Ariana Grande’s whistle tone chirps over a symphonic refrain – “imagine… imagine… imagine…” The song culminates abruptly in an upswing of modern gospel – a life cut short. Throughout the song, in spite of by-now nauseating cultural references, like “skrrt skrrt” and “click click click and post / dripped, dripped, dripped, in gold,” the song manages to fuse the balladry of mourning – that keening whistle note and the cathedral-sized interludes – with R&B and well-placed silence and sultry verses.
It’s the fusion of the light-hearted appeal of Hollywood and Tragedy; the compassion and chatter on Twitter, the tributes and the triumphs and the trials of The Known Class – they’re versions of ourselves but with more money. But the personal life of a celebrity is something that’s immortalized on a Wikipedia page. It’s something that can make or break a person’s career; it can be a boon or a bust, and there’s no stepping out of it like there is in other industries. They’re branded for life, their own names and faces either haunting them or making paychecks.
That inseparability – of the public and the private life – has transformed pop music into a goldmine of genuinely personal work.
The pop music of the late 90s and early 00s was filtered through record execs and management teams and paparazzi and stage parents. The music was infectious and remains memorable, but the fact remains that teams of producers and songwriters and hordes of industry buffs were in collusion churning out radio-friendly, semi-salacious, auto-tuned bullshit, much of which was a blatant and bad reinterpretation of the hip-hop that the decade was blessed with several years prior.
Today, the genre is sprouting YouTube and Soundcloud talent, and that competition is driving the big names to capitalize on not just their music but their stories as human beings. An album is equal parts spin-story and sound. Artists like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Drake have at once capitalized on and suffered within their music, their lives exposed, during vulnerable moments of heartbreak and tragedy and scandal.
How could the music not address it? They, and the industry at large, directly capitalize on folly and downfall and death. A catalogue that doesn’t address the tabloid fodder would be inherently dishonest.
Is this the idolatry of our time – the myths behind the art, fallible and suffering but untouchable and divine, in halos of camera flashes? Consumption culture riding as disembodied Gucci Tennis Shoes on the back of a line about Cane and Abel. Tiffany’s and “red bottoms.” The smiles and pap walks, the pouts and press and ever-presence.
Beyoncé is perhaps the master of the untouchable pop culture goddess — one recalls a recent video of she and Jay-Z standing in front of the Royal portrait of Meghan Markle, actress and duchess, thanking fans for honoring them with a Brit Award for Apesh**t. That was itself was a callback to the music video for the lead single from their collaborative album THE CARTERS, the third installment in the Carter Family saga (the first being Beyoncé’s Grammy-nominated Lemonade, the second Jay-Z’s 4:44). The trilogy addressed the rumored marital problems between the untouchable couple in art, nullifying the cultural value of the infamous elevator scuffle that sparked the rumors.
There are now enough celebrities to epitomize virtually every positive and negative personality trait; and it should perhaps come as no surprise that, in a cyclone of reality TV and politics, we’ve been smited by a Charybdis posed as a pseudo-dictator. The noxious side of pop culture, with its Twitter clarion calls and capricious tantrums, has been crystallized on the head of a spray-tanned and unclothed emperor.
Merch is a wearable anointment, a garment; the concerts and interviews and rallies and speeches are churches made available in our pockets and purses. Legions of worshippers watch as their rulers, their idols, take up arms online, in verse, in real-time. The feuds and failures turn the lens back around on us – the viewers, the consumers, the supporters, the followers. The followers.
Follow. It’s a word that succumbs easily to word fatigue, but it’s a term commonly applied to Christ Himself. It’s been turned into a monetized button, a tithing, and a near-perfect barometer of public interest. “I’m so successful,” boasts Ariana Grande. Follow. It’s a measure of clout, an accomplishment in and of itself – to be known, to be heard. To be heard. One of the latest phrases in our cultural back pocket is just that: “I hear you.”
It’s infectious, isn’t it? The music, in its accessibility and the personas in their imperfection – but most of all the idea that a single human life is something that ought to be heard by others. The clout so easily begets, in a PR shitstorm, notoriety; the fame begets infamy; the fortunes ride the coattails of indiscretion. But their worst-of-times croons nevertheless echo our own.
Our expectations of pop music now reside in our expectations of its makers, and our demand is reversible and forever at-odds – humanity and perfection; a tug-of-war between the self and the icon.