The Trouble with Popstars

Let’s talk about popstars. I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately, probably because they tend to saturate the radio, television, magazines, and internet, but also because they have a huge influence on style and culture, and both of those things have an obvious effect on the rest of us.

So what really makes someone a popstar? I think a pop artist creates danceable music, and has a certain persona they embody, they’re of course also marketable in some way, usually because they’re all sexy. The making of a popstar is a curious thing. Most of them start as something else and then transcend. Gwen Stefani started as a ska queen, Cyndi Lauper was a downtown rocker chick, and countless others have ascended to the throne of pop-stardom from complete obscurity, or from the Mickey Mouse Club.

Like I said, a big part of being a popstar is being sexy (I’m talking mainly lady popstars here), yes there are some who might not use it as much as others, but as a general rule, sex sells, especially in the record industry. I can’t get into the way that sexuality plays into pop and celebrity in general, but it must be noted that most of the women considered popstars have benefited from their sexual magnetism, is it exploitation? Well that really depends on how they feel about it. In the case of Britney Spears, I always thought there was some exploitation going on, but I can’t be sure. In the case of someone like Katy Perry or Lady Gaga, I think they’re both completely aware of how they use their bodies and make those choices for themselves, or at least I hope so. Either way being a popstar does mean a fair amount of showing skin, gyrating, and sultry, pouty-lipped, flirting with your audience and everyone else too.

People are very protective of their popstars, we love to pit them against each other, Madonna vs. Cyndi, Britney vs. Christina, Gaga against just about everyone. Just like sports teams, we maintain a certain loyalty to them, but then we turn on them when they fail us. They’re more real to us than actors because they open themselves up to us on stage. They invite us in, they write about their lives in their songs, and we connect to them (if you were a teenage girl in the 90’s tell me you didn’t blast Gwen Stefani singing Don’t Speak at full volume at least once), after all when you sing you bare your soul right?

Popstars are overblown characters, they have to maintain their persona constantly. Actors, reality TV stars, socialites, most other celebrities are not asked to do this, but popstars are more to us. They play a bigger part in culture and we expect a lot from them. Think about how many actors just continue to play the same part over and over again, Jennifer Aniston comes to mind. Likewise for comedians, as we can see from SNL, people just love to watch the same joke over and over again. The same goes for the success of Will Ferrell, or Jack Black movies, people seem to love them, sure we get sick of them too, but it takes longer, and we never really tear them a part for it.

Take Lady Gaga right now, in October when I mentioned her name to people, I was getting blank stares, now everyone and their mother (by this I mean my mother) talk about her regularly. Yet, I think we’re already getting a little bored by her, partially because of over-saturation yes, but also because we’re ready for her to do something new. I was so excited for the Alejandro video to come out, and then when it did, I found myself disappointed. I guess because like her recent  Rolling Stone cover, it just seemed like we’d seen it already, it wasn’t fun anymore. After getting annoyed and yelling “Boo! Gaga give me something better!” loudly at my computer while eating toast in my PJs  one day, I started to wonder why I already wanted something new from a girl who hadn’t been in my iTunes rotation for more than a year. Then I felt bad, and then I started to wonder why we expect so much from these people? Maybe because we know they have production powerhouses behind them, or maybe we are turning into a society that needs instant gratification. We want something new, we want something both entertaining and mind-blowing, and we want it now. But we don’t know what it is and we expect someone else to figure it out for us, like now. I think we’re a little harder on someone like Gaga too because she takes credit for a lot of the creativity and process in her work, and when you claim creative control, you open yourself up to a whole bunch of criticism.

With someone like Britney Spears, we all knew someone else was writing her songs and putting words in her mouth and she was pretty much left out of all the decision-making. So maybe we were a little more sympathetic, but that still didn’t stop us from being fascinated when she had a nervous breakdown (a nervous breakdown is after all something new and different from anything she had done before). We still wanted more from her, and of course the only thing we love more than a fallen popstar is a comeback (take note Lindsay Lohan).

I don’t think we’re as harsh on male popstars, I also don’t think we have as many male pop stars. I certainly don’t think we scrutinize Justin Timberlake nearly as much as we do Katy Perry or Beyoncé. I’m not sure what this says about our culture, probably a whole hell of a lot more than I’m even touching on, but I think it’s interesting to note our relationships with these women. We love them, we are annoyed by them, we are fascinated by them, we hate them, we want them to succeed, we love to see them fail—it’s all just insanity! They are just women like the rest of us, they’re trying to succeed, they use their sex appeal to do so yes, but that’s a choice, it may be a choice that allows some to justify treating them as less-than-human, but people tend to do that in the internet-age regardless.

Speaking of which, Jezebel had an interesting post the other day about the backlash that successful stars (pop or otherwise) face after over-saturation. If you dare go in the comments section, you’ll see many make the argument that Gaga and others (particularly Megan Fox) are boring and replaceable and that is why it’s OK to lash out against them. To me, that seems like over-justification, do we really need to put energy into hating these performers, is it our duty? Won’t they fail on their own if they’re so boring and awful?  I guess I just can’t see a reason for putting so much venom out there, it makes me wonder what you get back from it. If we aren’t happy with what is out there, it seems a much better approach to support the music or artists we love (shout out to Joanna Newsom, La Roux, and Laura Veirs) that aren’t as successful, that’s got to be better karma.

My point is that in order for my perfect world where we all love each other and accept our bodies and ourselves to exist, we have to let go of all the judgment and the hatred. They’re just popstars, they’re supposed to be fun, they aren’t running for office. They’re role-models sure, but speaking of politicians, when did being held up as a role-model ever mean you actually conduct yourself in manner befitting of one? Maybe I’ve just been in the comments section of Jezebel a bit too much lately (it can be a scary place), but I got myself all worked up about it, and this has been therapeutic for me, so thanks! Lets all try to be polite, popstars or not, surely it can only aid in making us more beautiful people.

What do you guys think of popstars, do you sympathize with them? Do you guiltily read US weekly whenever you’re at the nail salon just because you have a sick fascination with their lives…oh wait, that’s just me, or maybe it’s you too. Maybe you could give a damn about any of them. Either way let me know!

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “The Trouble with Popstars

  1. “…why we expect so much from these people? Maybe because we know they have production powerhouses behind them, or maybe we are turning into a society that needs instant gratification. We want something new, we want something both entertaining and mind-blowing, and we want it now. But we don’t know what it is and we expect someone else to figure it out for us, like now”

    Good word!

  2. Megan

    A few things. First, although vitriol against popstars is certainly prevalent, they certainly aren’t the only targets. You mention Joanna Newsom – look at some of the horrible things that were said about her, both her music and her physical appearance have been very harshly criticized online. Second, I think your reaction to Lady Gaga’s new video is interesting. When it comes down to it, much pop music is very superficial and lacks substance. It doesn’t have enough depth to hold our attention without more. So once the initial sweet high wears off we want more and get angry when we don’t get it. I think we should treat pop music like the sugary treat it is and consume in small doses, and focus our attention on more satisfying fare.
    Now I’m hungry.

    • Justine

      I think you’re totally right about the junk-food, sugar high we get from pop music, and it is crazy that we expect to get so much out of it. I’d like to see someone like Gaga show a little more of herself, put on less show and maybe give us some substance. I really think she has more talent and uniqueness than she is showing, I certainly think she has more than other pop stars before her had.

      As for Joanna Newsom, you’re right, people are really mean to her too, but on Jezebel she is defended and her critics are shut down. Probably because she is perceived as deeper and more talented than a popstar, which is true. Yet, at the same time she poses for fashion spreads, dons sexy outfits, and she is a darling of the media, so why is it less ok for people to tear her apart? I guess I’ve just been getting sick of the double standard on Jezebel, some people are sacred and others are scorn. I thought part of Jezebel’s whole deal was to keep women from hating on each other, that’s why they patrol the comments. So I hate when they seem to allow all the nastiness when it is directed at certain people, it shouldn’t be acceptable no matter who the target is. Also just because you’re saying something in an intelligent way doesn’t mean it isn’t nasty. They may disemvowel someone for saying “Britney spears is a talentless ho” but if you say “I think that since Megan Fox chose to be in the public eye and I think she is boring, she should just stop making her sexy faces and go back where she came from” they’re both unkind statements that don’t really add anything to the conversation. Maybe I just really need to stop reading the comments and stick to the articles on Jezebel!

  3. haren

    Do you think maybe they are “pop” stars because they are as sugary and as full of bad things and gas as your average bottle of pop (that’s what they call soda in the rest of the US). People that have talent are artists not pop stars. There aren’t too many of them around.

    • Justine

      Are you telling me you don’t like Cyndi Lauper or Gwen Stefani? I think we like a little sugar in our lives at certain times, and I don’t know if it’s always completely bad for us. Sometimes someone starts out as an artist and then becomes a popstar, when (and why?) do they lose the title of artist?

  4. I’ve generally been in support of Lady Gaga’s career because she has an interesting nose and a good voice. But beyond that, pop stars blend together for me and I tend to ignore them as a group. They’re always running around flashing various private parts and singing the same boring songs.

  5. The paragraph where you wrote about the Jezebel article deserves a F*** Yeah! from me…especially the part about supporting artists we love who are less successful instead of bitching about pop stars. I’ve been saying the same thing for weeks now when some friends of mine attacked me for saying I “sort of” liked Lady Gaga and saw her in a new light once I found out she had genuine musical abilities. She was a pretty good singer songwriter during the Stefani Germanotta years, and she and her marketing team are smart enough to have found a way around the fact that the singer songwriter market is tapped.

    I’m a singer songwriter (an unsuccessful one) and I recently started blogging about the music business from an underdog’s perspective. This was one of my recent posts on this subject. http://bananaomelets.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/packaging/

    You made the point much more succinctly and eloquently, as did Jezebel. Right on! =)

    • Justine

      Thanks Gina! Lady Gaga definitely has some real talent, I hate the idea that you have to act serious to be taken seriously. Just because she wears crazy costumes doesn’t mean she isn’t talented! I will definitely be checking out your blog!

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