2/23/2010

The Emperor's New Codes: Celebrity in the 21st Century

We really don’t care about John Mayer’s sex life or any other nonsense his diarrhea of the mouth—and/or computer keyboard—provokes him to put out there. But there was one point he tried to make in his recent, now infamous, Playboy interview when discussing why he and on-and-off girlfriend Jennifer Aniston weren’t together that spoke to us about a much larger topic.

When he mentioned that the bulk of her fame had been achieved in the pre-online social network era, “before TMZ and Twitter”, he basically alluded to the 40 year old Aniston being an old fart who couldn’t understand why Mayer had to constantly tweet, etc. (Allegedly, "she saw [Mayer's] involvement in technology as courting distraction." We think so, too.) “The rules of celebrity have changed” or something to that effect, was his defense.

The problem with that is, as a good friend of ours recently brought up in conversation, this unfettered self-promotion may help celebrities stay in touch with their audience but at some point the person's “crazy” is gonna come out and the PR nightmare will ensue. Whatever. Mayer is part of a generation that seems to have very little understanding of what true privacy or instinctual self-preservation are; everything's one big joke. But we don’t care much about that, per se; it’s the current lack of mystery regarding an artist’s public persona that we bemoan.

Are we witnessing the end of the artist as the icon of escapism? If that dude on stage is portrayed as ostensibly just another 9-to-5er on temporary vacation, should we care how they come about creating their art? Do we feel the same about them and their process? Does this feed into the reality TV mentality that you too, however untalented you may be, have a chance at being a “star”?

Surely a middle ground can be found between the over-the-top mythic tales of how, for example, Jimmy Page composed the music to Led Zeppelin classics while secluded in a dark castle, surrounded by Aleister Crowley paraphernalia; and on the other hand, the constant barrage of OMG, I-just-had-an-organic-ham-sandwich-on-whole-wheat tweeting that passes for communication these days. Right?

Which is why this particular bit in the NY Times last week seemed so refreshing:

To promote her new album, Sade said little but sang much. She performed on Today, The View and Late Show With David Letterman but gave very few interviews. That reticence—which goes against every rule in the current pop-marketing playbook—may have worked to her advantage on the radio, said Doc Wynter, vice president of urban programming for Clear Channel Radio.

Of course, we’re talking about an artist who debuted a quarter of a century ago—yes, that’s how long ago 1985 was—one whose audience can be assumed to be the over 35 crowd. But the question is, have the rules indeed changed? Is the audience truly looking for artists to “show that you don’t take yourself seriously,” as Mayer asserts? And is the risk of coming across as a buffoon—or worse—just a byproduct of the way business is done these days?

Let’s hope not.

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