The myth of celebrity

I was listening to Sean Lennon on Marc Maron’s podcast recently. Yes, that’s one of the sons of Beatle John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

He put a couple of things in perspective for me.

One was the role of a dad (which is something I think about every day, by the way). He discussed how surreal it was to watch thousands of people gather in Central Park every year on his dad’s birthday for years after John Lennon was killed. He said he hears all the time from people, “you have no idea what your dad meant to me.”

Which he feels kind of hijacked his dad’s death from him — this wasn’t just a man who moved him with his music. John Lennon was the guy who cut his meat for him at dinner and taught him how to put on pants.

[Pause. We’ll get back here, I promise.]

The other thing Sean Lennon said was that he tries not to spend too much time with famous people he admires, because eventually, whatever expectation he had of them on a pedestal crumbles, and he can see their humanity.

Joan Jett has been a rock star my entire life. She first recorded a version of “I Love Rock & Roll” in 1979 (the hit version came a couple years later). I turned three that year.

I had the opportunity to have a brief phone interview with her, in 2002. She was open to chatting but generally quiet, something that also came across in person the couple of times I’ve been able to meet her; much different from her giant on-stage persona.

I don’t remember a lot of that 10-minute interview, more than a decade and a half later. I do remember asking about politics in our post-9/11 world; she had things to say and not enough time to say them. But here’s a thing that still stands out to me: I asked her what it was like to have to play the same song, night after night, 300 or more performances a year.

Because if you went to Joan Jett concert and she didn’t play “I Love Rock & Roll,” you’d be upset.

I imagined it would get old, especially, at that time, more than 20 years on.

In fact, she said, it was the opposite. Imagine everyone in the audience, every night, anticipating the song all night, the cheering when they heard the opening bars, and then hearing everyone — everyone — singing the song she made famous. (No, she didn’t write it, but it’s been four decades since people were flocking to see Alan Merrill, and if you’ve heard his version, with or without the Arrows, it was probably because you went searching for where it came from.)

It doesn’t matter how the rest of your night is going. If it was the worst day ever, and you had that waiting for you at the end of the day — standing in front of 100 or 1,000 or 20,000 people, smiling and singing your music to you — your day ends well.

Because celebrities are just people. They have bad days, too. Jett happens to have a go-to bad-day killer.

If you’re a fan of the Evil Dead films and TV series, Bruce Campbell comes across in real life basically the same way he comes across on the screen. Not quite so arrogant, maybe, but he is confident and he doesn’t have time for your bullshit.

He tells crowds at speaking events that, when it comes time for Q&A or meet-and-great or book signings or whatever, no, he will not say “woodshed.”

“I am not your monkey,” he says.

[There’s a scene in one of the movies when the visual and audio are from different takes; you hear the word “woodshed,” but Campbell’s character, Ash, doesn’t move his lips.]

Just like you have a sibling who’s sick of hearing an embarrassing story about themselves every year at Thanksgiving for decades, it’s just not funny to him anymore.

Celebrity is an old word, dating to the late 1300s, when it was related to celebrations of religious or social rites. By the 1600s it came to mean fame, and it was in the 1800s that it came to mean a person.

Of course, it also still means fame. So, a celebrity is a person with celebrity.

Celebrate good times. Come on!

Sean Lennon wears pants. When he was a little kid, someone taught him how to put pants on; that someone happened to be one of the most famous songwriters the world has ever known. And that someone was killed when Sean Lennon was five years old.

Apart from all of the celebrations of his dad’s life on the anniversary of John Lennon’s murder, Sean Lennon is reminded every year on his own birthday — Sean and John were both born on October 9, 35 years apart.

In December of this year, John Lennon will have been gone for 39 years. He lived only a couple of months past his 40th birthday.

Who knows what he would have done artistically? He and Yoko Ono were married for 11 years, about 10 of them after The Beatles broke up. Sean Lennon credits her for his music and film career — she’s very good at the technical aspects, and she creates across a variety of art forms — so John Lennon had plenty of prospects in the realm of creative partnership.

It seems they — John and Yoko — never cared much for the expectations of the crowd. In fact, looking back on the creative arc of The Beatles, the same is true. This is a band that recorded “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You” and a version of “Twist and Shout” in 1963 and four years later they were churning out “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” followed in 1968 by the likes of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and “Rocky Raccoon.”

But more than artistically, what could he have done as a human and a father?

Sure, his wealth, like that of many other people, could have done a lot of good in the world if he wanted it to. But it’s his relationships with his wife and his sons that really could have made the biggest impact.

Kim Kardashian may be helping get people out of jail for minor drug offenses, but apart from cursing her kids with socially unusual names (Psalm, Saint, North and Chicago), feeding her kids, teaching them how to use the toilet and all the things that get them ready for life — that might not have the widest impact, but it certainly has the deepest.

A reminder, then, that celebrities are people. I think the biggest issue for celebrities is a societal cocktail of myths composed of expectations, ownership and dehumanization.

I want to start with dehumanization. I think it applies especially to youth stars. We gave Justin Bieber, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan millions of dollars when they were teenagers. There are well over a thousand malls in the U.S. that don’t allow teens without supervision.

Translation: We can’t trust kids to handle themselves with $10 in a mall food court, but we’re shocked when teenagers who get more money than most people ever see before they get their drivers licenses go off the rails?

This shows exactly that celebrities are just people. If you were a fairly well-disciplined teen who only occasionally got into a little mischief, what were the factors keeping you from going absolutely out of your mind crazy? Maybe you needed that job to pay your car insurance. You needed your parents to not ship you off to some juvenile detention center. Mrs. Murphy down the street was always watching out for who was causing trouble.

But what if you didn’t need a job or anybody to buy food or keep a roof over your head? What if millions of people admired you? And what if almost as many millions of people would cheer if you fucked up?

That’s the dehumanization of celebrities.

Expectations and ownership are somewhat related. Expectations may come regarding creative output, or they may come regarding interaction, which I think is implied ownership. Some examples.

Do you think the “Across the Universe” Beatles may have had a different fan base from the “Ticket to Ride” Beatles? I’m sure there were some people who came in at “Ticket to Ride” and stuck around for “Across the Universe,” but my guess is that any contemporary fans of both those iterations came in at “jai guru deva om” and worked their way backward to “She’s got a ticket to ride and she don’t care,” while most of the people who profess to enjoy both the early and the later sounds weren’t picking up the music at the time it came out.

That’s expectation for creative output.

The “ownership” side can be a little more tricky. Think for a minute about JD Salinger. His most famous work was published in 1951 and almost 70 years later it still sells a quarter million copies each year, even though The Catcher in the Rye is most certainly widely available at your local used book store and library.

You might remember that when he died in 2010 people wrote tributes as to how much he and his work would be missed. But at that point he hadn’t published anything new in 45 years and hadn’t given a public interview in 30 years. If you were on Twitter in 2010 to “honor” him, chances are you could barely put together a sentence the last time anybody had heard from him.

Yet the public felt such ownership over him that it entirely ignored his decades of staying out of the public eye.

Another aspect of expectation and ownership is the notion that celebrities are only celebrities because the public lets them be, and can dictate all the interaction. But a lot of being famous is about putting in hard work — just because someone else does an entirely different kind of work than you do doesn’t mean they’re not working their ass off at it. So if someone famous wants to just eat dinner with their family? No, they don’t owe you a selfie.

And if someone doesn’t want to shake your hand in the restroom? Get over it. That’s a person, not someone you own.

As the case of JD Salinger shows, it’s nearly impossible to just stop being a celebrity. According to Kurt Cobain’s suicide note, it really was not fun.

For example when we’re back stage and the lights go out and the manic roar of the crowds begins., it doesn’t affect me the way in which it did for Freddie Mercury, who seemed to love, relish in the the love and adoration from the crowd which is something I totally admire and envy. The fact is, I can’t fool you, any one of you. It simply isn’t fair to you or me. The worst crime I can think of would be to rip people off by faking it and pretending as if I’m having 100% fun.

(Yes, I’m aware there are theories that it wasn’t really a suicide.)

Treat people well. And treat celebrities like they’re people, because they are. Except Lassie and Benji, who were dogs.


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