My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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a crises in perception

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

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8 comments to a crises in perception

  • Sometimes I think that the tension comes not from how we see ourselves but in the mismatch between reactions we expect from people around us and reaction we actually experience. There is this idea of the “spotlight effect” – where we think that our behavior is far more transparent and expressive of our inner state than it tends to be. Another way to interpret this, is that most people really do not pay very much attention to others around them unless they really really care. We are selfish creatures…

    so the “you just don’t understand” may come from our expectation that what we express is clearly indicative of our inner state and it should be reacted to in a particular way – what we get is a reaction that is often very different, sometimes because the “inner” state is really not obvious or the spectator really does not care or lacks the background to fill in the gaps. who knows? maybe we all just don’t understand people around us. Sometimes it feels like that.

  • Oh, the beauty of Goffman�s theories. However, I immediately came to think of John Durham Peters� book Speaking into the air, because what you describe may concern our misperception of communication: our wish to share total meaning, and belief that this is indeed possible. In most (everyday) situations we do understand each other. But understanding has come to be a very strong symbol of communication, something we almost take for granted. Still communication is often about misunderstandings and broken conversations. This is certainly true when we try to communicate about our selves. “�The challenge of communication is not to be true to our own interiority, but to have mercy on others for never seeing ourselves as we do�” (Peters: 267).

  • Bakari

    Zephoria, this is my second time visting your site, but your current post (which I need to reread) got me to thinking about a book I read by Joshua Merowitz–“No Sense of Place: the Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior.” It was published back in ’85 and it explores the issues of frontstage/backstage realities and they influence behavior and social interaction. The book is right on the mark concerning how media brings backstage realities to youth in ways that mostly conservative folks try to ignore. Popular media is presenting so much backstage (real and constructed) that the front stage simply can’t hold its front! But sadly, popular media doesn’t help youth dig deeper into backstage realities–or at least there’s little outlet for them to critically respond to what they’re seeing backstage. Thus the levels of cynicism and apathy. It’s easier just being a spectator. … Anyway, I’m not sure where I’m going with all this, but it’s good to see your analysis in a blog.

  • Hey, long time reader, first time poster… I think… anyway —

    I’m teaching a class on media on the other coast and we had a mini-unit on music, and dealt with this exact –EXACT –same topic. In fact I got two papers on Eminem. (prepare here for long post by wordy grad student)

    There’s a few things going on. Some of the more effective pop music has a fidelity to the problem of communication; “I’m up here on stage trying to communicate something, but the status of being onstage and iconicized by the very audience that keeps me doing what I want to be doing always ironically separates me from the desired goal of communication –no matter what I say, that audience will be there saying they get it, whether they do or not, and I’ll never know.” That’s got to be alienating –if it’s recognized.

    Eminem does recognize this in more than a few songs (as my students were more than happy to point out, chapter and verse –especially in the D12 song “My Band”), and he does it in as engaged a way as the Di Franco lyrics you’re quoting; it’d be one thing if these artists were just whining “they don’t understand,” but it’s more than that, it’s done in the context of their status as musicians and what that means in Western culture (a kind of unearned celebrity –all you need is a record or video, and you’re already a celebrity, which draws attention away from the work itself). So where they end up is the thing that they need to do, communicate through the form of music, alienates them from doing the thing they need to do.

    This is what Gang of Four was getting at in the late 1970’s when they openly criticized their audiences in their songs, it’s actually a subtext in Springsteen’s MTV version of “Born in the USA” (the original is acoustic, angry, sounds like he’s growling in a closet –the poppy version keeps the lyrics, but the pop sound works like a trick –if you’re just going along because it sounds good, you’re hearing but not listening to the song, and part of the song is about this guy who isn’t listened too; this was proven when both Reagan and Mondale tried to use his song on their campaign trails). It’s there in Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” where Cobain is a kind of ventriloquist for the crowd who only want to be entertained, as if the show is a sitcom (“here we are now / entertain us”) –and we know where that disconnect lead Cobain.

    So how do you communicate something when communication seems impossible? There’s at least two approaches: A.) structure the whole piece so the relations of the lyrics, instrumentation, etc. work to express (think Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner;” The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” also does this well, and so does Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”); B.) If communication is stunted, a song about stunted communication that presents stunted communication effectively performs the condition. This last bit is what Sam Beckett figured out with drama/literature.

    Sidenote: The problem is this can also lead to a kind of disaffected pose and style that other bands necessarily capitalize on. It’s not a nefarious thing; artists like the ones mentioned above already tend to be fairly original because they have to forge a form for their content; original music in a popular forum will get play, and that play will, through general market forces, cause more artists to try on that style, but rarely with the same understanding, and the style alone will get them some play and thus a measure of celebrity status. Alexander Abramovich has a great article about this in regards to Rage Against the Machine and a few other bands –groups who use the presentation of alienation and cultural disaffection as a kind of political empowerment, but if you go back to the lyrics and attend to the position of the musician in relation to the material, there’s no connection. (The Rage is relentless, but what about? Mainly about relentlessly telling you they’re relentless; the tension between instrumentation and lyrics isn’t present, so the only thing progressing the music is the sheer bombast of the sound.)

    In another course I’m grading for we’ve been screening a lot of Stanley Kubrick and looking at the way he treats the nature of celebrity; you note from Eminem that he’s claiming there’s a lot we don’t know about him because we only pay attention to the celebrity. Something that’s rather interesting about performers, especially performers who can play a number of characters (as Eminem does), is that they tend to be quite ordinary, almost characterless in their personal lives. Peter Sellers was notorious for this; he had almost no personality, but could take on anyone else’s, or create a personality as needed. Steve Martin is a lot the same way –look at how well the guy who played “The Jerk” played a villain in “The Spanish Prisoner” (and it can’t be coincidence that he’s taking over Peter Sellers’ role in the remake of “The Pink Panther”). Kubrick used Sellers on a number of occasions, but purposefully avoided celebrities for most of his films. But where he really gets into the question is in “Eyes Wide Shut” where he purposefully casts the current it-couple (Cruise and Kidman –he had toyed with Steve Martin), and portrays them not only woodenly, but in very ordinary domestic scenes; one of the earliest scenes is them getting ready for a party, and Kidman is sitting on the toilet while Cruise is straightening his tie in the bathroom mirror. They could be characters in the film at this point, or their own real selves getting ready for a Hollywood gala. Cruise’s character uses his status as a doctor like a celebrity –flashing his credentials, every woman he meets wants to sleep with him –but he’s cut off every step of the way. By the end of the film, you forget that you were watching two huge stars, and you’re seeing two characters just reading their lines, stuck in this very real domestic drama film in all its (relative) everyday-ness (there’s nothing ordinary about the orgy at the mansion, but the movie suggests that’s all fantasy anyway). The point is, Kubrick is exploring the nature of audience and celebrity and exploding the preconceptions of celebrity through the structure of the film.

    Now I’m rambling.

    But –if your’e really interested in the music side of things, you’re at Berkely; one of my professors just moved there to the English department, and he’s done a lot of work on jazz and now punk. His name’s Scott Saul, look him up, he’s a great guy.

  • Alex Supertramp

    To me trying to comunicate an issue is like trying to delete a file on a Windows based computer. When you delete the file, there is still unwanted little piece of it left in your computer.

    Sometimes when we communicate people recieving or projecting their argument occasionaly miss the the forest for the trees are in the way.
    i.e. Your BLOGHER BLOG.
    I was in support of it, and all equality. I had thought that the thrust of my argument was the desire of a world when we judged people on individual merit and not basing it on who they are, because of race, religion, sex or orientation.
    Instead of the desired affects of my thoughts, some people did not see the forest of my argument because their trees, or their all ready preconcieved notions were in the way. and I was theft thinking “Mom you just don’t understand me”

    I hope this came out right.
    Alex

  • Lexi

    Who wrote the poem “Freak Show”
    Could you tell me about it?

  • Lexi – it’s by Ani DiFranco. Her lyrics are all here