Knowles Knows

I had a long conversation with Essence magazine’s Jeannine Amber last month. She was working on a cover story about Beyonce Knowles, and she wanted to chat a bit about how celebrities negotiate fandom, its commonsensical expectations and its worst excesses.

Clearly, we obsess about celebrity, and we’ve been doing so for a long time now. But that erstwhile preoccupation has changed its features quite a lot in recent years. Reality TV, for one, has rewired our presumptions about citizens (famous or not) and their rights to privacy. It has also confounded some of our traditional assumptions about access to reality itself.

There are no conventional screenplays in Reality TV, few pre-fabbed lines for actors to memorize and recite. Scenes are supposed to be spontaneous, unscripted, and they are imagined to be all the more “real” as a consequence.

The current proliferation of Reality TV programming (usually chalked up to the bottom line of lowered production costs and credited, in one recent book, to the radio antics of Howard Stern) can be seen as a replacement of actorly virtuosity with purportedly non-acted, unfiltered access to people’s sloppy, vulnerable, and sincerest insides.

These days, acting is considered a kind of faked sincerity, and faking sincerity, no matter how stellar the performance, is hardly enough anymore. We want “the real thing,” not its well-performed simulation: real tears, real anger, real oddity, real sex. The fact that these non-actors on our Reality TV offerings could be faking their own depictions of sincerity is something to be carefully ferreted out — exposed and expunged. But the normative claim about that difference (between “acting” and “being” on TV) seems beyond dispute. The success of these shows is an outgrowth of their ability to display seemingly untainted sincerity, not a masterful imitation.

It is this unquenchable thirst for “the really real” that drives paparazzi’s flashbulb frenzies. Celebrity is predicated on it, this backstage access, this pretending of transparency.

Of course, most media analysts readily concede that there is little more “real” about Reality TV than conventionally scripted fare, but the genre does reconfigure our beliefs about the kind of access we should have to the rich and famous.

Part of the point of that Essence article, which has just hit newsstands, was to discuss Beyonce’s attempt to maintain a modicum of privacy in an age of Reality TV’d hyper-access. She is known for being pretty cagey about the most basic facts of her personal life, including her marriage to hip-hop mega-star Jay-Z.

Fans can feel a sense of entitlement about being privy to unfettered backstage info on their favorites celebs. The generous way to frame this is to say that we actually grow to care about the superstars we admire. We want to know that they are just real people, like us, folks that we can identify with and understand (not untouchable icons standing above and beyond us). We want to know the tiniest details about these people because we love them. And they should simply be flattered.

The more cynical read would emphasize the point that we sometimes mistakenly believe that celebrities owe us this kind of panoptican-like access. We try to make Beyonces look like the crazy ones when they don’t share all of their most private experiences. But that’s hardly fair. I’m not sure that we, the legion of everyday fans, aren’t really the crazy ones, especially as we’ve cultivated this almost fiendish need to know anything and everything about everybody else’s darkest secrets.

And we’ve even become markedly more prone to indiscriminately divulging our own secrets, too. Youtube can make us all celebrities, at least for a few news cycles, and it allows us to practice what we preach by proffering all of our dirtiest laundry items, appropriate or not, for anyone willing to sift through them.

This very sensibility helps to explain the kind of gossipy access we think we deserve when it comes to politicians’ bedrooms and closed-door familial conflicts. In some ways, we’ve all youtubed ourselves out of real privacy. (And that was before any Patriot Act put a final nail in privacy’s coffin.) Given such a backdrop, it actually might be laudable for Beyonce to push back against these societal demands for full disclosure, especially when acceptance can lead one down a slippery slope to Flavor-Flav’d forms of self-parody.

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