On the way to school, i was listening to Eminem’s Hallie’s Song and it made me start thinking about the construction of celebrity, the management of frontstage/backstage and the identity crises that occurs around perception.
People make jokes, cuz they don’t understand me
They just don’t see my real side
Now you probly get this picture from my public persona
That I’m a pistol-packing drug-addict who bags on his momma,
But I wanna just take this time out to be perfectly honest
Cuz there’s a lot of shit I keep bottled that hurts deep inside o’ my soul
If you follow Goffman, everyone has a tension between the frontstage (that which they show publicly) and the backstage (that which is reserved). This is where a lot of the public/private persona negotiation comes into play. Yet, it is always assumed that access to the backstage is inherently privileged, deeply desirable. Of course, this gets magnified in celebrity culture.
What fascinates me about Eminem’s lyrics is a phrasing that i hear so often – the “you don’t understand.” When i was a kid, i used to scream this at my mother and she would roll her eyes at me and tell me that she did, that she was once a kid too and i would stomp off. I think about all of the bloggers that i’ve interviewed who have audiences larger than their friend groups and how they whine about being misinterpreted by their readers, about not being truly understood. The idea of not being understood is endemic and often comes out in the form of identity battle – this isn’t really who i am. It comes out when the mirror doesn’t match the internal image. This is inherently the tension in Ani DiFranco’s lyrics – the tension between how she is perceived and how she sees herself. It is a tension that i hear more and more but i don’t truly understand the root.
With both kids and celebrity, i think that the problem partially lies in the idea that the performance is being interpreted not in the performer’s terms but in the terms of the audience. Adults typically read youth as “young adults” – a population who has just not yet matured and will one day see the way. [Barrie Thorne does an amazing job of challenging this and arguing for conceptualizing kid/youth culture on kid/youth terms.] But in the typical American construction of both populations, there’s a deep desire to reread kids/celebrities from the perspective of the audience, as though they owe something to the audience – the future, entertainment, etc. The failure to own their own voice, to have their voices represent something larger than life alienates the individual, makes them feel nonexistent. When people speak about not being understood, their referencing how they feel objectified and othered.
There’s a tension in having a voice. On one hand, people want their opinions and thoughts to have agency, to speak to a broad set of issues, to represent groups of people. On the other, they want to be voicing their own stories, not just being an icon for a broader population. This tension is difficult to resolve because it’s simultaneously empowering and disempowering.
Warhol used to talk about how everyone would have 15 minutes of fame. The construction of fame requires that people will be the object of fascination to a large audience, the “masses.” Such fame means that the individual’s voice will begin to represent something, to be disembodied. People will have to struggle with being interpreted from a different perspective, having their words read in the terms of the audience not in terms of intention. Would such fame lead to an increase in the you don’t understand me crises? What does this mean on an individual and cultural level?
What is the value of this emotional state, this frustration over not being understood? Where does it come from? What do people gain from it or why do they let themselves get trapped in it? Certainly, audiences think that individuals are self-absorbed when they bitch about being misunderstood. This, of course, only magnifies the crises. So what does it mean?
i am not an angry girl
but it seems like i’ve got everyone fooled
every time i say something they find hard to hear
they chalk it up to my anger
and never to their own fear – Ani, Not a Pretty Girl
life in the circus ain’t easy
but the folks on the outside don’t know
the tent goes up and the tent comes down
and all that they see is the show – Ani, Freakshow