A recent article had me thinking about Jay Z and Beyonce. Not in the way that I normally think about Jay Z and Beyonce, which is a cross between idolatry and envy, but in the way that you would think about, say, a brother, or a sister-in-law, or a cousin-thrice-removed who put an offer on a house only to be outbid by another party. Not only was I not thinking about Jay Z and Beyonce as celebrities or musicians, but I was thinking about them the same way you would think about a family member, or a close acquaintance, or even just someone you know vaguely who shares too much of their life on Facebook.
I’ve always been wary of celebrity gossip. Waiting in the checkout aisle of a grocery store is an acutely uncomfortable experience for me, largely because the issues of People and US Weekly glaring down from the shelves on either side of me are so unabashedly offensive I can’t help but notice them. Riddled with weight-loss tips from this week’s it-girl and photos of cellulite on last week’s, these magazines are the absolute lowest common denominator form of literature.
But it’s not like anyone was pretending like they were something high-brow, really. Celebrity gossip is just that – gossip. It’s most often a guilty pleasure consumed by airplane passengers and people who love gossip in general. The stigma around tabloid culture is, for the most part, an accurate one – despite factual inconsistencies in the magazine’s actual content, these pieces of literature don’t claim to be anything more than what they are. The work done on the part of the reader while absorbing this week’s issue of a tabloid is much different than when reading, say, a history book. One is consumed as fact, and one as fluff from a far-off world of expensive cars and riviera views.
Now, let’s return to Jay and Bey’s house hunting troubles. Here I found myself, sipping a cup of coffee and pondering the royal couple of music’s latest housing dilemma. Then, I took a step back, and realized: I don’t know these people, not even close. There are friends of friends of that friend’s mother’s cousin’s sister’s roommate that I know better than these two musicians – and yet here I was genuinely concerned that they weren’t able to purchase a home for their family.
At first I realized this was horribly intrusive – to have that kind of personal dilemma publicized for the entire world is a huge invasion of privacy. But that’s what celebrities sign up for, isn’t it? Families (Kardashians) have built entire careers out of the appeal of invading their privacy. It’s not like this is a new discussion, either – I’ve read insightful essay after insightful essay about whether or not tabloid culture is an abhorrent stain upon humanity or just a necessary evil. So my point here is not to add to that perennial debate because – quite frankly – I don’t think we’ll ever come to a conclusion.
The debacle with Jay, Bey, and a house, offers a particularly useful entryway into this discussion. Tabloid culture is, contrary to popular assumption, not just the natural consequence of a population that places a select few (musicians, actors, athletes) on a pedestal while simultaneously awaiting their inevitable downfall.
Instead, I propose that the way we write about celebrities – gossip columns, tabloids, this essay, even – is the manifestation of a widespread desire to know these people, to relate to them, to get along with them, to count them among our list of friends. After all, what bearing does Beyonce’s house have on her music? How does one impact the other? Do we listen to her music and think about how she and her husband didn’t get to buy the house they wanted that one time?
The answer, frustratingly, is both yes and no.
The minute a musician enters our lives – not just hearing them on the radio, but actually becomes a part of our lives, when we actively make the decision to listen to their music more than just in passing – they become more than just a musician. The same goes for actors, athletes, even someone like your hairdresser.
They become another figure in the endless sea of acquaintances, friends of friends, someone you met at a party that one time, who you think about occasionally or when a particularly juicy piece of gossip floats to the surface.
And so, to contradict something I wrote in the beginning of this essay, in some ways reading a tabloid is a lot like reading a history book. We read about historical figures and learn extremely personal details about their lives without batting an eyelash. I just finished reading a book of Queen Victoria’s letters and couldn’t help wondering that these really were never meant to be published in a mass market paperback.
An accelerated version of that is precisely what happens in tabloid culture – we learn extremely personal details about these iconic figures and think that, somehow, it’s what’s owed to us by virtue of their being in the public eye.
I’m hesitant to make a moral judgment about this – a through study of tabloid culture must necessarily go beyond the constraints of a small essay like this – but it’s certainly food for thought.
The next time you read an article about the inner workings of a celebrity’s personal life, ask yourself, would I be reading this story any differently if it were in the form of a Facebook post written by a distant acquaintance?