Idol performance, he thought he’d find her a song and have her sing it – “that classic A&R equation”. Failing that, she could knock out a set of ’60s-styled covers. He met Ella and Sonja at a cafe and later gave them a CD to serve as a reference. It ended up in a dumpster. “I was just so not interested,” says Ella. This 12-year-old wasn’t content to sing covers. She wanted to write songs.

Jason Flom is head of Universal Music subsidiary Lava Records. In the ’90s he had a hot streak like no other: Tori Amos, Counting Crows and Matchbox 20. He was sent a link to the recording early on. “Immediately obsessed”, he became determined to sign Lorde to Lava. “I can’t wait to make you a star,” he wrote in an email not long after the songs went live. “I was like, ‘Bleurgh’,” says Ella.

The irony of an anti-materialistic single doing that is not lost on them, although money is not Ella’s motivation. “If I didn’t tell her the state of her bank account, she’d never know,” says Vic, the trustee of her company.

If she’s that frank, it must be her real self.  (If Kanye West is that bombastic, it must be his real self…..If Jennifer Lawrence is that clumsy, it must be her real self.)  Etc., et. al.  Even if we do acknowledge that these authentic celebrities are mediated, we read them, in the words of my brilliant friend Phil Maciak, as “authors of their own mediation.”  Which at least in part explains her popularity with teens: she lacks the artifice, the bullshit, the adult-control that teenagers come to despise.  And in this way, control, or the appearance of it, becomes conflated with authenticity.

And Lorde seems to control everything:

Ella is deeply interested – some might say obsessed – with all the line-by-line stuff.

Ella, self-confessed perfectionist, can’t stand to let someone else make decisions for her. It’s not without tetchy moments. Maclachlan mentions a “cover reboot” for the deluxe edition of the album. “That’s very ‘record company’,” says Ella acidly. “I don’t know if we have grounds to completely rehash everything.”

On Merchandise: “Yes! I’m excited about that. Sweatshirts and short-sleeved T-shirts. Black and grey marl. That’s it.”

Cain says that in 20 years in the industry he’s never come across an artist so engaged with the minutiae of their presentation. He points up at a giant poster of Lana Del Rey. “With her, we could do whatever we liked,” he says.

 Ella is frequently compared to Del Rey, though it infuriates her. Both are white women making pop music soaked in the rhythm and attitude of hip-hop. But Del Rey has a much more conventional narrative — she had an image makeover prior to her breakout Born To Die album, and co-writes her songs with some of the biggest producers and writers in the industry. Ella’s songs, meanwhile, are very much her vision, and hers alone.

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 The piece doesn’t address criticism that she has a co-writer/producing partner — but it also doesn’t shy from it.  So long as the songs are “her vision and hers alone,” she’s the authentic author.  You see this exacting control, whether on her part, as the profile suggests, or on the part of her manager, manifest the visual publicity for Pure Heroine.  She performs in t-shirts and long skirts; publicity photos are different variations of one stare-straight-ahead pose.

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As you can see below, her video for “Tennis Court” is just her staring at the camera in black lipstick, an anti-video to the high production values of her peers’ short-films-posturing-as-music-videos.

While Lorde embodies each of these categories (natural, extraordinary, authentic) in specialized ways, the categories themselves are nothing new — they’ve been the hallmarks of star publicity since the beginning of Hollywood and serve to substantiate our fandom.  We thought she was special, in other words, but this proves it.  They’re also the building blocks of charisma: that ineffable something that separates attempted stars from bonafide ones.  But charisma also serves a political function: to very broadly summarize the social theorist Emile Durkheim, it’s what makes us okay with other people having much more money and privilege than we do.  Charisma validates their dominance — it makes it seem like they deserve to have what they have, and we shouldn’t rise up and steal it from them.  Lack of charisma can be fatal, then, because it breeds antipathy.  Most reality stars don’t have charisma.  Justin Bieber is rapidly losing his charisma.  George Clooney has a neverending supply of it.  And Lorde, at least in this moment, has a ton of it.

But all of these themes are pretty straightforward celebrity profile fodder, as is the interlude at the raucous family dinner table, which economically underlines the “just like us” ordinariness to go with Lorde’s extraordinary talents.

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I’m most interested, then, in the way that the profile accentuates Lorde’s cultural capital — and the way that accentuation has endeared her to a certain swath of adult fans.

It’s clear that Lorde is precocious.  She’s smart, she’s uber-literate.  But she’s not just reading the classics, and she’s not checked out of popular culture. Take a look:

At the same time, Ella’s own taste was evolving fast; she moved from Grizzly Bear to Animal Collective to James Blake. All the while, though, she remained fascinated by mainstream pop like Justin Timberlake. “It’s magical,” she says. She’d pick apart songs, latching on to production elements and vocal melodies. “Why is it shameful to like this music,” she thought, “or write this music?”

 Thanks to all that reading she came to the current golden age of television late, but fell hard. She adores The Sopranos, and one of the best lines in the statement of intent ‘Bravado’ — “I was raised up/To be admired, to be noticed” — is paraphrased from Mad Men’s Joan Holloway. Most of her cultural references she tosses out are similarly adult — author Michael Chabon, essayist Laura Mulvey.

Early on she implores I read a profile of the porn star James Deen written by Wells Tower, a favourite short story writer of hers. It’s magnificent, but also deeply, savagely sexual. I don’t know how to talk to a kid about something like that, so I leave it. With Ella, you’ll always blink first.

She’s a hipster! A learned, culturally literate, upper middle-class hipster.  Many of her teen fans may not know who Laura Mulvey is, but whooo boy does a certain swath of her adult fans.  By underlining her cultural capital and  broad intelligence, it becomes all the easier for adult fans to embrace their fandom of a teenage artist.  This is no guilty pleasure; this isn’t secretly listening to the new One Direction song on your headphones at the gym.  Lorde is cool, and you’re cool for liking her.

And then there’s Lorde’s feminism:

One thing Ella doesn’t often sing about directly is love or lust – the subject matter of the vast majority of hit singles. She quotes Del Rey’s ‘Blue Jeans’ with disgust: “I will love you till the end of time/I will wait a million years”, and recently decried the sentiment of Selena Gomez’s ‘Come and Get It’. Suffice to say, she’s a feminist.

“Absolutely. Wholeheartedly,” she says. “I think women who say, ‘No, I’m not a feminist — I love men,’ I think that is just… You don’t know what it means. You think it means that, ‘I don’t shave under my arms, I burn my bras. Fuck men!’ How could you be so uneducated, and so unwilling to learn about something which is so important to you?”

For me, this is the kicker: I knew I liked her songs, I liked her even more when she said that she culled lyrics from Mad Men, and then she goes demonstrates unapologetic feminism: sold.  She endears herself not only to the entire Tavi Gevinson/Rookie/teen feminism audience, but to an entire swath of feminist adults frustrated with various celebrity’s reticence to embrace the label of feminism (talking to you, Beyonce).

Lorde’s music is deeply infectious and cultivates its own natural audience, but it’s the publicity that makes her more than the sum of her musical parts — that makes her a celebrity, and someone who will endure and matter in the cultural landscape.  The purpose of this post is neither to decry nor celebrate, although I certainly haven’t attempted to mask that I’m a fan.  Rather, it’s to highlight the potent ideological and industrial work of a single profile, and how even the anti-image is, always, an image in and of itself.  Don’t mistake me: I’m not saying that Lorde is fake.  I’m saying that she, like any other public artist, is a mediated product.

Whenever you’re interpellated by a product, you feel like it’s more authentic.  Put differently, when the product seems to speak directly to you and your concerns, you’re more prepared to believe what it’s selling.  That’s why I “buy” the images of Barack Obama, Jennifer Lawrence, Brangelina, Matt Damon, Kanye, Lorde — that’s why I’m so ready to believe.  Maybe Lorde’s speaking to you, maybe she’s not.  But if she is, it’s smart to think about how and why it’s so easy to buy what she’s selling.

Back during my Freshman year “Great Books” class, my professor started his lecture on the Bible this way: close reading and interrogation isn’t blasphemy.  It’s respect: if the text, and your faith in it, can’t stand up to that, then what is it worth?  In the end, that’s how I feel about celebrities — and why I don’t think analysis is tantamount to the destruction of pleasure.  If there’s something substantial there, if there’s more than a shiny surface, the thing that speaks to you will remain.  And thus far with Lorde, I can still hear her singing.

Angelina Jolie Controls the Narrative

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The Basics:

Late last night, an editorial by Angelina Jolie, entitled “My Medical Choice,” went live on the New York Times.  In the editorial, Jolie revealed that she had undergone a double mastectomy as a preemptive protection from breast and ovarian cancer.  Jolie, whose mother died of breast cancer at 57, also revealed that she is a carrier of the BRCA1 gene and, in her words, “My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman.”

In the editorial, Jolie vividly describes the specifics of the procedure:

My own process began on Feb. 2 with a procedure known as a “nipple delay,” which rules out disease in the breast ducts behind the nipple and draws extra blood flow to the area. This causes some pain and a lot of bruising, but it increases the chance of saving the nipple.

Two weeks later I had the major surgery, where the breast tissue is removed and temporary fillers are put in place. The operation can take eight hours. You wake up with drain tubes and expanders in your breasts. It does feel like a scene out of a science-fiction film. But days after surgery you can be back to a normal life.

Nine weeks later, the final surgery is completed with the reconstruction of the breasts with an implant. There have been many advances in this procedure in the last few years, and the results can be beautiful.

She also explicitly encourages women to explore their options and closes with an explanation of her decision to publicize her own surgery:

I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options.

What It Means:

Just to be clear, analyzing the release of this news — and its effect on Jolie’s star image — does not take away from the actual, lived experience of a mastectomy, the difficulty of Jolie’s decision, or the power of her decision to write about it.  I am in now way attempting to trivialize Jolie or her decision.

But as star scholar Richard Dyer explains, actors becomes stars when their images “act out” what matters to broad swaths of people.  For many years, Jolie acted out deviance and rebellion; for many years after, she acted out motherhood, multiculturalism, and philanthropic engagement.  Those valences are all still very much a part of Jolie’s image, but today they’re emboldened by a very conscious decision to publicize a procedure that literally removed a primary locus of her star power.  And that decision — the very fearlessness of it — is actually very much in line with her image up to this point.

The first thing to note about the op-ed is just how surprising it was.  This wasn’t the culmination of weeks of rumors of hospitalization.  Rather, the entire procedure was kept under wraps, even though it was performed at a clinic in Los Angeles.  We’ll likely never know how they leveraged that level of silence — most likely a combination of non-disclosure agreements and capital — but what matters is that the secret held.  As a result, Jolie could release the story completely on her terms.  She set the narrative and the tone and, in so doing, the way people would talk about her today and for years to come.  In publicist’s terms, she was able to “own” the story from the very beginning.

Because of that ownership, the announcement isn’t of an action star losing her breasts, but of a woman gaining courage and acting on the desire to watch her children grow.  It’s not a tragedy, but a triumph.

If you’ve followed the history of Pitt and Jolie, then you know that this type of control is nothing new — ever since the photos of the pair playing with Zahara [EDIT: MADDOX] on the beach first hit the cover of People, they’ve controlled the narrative of their romance and their family.  Whether or not you’re Team Brangelina, the fact remains that they leverage publicity better than any other high-profile star today.

When the gossip magazines pitted them against Jennifer Aniston, they sold those same magazines — well, specifically, People — photos of them with their children…and then donated the millions to charity.  But those photos of companionship and familial bliss spoke the language the minivan majority wanted to hear, and helped placate any remaining resentment of the couple that supposedly broke the heart of the girl next door.  They sell art photos to W; Pitt talks about architecture to Architectural Digest and industry to Vanity Fair.  They know where certain narratives belong and to whom they speak.

Which is why it’s no accident that this announcement appeared as an op-ed in the New York Times.  The Times screams “last bastion of serious journalism” — and, of all the mainstream news publications, it’s the least enervated by celebrity news.  (Clearly there’s some, but far less than, say, the Los Angeles Times or Time).  Most celebrity health stories / triumphs make the cover of People, replete with photos of the star looking resilient and surrounded by family.  They are, in most cases, publicity: a means of keeping the star in the public eye during his/her absence….or, more tragically, a paycheck to leave behind to surviving family.

Choosing the Times has myriad benefits, publicity-wise. The audience dwarfs that of People or the audience of, say, the Today show.  But it also de-feminizes the story: People, Us, and the morning shows are all primarily directed at women.  They are “feminized” media products which, in our contemporary media environment, means they’re considered fluffier, less legitimate, more trivial.  (I’m not saying I like this distinction, but so it is).  But for Jolie, a double mastectomy – and this decision in general — isn’t just a woman’s issue.  It’s a family issue, and one that requires societal support.

Because the implicit message of the op-ed is stunning: Jolie is one of the most beautiful women in the world.  Her breasts, in no small part, made her a star.  But she doesn’t need them to be beautiful, or to be loved, or to maintain that stardom.  Women have been hearing this message for years, but with this editorial, Jolie not only makes it available to men, but proves it through the very existence of her resilient, still sexual body.

And this is no tell-all interview, no banal celebrity profile.  There’s no fawning description of Jolie’s children surrounding her, or how peaceful she looks in her bed.  It’s a narrative in her voice, with her story, her decision, her description.  Because of the length constraints of the op-ed, it’s unembroidered, to the point and, well, persuasive.  There’s no glossy photos attached, nothing to distract you from Jolie’s words.  It’s short enough that few will skim.  The lede might still be “Star Famous For Boobs Has Double Mastectomy,” but because of the brevity of the piece — and the sheer desire to read more about the procedure – millions are actually reading her words, rather than simply seeing the announcement on the cover of a magazine.

The op-ed persuades readers of the legitimacy of Jolie’s decision.  It also works to persuade others to consider this decision for themselves, effectively legitimizing the option for millions.  But the op-ed also serves a secondary persuasive purpose, and I dont’ think it’s trivial to highlight it.  As I’ve watched thousands react to this story online, I’ve witnesses an outpouring of support, of course, but also respect, especially from women.  Jolie has never been a “girl’s girl.”  She’s that girl who always did her own thing, who hung out with the guys, who never had a ton of female friends.  She’s so beautiful that she alienates; she’s so different that she intimidates.  But this op-ed makes Jolie seem humble, thoughtful, and conscious of the way that publicizing a private decision can benefit more than just her career and image.  Jolie has long been a public advocate for peace and women’s rights on the global level, but for many, that work seemed to exotic, too altruistic, only further contributing to her distant, intimidating exoticism.  Jolie was never “just like us” — her life was nothing like ours.

There are still some elements of that exotic otherness in the op-ed — “my partner Brad Pitt,” for one — but the overall tone is one of warmth and identification.  There’s not even a photo to remind you of the beautiful symmetry of her face, or the eclectic and overwhelming cuteness of her kids.  It’s just a woman talking about her breasts, her family, and her decision to sacrifice one in hopes of holding on to the other.  The two lines of the piece reads “Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.”  I’ve never seen Jolie use a collective “we.”  But this might be the moment in her star narrative when fans began thinking of themselves and The Jolie in the same sentence.  

 

Jennifer Lawrence as Gillian Flynn’s “Cool Girl”

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jennifer-lawrence-oscars-press-room-photos-2013-17_zps780f5864I love J-Law; you love J-Law; everybody loves J-Law.  Or so seems to be consensus following last week’s Academy Awards, where she tripped up the stairs, made a self-deprecating speech, performed authenticity and humility without seeming tri-hardy, reacted amazingly to Jack Nicholson in the awards press, and gave the best responses to banal post-award reporter questions in the history of banal post-award reporter questions.  She was, in a word, charismatic.  And she differentiated herself from Anne Hathaway, who seemed, according to whom you ask, calculated, too happy, ingenuous, too performative, etc. etc.

In the week since the awards, the battle between these two types of contemporary female stardom have battled it out in the pop culture opinion blogosphere.  If you’re interested, check here, here, and here.  Posting these arguments to this blog’s Facebook page, I was impressed with the reaction, characterized by a recoil at the idea that both types of stardom, and the negotiation of femininity they represent, can’t co-exist.  TRUTH, READERS, TRUTH.  As several of you pointed out, no one is comparing Daniel Day-Lewis and Christoph Waltz or Ben Affleck and Ang Lee — there’s room for plenty of men at the top.  But when it comes to women, we’ve got to pit them against one another.  There’s a long tradition of this “women against women” strategy: see, for example, the crazy, entirely-press-fueled “war” between Garbo and Dietrich, or, more recently, the enduring attempts to pit Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie, both powerful women in Hollywood, in a fight to the death for Brad’s affections.

To be clear, I have zero problem with articulating one’s dislike or like for a particular star.  When we talk about the stars we like and dislike, we’re associating their images, and what they represent, with ourselves.  The things we like — television shows, music, stars — are signifiers of our own personality.  To like Jennifer Lawrence, to like Anne Hathaway, is to say volumes about the type of contemporary femininity you admire and with which you would like to associate yourself.  With that said, I don’t think that lambasting the person with whom you don’t want to associate yourself is very productive.  Be a fan all you want, and articulate why you don’t like another star, but don’t be an ass, and don’t frame it in terms of “there can only be one!”  There can be many.  The more, the better.  Anne Hathaway’s image is not one to which I do not cotton, but that doesn’t mean that I think she’s a bitch, worthless, or should retire.  In fact, she’s really f-ing talented.  But just like you can admire an argument and not agree with it, I can admire her and not “like” her.

But I do want to unpack the unadulterated affection for Lawrence, whose “star” performance has been framed as wholly natural, authentic, and unperformative.  Hathaway molds her image; Lawrence just is.  In truth, Lawrence, with the help of her publicist and agent (who have been lauded all over the place in the trades) is just good at appearing to not perform.  She shares this attribute with the most enduring stars of old — Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn, early Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts.  In our current moment of hyper-manipulation, we cling even more to those who can seem wholly unmanipulated.  And I’m not trying to be a asshole when I suggest that Lawrence understands that what’s she’s doing, in terms of madcap honesty, will further her career and brand.  She’s smart.  She’s savvy.  I don’t think she’s a conniving, manipulative star, but I do think that she is very much cognizant of what she’s doing.

Lawrence’s particular negotiation of “naturalness,” skill, emotion, and femininity wouldn’t be popular at any given moment in time.  It’s very specific to our current cultural moment, in which the “cool girl” fills a specific ideological function, adhering to a paradoxical understanding of what a woman should and should not be, a peculiar negotiation of feminism and passivity.

The best articulation of the “cool girl” comes from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.  I have some serious problems with this book (is Flynn a misogynist? DISCUSS.) but as Mallory Cohn, one of the smart commenters on one of the Facebook posts about this topic, astutely pointed out, Lawrence is the embodiment of the “cool girl” persona perfectly described by Flynn’s heroine.   Here’s the passage in full:

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”

Again, I’m unsure if Flynn hates women or if this protagonist hates all women, but the outlines of this “cool girl” resonate, do they not?  That’s because it’s a product of ideology, and ideology is always super contradictory and falls apart under inspection.  The cool girl is a guy’s girl who also loves sex.  She’s masculine yet super feminine.  She’s all the “good things” (read: amendable to contemporary patriarchy) about girls and none of the “bad things” (read: ball busting, interested in her own destiny, willing to advocate for her own rights).  But that’s how the media, and more specifically, stars, work: they provide us with examples of “real people” who are proof positive that images like “cool girl” exist.

Lawrence is a powerful, beautiful woman who also thought that Seth McFarland was “great.”  This infuriates me, but it works perfectly with her image: she’s no ball-busting feminist.  She’s chill.  She can take a joke.  She is, as People Magazine recently declared, the woman that all women want to be like and all men love.  She’s the effing cool girl.  Only time will tell if she has to hew to that image or breaks out of it entirely.  For now, however, we need to think about what our adoration of that image represents — and complicate our unadulterated affection.  I still love her, but I need to continue to think about why.

Acting, Anti-Celebrity, Masculinity: Denzel Just Does It

denzel-washington-flight450

What do you know about Denzel Washington?  Outside of his film roles — varied and classic — what do you know?  Did you know that he’s been married to his (first, only) wife since 1983?  That he has four children?  That his father was a preacher, that his parents divorced when he was 14, that he went to private high school and nearly flunked out of Fordham before he discovered acting?  Did you know that he’s been possessed by the Holy Spirit, that he considers going into pastorhood, that he prays every day?

Unless you’ve read the six articles — from GQ, Entertainment Weekly, Grantland, and The New York Times — that I just read, chances are you did not.  He’s the biggest star you know the littlest about.

But you do know who Denzel Washington is.  You know what he represents: a blend of charisma and honor, save when he “goes bad” and plays the amoral, the stubborn, the angry.  He’s a master of historical ventriloquism, the first choice for any bio-pic of a black man.  Yet he’s also dexterous, racially speaking, in the same way that Will Smith is: if a role is written for a white man, he can play it.  Which isn’t to say that his image isn’t inflected with racial awareness — see, for example, his three collaborations with Spike Lee, including Malcolm X, along with his role as “The Hurricane” and various other racially specific roles.  His image is not a-racial, but he can play a-racial — and that’s part of what has made him a star.  (Apocryphal legend has him adament about decreasing, or altogether cutting, storylines and/or scenes in which he appears, romantically speaking, with white women: white men don’t want to see me go home with their women, he’s said to have argued.  Whether or not this is true, the principle holds true: all the way back in The Pelican Brief, when his character played it chaste with Julia Roberts (despite the romance depicted in the filmic adaptation) through last week’s Flight, when he fools around with a beautiful, very white love interest….but never more than a kiss, and very fleetingly onscreen).

Point is: Denzel is, economically speaking, one of the most powerful and resonant stars working today.  He is, however, as I like to parse it in my stardom classes, a star purely in terms of picture personality and capital.  People like the type of role he plays, and they like it well enough that they actually go and see his movies.  He is not a cultural star, per se — his image is limited to his roles, and what they seem to represent.  What they represent is something powerful: his picture personality is that of an eloquent, persuasively charismatic man capable of manipulating and transcending the environment in which he finds himself.  On the street, in the boxing ring, in the courtroom, amidst gangsters, in the air — he dominates.  Sometimes he’s a bit nefarious and morally dubious; most often, however, he’s righteous and affable.  Like Tom Cruise or Matt Damon, he is, let it be said, a pure pleasure to watch on screen.

Which is why audiences flock to his movies.  His track record is nearly without fault.  He doesn’t do risky independent films; somewhat humorously, his lowest grossing films are the ones he chose to direct himself.  He plays big men, leading men, and he plays them at least once a year.  He’s not Nicolas Cage, taking anything that comes his way to pay off the mortgage on his 52 houses, but he’s not Daniel Day-Lewis, or even Will Smith, either.  He works.  And it’s not as simple as a “one for me, one for them” industry algebra — the type of visible rotation you see in the careers of Clooney and Damon.  There’s a fine line between his plainly populist works and his prestige ones, usually marked by the extent to which he’s willing to play up the moral ambiguity of his character.  And this most recent turn, as an alcoholic yet valiant pilot in Flight, is in the later camp.  He’s marvelous in it, but he’s also very easy to despise.

Such dexterity is central to Washington’s picture personality, with its dominant themes of charisma and skill.  I’ve never seen Washington not charismatic: whether he’s evil or good, broken or whole, he’s always charming.  You can’t take your eyes off of him.  You see that he deserves whatever splendors he’s achieved, and if he hasn’t achieved them, then he deserves them anyway.  Even in Flight, when his character is (no spoiler) a huge drunken piece of shit, there’s a moment when he comes out of the hotel room, captain’s uniform on, Rolling Stones soundtrack turned to 11, and you’re like DAMMMMMMMN, I can totally forget he was just sniffing lines at 7 am! Before flying a plane!


Why? It’s a nifty editing trick — and the soundtrack, jeez, you put that soundtrack on behind anyone, have them walk in slo-mo, and suddenly they’re charisma manifest.  But it’s also a pure Denzel moment — a moment you see in almost every film — when he takes the movie by the horns and let’s you know he’s in control.  Not because he looks good walking down the hallway, but, in the case of Flight, because he’s evidenced that he’s got this character down: schlubby and hungover in one scene, on top of his game the next.  That’s theme #2: the talent.  The Oscar-Winning, the every-famous-figure-playing, the I don’t talk about my process guy.  He just does it; it’s just natural.  It’s real, unadulterated talent.

What I’m interested in, then, is how Washington has participated in the cultivation of this second discourse — a discourse that simultaneously bolsters his masculinity and appeal to a certain movie-going demographic.

He’s done it in two ways:

1.) Naturalizing Acting 

Because Washington’s life is seemingly without scandal, interviews tend to focus on his actual films — and many of them, including a lengthy NY Times profile from last month, focus exclusively on it.  The profile begins with a key quote from Washington:

When he was young, “being a movie actor wasn’t on my radar at all,” Mr. Washington said. “I took an acting class at Fordham, and it was kind of easy, or I enjoyed it, I should say, and people told me I was good. When I started out, I was just thinking about the stage; it was never my goal to get to Hollywood. But here I am.”

So humble, so un-meditated! He didn’t try to be good, he just was.  And while he put in his time — the stage, then commercials, then television, and finally the big-time in late ’80s — the talent was always there, just waiting to shine.

He says that his process is a combination of “inside out” (meaning finding the psychology of the character and then going from there — a Method tactic) and “outside in” (more in the Laurence Olivier school, in which you analyze the character and consciously “play” him, as opposed to “becoming” him).  In other words, he uses a few tricks — he learned to box for The Hurricane, he learned the sax for Mo’ Better Blues, he spent a lot of time in a flight simulator for Flight — but he’s no Daniel Day-Lewis or Joaquin Phoenix.  He prepares, but he doesn’t overthink it.  In the interview with the Times, he uses the metaphor of the pilot: the director, crew, and other actors need to trust what he’s doing.  He’ll surprise them, but they need to trust that he’ll get the plane, er, film, on the ground safely.  Indeed, Washington’s acting is always confident; there’s a swagger there.  His characters have swagger, but his acting has swagger was well, if that makes sense.

But as Washington and his profilers also emphasize that he doesn’t exactly know how he does what he does.  Again, the pilot metaphor is yet again apt: as the passengers on the plane, you don’t know exactly how you get on the ground; you just do.  Even the pilot might not understand exactly how he nails a difficult landing.  But he does, and it’s better not to ask questions how it happens.  You could transwer this metaphor to that a chef: it tastes good, doesn’t it, so don’t ask questions!

OrHey fans of Denzel, stop asking questions about why he’s so good: he just is! You’ll ruin it if you think about it too hard!  Washington uses these metaphors himself.  He’s reticent to talk about process. The proof of his skill is on the screen: why complicate it?

It’s a masculine conception of acting — how it happens, why it works.  It distinguishes him from the feminized, emotional method actors; the weirdos and the drama nerds.  Washington loves acting, but he doesn’t overthink it — or least that’s the image he’s cultivated.

2.) “I Don’t Know How to Be a Celebrity” 

Which brings us to Washington’s own cultivation of non-celebrity.  He only gives interviews to promote new films, but he’s not a cagey interviewer.  In the four major profiles I’ve read, all of them given over the last four months, he’s talked openly about his parents’ divorce, his own history with his father, his children, even his relationship with his wife (and how she feels about Michelle Obama thinking he’s hot).  Some actors cultivate anonymity by keeping interviews focused on their craft, but Washington seemingly answers any question he’s asked.

Because Washington’s life is scandalous/gossip-worthy, however, the focus remains on his acting.  Interviewers also love to emphasize that he’s a non-celebrity: GQ told him “In some ways, you’re a cipher.  There’s not much you put out there.”  

Washington’s answer is just so perfect:

But that’s not my job to put stuff out there. Sidney Poitier told me this years ago: “If they see you for free all week, they won’t pay to see you on the weekend, because they feel like they’ve seen you. If you walk by the magazine section in the supermarket and they’ve known you all their life, there’s no mystery. They can’t take the ride.” My professional work is being a better actor. I don’t know how to be a celebrity.

“I don’t know how to be a celebrity!”  Seriously, that’s perfect.  What a way to endear yourself to your public, especially to men (and/or women) who dislike celebrity culture, then to say that you literally do not know how to do it.  He also demonstrates his business acumen: even if he knew how, it’d be a stupid move.  People wouldn’t like him. [Sidenote: His logic is faulty.  Some stars on the covers of magazines do great business.  But he's correct that just being on the cover of a magazine, aka gossip-worthy, doesn't mean that your movies will do well.]

Now what’s remarkable about this statement is the fact that it is embedded in an interview with a popular magazine.  His picture was, in fact, on the cover of that magazine, which could be found in the check-out aisle just last month — only the magazine was GQ, not Us Weekly.  He talks about his family and personal life, it’s just that they’re not scandalous enough to merit continued coverage.  It’s not that he’s cagey, or an asshole, or annoyingly private — all characteristics that actually make people dislike a star when they hear about them.  He’s forthcoming and wholly affable in interviews.  He loves to talk sports.  He loves the Yankees.  He loves his kids.  He is such a Dad, a Grown-Up Bro.  He doesn’t have a cell phone and is only mildly annoyed that someone is running a Facebook page pretending to be him.  He’s a purely analog star, a student of the Hollywood old school.  But it doesn’t make him look stodgy or behind the times, the way that Tom Cruise’s fumbling Twitter efforts do.  He’s outside of the game.  He’s above it.  He’s just doing what he does, being with his family, giving interviews, speaking truths.  His daily code of life: read the bible.  His advice to black men: put your slippers under the bed so you have to get on your knees in the morning.

I talk a lot about star production on this blog — about how stars and their teams work really hard to create images that resonate, that matter. The brilliance of Denzel is that his incredibly resonate image is posturing as the complete lack of one.  He’s the anti-celebrity, the devoted actor, a model of masculinity.  A star who says he doesn’t know how to be a celebrity.  As our lives become more and more saturated with obvious manipulation — aesthetic, rhetorical, political — Denzel’s anti-image is increasingly refreshing.  But as I tell my students, being apolitical is a political position; the absence of politics is a political statement.  So too with images: the anti-image is one of the most potent images of all.

 

Taylor Swift, New Money, and Class Anxiety

swift kennedy

I’m sure you’ve heard: Taylor Swift is dating a Kennedy.  A bonafide Kennedy.  Grandson-of-Bobby-type-Kennedy.  They’ve been hanging out all summer, and the rumors just keep building.  You’d think it’s because he’s, oh, 18 and she’s 22 — and he’s going to be a senior in high school — but nope.  That’s not it.

Supposedly, it’s all about interloping.  She crashed a wedding; she bought a house.  She’s hanging out in Nantucket, land of Kennedys and WASPs and clam bakes and Summer Catch.  But you know what it’s really about?

Class.  It’s never explicit, but it’s simmering just underneath: this middle-class celebrity is buying her way into “real” distinction.  She’s a country star!  She dates celebrities!  She airs her dirty laundry in full view.  She has lots of money, and all of its new.  Her parents are so upper-middle-class.  She used to ride horses, but she lived in Nashville.  The (false) news that she purchased the house across from Ethel Kennedy spread like wildfire — even People, which prides itself on vetting its sources, published the story.  It’s a fascinating newsbit, mostly because it makes Swift seem like a stage-five clinger, but the real hook was the desperate, Gatsby-esque attempt to situate herself in physical proximity of the upper-crust.

 Swift crashes weddings, she breaks rules — she doesn’t even know the rules.  And she’s rubbing off on the Kennedys: she so angered the mother-of-the-bride that she made an official statement to the Boston Globe.  How very untoward.

But this anxiety is nothing new.  In the 1920s, there was all sorts of anxiety about the Hollywood “movie colony” and the type of celebrity it was breeding.  (That anxiety goes back even farther, mind you, to the rise of the vaudeville/stage stars in the late 19th century.  There was a sharp distinction in high American society between those who would deign to invite a “actress” to a party and those who would not.  You can probably guess the type of person who would).  Hollywood was filled with immigrants (and Jews!), it was far from the legislating eye of New York cafe society.  Los Angeles was the (relative) Wild West.  These stars were running wild.  They had accents, they wore little clothing, they drank and smoked and fornicated.  They probably did all of those things far less than people thought they did, but what mattered was the idea that they were low-class manners suddenly endowed with fortune: the very recipe for poor taste new money.

Old Money reifies and sustains itself by constantly defining itself against other types of money.  You can’t describe Old Money nearly as well as you can describe New Money, and that’s purposeful.  New Money is garish, outlandish, obvious; Old Money is none of those things.  New Money works hard to become Old Money, and once it does, it erases all signs of its past.  It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that the Kennedys were the very definition of New Money, with Joe Kennedy making a fortune in Hollywood and gallivanting all over the place with Gloria Swanson.

Most of the stars didn’t care about being Old Money — in fact, their images hinged on them being “normal,” everyday.  Clara Bow, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford: they were supposed to always be glamorous, but they were never “well-bred.”  They were just like you, only with better make-up artists and clothes.  That’s why you liked them.  And that’s why it’s so easy to dislike the 1%: they seem to be of entirely different stock.

Over the last 100 years, the lines between Hollywood and High Society have blurred.  Maria Shriver (a Kennedy) married Schwarzenegger.  Kathie Lee Gifford is somehow involved in all this wedding-crashing business.   Rat-Packer Peter Lawford married JFK’s sister.  JFK Jr. dated Daryl Hannah.  You get the picture.

But what fascinates me most about the breathless coverage of this relationship — which coincides with the release Swift’s very emotional, very public, very commercial (#1) single — is how much it reflects century-old anxieties about entertainment-based celebrity and their infiltration of America’s version of the landed gentry.  Old Money vs. New, 99% vs. 1%.  As always, the actions of celebrities become the backdrop against which we can talk about how, and why, various issues still matter: it might not feel comfortable to explicitly discuss how you feel about class divisions, but it feels fine to talk about whether or not it was okay for Taylor Swift to “crash” a Kennedy wedding.  And in that discussion, you implicitly reveal all sorts of opinions about taste, class, social practices….and whether or not it’s weird that little Conor Kennedy didn’t just attend with his family, who had presumably RSVPed for him.  KIDS THESE DAYS.

This isn’t the class war we see bandied about in the press every day.  But it’s a reminder that where your money comes from — and what you do with it — still very much matters.

Julia Roberts: Same Song, Twenty-Fifth Verse

I mean SERIOUSLY.

Back when I was a wee, scared first year Master’s student, I enrolled in course called “Female Hollywood Stars” without any understanding of what it would entail.  I liked Hollywood, I liked stars, who knows!  But this course, taught byKathleen Rowe Karlyn, was my first introduction to star studies, Richard Dyer’s Stars (the bible of star studies), and my first opportunity to perform my own star study.  I totally drank the theoretical kool-aid, as evidenced by my dissertation and this blog, but the first star study was both a marvel and a mess.

I chose Julia Roberts, who has long fascinated me, in part because she starred in the movie I most wanted but was forbidden to see: Pretty Woman.  I’d seen Mystic Pizza and learned that you should not buy a dress, wear it, and then return it.  My mom said that was unethical.  But then my Entertainment Weekly-obsessed self continued to read all about her various travails through the ’90s.  I couldn’t ever see the movies (save Hook), but her fling with Kiefer Sutherland, the dark ads for Sleeping with the Enemy, the flop of Mary Reilly —  I found it all fascinating.  (Obviously I was much more into star studies as a teenager than I ever understood).  And then she up and married Lyle Lovett!  YOU GUYS, I LOVE LYLE LOVETT.  My mom has been listening to him since forever, and I always had a hard time reconciling his crazy hair/face with his beautiful voice, but then Julia Roberts goes and authenticates my love.  Stars: They’re Powerful!

Point being, she was the closest thing I had to a movie star from my youth.  And in Fall of 2005, she was demonstrating her media savvy with her carefully (yet nonchalant) “reveal” of her twins as she and her husband took them on a walk.  I wanted to figure this lady out.

Or, more precisely, I wanted to figure out what Julia Roberts had meant and what she continued to mean.  I wanted to figure out exactly what people meant when they said that she was the only remaining female movie star.  Never having performed a star study before, I did what most novice scholars do: I did way, way too much research.  I read every academic article ever published on any film in which she had appeared (and let me tell you, feminist scholars have had a hay-day with Pretty Woman).  More importantly, I read every magazine and newspaper profile from 1988 – 2004.   THAT WAS CRAZY.  But I did amass a tremendous amount of research, and several “themes” of her star image became abundantly clear.  (I also wrote a 55 page seminar paper, which is another problem in and of itself).

Recurring themes of every profile written about Julia Roberts ever:

1.) She is from Smyrna, Georgia.  READ: SHE IS SOUTHERN, and her Southernness has made her the person she is today, i.e. polite and private.

2.) Her parents ran an acting school and her brother was an actor.  READ: Her talent is natural, and although she grew up around acting, she herself was never “trained.”

3.) She has a beautiful smile and a beautiful laugh, and once you are exposed to it you will be hers forever.  READ: She has charisma.  She is extraordinary.

4.) She is good friends with everyone on set, from the director to the crew. READ: Stars: They love their hairdressers and lighting techs, just like us!

5.) She is emotional and vulnerable, which explains her various romances, and how much she has been hurt by the press coverage of them.  She doesn’t understand what it means to be a “star” and doesn’t care for the lifestyle, which is why she lives in Taos instead of Hollywood.  READ: She’s not fake.  What you see is what you get.

6.) Pretty Woman was something magnificent.  READ: Being a sexual, self-sustaining woman (albeit a sex worker) sucks….until you snag yourself someone who will give you a credit card, take you to the opera, and “rescue you” into monogamy.  (That’s where the feminist critique comes in — not so much in the magazine articles, but always in the academic ones).

In many ways, Julia Roberts’ star image is pretty standard.  She’s equal parts extraordinary and ordinary, authentic and accessible yet still unfathomably charismatic.  She’s a lady and she’s a natural, and her star-making turn in Pretty Woman set the tone for the rest of  her star image.  As became clear over the course of the next 15 years, when she looked and acted like she did in Pretty Woman (curly, reddish hair, being a general sassy-pants) people went to her movies.  When she didn’t look or act that way — meaning, when she strayed from her established star image — they didn’t show up.  When she essentially reprised her Pretty Woman role, only this time inflected with politics instead of romance, she won an Oscar.  And since then, the pickings have been somewhat slim.  Playing somewhat against type in Closer, mocking her own image in Ocean’s 13, voicing Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web.  (I did love her in Duplicity, which is horribly underrated.  Clive Owen, come back to me! Where have you gone?)

This month, she reappears on the cover of Vanity Fair, publicizing the Tarsem-directed version of Snow White, entitled Mirror, Mirror, which will go head-to-head with the K-Stew-starring version, Snow White and the Huntsman.

If you’ve seen the trailers, the victor of this head-to-head already seems clear.

Mirror, Mirror:

Snow White and the Huntsman:

I mean, obviously K-Stew and Thor are going tromp all over Mirror, Mirror, which has some weird tone issues that I can’t quite put my finger on. Or maybe it’s just Julia Roberts being Julia Roberts? Don’t get me started on annoying voiceover man who just screams Minivan Majority. I could be wrong here; we’ll see somewhat shortly.

But this is Roberts’ first high profile cover in quite some time. Inside and on the cover, she looks great. No doubt.

I mean SERIOUSLY.

Note, however, that her hair looks like a slightly less version of Preferred Julia. Her hair is a bit more brown, but the overall look is how American likes to see her. (Roberts understands this: when she was promoting her comeback in My Best Friend’s Wedding, she told anyone who’d listen that “my hair is red and curly just the way you like it — come see this movie!”

In short, this Julia:

Is not all that different from this Julia, circa Notting Hill.

 

The pose, the come-hither closed-lip smile, the demurity, even the red accent color for the magazine — it’s all the same.  Less belly button, sure, but that’s only appropriate for a woman as modest as Roberts suggests herself to be.  (No nudity, just lots of cleavage and midriff).

And, of course, the profile: same song, 22nd verse.  I’ve written about the vapidity of the Vanity Fair profile elsewhere (here and here), but this profile had potential.  Sam Kashner, he of Bad and the Beautiful and umpteen classic Hollywood profiles (and recent subject of gossip himself), guides the conversation as Mike Nichols, Roberts’ director in Closer and Charlie Wilson’s War, interviews Roberts.  This could be interesting, right?  Not really, because a Vanity Fair profile is tasked with one thing: being as seemingly revelatory-while-revealing-nothing as possible.  Sometimes you get a gem, like when Jennifer Aniston admitted that Brad Pitt had a sensitivity chip missing, but most of the time, it’s all small talk pretending to be big talk.  (Which is part of the reason I adored Edith Zimmerman’s GQ profile of Chris Pine).

But I wanted to see if the same story of the 1990s and 2000s could be spun for a 2010s audience.  And, of course, it could:

The Laugh makes an appearance in the first paragraph:

“The first thing I heard was laughter from unheard jokes — it was her laugh the same one that we fell in love with when Richard Gere suddenly snapped the jewelry box shut on her in Pretty Woman.”

“If you are lucky enough to make her laugh, which Nichols does effortlessly, her voluptuous mouth breaks into a radiant grin.”

 

There’s the Uniqueness:

“There has been no one like her for quite a while now.”  
“One never tires of her, like seeing a shooting star: where did that come from? You are grateful to simply have seen it all.”

 “As far as Tarsem was concerned, the Evil Queen was the first character he was interested in casting.  ‘I knew that it would dictate the tone and age of everyone else. I was only interested in Julia.’”

There’s the ‘Natural,’ Effortless Talent:

Nichols: “I don’t know whether you ever found it hard or easy, Julia, because all of the machinery is invisible.  It’s a thing of yours in life too.  I don’t know whether you work out.  I don’t know how you got your shape back in what seemed to be 10 minutes…”
Nichols again: “I’m married to someone (Diane Sawyer) a little bit like you, in that the technique, the machinery of both the person and the work, is not only never discussed, it’s never even considered — it’s so personal that it doesn’t exist.  I think tha goes one with what I saw in the first shot of Mystic Pizza — it looks like like; it is life.”  

Nichols on first watching Roberts in Pretty Woman. : “I got very excited, because here was this amazing presence.  You weren’t young or not young; it had nothing to do with age.  The character was all about starting out.  But you seemed like you’d always been there.”  

 

There’s the Acting Family:

Kashner: “Julia, do you think you would have become an actor if you didn’t grow up in a theatrical family?”
“I don’t think I woudl have. I would’ve have seen it as a real option if my parents werent’ actors and my siblings…..It just wouldn’t have occurred to me [then lists pedigree]…Going to the theater is such a joyous experience.”

 

There’s the attempt to read Pretty Woman into her life/career:

Kashner: “Julia, do you see your life as fairy tale?”

[At which point Roberts says something that makes it clear that she doesn't, yet.....]

Kashner: “Your amazing career reads like a fairy tale.”  

 

As evidenced by the exchange above, a star doesn’t decide what parts of his or her backstory will become part of the lore.  Sometimes those motifs, pivotal moments, and themes are mapped onto your star image without any input from the star.  We understand how this works with negative publicity (a scandal becomes part of the narrative no matter how much a star would like it not to), but it’s crucial that we also see how it happens with more positive events.  Angelina Jolie, for example, doesn’t have much positive to say about being the daughter of Jon Voigt — indeed, her mother seems to have been a much, much stronger influence on her — but profiles love to excavate in her Hollywood pedigree.  We attribute stars with qualities that make sense, and it makes much more sense that Jolie, for all her uniqueness, would have gotten it through a Hollywood father.  What makes sense matters much less than what’s true.

But Roberts surprised me a bit at the end of this quasi-interview.  I was absolutely expecting some banality about hating stardom, dropping out of the game, loving her husband, etc. etc.  But she offered some actual insight — and as those of you who follow the blog know, there’s nothing I love more than a star who evidences his/her own understanding of the way that star images work.  (Most recently: George Clooney).

When Kashner asks her about the “idea of movie stardom,” and whether it’s “a cosmic riddle” she’s been “given to solve,” Roberts replies with a story of being on the streets with her family in Toronto:

“It was on a crowded street, and somebody noticed me, and then another person noticed.  Somebody said as we were walking past, ‘oh, That’s Julia Roberts.’ We just kind of kept going, and then Finn said, ‘Yeah, my mom’s Julia Robinson.’  That’s what gives you perspective.  It could be Robinson, it could be Johnson, because it has nothing to do with me as a person.”

Indeed.  That’s an understanding that only comes with twenty years of the press disarticulating a star image, with its own themes, peaks, and valleys, from your actual life.  It doesn’t matter who, exactly, Roberts is.  What matters is what she has come to mean.

Katy Perry: The Very Good, The Very Bad

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The other week I happened upon the latest issue of InStyle.  While InStyle popularized the notion that celebrities, as opposed to supermodels, sold fashion (and thus belonged on the cover of a fashion magazine), the magazine is pretty straight up minivan majority.  (If you’re unfamiliar with the term — which I borrow from Lainey Gossip — see my early, early post on the subject).  Point is: InStyle is fashion for “the rest of us,” and by “the rest of us” I mean people with a modicum of capital.  It’s not high fashion — that’s Vogue – but it’s also not cheap.  (Sometimes there’s a gesture towards thriftiness, but there are a whole lot of $100-$500 items featured in its pages).  Put it this way: people who read InStyle often also read Real Simple.  Reese Witherspoon and Katie Holmes are essentially the magazine’s mascots.

But InStyle put Katy Perry on its cover last month, very appropriately mixing her candy cotton pink hair with a super conservative-let’s-all-go-to-the-office-in-metallics dress that covered all that Perry usually bares.  But pink hair!  YOU GUYS, A GIRL WITH PINK HAIR ON A MAINSTREAM MAGAZINE!

This cover image is exactly what makes Perry so popular: just enough subversion to make her interesting, yet clothed in the thoroughly acceptable wardrobe of traditional American values.

What’s that you say?  Isn’t Katy Perry the girl who turned a song about making out with a girl into a number one hit?  Who put the words “I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It” onto the lips of millions of American girls?  Isn’t that actually subversive?  Not really, because while the song explicitly describes a queer activity (a girl kissing a girl) it’s actually a thoroughly heteronormative song.   A brief refresher:

This was never the way I planned, not my intention
I got so brave, drink in hand, lost my discretion
It’s not what I’m used to, just wanna try you on
I’m curious for you caught my attention

I kissed a girl and I liked it, the taste of her cherry chapstick
I kissed a girl just to try it, I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it
It felt so wrong, it felt so right, don’t mean I’m in love tonight
I kissed a girl and I liked it, I liked it

No, I don’t even know your name, it doesn’t matter
You’re my experimental game, just human nature
It’s not what good girls do, not how they should behave
My head gets so confused, hard to obey

In other words: kissing a girl is something that you do only when drunk, as an experiment, and can be “tried on” in the same fashion as a piece of clothing.  It’s something that you do while you still have a boyfriend and are thus firmly rooted in heterosexual identity.  I could go on, but the song (and Perry) construct queerness as an “experimental game,” not an identity or lifestyle. Or, as Beth Ditto, lead singer of The Gossip explains, I Kissed A Girl is a “boner dyke” anthem for “straight girls who like to turn guys on by making out or like faking gay.”

But then again, the song is catchy as shit.  So catchy, in fact, that it enabled millions of people who would hesitate to imagine themselves in queer scenarios to ACTUALLY SAY THAT THEY KISSED A GIRL AND THEY LIKED IT.  I realize that’s a lot of caps, and I realize this song is deeply problematic…..but that doesn’t mean that putting those words in girls’ mouths isn’t transgressive in some way.

Now, I realize that I’m arguing all sorts of things here — she’s heteronormative! Her vision of queerness is offensive and problematic!  She’s transgressive!  It’s true: Perry is all of those things.  Like most huge stars, her image is polysemic, meaning that it can “mean” many things at once, even if those things seem to blatantly contradict one another.

Because for every transgressive thing that Perry does, there’s something conservative to counter it.  For every pink dye job, there’s slightly sussed-up power suit.  She sings about getting wasted in Vegas, but her parents are pastors.  She appears on Sesame Street, but wears an outfit that shows too much of her breasts. She’s incredibly feminine (she loves pink! dresses! bubble gum!) but in a way that manages to be infused with sexuality. Her appearance consistently evokes the ’50s pin-up, with its mix of traditionalism and explicit sexual gratification.

Or take her relationship with Russell Brand.  Russell Brand is RIDICULOUS.  After watching Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I was pretty sure he was the funniest/crassest person alive.  He was also an alcoholic, a rampant drug abuser, and a general asshole.  Even Wikipedia says that he was “known for his promiscuity.”  Until he went to treatment, that is, and became follower of the Hindu faith and started a regular meditation practice.   Now he’s sober, even if his performances and image still emanate transgressiveness.

And Katy Perry didn’t just date Russell Brand, she MARRIED him.  Sure, celebrities often get married because they realize how it can positively affect their brand.  And while Perry and Brand didn’t sell the “exclusive rights” to their wedding, they did show footage from it on MTV. But she married him.  She didn’t date him; she didn’t have a child with him “out of wedlock,” she MARRIED HIM.  And as much as Kim Kardashian persists in making a mockery of the significance of marriage, it is important to remember that marriage is still a very traditional pledge of fidelity, and heterosexual marriage remains the antithesis of moral transgression.  But again: she’s married, but she’s married to RUSSELL BRAND.  Conservativeness tinged with rebellion.

Which brings me to her other, more recent, even more popular songs.  The songs that I quite frankly and unabashedly love.  I mean, “I Kissed a Girl” was catchy, but it also kinda sounded like a one-hit-wonder. I kinda hate “California Girls,” but there’s a reason it was the uncontested “Song of the Summer” last year — it’s addicting, it has Snoop Dogg, and it references pure and highly evocative pleasures.  Daisy Dukes Bikinis On Top, to be specific.  The description evokes skin and suggestiveness, but it’s coated in the saccharine sound of the actual song.

But then came “Teenage Dream,” which effectively reversed everything I’d thought previously thought about Katy Perry.  I thought that she was playing the celebrity game with certain savvy, but I also recoiled from her songs.  Yet “Teenage Dream” combined a pure pop anthem with a wistfulness, nostalgia, and simply evocative images of what it’s like to be young and think that you’re in love.  All of her songs have the same simple imagery, but something about the way she uses it in Teenage Dream — combined, of course, with the actual aural affect of the song — makes it exponentially more powerful.

“Firework” is a classic ballad with pretty little substance (other than HEY LISTENER, YOU’RE AWESOME), and “Last Friday Night,” which is basically a “I got drunk and did crazy shit” song, very much in the vein of “Wakin’ Up in Vegas” (from her first album), is still highly evocative and admittedly, okay, FINE, fun.  “E.T.” is about having sex with aliens!  That’s transgressive, right!  Only so fantastical as to not actually be transgressive AT ALL?  More like  a game of make believe?  But don’t forget: for the single, she let Kanye West rap a verse, which grants the otherwise derivative, B-Grade Dr. Luke song just enough edge to become popular.

Perry’s most recent single, “The One That Got Away,” returns to the “Teenage Dream” vein, describing what it’s like to be totally into someone, break up, and then think back and wonder what life would have been like.  If she added violins and a mandolin, this could be a country song.

And therein lies the crux of Perry’s success.  Sure, her image embodies the transgressive and the traditional.  You see this in her music videos, in her romances, in her sartorial choices.  But with the help of her very savvy producers, she also writes songs WITH STORIES.  And as Taylor Swift’s success has made abundantly clear, amidst all the unintelligble lyrics and songs that are essentially European disco tunes (LMFAO, I’m talking to you), there’s something incredibly attractive about a song where you can not only decipher the words, but understand and relate to the ways in which those words turn into a story.

And that, in the end, is what’s so highly contradictory and highly appealing about Perry: she tells highly traditional love stories, but she tells them with pink hair.  When she’s talking about getting drunk with her friends and not remembering, she’s doing so while also thoroughly married and abstaining from most drugs and alcohol.  She’s traditional and contemporary, topless on the cover of Esquire and suited-up on the cover of In Style.

And that dexterity and polysemy — just the right amount of edge, just the right amount of comfort — is why she’s a super star in the most technical sense of the term.  Hundreds of millions of people the world over listen to her music.  She’s the grand middle, and she’s done so by embodying both ends of the behavioral spectrum.

 

David Fincher, Rooney Mara, and that Creepy Vogue Profile

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The Gossip:

David Fincher, the director of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, has a weird, controlling relationship with his star, Rooney Mara (who plays the iconic Lisbeth Sander).

The Source:

A mid-length Vogue cover story.  The photos are worth the click alone.  I mean LOOK.

The Evidence:

Several descriptions and quotes of various levels of explicitness.

The most persuasive:

As Fincher talks about the film, his heroine, Mara—with Salander’s awesomely strange hair, bleached eyebrows, and facial piercings—sits next to him, looking for all the world like a troubled college student who takes too much Adderall. She hangs on his every word, her eyes lit with admiration. Their relationship, it quickly becomes clear, is charged with the electric current of the mentor-protégée crush, which is both touching and occasionally uncomfortable to watch. Or, as Daniel Craig, who costars as a crusading journalist named Mikael Blomkvist, says about their working relationship, “It’s fucking weird!”

Oh, and also this:

When a waiter appears to take our order, we are all looking at our menus, but I see out of the corner of my eye Fincher nudging Mara. He says with quiet seriousness, “You can eat.” I look up to see her reaction. Mara rolls her eyes, and Fincher laughs. “You can have lettuce and a grape. A raisin if you must.” She orders a piece of fish and barely touches it. In the book, Salander is described as boyish and awkward, “a pale, anorexic young woman who has hair as short as a fuse. . . .” Noomi Rapace, the magnetic star of the Swedish versions, looked more like Joan Jett. “One of the things that make our version that much more heartbreaking,” says Mara, “is that even though I am playing a 24-year-old, I look much younger. I look like a child.” I ask if she had to get unhealthily skinny for the role. She says, “Umm . . . not really.”

“It hasn’t been too hard for her,” Fincher quickly adds.

Then there’s the simple evidence of her transformation:

Mara is wearing a slight variation of what she had on last night: black leather boots, a pair of gray drop-crotch parachute pants from Zara, and a vintage Swedish military shirt that she pinched from wardrobe. Google pictures of pre–Dragon Tattoo Rooney and you will find a pretty young thing with lustrous brown hair and bright blue-green eyes. “Before, I dressed much girlier,” she says. “A lot of blush-colored things. Now I literally roll out of bed and put on whatever is there. I have really enjoyed being a boy this last year.”

And the fact that a girl that looked like this:

Now looks like this:

But the interview also emphasizes Mara’s inherent transmutability, and how it works well with Lisbeth’s only “cipher-like” qualities:

Once Fincher approached McGrath, she went straight online to see who was playing Lisbeth Salander. “When I saw that it was Rooney,” she says, “and I saw those bony features, those cheekbones, those eyes, I said, ‘I can’t wait.’ I was instantly inspired. It’s like in fashion, when you get a girl who has one of those haunting faces that you can do absolutely anything with.”

At the center of all of this howling evil is the strangely relatable Lisbeth Salander, a damaged, vengeful, brilliant, androgynous cipher…

If it took a lot of work to make Mara look the part, in some ways she already possessed the right stuff. “I am very slow to warm,” Mara says. “I’ve always been sort of a loner. I didn’t play team sports. I am better one-on-one than in big groups.” This, she says, is one reason she gets the character. “I can understand wanting to be invisible and mistrusting people and wanting to understand everything before you engage with the world.”

Oh, and lest you think that Fincher and Mara are totally doing it, the author of the profile (Jonathan Van Meter — it’s not insignificant that the author is a male) notes that Fincher’s partner has been a key component in the Mara to Lisbeth transformation.

[Rooney] also gets to reside, at least for now, in the family-like cocoon of Fincherworld. Everyone raves about Fincher’s secret weapon, his romantic partner (and producer for the past nineteen years), Ceán Chaffin. A cheerful, formidable presence, she seems to be handling the work of a dozen people, including acting as Mara’s publicist. “She’s incredible,” says Mara. “They are the best people to work with. They will tell you exactly how it is, even if they think you won’t like it. Everything is on the table.” As Daniel Craig tells me, “I wish I’d had someone like David at Rooney’s age just to guide me and say what’s good and what’s bad. You don’t know at that age. You are full of confidence, but you are also full of huge insecurities.”

If you didn’t get the implicit message, I’ll make it clear: Fincher is not sleeping with Mara.  In fact, his partner is also involved in the process, and they act like her parents.  Maybe sorta.  Gurus?

Or even better yet, Svengalis.

You’ve probably heard the term bandied about, but don’t know the precise meaning.  Svengali was a character in a novel by the 19th century French author George du Maurnier, and he turned a talentless woman into a phenomenal singer through hypnosis.  While she was hypnotized, she’d do whatever he ordered — including singing beautifully — but it also meant that she could not function without him.  Today, the terms connotes an unhealthy relationship between a mentor and a mentee, in which the mentor psychologically manipulates the mentee, rendering him/her dependent upon the praise and affirmation of the mentor.

The most famous Hollywood Svengali story was between German star Marlene Dietrich and the Austrian director Josef Von Sternberg. In 1930, Von Sternberg cast the relatively unknown Dietrich in The Blue Angel, and the film went on to huge international success.  Paramount took note, and brought both director and star stateside and signed them to long-term contracts.  The two went on to make seven films together, the beautiful Shanghai Express and super weirdly awesome Scarlett Empress.  Plus the two films were Dietrich dresses as a man and famously kisses a woman (Morocco, Blonde Venus).

These seven films are various levels of remarkable, but the real story was extra-textual: how the two related, how Dietrich seemed to be under Von Sternberg’s spell, how they seemed to most definitely be romantically involved in some way.

Von Sternberg and Dietrich with Matching Haircuts

Whatever was happening, it’s clear that Dietrich’s films without Von Sternberg lacked the magic of their collaborations.  Indeed, with the exception of Destry Rides Again (1940) and the absolutely jaw-dropping performance in Touch of Evil (1958), her post Von Sternberg career has faded away.

Yet it was always somewhat unclear what was going on between Dietrich and Von Sternberg, just as it’s unclear what’s going on between Fincher and Mara, save an artistic relationship that, as portrayed by this particular author in this particular magazine, reads as creepy.  Fincher comes off as exacting director who has molded an unformed actress into his perfect Salander; Mara comes off as a naive young woman who has submitted herself and her career to Fincher’s will, trusting that he will not destroy her.

But again, to be clear, this is a story.  Interviews and profiles have a narrative line just as novels and films do.  The quotes have been checked and the interviews occurred, but the description is the author’s entirely.  I do not doubt that Mara deferred to Fincher; I do not doubt that she looks to him for guidance.  But I do doubt that the relationship between the two is as, well, dramatic as the author characterizes.

The author’s stake in making the relationship so sensational should be clear: not only does a story with these sort of details create more interest in the story (and more clicks to the website, more blog posts such as this one), but it also abstractly recreates some of the dynamics of the film.  While Salander proves herself to be cunning and the very opposite of passive, there are moments — especially in the first book/film — in which she is passive, and cannot self-actualize (or fulfill her potential) without the guidance/assistance of a man.  That man may be a positive figure (her boss, Blomkivst), but the man may also be providing negative reinforcement (her parole officer).  But the fact remains: Salander reacts instead of acting, just as Mara seems to be reacting to Fincher’s stimuli instead of acting on her own.

Again, I’m not saying that this is actually happening.  It probably isn’t.  But a profile that recreates the dynamics of the characters in the film is much, much more interesting to read — and encourages readers to then go see the film — than one that asserts that the actors are nothing like the characters they play onscreen.  It’s classic star theory: we want our stars to have coherent images, in which their extra-textual lives mesh and complement their performances on the screen.  This profile is indeed creepy and disturbing and treads the knife-edge between feminist actualization and misogyny.  But then again, so does the book, and so will the film.

“If Celebrities Moved To Oklahoma” — Pretty Faces, Poor Bodies

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A curious link crossed my Facebook feed the other day, as curious links seem to do.  And because it had the words “celebrity” and “Idaho” in it, I obviously clicked.  The link to led a page — officially “If Celebrities Moved to Oklahoma,” variously renamed “If Celebrities Moved to Missouri,” “If Celebrities Moved to Idaho,” “If Celebrities Moved to Alabama” — whose premise was stunningly simple.

The page design itself is straight out of 2001, but the photoshop work is masterful.  The faces are those of recognizable celebrities, but the bodies (and situations) are those of the clearly poor and/or working class.  The states may change, but the suggestion is the same: what would it look like if celebrities were poor?

Here are a few, but there are about a dozen in total on the site:

People play with Photoshop all the time, but there’s something particularly uncanny about this set of photos.  And I think it has everything to do with class signifiers and, more importantly, the “labor” of celebrity these photos illuminate.

Class signifiers are the visual keys that signal that someone is poor.  These visual keys can be divided into two categories: the physical body and the things that surround that body (clothes, jewelry, backgrounds, food items, etc).


In this picture of “Poor” Hilary Duff, for example, the body isn’t entirely visible, but we do see her hair, which is limp, poorly cut, and poorly styled.  Not all poor people have limp, poorly cut, or poorly stylized hair (nor do all middle or upper class people have nice hair) but those three things signal a lack of funds for expensive (flattering) haircuts and expensive (flattering) hair product.

“Poor” Hilary Duff is also wearing fake pearls and an unfashionable blazer that doesn’t fit her frame, and knock-offs and poor tailoring = cheap.  (Ill-fitting clothes can also signify that the item was a hand-me-down, or that it was purchased at a second-hand store).  Again, lower-class.

Then there’s the matter of the background — cluttered, Precious Moments figurines, drawers that look like they might be for scrapbooking.  All the opposite of an upper-class aesthetic and upper-class hobbies.  These are small details, but they combine to thoroughly class this body, no matter the face on it.


But the class elements aren’t always so obvious.  Take Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones: Zeta-Jones has been inflated a bit (fatness is a ready signifier for lower class) and Douglas has a bad haircut/weird dye job.  The clothes aren’t all that bad, although the suit jacket/tye look cheap.  More than anything, it’s the setting for the photo, which is clearly that of traveling professional photographer (usually for a church, but can be for another organization) who poses couples and families in front of a drab-colored background (sometimes it’s autumn leaves, sometimes it has sweet laser beams).  We all know these companies — I think the one for my church was Olin Mills.  They’re like the skeezy step-brothers of the photography companies that take pictures of school kids, and the photos are never entirely flattering, the posing is always awkward, and the lighting is rarely good.

But most importantly, the photos are cheap.  But in order for the price of the photo packages to remain low, the photographer can’t spend time on things like posing and lighting, doing editing in post-production, or changing settings.  People with means get professional photographers who take shots of babies in the magic hour with natural light and multiple clothing changes; people without those means still want pictures of their family looking nice, and they get them from Olin Mills (or from Sears, or Wal-Mart, or whatever else is cheap).

And what about this picture of Poor Tom Cruise?  Sure, the jeans look cheap, and the v-neck is oversized.  But what else makes it so clear that this body is a classed one?  I’m not entirely convinced on this one, but I think there’s two things going on: 1.) He’s doing something totally awkward and 2.) It’s so clearly a a crappy snapshot.  Because here’s the thing: Tom Cruise does awkward, cheesy, trying-to-be-funny things all the time.  But with the veneer of wealth — and the gloss of paparazzi photography — he doesn’t look nearly as foolish.  Wealth provides a veneer that distracts from and masks awkwardness.  Take the wealth away, and you have a guy in ill-fitting clothes pushing his pelvis out Steve Urkel style.

As for Poor Johnny Depp — there’s the face bloat, of course, and the limp hair.  Out-of-date hairstyles and clothing are automatic markers of ruralness and poverty, as the distance from “fashion centers,” both economically and physically, mean that fashion either arrive late or never leave.  (See the mullet above, which is clearly not ironic).  There’s also the suggestion of some sort of ethnicity — Depp is meant to be either part Hispanic or part Italian, it’s unclear — with the earrings and the hair, and clear signifiers of ethnic subgroups suggest low class.  (Think of the Chola’s hairstyle and lip color).

Now, to be clear, I don’t think that all people who look this way are poor, or that all people who don’t look this way have money.  But we make judgments about people based on the clothes they wear and the way their bodies look, and these signifiers — earrings on men, bad facial hair, outdated haircuts, pictures from Olin Mills, Precious Moments figurines — are markers that we use to sort people into categories.  Those who have money, those who do not.  Those who are sophisticated, those who are not.  Those who are in our own class, those who are not.  Those who can be ridiculed, and those who we admire and emulate.

Those who could be celebrities, those who could never be.

And that’s where it gets sticky, because what these photos emphasize is that any face can be celebritized.  Just look at the Poor Version of John Travolta:

Doesn’t “real” John Travolta actually look quite similar?  It’s a thin line, readers, but that line is made of money.  Any face — and any body — can be celebritized.  But the amount of capital necessary to turn a low-class body into a high-class one is tremendous.  You need a wardrobe of clothes, of course, and appropriate accessories, but you also need training in how to take care of your body, how to eat in order to maintain a unnaturally slim figure, how to comport yourself in public, how to use language that makes you sound educated.   You need facials and pedicures and microderm abrasions.  You need expensive hair coloring, and you need it every other week.  You need at least an hour to do your own hair, or at least an hour for someone else to do your hair.  You need your skin lightened if you’re a person of color and your skin bronzed if you’re white.  You need hours upon hours to devote to a photographer who will not only light and pose you in the most flattering way possible, but then hand your photos off to a professional retoucher who will erase any signs of imperfection, a.k.a. things that don’t look high class.

The power of these photos, then, is the way that they illuminate the amount of capital it takes to make bodies not look like this.  Celebrities weren’t born looking gorgeous and sophisticated.  They are created; they are the product of capitol.  That process is elided, in part because the allure of the celebrity is the effortlessness with which he or she appears.  But it’s absolutely crucial for us to remember, if only to recall that bodies are never automatically “trashy” or “classy,” “famous” or “poor,” including our own.

Ask yourself: what marks you as a certain class to those walking down the street?  And what type of clothing, behavior, accessories, and speech suggest class most strongly to you?  Americans love money, but hate talking about class — in part because the clear divisions between classes are so antithetical to what America supposedly stands for.  I’m not saying that class signifiers should go away, or that we should get rid of celebrities.  But we should be thoughtful about class, especially the images and ideas in pop culture that are used as short-hand for class, as they silently structure our lives and the divisions between us.

J. Lo Rising

usweekly

So Jennifer Lopez and Marc Antony broke up.  So People makes it clear that it’s not amicable with a cover story.  So “her side of the story” is on the cover of this week’s Us.  So there seem to be a lot of down-and-dirty details, including an email from Lopez’s mom to Ben Affleck.  You can find a great recap of the recent hoopla on Lainey.

This is, as Lainey makes clear, good for gossip.  But what people aren’t talking about — at least not explicitly — is how good this is for Lopez.

A year ago, Lopez was nearing irrelevancy.  When she was suggested for judge position on American Idol, people scoffed.  Her collaborations with Marc Antony had tanked (at least stateside) and she seemed a relic of an earlier era — the celebrity antecedent to the Kim Kardashians and Beyonces of the world.  (I mean, doesn’t Maid in Manhattan seem like a relic?  And Jenny from the Block?  AND THAT WEIRD SURVEILLANCY ‘IF YOU HAD MY LOVE’ VIDEO, which I totally watched on repeat as a senior in high school in the basement of my best friend’s house while trying to replicate dance moves? And Selena, GOD, Selena!)

But then there was Affleck, and then there was Gigli, and then there was the break-up and then there was massive overexposure, and then there was Marc Anthony and all sorts of speculation over why she would marry Hispanic Skeletor.  (One of the best theories: he told her to move the F away from Miami, and then the paps would stop hassling her.  She did, and her life became less of a circus).  But as her life became less of a circus, she also became less interesting.

She tried to have babies to make herself interesting. Twins, even!  (She might have also wanted to have babies for other reasons, but trust me, readers, she also wanted to have babies to respark interest in her.  Just look at Posh.  Sometimes I think the baby-making (or baby-adoption; I’m talking to you, Denise Richards) can signify as the most desperate of publicity moves.  (TO BE CLEAR: I do not think that celebrities don’t want their babies, or do it simply for publicity.  But it is a convenient and strategic by-product).  But the twins didn’t work — at least not publicity wise; I’m sure they work as children just fine — and Lopez was left with more failed projects and nickname that just wouldn’t go away, no matter how much she insisted on being called Jennifer Lopez.

But then J. Lo’s fortunes turned.  Despite rumors that she would not be hired on American Idol due to “outrageous demands” (her bottled water preferences are very specific), audiences like her, People named her the world’s most beautiful woman, and she’s become highly visible to a broad swath of America once again.

Which might explain how her new album, featuring the single “Up on the Floor” has also done well.

In the video for “On the Floor,” she not only proves that she still has a ridiculous body (I mean seriously, this woman is 41, that’s amazing) but also hails two generations of listeners at once: by allowing Pitbull to call her “J.Lo,” she’s re-embracing the image (and fandom) that made her famous in late ’90s/early 2000s; by having the song feature Pitbull himself, she bolsters her appeal to the Latin market and to the teen market.  (Unlike Marc Antony, Pitbull’s recent music has crossed over into the Top 40 mainstream market).   The song peaked at #3 on the American charts, giving Lopez her first hit since 2003.

In other words, the music — aka the talent, or the thing that undergirds celebrity — is back.  So is the visibility.  What was missing, then, was the intrigue — because to be a big-time celebrity in America, you need all three.

Lopez solved that problem last week with the unexpected break-up from Marc Antony…..which then snowballed into the the accusations and the People cover and the tell-all with Us.  Which completes the celebrity triangle: talent, visibility, and extra-textual intrigue.  She’s back in the gossip mags — which, combined with a hit single and a continuing gig on Idol (plus rumors of a stint on Glee next year) means she’s back in the game.

Obviously, broken marriages suck.  But gossip is always the inverse of real life: things that are bad in real life are good gossip; things that are good in real life are bad gossip.  And, at least for the time being, things couldn’t be going better — gossip-wise, career-wise, image-wise — for J. Lo, Pt. 2.

But the reason I wrote this wasn’t necessarily to point out that Lopez is a bonafide celebrity again. it’s to point out the ways in which celebrities (with the help of their agents) wield personal developments to their personal benefit. I don’t think it’s necessarily cynical to believe this — it’s just the way that image-making works. It worked like this in classic Hollywood (if not more so) and it continues to work that way today. The timing of this break-up was no mistake, falling, as it did, during a lull in publicity for Lopez, Idol, and her music. The goal for celebrities, whether big time like Angelina Jolie or small time like Jennifer Love Hewitt, is to always have something to keep your name on people’s lips, whether in the form of a hit song, a new movie, “25 Things You Don’t Know About Me,” a new baby, or a break-up.

Jennifer Lopez, the living-breathing-person, probably doesn’t love exploiting her personal life. But Jennifer Lopez, the image, the celebrity, the concept that lives in people’s minds, demands it.