Monday, July 11, 2011

Also, Twitter Kills Mystique

At the risk of sounding like a bitter Twitter-basher, we’ve got to acknowledge that the medium is not for everyone. The other day I talked about how comedians generally don’t fare well in their chosen profession via the tweet because they’re expected to entertain their followers. I said that Twitter works best for celebrities when used for live updates (mass dissemination of information) and as a “virtual autograph” (fans interacting with the famous). However, this doesn’t mean that this approach works with all types of celebrities.

For comedians, being on the audience’s level can work. We often identify with people we see as bearing many similarities to us, which is what comedians want. They want us to imagine ourselves in their shoes in order for us to understand their jokes. This is one of the reasons that comedians can be famous without being hyper-attractive. Telling jokes through Twitter may not generally succeed, but interacting with the fans and informing them of current news can be really useful for them.

We see the same thing with many actors and musicians in tabloid magazines. (Look, they drink water—just like us!) But they’re not just like us. They wear crazy expensive clothes. They don’t really have to worry about their car payments and stuff. They’ve each got an uncountable number of stalkers. Actually, they deal with tons of things the average person doesn’t have to, no matter how much we want to believe that we’re just like them.

But there’s a certain type of person whose persona works because they’re mysterious. I’ll throw into this category anyone who seems bizarre, dangerous, or can in any way be considered “Larger than life.” Whether they know it or not, they’ve worked hard to preserve the mystery that surrounds them. It makes them seem untouchable. But more importantly, it makes people want to know more about them. It’s intriguing.

This is one of the reasons that newcomers to music, acting, or practically any other field are exciting: We don’t know who they are, so the possibilities of what they produce could be endless. Before even finding out, we make our own—often fanciful—assumptions of what the person is like. So when someone pops up onto the scene, and there’s something about them that grabs our attention, we keep watching, waiting for something to happen. There’s got to be something to spark interest, but the mystery will keep it going.

So when a newcomer who is mysterious appears out of nowhere, demands our attention, and limits the amount that we can know about them, it’s a highly successful business model. But when that person becomes ultra-transparent, it loses a bit of excitement. For some celebrities, this is perfectly fine. A-list movie stars will do a hundred talk shows for each movie they release and post to Twitter all day. We pay attention because they’re either hyper-attractive or really good at acting/playing music/etc., or both.

A good example of the mystery-to-transparency transition is Lady Gaga. When she first appeared on the scene, no one knew anything about her except for what we could gather from her music videos and albums. We didn’t know her real name. We didn’t know which of her looks was really her. We didn’t know her thoughts, feelings, passions, or anything beyond the lyrics of her music. Her strange, bizarre, possible dangerous persona grabbed the attention of a huge audience.

This entertainer has become somewhat of a poster child for social interaction. She has an extremely popular Twitter account that she updates several times a day; she appears in press conferences plugging Polaroid; she’s done a hundred talk shows, and we know all about her. Pictures from high school surfaced, along with her real name. But it’s the Twitter account that really lets the general public peer into her personal life, like this most recent post:

My performance+cooking show appearance on SMAP SMAP is airing now in Japan. Kawaii Monsters! Tonight running around Sydney in my OXFORDs. X

Look, she’s just like us! She’s going to be doing stuff in a place! Ok, so this is partially a plug for an appearance and a quirky bit of minor daily detail. But what about older posts?

Will be tweeting soon how little monsters can get involved to mobilize social justice. NY State needs us, and the time for change is now.

Look, she has political views! Now we know even more about her. Now we know that she’s not some weird blood-thirsty alien with musical talent who would rip your throat out if you met her. Which is actually bad for her image, believe it or not. The mystery is gone.

Let’s talk about somebody that we hardly know anything about: Elly Jackson, the singer of La Roux. People don’t really know a whole lot about her. Some of them don’t even know her gender. Actually, a lot of people think her name is "La Roux." There seems to be a lot of interest in the band, even if very few people actually know who they are. Here’s how she feels about the whole deal:

This new generation of pop stars are killing their careers with the social networking thing. They're promoting their careers in the short run, but in the long run they're telling people way too much about themselves and making themselves too accessible.

I'm fascinated by artists such as Prince and David Bowie. Neither have Twitter profiles, because they're not stupid enough to be on Twitter. Prince doesn't like to have pictures on the Internet, let alone interviews. That's not by mistake or because he's an arsehole. It's because he knows the intrigue and mystery need to be upheld.

I used to go see bands play at a dirty club in Atlanta called the Masquerade. In my teens, this was unbearably exciting. There were no band websites yet, because hardly anyone used the web. The music wasn’t featured on radio morning shows or MTV because it was too obscure or extreme. Everything I knew about the people who made that music came directly from the albums—music and included booklet. Often, an album wouldn’t even include pictures of the performers, so I’d have no idea what they looked like. The band (or more accurately, record label) was under complete control of their image.

These concert tickets would always say “NO CAMERAS” as well, probably because the bands wanted so much control over their image. No one had a phone in their pocket yet, so it was a lot easier to enforce the no-camera rule back then. The end result was that I had no idea what to expect from a live show except the music I knew and loved. The excitement of seeing those people in person was overwhelming. The potential of meeting them seemed like an impossibility. The little bits of speech we’d get from the lead singer in-between songs was pure gold. After the show, the band would head “backstage,” a concept that conjured images of incredible excess surrounded by lavish luxury.

Years later my own band played on that same stage, and I got to go “backstage.” It was a plain dirty room with one couch, barely large enough for eight people to stand. There was no bathroom. There was a hole in the floor. The walls were painted not green, but bright orange. The illusion was partially ruined.

It was even worse when I met Peter Tagtgren, lead singer of metal band Hypocrisy. I pictured him as this strange supernatural being who spoke with a shrieking demonic voice, using eloquent archaic european terminology. As it turns out, he was just like me, which was worse than getting punched in the throat.

People always say, “Never meet your heroes.” They’re probably right. Twitter brings us one step closer to the day-to-day activities of these mysterious people. Even if you don’t end up hating them after meeting them, you’ll probably just be bored.

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