Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Beyonce's Privacy

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.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Vamping 'Til November 4th

A vampire film comes out tomorrow, Let the Right One In, and everybody seems to be talking about it. The award-winning feature is a Swedish offering about a 12-year-old boy, Oskar, the sympathetic victim of some merciless bullying by mean-spirited classmates, who meets and befriends the new girl in town, a goth-looking pre-teen named Eli. And from the trailer, it would appear that Eli is a waif-like, pre-pubescent vampira on the prowl -- both in the playground and beyond its chain-linked fence.

I've always had a fascination with vampires, but I seem to be particularly intrigued with them lately, which (if I wanted to push real hard) might still be chalked up to the election-season zeitgeist. Why wouldn't I have a renewed preoccupation with could-be bloodsuckers who sometimes pretend to be something they’re not, potential threats that we have to invite into our homes (with our votes) before they can do us good or harm? Let the right one in, indeed!

That isn’t just it though. HBO’s new vampiric oblation, True Blood, is not quite The Wire, but it has my vote, so far, for the best new show on television.

Like many of HBO’s cult and popular hits, this one starts with an infectiously macabre theme song, Jace Everett’s “I Wanna Do Bad Things With You.” Unforgettable. I have to diligently police myself from singing its hypnotic chorus in front of my mimic-ready toddler.

The story, based on Charlaine Harris's mystery series, is set in an exotic and everyday Louisiana at a time when vampires have come out of the closet -- trying to “mainstream” themselves into public respectability. They have advocacy groups. Community activists. Their own late-night bars. You name it. They also drink a special synthetic blood beverage that allows them to get their nourishment without feeding on actual mortals. Even if some vampires don't like the concoction's faux-blood taste (and prefer humans anyway), this is still a far cry from Dracula's Transylvania.

The show does have the same unjustified conceit that X-Men made famous, which is part of what (I think) has turned fans off to NBC’s Heroes this season: an absurd plot device that has superpowerful beings somehow cowering from the potentially oppressive powers of the State. Again, this was X-Men’s basic problem, but it was still a suggestive allegory, so you let the narrative off the hook. The first time.

With Heroes and True Blood the device seems pathetically derivative, which gives the audience a little less patience for the thing. True Blood does a better job negotiating this overwrought terrain by demonstrating -- quite early in the season -- just how profoundly vulnerable vampires are to silver. (One of the few popular myths about vampires that the show offers up as accurate. The rest -- crosses, holy water, mirrorless reflections -- were all rumors started by vampires to keep humans off their scent.) Even the smallest amounts of silver effectively render vampires hapless and helpless. So, you might imagine global scientists working away in a bunker somewhere on all manner of techniques for deploying silver projectiles or liquids or gels or nets or whatever just in case they have to drop the hammer down on these undead creatures.

Few people have the same powers on Heroes -- or anything close to the same vulnerabilities. So, they aren't nearly as easy to beat with the shot from, say, a silver-bulleted smoking gun. Some of them can’t even be physically harmed at all. Others run at lightening speed. Still others throw flames or read minds or see the future or control time or create black holes that swallow people up. And the list of amazing abilities goes on and on. In fact, it seemed as though one of the heroes had the best powers of all, which should have made everyone else feel cheated: absorbing other people’s powers by osmosis. They don’t lose their abilities. He just has them, too. So, it looked like he was the one who had drawn the best straw of all. That’s before this week's episode, when his father came back from the dead and sucked all of his powers from him with a single hug. Cold-blooded.

And that is the other big problem with Heroes -- and might be another part of the reason why it has “jumped the shark” for some of its fans. Just as the narrative appears to settle on the ontological realities of its universe, realities that seem otherworldly but organized, the writers have the science-fiction luxury (or laziness) of simply inventing some new and unprecedented thing that completely rewrites their world's macro- and micro-physics in one fell swoop. There's a potential Deus ex Machina in almost ever episode, which can get tiring after a while. I'm still hooked on Heroes myself, and loving this season, but I can see why other viewers might be frustrated.

In Alan Ball’s True Blood, we get the added bonus of not having the allegorical flurries completely displace (and erase) actual discussions/renditions of race-based differences. The allegory doesn’t swallow actuality whole. This is a Louisiana landscape where racial identity and sexual orientation aren’t super-powered out of explicit existence. Ball does some odd things with their inclusion (one part stereotyping-on-steroids, one part deconstructing audiences’ pre-fabbed expectations), but the show forces you to think about fanciful and factual forms of difference and discrimination at one and the same time, which is a powerful way to structure a TV tale about vampires and humans trying to just get along. But then again, it isn’t simply TV. It’s HBO.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

New Book on Barack's Journey--and an addendum to my essay in it

The editors at LIFE Magazine have just published a beautiful new book of intimate photographs depicting Barack Obama's life story, LIFE: The American Journey of Barack Obama (Little, Brown). The book, officially released today, includes a foreword by Senator Edward Kennedy and original essays penned by Melissa Fay Greene, Gay Talese, Charles Johnson, and Brainstorm blogger Regina Barreca, among others.

I also have a piece in the volume, an essay that examines what I call Barack Obama's "racial optimism," and I just want to take a second to provide an alternative ending for it.

The LIFE editors did a great job with my piece (authors can be so sensitive about how they get edited, and that definitely includes me), but they reworked the ending in a way that recasts my final point in a way that changes its political valence a bit. To read the entire essay (and the others), you can pick up the book, but I just wanted to offer up (for what it's worth) the version of my final paragraph that they published in the volume along with the draft of the final paragraph that I submitted.

The published paragraph reads as follows:

"Obama may well believe all that he says, but to some black Americans it sounds as if, to satisfy a white audience, he is 'talking out of both sides of his neck,' as it is colloquially labeled. This skepticism makes honest racial dialogue impossible."

My submitted paragraph (some of which is in the penultimate paragraph of the published version) reads like this:

"There is something healthy and productive about Obama's recalcitrant racial optimism, about the utter audacity of his hope, but it might only make some blacks all the more skeptical about America's contradictory commitments to racial equality. Why else would we celebrate the first black presidential nominee from a major party but demand that he be post-racial? It is the same tension that has haunted race relations since the birth of our republic, and even before. It is colloquially called 'talking out of both sides of your neck,' and it makes honest racial dialogue impossible."

I don't really disagree with the published version, but I do think that it places the onus on black Americans to get over their racial skepticisms before honest racial conversations can begin. What I wanted to argue, however, was that America writ large (not Obama) sometimes engages in forms of double-speak when it comes to race -- and that such conflicted commitments to race fuel the fires of race-based skepticism in the African-American community. My point was that America needs to address its racial doublespeak/doublethink before honest racial conversations can take place, before blacks' racial skepticisms subside. The rewording replaces that emphasis with a critique of black American obstinancy. I might be splitting hairs a bit (and getting into an unproductive version of the chicken-or-egg debate), but I just thought I'd clarify.

I can also say that I have read the other essays in the stunning book, and I learned a great deal about Obama through the authors' provocative interpretations of his meteoric rise.