Step Up 3 and The Soulless Spectacle

3d

I have a confession that’s not really much of a confession.  I LIKE DANCE MOVIES.  So does a lot of America, so does a lot of the world.  Whether Singin’ in the Rain, old Fred Astaire and Ginger Roberts, or Center Stage, we’re suckers for synchronization on film.

Which is why I should be the perfect candidate for a movie like Step Up 3 (3D while in theaters).  All dance, all the time.  Indeed, it’s almost entirely eschewed plot in favor of dance, dance practice, and more dance.  (The movie is an hour and forty minutes long; I guarantee at least 80 minutes of that are dance in some form).  I mean, the plot’s there — there’s a double-cross, dead parents, a mortgage that’s due, adversaries with vaguely evil and explicitly racialized identities — but bygones.  It’s all about the dance.  Right?

Or so I thought.  And so did its producers and distributors.  The more dance and spectacle, the better.  The more flashing lights, the more elevating Slurpee/make-out scene (has to be seen to be believed; I can only find it on YouTube dubbed in German, which makes it even more ridiculous), the more globally-marked characters (every prospective market in the world!), the more square-jawed-male-protagonists, the more immaculate the dance space (a loft devoted ONLY TO DANCING — this is like the treehouse-no-parents-allowed of dancing, filled with padded walls and foam pits and walls of boom boxes), the more complicated light-suits, the better.  Plus a hot guy, a hot girl, a gangly guy who’s a good dancer, and a weird sub-plot about going to school at NYU but realizing that school is for suckers; you’ve just got to DANCE.

But here’s the thing: Step Up 3 is TOO FUCKING MUCH.  Too much CGI-assistance, too much light-up dance suits, too much elevating slurpee.  I never thought I’d say this, but there’s too much dancing.

It’s the same thing that gets me with Transformers, Iron Man 2, or any of the Pirates sequels: too much spectacle, not enough narrative thread.  Now, this balance of narrative and spectacle has a long history — the very earliest cinema was ostensibly devoid of narrative, offering pure spectacle.  (Tom Gunning famously, or at least famously within media studies, termed it the “cinema of attractions.”)  These short films (usually between 20 seconds and 2 minutes) were all about anticipation, surprise, large objects doing big things that you don’t see everyday, beautiful and/or grotesque people doing unexpected or beautiful things with their bodies, and the promise of sex.  Kinda sounds like an action film, right?   Trains arriving at a station, a couple preparing to kiss, a vent in New York where people walked by and had their skirts blown up, a strong man flexing for the camera — it was all spectacle, and it was all appealing, especially to people who’d never seen film before.  People watched these either on individual players (where you put a penny in, put your eyes to a little scope, and then watched it play out) or, as time went on, in nickelodeons, which were more like what we think of as traditional movie theaters, only in small store fronts in urban areas.

To be somewhat reductive, filmmakers gradually realized that they could make their spectacles more compelling by adding narrative.  The most famous examples are the films of Edwin S. Porter (Jack and the Beanstalk, Life of an American Fireman, The Great Train Robbery) and George Melies (A Trip to the Moon), but others quickly caught on and realized that stories sold better than pure spectacle.  Crucially, these narratives still had spectacle — in the Great Train Robbery, there’s still hand-tinted coloring, a big fight on a moving train, and, most famously, an end shot with a man pointing a gun at the audience and firing (Scorsese pays homage to this shot at the end of Goodfellas).

As cinema continued to develop, reaching “full length” with the likes of The Birth of a Nation in 1915.  Audiences liked these films because they not only told a story, but they did so in a way that was exciting and visually compelling — these were the proto-action films, and the lessons learned from them have endured to today.

But every so often, the balance between narrative and spectacle gets unbalanced, and spectacle takes over, usually ending in critical or fiscal failure.

This can happen in a number of ways.

In the Hollywood of today, it usually has something to do with too much technological manipulation — this happens in Transformers; this doesn’t happen in Lord of the Rings. (It does, however, in Peter Jackson’s King Kong). When a technology is new, then people will go see the overweighted spectacle just for the novelty of it: see, for example, Beowulf, which was the first to really use 3D, or 300, which was the first to make historical figures looks like video game characters.  But it wears off, especially when audiences fail to see the display of technology as entertaining.  Thus the (relative) failure of dozens of 3D films over the past year.

But films can also collapse under the weight of their stars, as evidenced by Cleopatra, fatally overloaded by the spectacle of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton onscreen together.  Tom Cruise (and the spectacle of him in an eye patch) sank Valkyrie. (Of course, A mass of stars does not necessarily sink a movie — see Oceans 11. They just need to be distributed properly).  Even the spectacle of an overblown budget (and the publicity for it) can sink a film, best exemplified by the fate of Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, Last Action Hero, Waterworld, and The Postman.

Which is all to say that when a single part of the movie — star, scandal, CGI robots — becomes “heavier” than the movie as a whole…..then usually the movie ends up stinking, as the film as a whole doesn’t equal the sum of its spectacle parts.

And that’s what’s happened with Step Up 3 — all CGI-assisted dance spectacle, no feeling.  The dances in this film are a marvel to behold, but there’s very little feeling of awe.  I don’t wonder how can they physically do that because I know the answer: they can’t.  Computers did it for them.

Take, for example, the “final battle” scene:

Now, the first round is very non-CGI, very much something you’d see on the likes of So You Think You Can Dance — a show that, like the bulk of talent-based reality programming, is all spectacle, the same way that vaudeville and variety shows were spectacle in their respective eras.  And that’s fine; I like it okay.

But then, right around 3:15, it becomes obvious that the film has been edited, sped up, accentuated, and otherwise modified to make the dancing more spectacular than it is.  Now, this isn’t to say that the dancers aren’t still amazing — obviously, they are — but because this film needed to one-up what all of the other films had done, the only place to go was to digital manipulation.  Which is cool, but really only as cool as watching robots dancing.  I don’t feel energized by this scene so much as numbed by it.

What will make me feel something?  Is it dancing on air?  Upside down?  On fire?

See, here’s where it gets tricky: I don’t want more.  I want more affect.  I want something that will make me feel something.  And in that department, less can be infinitely more.

Take, for example, the famous Moses Supposes scene from Singin’ in the Rain, which essentially requires two men, a table, a chair, and some cardboard signs.

Or, even better, the dance studio scene from Center Stage — these performers aren’t gorgeous, there aren’t any specific effects, they’re just “dancing the shit” out of Stevie Wonder.  In fact, they’re totally dorky looking, but isn’t there something palpable to this?

OR EVEN BETTER, the dance club scene from the first Step Up, which accounts for 92.2% of my love for Channing Tatum (the other 8.8% comes from the little-seen-but-spectacular Fighting).

Again, this is the dorkiest scene ever, and completely unbelievable, even for people who live in Baltimore and go to an arts magnet school.  But wouldn’t you rather watch this like fifty times — especially that weird little part when The Tatum pops his collar — than robots with club clothes on doing, um, the robot?  With LED lights on their backs?  Doesn’t it make you feel something — maybe it’s excitement, maybe it’s lust, maybe it’s just ‘I want to see that again’ — in a way that the Step Up 3 dance scenes don’t?

The other reason all three of these scenes work is they each tell us something about the characters and their relationship with one another and the world around them.  Put differently, it’s spectacle that advances the plot, or that is infused with plot….rather than a YouTube video in the middle of an otherwise bad narrative.  The very early filmmakers had to figure out how to integrate the two, and as evidenced by the latest wrath of cold, feelingless summer spectacles, it’s a problem with which filmmakers are still (re?) grappling.

I’m not saying that I need spectacle-based films to have great plots or great acting.  This is so obviously not going to happen.  I don’t need complicated character development, I don’t even really need plausible narratives.  But if the narrative itself doesn’t make me feel anything, then I need the spectacle to take up the slack.  And when it’s all spectacle, no heart…..then you’ve also got yourself a soulless piece of art.

Guest Post! Pioneer Woman: Betty Crocker for the Digital Age

The Pioneer Woman and her "punks"

The following post is from Melanie Haupt, a PhD candidate in English at UT, freelance writer, and blogger extraordinaire. You can find her Celebrity Proust Questionnaire here.

Anne (or, shall I say, DR. PETERSEN) has already done a lot of work here explaining and analyzing how the star image works within the context of Hollywood (I am using “Hollywood” here as a catch-all for the system she describes). I’m here to talk about the Pioneer Woman from a feminist food studies perspective; part of this blog entry is an excerpt from my dissertation, which looks at how women use recipes, cookbooks, food blogs, and other texts to make themselves and their communities of meaning visible both within and outside of the context of domesticity.

In the spring 2011 issue of Bitch magazine, an article contending with the phenomenon of mommy bloggers complained that when Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, appears on the Today show to make cinnamon rolls, she is never asked to discuss her success as a self-made media juggernaut. Rather, she is constrained within the identity of “Mommy” (or some other similarly domesticity-entrenched image) rather than celebrated for her professional success. Sarah McAbee writes,

Despite the complexity of these blogging powerhouses, the mainstream media seems content to categorize them as just, well, moms.  Not professional bloggers, not businesspeople, not brands in and of themselves. [...] By emphasizing the domestic and ignoring the professional aspects of these figures, the media ensures that even the blogosphere’s mommy moguls fit neatly into the dominant pop culture narrative in which women have to choose between the competing world of family and career/creative work.  Instead, bloggers like [Heather] Armstrong [of Dooce.com] and Drummond have actually made a business of their home life, blurring the boundaries between the domestic and the public spheres.

Well, yes and no. Of course the Pioneer Woman is going to talk about making cinnamon rolls on the Today show, because the Pioneer Woman is a product, not a person. No one is going to tune in to Oprah or a morning magazine news show to hear a woman talk about how she became a media mogul, because the identity of “media mogul” doesn’t fit the persona Ree Drummond has created for herself in the Pioneer Woman. In other words, I don’t think that the Pioneer Woman’s Today show cooking segments are part of some media conspiracy to keep women barefoot and homeschooling in the kitchen. Rather, they are way stations on the trajectory of professional development that Ree Drummond has plotted for herself as a celebrity blogger.

The Pioneer Woman and her "punks"

Laura Shapiro, in Something From the Oven (2005), describes the genesis of “live trademarks” in 1950s America that gave rise to the phenomenon of fictional female characters serving as home economics advisers to befuddled housewives. These contrived home economists included Mary Blake for Carnation Evaporated Milk, Chiquita Banana of United Fruit, Mary Alden and Aunt Jemima of Quaker Oats, and, of course, Betty Crocker of General Mills. These characters “were designed to project specific, carefully researched characteristics to women shopping for their households. ‘Ideally, the corporate character is a woman, between the ages of 32 and 40, attractive but not competitively so, mature but youthful-looking, competent yet warm, understanding but not sentimental, interested in the consumer but not involved with her’” (30). The image of Betty Crocker was crafted by General Mills in response to countless housewives writing in needing troubleshooting tips and advice for baking cakes, pies, and biscuits; “The company saw this as a good chance to communicate with customers, so home economists on staff answered every letter, signing them all ‘Betty Crocker’” (32). Some might argue that in addition to serving as the genesis of the live trademark, but also that of conversation marketing, in which a company strikes up a social relationship with the consumer. With that relationship came increased trust and, naturally, increased sales:

General Mills could see that Betty Crocker was unparalleled when it came to reaching homemakers and building trust in the company. The phenomenal success of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, published in 1950 with a then record-breaking first printing of nearly a million copies, showed just how much home cooks wanted the simply phrased reassurance and reliable advice they associated with her name. (Shapiro 34)

Betty Crocker is best known today as the symbolic figure on the cake-mix box, although Adelaide Cummings portrayed her from 1949-1964 in Betty’s various television appearances, delivering the carefully mediated combination of sentiment, empathy, authority, and references to General Mills products for which her constructed image had become known. Ultimately, Betty’s job was to demystify the process of cooking via emphasizing convenience items like cake mixes, enabling women to unchain themselves from the kitchen while continuing to lovingly provide their families with homemade foods.

Similarly, Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, is a mediated image dedicated (in part) to helping people who are uncomfortable in the kitchen discover a love of cooking via her step-by-step instructional cooking entries. She shares stories of embarrassment and silly behavior, offers up gift suggestions, hosts giveaways of expensive items paid for by revenue generated by the site, and promotes a community of sameness that invites the reader to identify with the Pioneer Woman’s foibles. Only in this case, rather than providing the humanized face of a giant corporation, the brand behind the living trademark is Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman herself.

And yet, this has not always been the case with the Pioneer Woman. Where the blogger named Ree Drummond, writing in 2006 and 2007, frequently uses mild profanity; writes long, revealing entries in which she shares disturbing or humorous episodes from her past; and describes herself as a “malcontented, angst-ridden desperate housewife” (May 12, 2006), the blogger known as the Pioneer Woman writes pithy, self-deprecating entries that follow an established formula and adhere to a consistently breezy tone. However, because the archives of the blog’s early days are still relatively intact, readers can piece together a very different portrait of Ree Drummond, separate from the highly polished, mediated image of the Pioneer Woman of today. For example, the poetry populating the blog’s earliest entries, a series Drummond titled “Poetry of a Madwoman” and presented in “volumes,” is surprisingly candid and evocative. For example, “Volume 7,” published May 12, 2006, reads,

I’m a pool of flesh.
A puddle of exhaustion on the dirty tile floor.
I can’t get up.
I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.
I have no button on a chain around my neck
With which to summon help.
Would that I did so I could be whisked away
In an ambulance.
Sirens blaring.
People staring.
I’d ask them to drop me off at a hotel.
Room service.
Maid service.
Laundry service.
Two days of this heaven
And I’d muster the strength to carry on. Until next month.

Here Drummond expresses a deep sense of fatigue stemming from her duties as a housewife and mother and evokes the pathos of the Life Alert medical protection system commercials that feature feeble elderly people in dangerous positions after falling down. Unlike the people in the commercial, the enfeebled-by-housework Drummond does not have the safety net provided by the electronic assistance alert, and has no one to help her.  She expresses a desire to spend two days alone in a hotel where there are staff to assume the duties she is responsible for on a daily basis: cooking, cleaning, and laundry. The underlying mood is that of a woman dissatisfied and exhausted by the grueling and repetitive duties incumbent upon her as a stay-at-home mother. While the tone is somewhat wry, the subtext is that the work of the housewife is Sisyphean and thankless.

A few days later, “Volume 9” (May 22, 2006) reveals a similar dissatisfaction with her body:

I’m fat
So very fat.
These thirteen bastard pounds
Cling to my gut
Like a marsupial suckling.
My thin, shapely legs
Are mankind’s greatest deception.
Just travel north a foot or two
And a blubbery hell awaits.
Bring me cheese.
Fresh mozzarella cheese.
And chocolate by the load.
I’m nothing but a toad.
I’m fat.

Here Drummond ventriloquizes the self-loathing women are expected to express when they carry excess weight, and humorously expresses the tension between feeling anxious about that extra weight and wanting to feed that anxiety with chocolate and cheese.  This stands in contrast to the self-deprecating tone Drummond takes in regard to her love handles and jiggly arms in her mediated “Pioneer Woman” image.

This cheery, self-deprecating version of the Pioneer Woman, I should note, is wildly popular. She is wildly popular not because the recipes are particularly remarkable – her repertoire includes chocolate mousse made from Hershey bars, cornbread, cinnamon rolls, chicken spaghetti, all very Midwestern, middle-class fare — or that homeschooling is particularly remarkable, but because she has crafted an online persona that women have responded to almost universally. The site garners more than 20 million hits per month. In a recently published New Yorker profile, Drummond reluctantly admits to bringing in more than $1 million from the site alone (who knows how much she’s netting from the advances and royalties from her books, any Food Network revenue, and Hollywood development deals).

The Pioneer Woman Cooks became a New York Times bestseller and was one of Amazon.com’s Top 10 books of 2010. When Drummond (along with her husband and children) appeared at BookPeople in Austin to promote her cookbook in December 2009, the second floor of the bookstore was packed and people waited in line for more than an hour to get their cookbooks signed. Black Heels to Tractor Wheels was a bestseller on Amazon.com before its February 1, 2011 release. In short, in five years’ time, the Pioneer Woman has become a cultural juggernaut among middle-class American women in an increasingly urbanized country. What’s disturbing about this is the absolute balls-out insanity she inspires in her fan base. At the aforementioned BookPeople event, the crowd chanted, football game style, “Pioneer!” “Woman!” “Pioneer!” “Woman!” When she came down the stairs, you would have thought the Beatles — even the dead ones — were re-enacting the British Invasion. And when Drummond took to the podium to speak, she said absolutely nothing. Oh, she said words, but they were completely devoid of meaning or interest … sort of like on her blog.

Penelope Trunk argues that Pioneer Woman engages in “housewife porn” and has created an online space in which no one ever fights with their spouse about money or is overwhelmed by the laundry (although Drummond does make joking allusions to a never-ending pile of laundry). Women, says Trunk, “don’t want to see themselves reflected back to them.” However, this only explains part of Pioneer Woman’s appeal to women of her approximate demographic. When it comes to the Pioneer Woman, women like to see themselves reflected back to them, because she has cultivated such an affable, folksy image. On the Pioneer Woman’s Facebook fan page, Drummond posts the occasional frivolous status update, like this one from November 10, 2010: “I think I’ll actually do my hair today instead of tying it in a knot and fastening it with a pencil.” This one-line status update garnered hundreds of responses (and “Likes”), including “omg, I do the pencil thing too,” “Mine has a pencil in it right now,” “I resemble that remark,” “That’s my favorite way to do my hair, though,” and “i thought the pencilled knot WAS doing our hair!” Many respondents adopted a tone of familiarity, as though they were addressing a close girlfriend: “oooooo, Miss Fancy!” “Now don’t go crazy. Next you’ll be spraying Sun-In and teasing.” “you go girl!” “Now, now, no need to get all fancy on us!” Women responded with staggering enthusiasm in response to seeing some aspect of their experience, however trivial, reflected back to them via the Pioneer Woman image.

However, this image is tinged with cynicism. The philosopher Kenneth Burke writes in A Rhetoric of Motives (1950):

The extreme heterogeneity of modern life, however, combined with the nature of modern postal agencies, brings up another kind of possibility: the systematic attempt to carve out an audience, as the commercial rhetorician looks not merely for persuasive devices in general, but for the topics that will appeal to the particular “income group” most likely to be interested in his product, or able to buy it. (64)

This aspect of identification is crucial to persuasion and, within the market, cookbook (or romance novel or children’s book) sales, not to mention ad revenue generated simply by surfing to thepioneerwoman.com. So, if Pioneer Woman holds her hair in place with a pencil and I, too, hold my hair in place with a pencil, I identify with Pioneer Woman and feel greater kinship with her. The more kinship I feel with Pioneer Woman, the more likely I am to purchase The Pioneer Woman Cooks ($27.50), Black Heels to Tractor Wheels ($25.99), and Charlie the Ranch Dog (a forthcoming children’s book based on Drummond’s beloved Bassett hound, Charlie, who is featured extensively on the website; $16.99). The success of the Pioneer Woman model depends not on women identifying with the exhausted woman in a puddle on the filthy tile floor, but on identifying with the woman who jokes about her jiggly arms or idly contemplates dyeing a blue streak into her hair. Women will spend money on someone who gives voice to their own insecurities without the inconvenience of meaningful engagement with painful issues.

I see two major reasons behind Pioneer Woman’s appeal to readers. The first is that she (the mediated image) represents an idealized woman, a frontier version of the angel in the house with a 21st-century twist, one who offers up domesticity as escapist entertainment. She offers a nostalgic image of a pastoral Midwestern existence that, while a simulacrum, has found traction in a nation that is increasingly urbanized. Second, in the process of “keepin’ it real,” Drummond-as-Pioneer-Woman regurgitates hegemonic tropes of femininity and masculinity in that she frequently posts worshipful entries extolling her husband’s virtues, which include his chaps-clad rear end and muscular forearms; additionally, her pet name for him, Marlboro Man, conjures up images of rugged Western masculinity and virility while also gesturing toward an iconic advertising campaign for the Marlboro cigarette brand. At the same time, the matrix of feminized domesticity she constructs through her posts about cooking, her children, homeschooling, and home-related product recommendations such as quilts and jewelry-storage systems reinforces the image of Drummond as the angel in the (ranch) house, attending to all things domestic while her rugged, virile, Dr. Pepper-swilling husband attends to manly things outdoors, like working cows and castrating male calves. As the evolution of the blog suggests in its movement from the emotionally visceral to the imaginary, it is in the imaginary that the Pioneer Woman finds her audience. A recent entry (“Ten Important Matters,” January 26, 2011) featured three separate (and previously published) photographs of Marlboro Man’s leather chaps-clad rear end, and dozens of commenters left messages of thanks for these snapshots. Pioneer Woman’s readers vicariously derive pleasure from these images because they identify with Drummond and, therefore, have some claim on Marlboro Man themselves.

This is the relationship that keeps fans flocking to Drummond’s website: she offers up an idealized vision of domestic life, one in which the housewife gripes cheerfully about her neverending chores, extols the virtues of her adorable children, and gives voice to her unwavering desire for her hunk o’ burning love husband. It’s also a vision of idealized whiteness, which I find the most troubling, given Drummond’s runaway success. In the current (May 9, 2011) issue of The New Yorker magazine, Amanda Fortini offers up a profile of Drummond, and describes how the blogger edits a digital photograph of her son:

She deepened the colors, rendering his skin alabaster white, his lips rosebud pink, and his eyes a lovely but artificial shade of blue. Critics complain that her pictures are so digitally enhanced that they distort reality, but that’s the point. She’s painting a fantasyland, where everything — flowers, quilts, kids, hotel rooms on her book tour — looks like dessert.

(image borrowed from thepioneerwoman.com)

This passage took my breath away. It was an aspect of the site that I had not yet noticed or analyzed, probably due to the blind spots of my own white privilege, but there it is, in vivid, living color: Whiteness as dessert. But that’s sort of the narrative of pioneering itself, isn’t it? The pioneers (think Laura Ingalls) are romanticized icons of Western progress, fighting harsh weather, uncertain food supplies, and — worst of all — Indians (*gasp*) in order to realize the promise set forth by Manifest Destiny. The American Dream, while certainly accessible to and enacted by all Americans, is rooted in a rhetoric of whiteness.

"American Progress," John Gast, ca. 1872

So, when Drummond tells Fortini that, “I’m an example that you should never assume that where you are in life or what you’re doing is going to remain exactly as it is forever. If this can happen to me, who knows what you might be capable of doing?” she unwittingly gestures to the 19th century strain of American exceptionalism that believed in white folks’ divine right of conquest. Go West, young man! Come and take it! Anything is possible if you just put your mind to it! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps! Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses!

But even Betty Crocker eventually reflected the “melting pot”:

On the left, Betty Crocker in 1936; on the right, in 1996, a composite of 75 women's faces

The Adult Cult of Bieber

justin-bieber-vanity-fair

A year ago, I wrote a post asking (and answering) “What is a Justin Bieber?”  That was right after the release of his second album; the song “Baby” was all over the place; people were lobbing around the word “Bieber Fever” and making fun of the haircut.  Here’s what I said then:

A few months back, someone on my Twitter feed asked “What is a Justin Bieber?”  Obviously he’s a person, and more specifically, a teenage pop star, but the phrasing of the question highlights he’s particular role in the mediascape today.  Justin Bieber isn’t just a teenage boy with a baby face.  He’s not just the next New Kid on the Block, nor is he a new Justin Timberlake.  His fame is organic to the internet, and he’s either a harbinger of the future of the music industry or a model for a new type of teenage fame.

Now, I realize the term and idea of transmedia do not translate perfectly to a star.  But I do think that we can think of a star as having a ‘narrative’ — and, as in the case of Bieber, a narrative that has components that are consumed by the majority, while other components are meant for consumption by fans aching for deeper understandings of the ‘story’ that is Bieber [.....]

How, specifically, does Bieber occupy this position?  He regularly Twitters; he has a website; his music videos are on Youtube.  None of those things make him all that different from other pop stars.  Yet I would argue that it’s the existence and tremendous popularity of his original videos — coupled with ‘stunts’ such as “Bieber or Die,” the Twitter account (with its 1.7 million followers), and dozens of videos Bieber made specifically for fans, including “So How Did I Fracture My Foot with Taylor Swift?” and “Justin’s Favorite Girl Response” that make his transmedia status (at least somewhat) unique. Bieber has an immense footprint on the web — and that, more than his signature haircut and plaintive voice, are what helped make him so successful.

Again, I don’t think Bieber is unique in his status as a transmedia star.  Rather, I think that his success underscores the necessity of *being* transmedia — whether through Twitter, writing books, serving as a guest judge on a reality program, or having a website that does more than simply reproduce known facts about the star (as in the case of Tom Cruise’s).  If you want to be a star today, whether in music or reality television, you’ve got to offer breadth — room to explore, room to be fascinated, room for your fans to feel like they know more about you than anyone else….

So what’s changed?  Bieber has gone beyond the role of teen idol to become a veritable cultural touchstone, immediately recognizable not only to tweens and teens, but adults of all ages.  His visibility is somewhat akin to Miley Cyrus, but without any of the scandal and annoyingness that attends her current image.  But he’s more than just visible — he’s LIKABLE.  The combination of Bieber’s own charisma and the discourse around that image have transformed a teen idol into an affable, “head firmly on shoulders,” highly self-aware and self-mocking celebrity…..all before the age of 17.

Bieber’s biographical movie — Never Say Never — opens this weekend, and it will open big.  Of course, it’s been timed for the weekend before Valentine’s Day, allowing Bieber to boast that girlfriends the world over will be spending their Valentine’s Day….with him.  If this line was delivered with a straight face, it might make me nauseous, but there’s a certain tongue-in-cheekness to it, which performs adds a fascinating, incredible self-awareness to his image.

So how has this self-awareness been amplified — and how does it appeal to adults?

As is the case for all stars, the Bieber Image is a result of a cluster of “texts” — interviews, pictures, appearances, music videos, anecdotes — that combine to create a harmonious understanding of what Bieber is “really like.”  Obviously, we have no idea what Bieber is “really like,” unless we happened to grow up in Canada with him.   Instead, we have a vision of what these texts communicate as his “really like-ness.”  Each text makes some claim to authenticity — this is the “real” Justin because it’s live footage; this is the “real” Justin because it’s an intimate interview; this is the REALLY REAL Justin because he’s ACTUALLY TWEETING THESE WORDS!

In recent months, there have been three major texts contributing to the Bieber Image (and, specifically, it’s visibility for adults and non-”Bielibers”)

1.) The Vanity Fair Cover/Profile

There was a lot of hoopla about this cover leading up to its publication — for some, it was a sign that Vanity Fair had finally and totally sold out, featuring a star they knew would generate page views online and newsstand sales offline.  (But really, how is this all that different from publishing yet another Kennedy/Camelot retrospective, as they do EVERY YEAR? Just because it’s catering to a different type of celebrity/scandal/glamour-hungry reader….)

The profile includes several, well, HILARIOUS photos — (all photos from VF.com)


Note that all of these photos are at once invoking and softly satirizing Bieber’s teen idol status — and whether or not they were Bieber’s idea (doubtful), they nonetheless communicate a willingness on his part to participate in the mockery of teen idolhood.  What they photos boldly communicate: Bieber doesn’t take himself too seriously, and gets that this whole deal — the fact that hoards of screaming girls clamor after him, the fact that photos of him blowing bubbles are “cute”  – is absurd.  I especially like the one of him singing to the girl above, as it acts out the promise of his songs, e.g. a devoted Bieber will ask you, love-sick girl, on a picnic in the park, and serenade you with a love  song written just for you.

The meat of the interview is also quite good — as if Vanity Fair knew that this article would be held up to scrutiny, and they couldn’t offer the usual pabulum that passes for the VF celebrity profile.  (Don’t get me started).  The author is Lisa Robinson, well-known for her rock journalism over the last thirty years (she was also behind the recent Gaga profile).  Robinson makes ample use of testimony from those who surround Bieber, but mixes it with her first-hand account of her time spent with him, painting a portrait that at once makes it easy to understand why young girls love him….but also encourages adult readers to appreciate him.  In other words, this profile is not written for teen girls — even if they may have been the ones buying the magazine en masse on the newsstand for the pictures.  At several times, she uses a lists of Bieber’s traits/accomplishments to create an aura of maturity.  For example:

“A huge Lakers fan, Justin had dinner alone with Kobe Bryant, who reportedly advised him ‘Don’t take any shit from anybody.’ Justin shot hoops and had a dance-off with Shaquille O’Neal on Shaq’s TV show last summer and came across as a sophisticated, smart kid.  He can act — a stint on CSI was more than respectable, and his skits with Tina Fey on Saturday Night lIve were funny.  He can breakdance and do ‘the Dougie’; he can learn or mimic something in a minute; he can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than two minutes.  When Scooter taught him the Hebrew prayer the Sh’ma, Justin incorporated it into the before-show group prayer on a nightly basis.  He’s a phenomenon.  This is not your typical teen idol.”

She compares him to the charismatic idols that came before:

“He’s hyper; he’s an athlete — he’s played hockey and golf and by all accounts is excellent at both.  In a way, he reminds me of the very young Michael Jackson: with a direct, focused gaze and akeen curiosity, just like Michael did, he asks me almost as many questions as I ask him.”

She draws attention to the way he’s preserved his appeal to teens, and, even more importantly, how interacts with adults:

“He has been linked to and photographed with performers such as Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Jasmine Villegas, but he keeps his private life private — lest he destroy his fans’ fantasies.  The ‘kid’ sitting in front of me is a huge flirt; he even flirts with every older woman who has ever interviewed him – including Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey, both of whom appeared to fall under his spell.

Other parts of the profile — as well as another published in New York Magazine this Fall — point to the fact that he lives his life surrounded by adults; his bodyguards, voice coaches, manager, mother, back-up dancers, mentors (Usher, et. al.).  And while he still acts like a kid from time to time (there’s a particularly hilarious section that details the fact that he spends a good amount of time plotting practical jokes and throwing candy at his manager) he spends the vast majority of his time conversing with adults, surrounded by adult conversations, and — this is crucial — keeping the schedule of a workaholic adult.  Indeed, one of the traits that emerges from all writing on Bieber is a sort of consummate professionalism: he possesses a keen understanding of exactly what makes his image work, and the sort of work (posing with hundreds of girls for photographs before each concert; going to bed on time so as to preserve his voice; keeping his hair/trademark in tact; not having a serious girlfriend) necessary to preserve that image.  He’s a teen beloved by teens, but has few peers.  Or, rather, he has become a peer to adults — and that’s why he’s so fascinating/compelling to us, as adults ourselves.

No seriously.  Think about the kids you’ve known — whatever their age — that have spoken to you as if you were both adults.  Whether it’s a sort of flirting (I used to get this all the time when I was a camp counselor; junior high kids “flirting” in a decidedly un-sexual, yet charisma-infused way) or just communicating about serious issues in an articulate way, these are the kids that adults are drawn to.  I have little interest in “being friends” with a 15-year-old who uses teen-speak; but some of 15-year-olds I taught at Gifted and Talented Summer Camp (Nerd Camp, as they called it) had, through a combination of nature and nurture, talking with adults and being treated like adults, learned to communicate and convey themselves like adults, and, in the process, made it much easier for adults to, well, like them.  [Because, let's face it, a lot of teenagers are unlikable.  I say this as someone who, at several points, as decidedly unlikable myself, even if I did have bursts of likability, but never during my 8th grade year.  Ask my mom.]

2.) The 502 Television Appearances

Bieber is in full-out promotion mode for the new film, which means he’s been all over the talk show circuit this past week.  But he’s not doing traditional appearances.  Instead, he’s mocking him image yet again:

Switching Bodies with Jon Stewart

Satirizing ‘The Roommate’ with Andy Samberg on SNL:

Doing the “Top Ten Reasons It’s Fun to Be Justin Bieber” on Letterman (and then playing the drums with the band):

Highlights:

“Cross me and I”ll have 50,000 screaming girls come to your house and mess you up”

“At the Barber Shop, I can say, ‘Give me the ‘me’”

Appearing in a Best Buy Super Bowl Ad with Ozzy Osborne:

Note that he not only mocks his own image (and Bieber Fever) with a straight-faced sell of “Bieber 6G,” but also, in disguise at the end, plays on the fact that his looks are often compared to those of a girl.

In all three of these high profile appearances, he mocks himself — and appeals to adults who want to have a similarly mocking attitude towards teen culture in general.

3.) The Movie and The Music

Here’s where Bieber’s image gets really polysemic.  (Polysemic is a word that Richard Dyer, the scholar who basically founded star studies, used to describe the way that star images worked — each image could hold many meanings, which resonated differently with different people).  For even as Bieber uses “adult” media sources to appeal to non-teens, he’s still incredibly skilled at cultivating and sustaining the teens that compose his base.  The movie is a straight-faced tale of hard work and devotion, with ample use of clips from Bieber’s past — a testament to the fact that YouTube viewers and fans really and truly made him a star.

TRAILER HERE

The home videos also convey an undeniable authenticity: if even 2-year-old Bieber was talented, that’s proof positive that his talent is neither manufactured nor mediated.  Other footage makes it clear that he works hard, which makes it easier to embrace him, as his riches and fame are not a birthright or a matter of chance, but the result of a good old fashioned American(Canadian!) work ethic.  (Americans particularly despise those whose fame seems unearned: see Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, et. al.)

While Bieber’s been busy mocking himself on screen, he’s also appealing directly to his SEVEN MILLION Twitter followers to come see the film.  Seven million, you guys!  Last year, Twitter refigured the way that it tracks “Trending Topics,” because #justinbieber so consistently dominated the top spot.  [Think about that: His fans so voraciously Tweeted his name that Twitter had to re-conceptualize the way that it tracked popularity]  But his fans got around the #Bieber-ban, conjuring a new way to get him in the trending topics by hashtagging the number of days until the movie opens: #Sixteendays, #FiveDays, etc.

Bieber has accelerated the trend by participating in it himself.  Yesterday, he Tweeted #4Days, which was then retweeted by 100+ followers (I’m guessing hundreds of thousands; Twitter refuses to keep track when the number tops 100)

And unlike his old-fogey celebrity elders, Bieber Tweets like a teen.  As the New York mag profile points out,

According to Billboard magazine, he tweets at least four times more often than any other celebrity, almost as if he’s filling a quota. He follows more than 70,000 people. He actively cultivates an online conversation, maintaining the illusion that it is not one-sided by frequently giving “shout-outs” to particular fans (“allison in the purple tye dyed shirt it was nice meeting u”) or to his female audience in general (“how u doin ladies ;)”). The belief that, unlike other artists, he is “real” and that he “really cares about us” is a common refrain among devotees—and what they feel separates him from the genetically blessed and vigorously managed young stars forged in the Disney or Nickelodeon machines. For many fans, having him follow them on Twitter is a lifetime goal, though few have ruled out the possibility that he might one day swoop down into the crowd and choose a lucky girl to be his one and only.

And then there’s the matter of the music.  Sure, it’s sweet and a little treacly.  But it’s also near-perfect pop.  Slate’s music critic, Jody Rosen, cites Bieber’s “Baby” as his favorite of the year, explaining:

I couldn’t resist Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” which struck a perfect balance between hip-pop production and circa-1963 malt-shop throb. (Listen to Bieber’s opening “oh-oh-oh-oh-ah-ah-ah”; listen to that doo-wop chord progression. A cheeky history lesson, courtesy of Tricky Stewart and The-Dream.) “Baby” reached only No. 5 on the Billboard charts, but it was clearly the people’ choice. The video is the most viewed in YouTube history: as of this writing, 444,225,275 viewings and counting.

For snobs, Bieber is an easy punchline. But of course, Bieber is playing a time-honored teen idol role: easing a new generation into the joys of pop and the mysteries of eros, singing songs flushed with romance but notably free of sex itself. He pulled it off with a mix of guilelessness, showbiz panache, and social-media-age savvy that I found charming. Above all, he did it with good music. My World 2.0 is full of excellent pop/R&B songs that Bieber performs with occasional ingénue awkwardness, but mostly in fine style. I like Bieber’s raspy vocal tone. He still hasn’t sung as well on record as he did on those adorable early home videos that got him a record deal.

And hey! I like “Baby!” You know why? Because like Rosen, I love “malt-shop throb.”  How different is Bieber, really, in both tone and topic, from Sam Cooke?  In this way, his sound appeals to a base audiences (teen girls) and the secondary audience (those, like Rosen, who appreciate a finely-wrought pure pop song).

When Robinson compares Bieber to Michael Jackson, she’s hinting at Bieber’s potential future: as his voice changes and he grows into young adulthood, he’s going to have to figure out what his next step is.  If he — and his producers — can figure how to further broaden the appeal of his sound, the same way that Jackson did, he really does have the potential to become much more than a teen idol.  Clearly, he has the intelligence, the self composure, the self-awareness, the sense of humor, the work ethic, and the skill needed to do so.  If handled wrong — and compounded by a life of abuse — they can lead to tragedy, as manifested in the twilight of Jackson’s career.  But all of these profiles of Bieber are also doing a second, equally necessary task: they underline the fact that Bieber comes from a solid, loving background, surrounded by people who want to give him as normal a life as possible — and, in the process, cultivate the charisma and talent he shares with Jackson while avoiding the delusion and grotesquerie.

But only time will tell.

So do you like the Biebs?  Even if you don’t like his music, do you find him — and his self-mockery — amusing?

Why I Want to Have The Hairpin’s Sweet Intelligent Slightly Esoteric Babies

hairpin-280x126

A few months ago, I wrote a post heralding/interrogating the pleasures of Jezebel.  And while I still think the site has a lot to offer, something has happened in the months between that has encouraged me to change my blog alliances entirely — to the extent that I very rarely look to Jezebel.   And that thing goes by the name of The Hairpin.

If you follow me or the blog on Facebook or Twitter, you might have a hint of the levels of my affection, as it’s become a source of near-constant linkitude.  I wake up in the morning and seriously can’t wait until 10 or so, which is about when the editors start posting.  When it’s silent over the weekend, I miss it.  I even go back and check comment threads.  Ths is some serious affection, you guys, and while I might attribute part of it to slight derangement amidst Hurricane Dissertation, I do hold to some semblance of objectivity, and just in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not being told/paid to say these things, although HEY HAIRPIN, IF YOU’RE READING THIS, WILL YOU BE MY GIRLFRIEND?

In fact, I’m writing this because I think that wonders should be shared, especially when they’re wonders that are smart, oriented towards ladies, and refuse to pander.  While Hairpin is not explicitly feminist, it’s explicitly intelligent, and applies that intelligence to the way it conceives of the placement of women in the world — whether in the workplace, in relationships, in bed, whatever.  My friend Rebecca Onion, who blogs over at Songbirds and Satellites and used to have my all-time-coveted job of working at YM, recently told me that The Hairpin has totally taken on the mantle of the new Sassy…..and while I lacked the access, hipness, and sisters that would have given me access to Sassy at its peak, I know the reputation well, and could not agree more.

Before I get to the really good and juicy reasons to read, I’ll offer a little backstory.  The Hairpin is one of three websites currently under the umbrella of The Awl, a blog whose tagline is, appropriately, “Be Less Stupid.”  The Awl launched last year as a sort of smart person’s Gawker — with less of a mind towards massive hits, fudging ethical boundaries, and exploiting pornographic images.  There’s a certain house style to The Awl (as there is to The Hairpin, which I’ll get to)’ suffice to say that you better like irony, twists of phrase, esoterica, and subjects that might interest hipsters who vow that they are not hipsters simply because they are educated, have beards, live in Brooklyn, and consume working class food stuffs. (My brother is one such person, and he works for what I can only imagine to be The Awl’s print and long form equivalent, n+1, so I’m allowed to make such claims, even if it’ll earn me an email with the subject line SISTER, I AM NOT A HIPSTER, NEITHER ARE MY FRIENDS, YOU ARE SO WRONG ABOUT THE AWL).  Whatevs.

The Hairpin is a spin-off site, with the catchy subtitle of “Ladies First,” and functions somewhat similarly to how Jezebel functions within Gawker Media.  Sometimes it reposts stuff from The Awl; sometimes The Awl reposts stuff from The Hairpin.  There’s some cross-readership, but the real goal is to cultivate a brand that caters directly to women.  I don’t have figures on what percentage of Awl readers were women, but I know that the impetus for Jezebel (according to founding editor Anna Holmes) was the fact that 70% of Gawker’s traffic were female — wouldn’t they like a site just for them? (The “brother” site, Splitsider, covers humor.  I admit to devoting nearly all of my love to Hairpin, but others of the comedy persuasion have informed me that it is good — this is no Collegehumor.com or funnyordie.com, this is “Political Comedy’s Gender Gap,” et. al.)

The Hairpin went live sometime this Fall (Dissertation, youmakealldaysmeldtogether!) with the following About Me:

Hello and welcome! The Hairpin is a ladies website’ run by Edith Zimmerman and Liz Colville, two grave young women who spend all their time online. A hairpin is also a small tool for keeping your hair in place, and a kind of dramatic turn. For more information on those hairpins, stay on this page or slowly click through our entire archive — there’s surely something back there to answer your questions.

More about us: The Hairpin is a general-interest blog, meaning we’ll be linking to the stories of the day that appeal to us, from politics to makeup to the whereabouts of penis-shaped rainclouds, and is a ladies site insofar as it is run by women, will feature writing by women (although guys should feel free to get at us if they see a place for themselves), and will be mostly read by women….

Even more about us, in the abstract: You know how having cocktails at a friend’s house can sometimes be more fun than the Big Party you go to afterward? And not because the Big Party isn’t fun, but just because hanging out with select lady friends is sometimes unbeatable? This site hopes to be a little like that — a low-key cocktail party among select female friends. Imagine like we’re pouring you a drink. That you can’t actually drink, because it is inside the computer.

If you know me, you know that I am totally the type of lady to prefer the cocktails at the friends house over the party.  I am usually the person who’s like “oh come on, lets open another bottle of wine and sit here and talk about THIIIIINGGS!” when people are drunkenly trying to motivate into cabs.  Obviously this is the website for me.

And then they published some of the best, smartest, funniest, truest-to-my-experience things I’ve read all year — and continue to do so on every week day.  It breaks stories before Jezebel — in fact, Jezebel frequently posts on the same topics hours, hours/days afterwards — and does so with more intelligence and wit.  Just like this blog, Hairpin is intended as a site for people who want to take their interest in pop culture (in it myriad gratifying, pleasurable, and disgusting iterations) to a more contextualized, sophisticated level.

I’m going to offer an ample sampling of favorites below, but I do want to make a few caveats:

1.) If you don’t like The Hairpin, I think we can still be friends. (I think).  I don’t dislike is absolutely a deal breaker….But The Hairpin might not be for everyone, although all the people to whom I have sent posts have agreed that it is totally the best thing ever.

2.) As mentioned above, The Hairpin has cultivated a bit of a house style, and your love for it will probably have something to do with your feelings towards said house style.  As you might have gleaned from previous posts, I love ample use of the THE CAPS LOCK, exquisite use of profanity, puns, elaborate metaphors involving celebrities, personal anecdotes that sorta trail off, self-deprecation, and insightful, intelligent analysis of pop culture phenomena, all of which are present in spades on Hairpin.

3.) Like The Awl, The Hairpin sometimes trucks in esoterica, or at least elite quasi-esoterica.  When we get to the part on Vilette below, you will understand what I”m saying.  I can’t lie: this stuff makes me happier than anything else.  But it might be for you, and I realize that it’s pretty odd, and Hairpin might seem like the kinda nerdy  girl in high school who moved away from the small town, eventually went to graduate school and grew into her face, boys finally liked her, and she gained the gumption to start her own blog.   OBVIOUSLY NOT EVOKING  MY OWN EXPERIENCE HERE.

4.) Hairpin is not just for Ladies!  As evidenced by the comment sections, there are many dudes who frequent the site, in part because it is funny and smart and offers some keen insight into ladies (or ladies’ frustration with their representation in the media).  So whether you’re a declared feminist or not, a man or a woman, a grad student or actually making dollars, give a try.

A few most excellent incentives and personal favorites:

  • Women Laughing Alone with Salad. Click to believe.  This is a nice condensation of what makes Hairpin so good: a collection of images, without commentary, that somehow highlights a very specific inanity in pop culture.
  • The “Ask a Dude” Series, which allows readers to pose questions to a rotating set of anonymous dudes, for its consistent awesomeness/perception/hilarity.

My favorite exchange:

DEAR DUDE: Are you more, “I’m secretly happy the patriarchy has worked out for me” or “I secretly think girls have it easier”? If you absolutely had to pick one.

Dude’s Answer: Are you kidding? The patriarchy has been scattering palm fronds ahead of me every step I’ve ever taken. The patriarchy stops just short of bringing me 7-Up and chicken soup in bed every time I get a sniffle. The patriarchy invented whiskey and then told everyone it was a ‘man drink’ so I wouldn’t have to compete with girls to get it.

Girls have a few things easier. They aren’t taught from birth that being confused or uncertain is a shameful state of affairs that they have to hide from everyone. (Which fortunately isn’t a problem for me, thanks to my UNASSAILABLE CONFIDENCE AND PRETERNATURAL WISDOM.) They have more specialty channels on cable. I personally think that ladies have more of an advantage in dating than most of them realize. But dudes definitely win the balance of the gendered perks.

I will say that the advantage of being a dude is nowhere near what it used to be. I also think that I get more free rides for my skin color than my junk.

Choice highlight:

Age 12: I will be at a coffee shop, sipping my latte and reading Dostoevsky. Matthew Perry will notice me from another table, and he’ll be looking at me and not the prettier girl behind me. Neither of us will say anything at first. Then we’ll both be in line for more coffee, but I won’t have enough change. From behind me I’ll hear, “Hey, she’s covered,” and a hand will reach past me and pay the clerk. I’ll blush, but in an adorable way, where instead of my face getting red and gross, it’ll just get pinkish up by my cheekbones. My hands won’t get clammy. Matthew Perry will say, “This one’s on me. You get the next one.” And I’ll say, “The next one?” And he’ll say, “Yeah,” and wink.

Later that night I’ll be ringing Matthew Perry’s doorbell. He’ll let me in to his mansion, and kiss me on the cheek. I’ll go weak at the knees and almost fall over, but I won’t. And then we’ll be on his couch, cuddling really hard. He’ll want to watch You’ve Got Mail, and I’ll say, “Me too!” and then we’ll laugh about how silly it all is. How funny and simple life can be. Then we’ll hug tightly. For hours. “You are the best person in the world!” he’ll say to me. “No, you are the best person in the world!” I’ll reply, and we’ll fall asleep.

I will neither confirm nor deny that I nearly choked on my dinner while reading the following:

Real Letter: Nothing else is as relaxing as sitting on my couch with a cup of coffee and reading your 600-page September issue.

Anastasia D., via instyle.com (InStyle, December 2010)

Not-so-real-letter: Sometimes when I feel sad I press my fingers into my throat until I fall asleep. I think of it as like a real-life fast-forward button, lol.

Kelsey P., Ontario

  • “How to Lose 10 Pounds Using Wine and Anxiety.” Probably my favorite post of all Hairpin-time, if only for the precise evocation of exactly what my life would be like if I didn’t have people encouraging me to leave my apartment, consume vegetables, go to yoga.
  • And for those of you who a.) like classic novels b.) like costume dramas or c.) are nerds in any way who d.) like caps lock, I cannot, cannot, CANNOT recommend these posts on the best book/best costume drama highly enough.  The first, aptly entitled Books that Beat Their Iconic Sister-Books: Jane Eyre vs. Villette,” begins with the following:

ATTENTION ALL LADIES. YOU ARE BEING LIED TO.JANE EYRE IS NOT THE BEST BOOK. REPEAT: JANE EYRE IS NOT THE BEST BOOK.

The best book is Villette.

And then proceeds with a bunch of esoteric hilarity that encourages you to read the book, and ladies, believe me, as a fan of the Brontes hook line and sinker, I have bought that book and will read it as soon as I get done writing about Britney Spears’ vagina for the tenth chapter of my dissertation.  Also: read the comments. On every post, read the comments. These commenters are funnier than most bloggers.

The author of these posts, Carrie Ann Wilner, also has things to say about Dickens, but my most recent favorite has been her bit on Fancy Lady Film Hour: The Leopard, which outlines the specific pleasures of an Italian costume drama starring Burt Lancester from the 1960s.

As she explains:  Look, I know and you know that 90% of the reason anyone watches movies is to look at sweet gowns. But sometimes you can’t so much talk about that with other people. Sometimes you need a fancy lady to sit you down and tell you what’s what. If you are going to the Philharmonic on gifted tickets and your boxmates try to chat with you, you can never go wrong saying you preferred the Debussy. Also, there is free champagne in the Patrons’ Lounge. But, you cannot — CAN NOT — tell one more grown-ass human adult how much you enjoyed the Pillars of the Earth miniseries. Stop it. Stop it. Right now. Stop it.


  • I posted this to the blog Facebook feed the other day, but I will double dip because its awesomeness only gets better: Anne Hathaway Will Probably Make a Pretty Good Catwoman. I don’t like Anne Hathaway; I don’t really care about the Batman series.  Which is precisely why this post is so brilliant: “The women of Batman movies are not the problem, the belief that Batman movies should be more than just Batman movies is the problem.”

If this hasn’t given you ample reason to at least sample Hairpin’s various delights, I have failed as a rhetorician, endorsers, and generalized sycophant, and Hairpin will never want me as its girlfriend.

Jezebel: Feminist, Gossip, Both?

jezebeljpg

Those of you who follow me on Twitter know that I am a regular at Jezebel — it, like so many of the sites within the ‘Gawker’ Empire, is a good source for links, often funny, and has pretty pictures. The columnists are smart, even if necessarily a bit reductive. The site is easy to navigate, headlines are snappy, photographs of elegant and beautiful women from across the world, celebrities doing weird/endearing things, and odd fashion statements are in abundance.

Sometime last summer, I was lucky to happen upon the blog of Erin Meyers, , who recently finished her dissertation on celebrity gossip blogs and now teaching as a post-doc at Northeastern University. Erin was kind enough to share her dissertation with me, and it includes a treasure trove of data from focus groups on how people *actually use* — not how scholars think they use — gossip blogs. I was surprised, however, when I saw Jezebel on the list of gossip blogs she analyzed — I thought Jezebel was a feminist site? Sorta? Maybe? But not gossip!

Obviously, Erin’s right — Jezebel covers gossip, mixed with a bit of third wave feminism, and, well, it most definitely is a blog. The full title of the blog is, after all, “Jezebel: Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women.” I just thought of it as a more of a feminist glossy magazine transferred to the web and a lively comments section thrown in for good measure. And I suppose that’s probably Gawker founder Nick Denton’s approach: this isn’t a feminist magazine, nor is it purely a gossip blog. It doesn’t want to be sold in the web equivalent of feminist and independent bookstores, but it also doesn’t want to hang out with US Weekly in the glossy supermarket section. It’s a hybrid, meant to attract educated, liberal, literate women who are feminists, but not radicals. Who like to look at fashion and gossip, but within an intellectual or ironic context. Who like sex but don’t like submission, who wear push-up bras and high heels but don’t think of them as oppressive.

But is it really feminist? Some have termed Jezebel post-feminist, but I don’t think that’s the case. Like Angela McRobbie, I understand post-feminism as the idea that society has reached a point where feminism is no longer necessary. Arguing about and agitating against oppression — whether in the form of lower wage rates, body politics, whatever — is a waste of time, because that oppression doesn’t really exist. It’s just something that feisty women make up in order to be mad about something, and it really cramps other womens’ style. This is most definitely not Jezebel’s editorial philosophy.

Now, I do think that Jezebel is an expression of a certain strain of feminism espoused by young, educated, liberal, middle- and upper-class women who believe they can mix interests in fashion, celebrity, race/gender/sex/class inequality, sexuality, oppression, body issues, human trafficking, making the world a better place for young girls, you get the picture. (If you’re interested in the different strains of feminism, and why they simply can’t seem to get along, I cannot recommend Susan Faludi’s recent Harper’s article on the age divide and “ritual matricide” in contemporary feminism highly enough).

I’d guess that the women who regularly read Jezebel are a mix of self-identifying feminists (men and women) and people (men and women) whose beliefs align with those of feminism, but not label themselves as such. The majority of these women might not belong to other feminist organizations, although they may read other clearly-labelled feminists sites, such as Feministing, Feministe, or Bitch.

Or they might not read any of those sites, and be more of the type of reader that is led to Jezebel through other Gawker sites (Gizmodo, Gawker, Deadspin, etc.) or clicking on links from friends featuring celebrities doing sassy things.

After reading the fascinating profile of Gawker’s founder, Nick Denton, in The New Yorker, I’ve been thinking about how Denton’s purpose with Gawker was to build a media empire that demanded that people read it, talk about it, know it. He wanted it to be the place where other writers had to go to, even if they hated it, when they woke up in the morning. (Sometimes I feel this way about TMZ). In recent years, he’s also changed the way that he measures traffic to the Gawker Media sites — instead of counting the number of page views, he goes for UNIQUE page views; he wants new eyeballs, not simply people who come back over and over again to comment.

So how does Denton’s philosophy relate to Jezebel? Over the last year, Jezebel has been at the center of several controversies — for calling out Jon Stewart for not employing enough female writers/staff, for refusing to take down before/after Photoshopped pictures of Jennifer Aniston on the cover of Marie Claire. (The Photoshop issue is, without doubt, Jezebel’s hobby horse: see #photoshopofhorrors and their editorial on “Why You Must See Unretouched Images, and Why You Should See Them Repeatedly.” But does a smattering of attention make it must-read?

No, but I do think it helps drive new eye-balls to the site. Ultimately, the difficulty with labeling Jezebel is that it does not want to be labeled — if it was purely feminist, purely gossip, purely fashion….it would receive far less traffic than it does. And while it’s keen to cultivate a group of loyal readers (soliciting reader advice in #SocialMinefield and #Dresscode, what it really wants is pieces to get linked, go viral, spread beyond the Jezebel community — either through cross-posting on another, decidedly un-feminist Gawker site, or through your own Tweeting, Facebook sharing, emailing, Tumblring, etc.

So here’s the thing: to modify Marvin Bell, Jezebel is not feminist, exactly; it is feminist, inexactly. It lacks an articulated feminist agenda. It doesn’t even have feminist in the title. Sometimes, especially when taken over by a (male) editor of one of its “brother” sites, it can be outright non-feminist. (For some reason, I can’t find evidence of these posts — please post below if you find them). But I do think that its writers are feminists, and much of the content, and political and social content in particular, is decidedly feminist, if we define feminist as writing and thinking that works towards a more gender- and sex-equitable world. And people (including men and women, young and older-ish) who wouldn’t otherwise come to a feminist site are led here, through Denton’s linking matrixes and readers’ work, and exposed to ideas, opinion, and rhetoric that they might not otherwise seek on their own. And if they’re compelled by this material — and the promise of more pictures of smiling Jon Hamm — they might come back, read more, become part of the community, be led to other, more explicitly feminist sites.

Is Jezebel a feminist gateway? Does it hook readers with gossip, fashion, and celebrity photos and sneak in some feminist thinking? Or just a way for Denton to make money off of women?

I really don’t know the answer to question. Feedback is needed, readers. Please assist. Like Jezebel, I’ll promise a pretty celebrity photos (and analysis) of the celebrity of your choice.

Postscript: After publishing this, I realized that there’s a fundamental dilemma posited even in the title of this post — can gossip be feminist? Or is the generation discourse about other people — and women in particular — often with the intention to shame, judge, or disdain, inherently non-feminist? Can there be such a thing as feminist gossip, and if so, is that what Jezebel is aiming for?

Perez Hilton Plays Nice

PEREZ-HILTON-BLACK-EYED-PLEASE--58796

If you’re in touch with the gossip world — or even with the pop culture world, or with your Yahoo! News feeds — you’ll have read that Perez Hilton made a very big announcement yesterday: he’s going to play nice. Stop bullying, stop calling names, stop drawing doodles to resemble crack and semen on celebrity’s faces. The announcement was made on Ellen, published in Out, and picked by everything from the The New York Times to Entertainment Weekly. You can watch the full Ellen interview below; you can read the full piece in Out here.

The basics: in recent weeks, Perez, who is gay, has spoken out about the rash of suicides by young, bullied, gay teens. He filmed his own testimony for Dan Savage’s amazing “It Gets Better” project; he’s used his blog to advocate for more compassion and less hate, especially towards GLBTQ youth. The suicides have also, according to Out, “made him reevaluate his own actions, which have often been portrayed as their own kind of bullying.” In other words: he’s going to stop bullying celebrities in his blog.

Here’s Perez, in his own words, explaining the decision:

It was me not viewing myself as a bully and viewing myself as a blogger — an entertainer — someone who talked about adults that chose to be in the public eye and all these justifications that I kept making for myself. In trying to raise awareness and do everything I possibly could to help the issue of bullying and teen suicides, I saw that so many people were calling me a hypocrite and calling me a big bully myself. And sure, it’s to be expected and OK that will be what some people think but it felt like that was what the majority of people were thinking. And if that’s the case, I want to change that because that’s not who I am or it’s not who I want to be. So, I need to take the steps to do things differently. I can’t be that which I’m criticizing in others. I can’t be that which I’m denouncing in others. And there is going to be a lot of skepticism and that’s OK because I deserve that. Time will tell and I’ve already begun this change. Like I said to Ellen — I’m not trying to lobotomize myself. I’m still going to be sassy and critical but there’s a different way I can do that. I don’t have to call people names. I don’t have to out people. I don’t have to draw inappropriate things on them. I don’t have to go for the cheap joke. I can still be critical and sassy and fun and funny and smarter and just do it in a different way that I can feel good about myself. Like I also said on Ellen — I want to be able to go to the rallies and marches and events within our community — like I have been and will continue to do — but I don’t want to feel like gay people are ashamed of me or embarrassed by me or thinking I’m hurting other gay people. That’s not who I am. That’s not my intention. I don’t want to hurt other gay people. I don’t want to hurt young gay kids.


(Photo from Out.com)

There have been two recurring reactions to this announcement: (1) he won’t stick to his word, because (2) it’s a publicity stunt. As several articles are keen to note, Perez is “a master at maximizing publicity for himself,” and this might be his own way of cashing in on the current cultural interest in bullying and the “It Gets Better” phenomenon. Even Ellen is oddly serious and dubious during his appearance — not only does she make it clear, before he even steps on stage, that she is *not* a fan of his site, but also holds no punches as she indicts him, and others like him, for the hurtful things that were said about her when she first came out and in years since. She does, however, think that people can change, and that’s why she agreed to have him on the show when he told her that he wanted to make the announcement.

So there are two things going on here. First of all, whether or not it is or is not *intended* as a publicity stunt, the fact is that it will, and already has, attracted attention, both for Perez and for the overall crusade against bullying. Perez will profit from this, either in terms of cultural or actual capital. But I don’t believe that the fact that someone profits, literally or figuratively, off of a “charitable” decision necessarily negates the good that that decision does. When George Clooney put together the telethon to benefit Haiti, it certainly benefitted his image, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t truly devoted to the cause.

I realize that it’s much easier to be cynical about Perez because he has been, by almost all account, an unmitigated ass. He makes fun of everyone; his stated morals and ethics are contradictory; he’s crass and in poor taste and brassy and frequently just annoying. But Perez Hilton is a celebrity, and like all celebrities, the “real” him, beneath the image, is a real person — a person named Mario Lavanderia. And Mario was teased himself for being gay, and had to navigate a truly cutthroat and unsympathetic industry, where he has been ridiculed for his weight, his looks, and his effeminate characteristics. At the risk of going armchair psychologist, most celebrity gossip columnists, both today and in the past, have been people who were never *quite enough* in show business — Hedda Hopper was a B-list star, so was Sheilah Graham. Louella Parsons was a frump. Rona Barrett was a short and ugly Jersey girl who was ridiculed constantly. The need to write snark about others comes from a place — one which many of us share — where our own insecurities hide and fester.

Celebrity gossip is, in many ways, rooted in bullying. We don’t usually call it that, because it makes it sound really ugly, but talking about the faults and failures of those who have succeeded — at being pretty, at being popular — whether they go to our high school or work next to us or appear on the movie screen, is our own way of venting frustrations. I remember, back in Sunday School, when my teacher told me that gossip was a sin. Now, I don’t believe that, even though “Celebrity Sin, Academic Style,” might be a great blog title. But it doesn’t always reveal our nicest, best selves.

What I’m trying to say is that I do think that Perez believes what he’s saying. He’s finally seen the link between how he wants to be treated — and how he wants all youth fighting to own their identities, whether gay or straight, to be treated — and the way he treats other people.

The problem, then, is that gossip is not about treating people with kid gloves. For that, we have People and Entertainment Tonight, which provide stories, but not gossip. Perez built his brand on snark — on providing an alternativeto the likes of People. As much as people like to complain about his style, over 2 million still go to his sight each month, whether because they love it or love to hate it. He’s changing, or at least going to attempt to change, his flavor, and hoping that people won’t want to spit it out.

I’m not betting on failure. Indeed, if he makes the change significant enough, he might attract gossip readers who genuinely do like their gossip nice — there are millions, most of them already subscribers to People and visiters to sites like “Celebrity Baby Blog.” Those who want snark can always find it at TMZ, or ONTD, or even, more intelligently, at Lainey. Over the last six years, Perez has amassed enough money to float him through any drops in traffic. And while I don’t think that all gossip should be without venom — it is, after all, a way of keeping celebrities accountable — I refuse to decry someone who wants to match his celebrity image, and its accompanying texts, with his own code of ethics.

Kanye’s Tweets: It’s So Easy to Believe

kanye

Last Sunday, Kanye let loose a torrent of Tweets — he apologized to Taylor Swift, but also did a little media studies self-scholarship, declaring himself the big black “King Kong” of the incident, an analysis that echoes Kristen Warner’s own reading on my blog in the days after the VMAs.

I would copy the full litany of Tweets below, but my screen shots necessarily make it appear in opposite order.  You’ll get a better sense by reading Gizmodo’s rendering of the Tweets into “letter form” or by simply checking out Kanye’s Twitter Stream yourself — if you scroll down, you’ll happen onto the end of his Sunday tweets.  But here’s just a sampling:

I picked this particular section because it emphasizes the authenticity of the comments — “these Tweets have no manager, no publicist, no grammar checking….this is raw.”  Obviously, that was how these comments were received: as a pure conduit of Kanye-ness.  Gizmodo says that Kanye and other artists on Twitter “mark the death of music magazines,” while Mashable goes to far as to claim that Kanye proves that Twitter has not only changed the way that we communicate, but “set information free.”

These articles demonstrate a utopian embrace of new interface — and to do so, they must take Kanye, and all celebrity Twittering, at face value.  For these writers, the fact that the celebrity twitter account is “authenticated” (via a little check mark in the right-hand corner: yes, this is really Kanye!) means that the artist has dismissed all publicity and intermediaries, choosing instead to speak directly to the consumer/fan.  And this move on the part of major artists, celebrities, and stars — everyone from John  McCain to Snooki, from the Dalai Lama to Conan, harkens a new age in accessibility and, apparently, the end of the publicity apparatus.

Twitter (and its champions) have cultivated an image of authenticity and immediacy around the service.  But just because the interface itself has embraced that image does not mean that it is necessarily true.   Nick Muntean and I explored this concept (and its drawbacks) at length in our joint piece over at M/C Journal , and I explored the “cloud of authenticity” around celebrity Twittering on FlowTV way back in May 2009, when Ashton Kutcher raced CNN to the most followers.

Kanye's Avatar

The bottom line: just because Twitter claims to offer unmediated access does not mean that it is not mediated. Put somewhat differently: just because Kanye says that his Tweets have no publicist does not mean that they are not part of a generalized publicity strategy.  Or, finally: Kanye is a publicity mastermind, and he — and his people — know exactly what they’re doing.  The idea that we are gaining access to the “real,” intimate Kanye is the goal.  The fact that most readers — and journalists — have bought into it affirms its efficacy.

As I’ve written about before, Twitter is most often used to buttress the existing star image.  When a celebrity Tweets about his/her personal life, thoughts, inclinations, etc., it reaffirms that his/her pre-exisiting image is, in fact, more than image — it’s the “real” person.  Thus when Kanye Tweets “sometimes I get emotional over fonts” or “just looking at my closet, wool suits, fedoras, trenches, and furs…I’m bout to put fall in the hospital…Ima hurt the season” , he is absolutely (and hilariously) reifying his existing, bombastic, over-the-top, and, yes, brilliant, image.  And he’s no stranger to using New Media to cultivate this image — as many remarked when he first joined Twitter, it was surprising that he had even waited this long, as he has long used his own blog to speak “directly” to his fans (including a drunken post immediately after the Taylor Swift incident).  He’s smart about reassuring his fans that it’s really him — regularly claiming that the existence of bad grammar and spelling proves that it’s him and not one of his publicists/employees.

Even in the above paragraph, I’m revealing my own vulnerability to the image-making machine.  I attribute the entire Twitter stream to Kanye, even though there is no proof whatsoever that it is, in fact, Kanye West himself that is sitting at the computer typing these words.  It’s just that all signs seems to point to the fact that it is him — and it’s much easier to believe than disbelieve.   Of course, “Kanye West” (in quotes) is, in fact, Tweeting — the IMAGE of Kanye West is providing information to fans, providing access to the intimate details…..but of the IMAGE, not the man.  if we consider the Twitter stream in terms of Kanye’s IMAGE, it makes no difference whether the man himself or others responsible for the cultivation of that image are actually writing the words.

What’s frustrating, then, is the illusion, or perhaps the neat acceptance, of Twitter accounts as the end of organized publicity and manufacture of image.  Twitter is simply this particular moment’s medium of choice for transmitting image.  Under the studio system, stars “wrote” columns, confessionals, and responded to fan letters personally — and the vast majority of readers believed that they were in fact gaining intimate access to the star.  We look back on those interactions, and the willingness of fans to believe that their stars would in fact spend the time to write for a fan magazine or responding to individual fans, and recognize the absurdity.  But in the ’30s and ’40s, what reason was there to doubt that a star wouldn’t want to tell you the “true story” of her childhood, her marriage, her rise to stardom?  Her name was on the byline; she posed for the pictures, the quotes sounded like things she would say.  To doubt the authenticity was tantamount to declaring your star a liar, a fake, and an image — and, by extension, your willingness to like that image was embarrassing and juvenile.  So why doubt?

In fifty years, we might be thinking the very same thing about Twitter — and our willingness to believe that every Tweet comes from the fingers of its namesake, a pure extension of his/her mind and “real” self simply because it pops up instantly on our computer screen and bear’s the celebrities “authenticated” handle.  No matter how real the Tweets seem, no matter how often the celebrity replies back, it’s still part of his cultivation of image, and our belief in its authenticity is absolutely crucial to sustaining the illusion.

But don’t get me wrong: I *love* following celebrities on Twitter.  But as those interested in interrogating / thinking through stardom and celebrity, we should be just as “wary” of a Tweet from Kanye as we would be of a signed picture, arriving on our doorstep, signed “You’re the greatest, Anne Helen Petersen, I love your blog, Love, Kanye.”   Ultimately, thinking and analyzing and doubting is not mutually exclusive to taking pleasure in these things.  You can be smart about celebrities and love to “consume” them — all at the same time.



Contemporary Fan ‘Magazines’ & Digital Interactivity

screen-capture-25

Note: This post starts where the yesterday’s on Classic Fan Magazines and Analog Interactivity left off.

Part of what I liked about Orgeron’s article on interactivity was the very application of the term to behaviors so distant from what we consider ‘interactivity’ today.  In other words, fan interactivity — and even agency — are now ascribed to those who log hours on Discussion Boards, who rally together to save beloved television shows, whose interest is (sometimes) authenticated through actual changes in television narrative, who write fan and slash fic and distribute it within international digital communities.  Interactivity has also taken on a connotation of immediacy — you can voice your displeasure with a scene by logging on to the show’s website while you are watching; you can reply directly to a celebrity’s tweet within seconds using your own Twitter account.  Digital engagement and interactivity is NOW.

Today’s analog fan magazines – the actual paper magazine that you pick up at the store or receive in your mailbox — contain a large amount of the same interactivity that characterized the classic fan mags.  Letters to the editors, polls, second-person address, advertisements that hail the consumer and ask her to judge herself and others.   They pale in comparison to that which I discussed in my previous posts, but such features exist nonetheless.  With that said, such analog interactivity is so 1992.  Today’s gossip industry (and version of fan “magazines,” also known as gossip blogs) has taken interactivity to new level.

For gossip blogs such as Perez Hilton, the form of the blog itself invites commentary.  As I think about it, I’ve discussed this at length elsewhere as concerns Perez Hilton: fan comments provide a public platform for readers to voice their opinions quickly and often; while Perez does not engage commenters, the existence of the forum — mostly uncensored — has provided a site for dedicated readers to engage in prolonged discussion of both Perez and the minutae of the celebrities on whom he posts.   Perez often concludes a gossip bit/story with the question “What do YOU think?”, explicitly encouraging feedback and implicitly validating their opinions. Below, for example, the typically opinionated Perez defends Jersey Shore ‘star’ Snooki, ending with ‘Thoughts?’

Over the last year, Perez has implemented social media tools — the ability to Facebook ‘Like’, Retweet via Twitter — increasingly present on all information sources (including this one).  I don’t want to suggest that reposting a story is a means of interactivity, but when the story is reposted with commentary, the user is obviously interacting with the item…and inviting others to do so as well, either on Perez on via Facebook comments, Twitter replies and retweets, etc.

The analog publciations – People, US Weekly — have cultivated their websites into havens of interactivity, putting them in convergent conversation with their print forms.

The Fashion Police solicit response  – and offer immediate feedback.

Reader-response to a picture of Angelina Jolie:

Readers ‘deputized’ as gossip-getters –

The interactivity at Lainey Gossip is a bit more subtle — and rarely referenced by Lainey herself.  In fact, the largest form of response comes in the form of Lainey soliciting emails and comments from her readers — not to be posted on the actual blog, but so that she can gage reader sentiment.  In fact, she refuses to open up comments sections on posts — it invites a space for hate, and if you’ve seen a Perez comments section, you’ll see that she’s right.  She does periodically publish hate mail, and when I first posted on my own experience with Twi-hard hate, way back last fall, she linked to my post as a means of showing that Twi-hate is by no means exclusive to her.  She opens every day with ‘Smutty Shout-Outs,’ where readers email their congrats, love, hopes, etc. for others (for example, someone can say that their friend is having a rough time and needs pictures of The Gos, Hot Harry on a Horse, etc.)  She also periodically replies on Twitter and through email — or at least she has to me (has she to you?)  I suspect that the gesture towards interactactivity, depicted below, is just that — a gesture.  It’s certainly very rarely integrated into the gossip posts themselves; she talks about her freebie-five all the time, but certainly doesn’t end each discussion with “go post your own for all to see in the space to your right!!”

Ultimately, the biggest gestures towards interactivity are far more personal than the bigger, more conglomerate sites.  See, for example, the recently published pictures from the Smut Soiree — where readers mingle with Lainey.  (Speaking of which, attending the Smut Soiree is totally going to be my Ph.D. graduation present from my best friends.  Just sayin’.)

People, US Weekly, and even Perez and Lainey are, in many ways, aping the success of TMZ, which encourages interactivity at every turn.  The TMZ style is characterized by garishness (both in aesthetics and general rhetoric) and oddness (submit pictures of you grilling!).  For myriad reasons, however, TMZ receives more traffic than all of the aforementioned gossip sites combined.  Whether the opportunity to interact is part of that allure — well, you can tell me if you’ve submitted pictures of yourself grilling, or phoned in a tip, or voted in a ‘who’s hotter’ poll…..(in all seriousness, please tell me if you have).

Soliciting reader opinion on the Mel Gibson case — can he be forgiven?

(And offers you a chance to ‘live chat’ about it…)

Interactivity ‘puzzles’ — an old National Enquirer trick.

Bestowing readers with power over the site itself :

‘Who’d You Rather,’ a regular TMZ feature (with poll results below)

So how is this different than the analog interactivity described in my last post?  I want to argue that what has fundamentally changed is the idea of us, as readers, having any sort of sway over Hollywood or celebrity culture.  Part of this disconnect can be linked to general celebrity indifference — long gone are the days when a star would ‘write’ an article in direct response to fan sentiment.  And even though celebrities cultivate an aura of authenticity around their official online interactions — on Twitter, on their websites, etc. — there’s still very little sense that our interaction on a gossip site will change the way that Hollywood, the gossip site, the gossip maven, or celebrities in general will behave, dress, etc.  And while I think that Twitter has reintroduced a modicum of belief in the power to speak directly to and receive communication directly from the celebrity, it remains a relatively nascent phenomenon.

I also think that there’s a broader understanding of celebrity culture as a machine — an industry unto itself — and thus far more immune to the complaints and suggestions of fans, however univocal their protests may be.  In other words, those who are interested in celebrity gossip are more cognizant of the celebrity as a product — of the machinations that go into image creation, of the fact that celebrity gossip itself is entertainment — and less likely to believe in celebrities as actual humans open to suggestions.  [I'm not suggesting that everyone was inveigled by the star system during Classic Hollywood, but the illusion was much more easily tended, and thus all the more easier to believe].  When someone comments on one of Perez’s posts, it’s not because she’s under the illusion that the celebrities featured in the post will actually read it — rather, it’s a means of voicing her opinion about the celebrity (and what he/she stands for) and engaging in dialogue (sometimes ethical, other times certainly not) with others.  Similarly, acting as ‘fashion police’ on the US Weekly site is less about you policing the actual star and more about policing women’s choice of fashion in general, and what you believe is and is not appropriate (or beautiful, or fashionable) to wear in public.

Does this ring true?  Let me know your own experiences with interactivity — and how you think it’s different than the analog interactivity cultivated in the past.

What is a Justin Bieber?

justin-bieber

A few months back, someone on my Twitter feed asked “What is a Justin Bieber?”  Obviously he’s a person, and more specifically, a teenage pop star, but the phrasing of the question highlights he’s particular role in the mediascape today.  Justin Bieber isn’t just a teenage boy with a baby face.  He’s not just the next New Kid on the Block, nor is he a new Justin Timberlake.  His fame is organic to the internet, and he’s either a harbinger of the future of the music industry or a model for a new type of teenage fame.

It’s tempting to just think of him as a pop idol.  His songs are pure treacle; he looks like he’s still around 10.  But he’s quite different from the likes of, say, Zac Efron, both in his provenance and in the way that he’s manipulated his fame since he was ‘discovered.’

The Bieber Creation story is both fitting with our current digital moment…and somewhat creepy.  Bieber taught himself to sing and play multiple instruments, eventually entering some contest in his native Canada and coming in second place.  His mom then started posting videos of Bieber covering various songs (like this one from Usher) to YouTube, and poof, several months and several millions hits later, he’d caught the eye of music producer, who flew Bieber to Atlanta and had him sing for Usher, who immediately took interest.  (Rumor has it that there was a bidding war between Usher and Timberlake; it’s unconfirmed).

Bieber’s first album, My World,  was released in November 2009, featuring the single “One Time” (featuring Usher).  The video for the song (see below) has accumulated a RIDICULOUS 65 million hits.  He even sparked a riot in a Long Island mall when someone yelled that he was going to appear in Abercrombie Kids.

But I don’t think Bieber really made it into the public consciousness (and by public, I mean people over the age of 17) until the release of his song “Baby” in January.  The song, like the rest of the Bieber oeuvre, features benign promises of chaste love and devotion, only this one gets a special rap from an uncharacteristically clean-mouthed Ludacris.

He also got to sing the first verse of the new ‘We Are the World’ to benefit Haiti, prompting many old fogies to remark “who the hell is this kid?”  He is the subject of “3 year old Crying Over Justin Bieber,” a glorious and hilarious home video with a inconsolable toddler bawling because “I just love Justin Bieber” and “I know that he loves me back” that went viral last month.  Trust me, this video is incredible.  Even more recently, he was the ‘recipient’ of an intimate letter from the normally pop culture-phobic Atlantic, and became the pivot of ‘Funny or Die’s’ April Fool’s Joke, in which the website was ‘overtaken’ by Bieber to become “Bieber Or Die,” featuring videos of Bieber gone power crazy, Justin Bieber “just wants to tell you he loves you girl,” and a dozen others.

So what is a Justin Bieber? He’s a transmedia product — and one who has achieved that status without the help of Disney or Nickelodeon.  ‘Transmedia’ is a term generally applied to storytelling techniques — defined by one transmedia storyteller as “the art of conveying messages themes or storylines to mass audiences through the artful and well planned use of multiple media platforms.”  Lost is a good example of transmedia storytelling, as are Heroes, and The Matrix – all of which have had additional content published online or in alternate formats that can be consumed by fans as a means of adding to their understanding of the show and its narrative.

Now, I realize the term and idea of transmedia do not translate perfectly to a star.  But I do think that we can think of a star as having a ‘narrative’ — and, as in the case of Bieber, a narrative that has components that are consumed by the majority, while other components are meant for consumption by fans aching for deeper understandings of the ‘story’ that is Bieber.  Stars were transmedia before narratives were transmedia: dating back to Classic Hollywood, gossip and ‘story’ magazines lured readers with unknown details (and re-writings) of stars and the narratives in which they were featured (see Janet Staiger’s piece on Marlene Dietrich in Perverse Spectators for a particularly compelling instance). Just as today’s transmedia consumers were lured by the ‘tip of the iceburg’ that is the show/movie proper, so too are fans of stars — you see the star in a movie, on a YouTube video, whatever — and are drawn to seek our further details.  To satiate your curiosity, sure, but also as a means of pleasurably expanding your understanding of the star and his/her meanings.  Again, compare this activity to that of fans of Lost engaging in discussions, role-playing, fan-fic, and reading deep into the alternate and ‘fringe’ histories beneath the show on The Fuselage.  In that case, it’s as if the show were the star, and the backstory provides the same pleasures that seeking personal history, dating habits, etc. function for a celebrity.

How, specifically, does Bieber occupy this position?  He regularly Twitters; he has a website; his music videos are on Youtube.  None of those things make him all that different from other pop stars.  Yet I would argue that it’s the existence and tremendous popularity of his original videos — coupled with ‘stunts’ such as “Bieber or Die,” the Twitter account (with its 1.7 million followers), and dozens of videos Bieber made specifically for fans, including “So How Did I Fracture My Foot with Taylor Swift?” and “Justin’s Favorite Girl Response” that make his transmedia status (at least somewhat) unique. Bieber has an immense footprint on the web — and that, more than his signature haircut and plaintive voice, are what helped make him so successful.

Again, I don’t think Bieber is unique in his status as a transmedia star.  Rather, I think that his success underscores the necessity of *being* transmedia — whether through Twitter, writing books, serving as a guest judge on a reality program, or having a website that does more than simply reproduce known facts about the star (as in the case of Tom Cruise’s).  If you want to be a star today, whether in music or reality television, you’ve got to offer breadth — room to explore, room to be fascinated, room for your fans to feel like they know more about you than anyone else.  At this point, I don’t think the paradigm applies to ‘organic’ movie stars (that is, stars whose stardom is either rooted and long-perpetuated almost exclusively by movie roles, with Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., George Clooney Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt as specimens par excellence) — but then again, I don’t think that transmedia storytelling applies nearly as much to movies as it does to this relatively recent wave of heavily serialized television.  To resist that pull is, to quote John Mayer’s analysis of Jennifer Aniston’s career, pretending like you still live in 1997.

To conclude, I could go into elaborate detail about how Bieber’s lyrics and look cater to ‘tween audiences that actually want a highly asexual crush.  But instead, I’ll just point you to the startlingly full collection of  “Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber.”