02 February 2010

The Fame Monster In All of Us

Yes, I'm going to use the Grammys, and specifically Lady Gaga's performance with Sir Elton John, as a jumping-off point for this page of musings. For those of you who missed it, here are three separate links to various videos of the performance; I'm sure there are copyright issues with these being available on the web so they'll probably be taken down at some point, but I don't think you'll get in too much trouble just by surfing over to YouTube (disclaimer: that's not to be construed as legal advice). And another disclaimer – I'm only a casual fan of Gaga's, so if you're reading this as a serious devotee and I get something wrong, please be gentle in your excoriations.

Whether or not you just watched the video, here are the relevant points. At one point in the performance an emcee-type character decries Gaga as a monster, probably referencing her album The Fame Monster (thus the title of this post). She's thrown into a fiery pit, but re-emerges below seated at a dual-keyboard piano opposite Sir Elton (one musician whose outfits, in his heyday, could keep up with hers). She strikes a monster-esque pose (was she referencing Thriller?) and shouts “Take my picture, Hollywood! I want to be a star!” The top of the piano is covered with outstretched arms reaching upwards. I wasn't sure what to make of the arms at first, but as the show continued I was struck by how many performers either interacted with the fans in mosh pits in prominent view, or walked out to an adjacent stage in the midst of (and above) the middle of the audience, or both. Then I understood the arms on the piano (maybe) – they were like the outstretched arms of the fans, reaching up in idolizing adoration to touch the musical stars. So, by her flamboyant outfits and over-the-top references, Gaga was parodying the quest for fame and adoration that so many celebrities seem to pursue.

Why are we so obsessed with fame? Why do we idolize celebrities? Think on this: They don't call the show American Pop Star, they call it American Idol. What is it about fame and celebrity that people seem to love, and at the same time hate? I think it's simply a matter of wanting to be known, and the fear comes from the fear of being known too thoroughly. As Gaga herself said about one of her songs, Beautiful Dirty Rich, “On one level it is about wooing the paparazzi and wanting fame. But, it’s not to be taken completely seriously. It’s about everyone’s obsession with that idea. But, it’s also about wanting a guy to love you and the struggle of whether you can have success or love or both.”

To know me is to love me? That may be what we want, but it's also what we fear. We all long to be known, to have our voices heard, to somehow stand out in the crowd of infinitely multiplying media outlets and ways of broadcasting ourselves (some poor fools even go so far as to write a blog) and dehumanizing work and traffic jams and an ever-shrinking, ever-flattening world that seems to spin faster every day. Yet we're also afraid of being known, at least being known too well, because we assume (consciously or unconsciously) that if someone really got to know us, the good and the bad, there's no way they'd want to have anything to do with us, let alone love us. That's also why the symbols of fame at the Grammys were mosh pits and outstretched arms reaching up to musical celebrities up above. They're up there and we're down here, and we idolize them up there with their fame and their celebrity, even though we can't really ever touch them.

I think this also applies to our worship of the divine. For millennia humans tended to worship a God on high, a God who was distant and unknowable and unreachable, no matter how much we stretched out our arms to try to touch heaven. There were some exceptions along the way – in the Christian tradition these exceptions were the medieval mystics like Hildegard or Julian – but they were definitely exceptions to the rule. In the last century or so of Christianity there's been a new trend. Particularly in evangelical Christian circles nowadays, it's very popular to claim Jesus as one's “personal Savior”, the implication being that one enjoys not just some distantly worshipful relationship with God, but that on some deep level there's an intimately personal connection between the believer and the divine. I'll leave to others to judge the theological soundness of either of these approaches; for now, I'm only interested in this longing to know and be known, and to be loved and accepted through and in spite of that being known.

Are there ways we as humans can do that with each other? Sometimes it's easier to imagine a divine being who fully knows, accepts, and loves us than to imagine that our neighbor, our colleague, our friend, or our spouse could do the same. One way to cultivate this kind of knowing-love is to model it. Referring back to my previous post on cynicism and the heart of the warrior, we need to be willing to be known in intimate ways. The being-known that is fame isn't intimate – it keeps its distance and is safe and protected, craving the adulation of outstretched arms but not being willing to risk revealing its true self. Once we quiet our own fears and set them aside, we can give others the space to let themselves be known by us. We can have to have the courage to listen rather than speak, to demonstrate to our friends (for starters) that we want to know them for who they are, and that we won't reject them once they reveal themselves to us.

A traditional Hindu greeting (that you might know from yoga classes) is “namaste”. Literally translated, this means “bowing to you/him/her”. The more symbolic meaning, and the meaning usually associated with it in more generic spiritual teachings, is something like “The divine in me acknowledges and adores the divine in you.” That's another way of getting to the same safe place. If I acknowledge that you embody a spark of the divine, and that I also do, then we share a common bond of the divine spirit (whatever you might choose to call it), and we each are of infinite worth. Then we can begin to break down the barriers that divide us, and without fear we can know even as we are known.


Corey-Jan Albert said...

Beautiful and insightful, my friend. It's interesting to consider if the allure of fame stems from the fact that people want to be admired (idolized?), REGARDLESS of who and what they really are. We cannot stand the risk of revealing ourselves (at best) or defending ourselves (at worst). The voices of others that make us think demand that we quiet down long enough to listen. And how scary is that? What parts of our world will come crashing down if others (or we, ourselves) recognize our uniqueness as imperfection? Life would be so much easier if we could just be applauded unconditionally, at increasingly thunderous levels to drown out all that other noise.

Dan said...

@CJ, well said. It is scary to listen, both to others and most especially to ourselves. I also like the image of drowning out the other noise with unconditional applause, but only so long as it leads to enough quiet to be able to hear as well.