Commentary: Pop stars used to bare skin. Now they bare their souls
Today, many artists are making their personal vulnerabilities – not their music, their performances or their bodies – the centerpiece of their brands, says a professor.
BOSTON, Massachusetts: In Billie Eilish’s 2019 video for Bury A Friend, the then-17-year-old singer blurs the lines between being in a nightmare and being committed to a psychiatric hospital.
“I want to end me,” she repeats six times before the song ends.
But somehow, that’s not what stuck with audiences, media outlets or industry decision-makers, who – until her British Vogue cover broke on May 2 – were more likely to talk about how groundbreaking she was for wearing baggy clothes than her repeated mentions of suicidal thoughts.
It’s a familiar story, whether it’s Amy Winehouse singing about not wanting to go to rehab before dying of alcohol poisoning at 27, or Kurt Cobain writing a song called I Hate Myself And Want To Die before dying by suicide at 27.
Audiences devour trauma narratives. Perhaps they provide a source of comfort by validating viewers’ own experiences, making them feel less alone or reminding them that they’re comparatively lucky.
On the flip side, the titillating content can offer fans a sort of voyeuristic pleasure from the safety of their living rooms.
In any case, the implicit agreement appears to be that artists may express their pain as long as audiences can imagine that it’s not really a problem they need to be concerned with, but is just something being amplified for artistic effect.
While these revelations can boost an artist’s popularity, they can also overshadow all other aspects of the artists’ life and work – and can end up veering into another form of exploitation.
AFTER THE CLOTHES COME OFF, WHAT’S NEXT?
Since the advent of MTV in the 1980s, the music industry has fashioned women pop stars to resonate more as sexy entertainers than as talented musicians.
They are more likely to be framed as gorgeous, frivolous or “hot messes” than vocally or musically adept. Positioning and managing female artists this way has had a negative effect on their creative expression, mental health and career longevity.
Because top stars have been shedding their clothes for decades, skin-deep revelations have become so common they no longer stand out.
So, in a crisis for connection, stars reversed the order of operations, keeping their clothes on while sharing their secrets. Stars began to expose their insides – more specifically, their inner turmoil – in bids for deeper relationships with their fans.
This broke the social contract of stardom. For decades, public relations efforts presented women stars as perfect – an impossible illusion for anyone to maintain. Until stars such as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston experienced public breakdowns, their struggles had largely been hidden to protect their impeccable brands.
Social media further changed the dynamic. Audiences demanded greater authenticity rather than PR spin. And that’s exactly what they’ve been getting for the past several years, as pop star brands have begun to embody and reflect current cultural concerns about misogyny, racism, sexual violence and mental health.
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Artists’ openness about their experiences with sexual violence, trauma and addiction represents an important shift toward thinking about them as people more than products.
However, today, many artists are making their personal vulnerabilities – not their music, their performances or their bodies – the centerpiece of their brands.
Prior to the popularisation of #MeToo in 2017, pop stars had been offering their stories for years to varying levels of reception. In 2013, Madonna shared that she had been raped at knifepoint shortly after moving to New York City.
In 2014, Kesha alleged that producer Dr Luke “sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally” abused her for years, and in 2016 Lady Gaga revealed that she had experienced sexual trauma, which resulted in ongoing PTSD.
As the #MeToo movement gained prominence in the fall of 2017, these popular artists experienced a long-overdue cultural rebranding, becoming esteemed warriors seeking to hold abusive systems and individual abusers accountable.
Audiences and media outlets became more sensitive to women’s struggles with mental health, addiction and trauma, and began to realise that maybe the stars’ breakdowns were actually reasonable human responses to various forms of gender-based abuse.
They started hating the game, rather than blaming the players, and wanting to know more – all as the dominant streaming services were thirsty for more winning content.
The floodgates opened, but in typical American fashion, a good thing was overextended to the point of absurdity.
In recent years, more stars have told their own survivor stories in powerfully direct or resonant ways: Ariana Grande shared a brain scan to reveal her PTSD diagnosis in 2019; Mariah Carey released a memoir in which she discussed past abuse, her 2001 breakdown and her bipolar disorder diagnosis; and, in 2021, Pink dropped a documentary about her aptly titled “Beautiful Trauma” world tour.
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Stars’ talent and musicianship has become almost incidental, subservient to their ability to process their pain in public. Pop stars’ oversharing detailed trauma stories has become routine.
I call it “emotional stripping”.
Emotional stripping is different from when artists transform trauma into great art, as Beyonce did in Lemonade and Fiona Apple pulled off in Fetch The Bolt Cutters.
In each album, the artist is able to universalise her struggles without giving away all of the personal details. These albums embolden the stars as they share their rage, fear, disappointments and vulnerabilities.
But emotional stripping prioritises the overexposure of the star’s human self – her traumas, addictions, and mental health struggles – above all other aspects of her brand and personhood. When a star emotionally strips, she peels away her brand – which, if built and managed properly, should be the protective layer between herself and her audience.
This trend signals progress in one regard – audiences are now less singularly focused on objectifying the stars’ actual bodies, as they had been trained to do for decades.
But it also creates a new danger; now audiences feel entitled to know the gory details about everything that happens to and within stars’ bodies and minds. They greedily consume trauma stories rather than thinking more deeply about how to stop the production of them.
Emotional stripping pays dividends: It gets the audience’s attention. It can also come at great expense to the artist, who doesn’t magically heal by simply telling her story from a large enough platform.
Talking about trauma has value, but it does not release it; as trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk noted in the title of his bestselling book, “the body keeps the score”. It can also cause stars harm through retraumatisation.
THE POP STAR AS HUMAN SACRIFICE
But given audience demands for authenticity and the proliferation of pop star tell-all streaming documentaries, it appears that most emerging artists vying for the top of the charts now have little choice but to reveal themselves anyway.
Just as certain body types and fashion styles have defined the rules of engagement at other times, emotional stripping has become standard operating procedure in popular music.
This may seem like a dream come true. But it may be more like the waking nightmare depicted in Eilish’s video for Bury A Friend.
Britney Spears and other 1990s stars, from Jennifer Love Hewitt to Paris Hilton, reported being triggered by Framing Britney Spears, a well-intentioned, pro-Britney documentary. Spears refused to participate in the film, which chronicled her breakdown, involuntary hospitalisation and subsequent conservatorship.
In the documentary Tina, Tina Turner indicated that she was sick of talking about her abusive ex-husband Ike and wanted to move on.
The question is: Will audiences let Turner and other traumatised female pop stars move on? Or are audiences too invested in trauma narratives to let them go?
Fans’ laser focus on stars and stars’ tendency to please can even lead fans to disturbing levels of entitlement.
Alanis Morissette, who wrote Jagged Little Pill when she was 19, shared that at the height of her popularity, fans in crowds would literally try to grab pieces of her hair and skin. They wanted to possess a piece of her and felt emboldened to just take it.
Fittingly, Katy Perry’s documentary was called Part Of Me.
Meanwhile, it’s typically the star, not the audience, who gets constructed as being crazy or needing better boundaries as the public annihilates them.
There’s a precedent for this dynamic – the religious ritual of human sacrifice. Religion scholar Kathryn Lofton has written about this phenomenon in her analysis of Britney Spears.
“Ritual is a controlled environment, a ring for spectatorship. While there are many rituals at play in the religions of Britney Spears’ celebrity, perhaps the most tempting is that of sacrifice. Britney Spears rises and falls, time and again, is plumped for the slaughter then primed for the comeback. Watching those declines and ascents might be productively read as a sort of public sacrifice.”
Spears has become the rule, not the exception. These days, pop stars seem to exist to entertain fans and carry their burdens, and can sometimes seem to even ultimately die for them, commercially or literally. Fans then move on to the next star, gorge on their trauma and then watch them flame out.
The silver lining is that we’re in the middle of the golden age of pop star documentaries. Some, like Amy and Whitney Can I Be Me, chronicle tragic endings.
Others enable stars to show their more vulnerable sides while they’re still alive and performing – Billie Eilish: The World’s A Bit Blurry, Taylor Swift’s Miss Americana and Lady Gaga’s Five Foot Two.
Many of these documentaries complicate their subjects in positive ways, rehabilitating their troubled or entitled images by inserting nuance, empathy and context into their stories, often for the first time.
A DEMI-GODDESS OF THE ZEITGEIST
Woman pop stars are finally starting to be seen more completely, at least superficially, as documentary filmmakers deliver to evolved and evolving audiences nuanced takes on complicated and aspirational women.
But this momentary opportunity has quickly developed into what can look like a competition for which star can be the most vulnerable.
Demi Lovato, who recently came out as nonbinary, may be winning that distinction with Dancing With The Devil, a four-part documentary series that explores both personal and career challenges.
The series is bold and moving, and sheds light on the impact of trauma and addiction. What remains to be seen is how the series will impact Lovato’s career.
Lovato, who is now 28, overdosed in 2018, surviving some brutal effects: Three strokes, a heart attack and partial blindness. In Anyone, a song recorded days before the overdose, Lovato laments telling “secrets till my voice was sore” because “no one hears me anymore”, “nobody’s listening.”
“I’m on my ninth life,” Lovato said in Dancing With The Devil, “and I don’t know how many opportunities I have left.”
THE NEED FOR BETTER LISTENING
For those consuming these films for more than their entertainment value, some key questions about existing relationships between artists and fans should be emerging.
What are they sacrificing for audiences?
Gender and sexuality scholar Jane Caputi compares the extraction of resources from the land to the enduring damage to bodies and minds caused by sexual violence. In an interview, she said the emotional stripping of pop stars enacts “that same paradigm of extraction without reciprocity, of taking what one wants and dumping what one refuses,” with places and peoples reduced to “sacrifice zones”.
While Caputi suggests that this emotional stripping abuse of female pop stars reflects larger patterns of exploitation, communication scholar Nancy Baym argues that music “often predicts social change”.
If that’s true, maybe the regular exposure of previously taboo subjects such as addiction and sexual abuse could minimise their stigma, and make audiences less drawn to the subjects.
Perhaps then – finally – the musicians’ actual music can be the central focus of their careers.
And while it’s unlikely emotional stripping will stop, the music industry could become more involved in helping these stars survive and thrive.
This could range from adding thoughtful and inclusive wellness provisions to artist contracts – including seasoned hazards-of-fame counsellors in the standard artist entourage – and teaching fans how to be less reliant on their idols and more emotionally secure themselves.
They could also train the parents of young artists on the cusp of fame to be more attuned to signs of distress in their children.
In Lonely, the closing track on Justin Bieber’s new record, he sings: “Everybody saw me sick, and it felt like no one gave a sh**.” GQ reported in May 2021 that at the peak of Bieber’s fame, his bodyguards would check his pulse as he slept to make sure he was still alive.
Perhaps Bieber’s words could lead his fans and team to consider their complicity.
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Despite the positive attention and accolades she receives, Eilish, too, appears to be screaming into the void. In Bury A Friend Eilish sings: “Honestly, I thought that I would be dead by now (Wow).”
Her notebooks, shown in her documentary, reveal lines like: “I am a void. The epitome of nothing”.
Yet at one point in the film, Eilish’s mother, frustrated by people calling Billie’s music depressing, notes that Billie’s music isn’t depressing, it’s just that teenagers are depressed.
“We need a stop gap for artist care,” artist manager Janet Billig-Rich, who managed Nirvana and Hole, among others, told me. “There is a parallel to the Amy Winehouse story where people are saying, ‘At least the parents are there and really involved.’ But they’re on the payroll, too, so there’s a conflict.
“There need to be people in that inner circle thinking only about the artist’s interest. If we could convince the families and business people to be long-term greedy rather than short-term greedy, the artists would have longer, healthier lifespans and even more lucrative careers.”
Perhaps doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is the best we can hope for from the music business.
Kristin J Lieb is Associate Professor at Emerson College. This commentary first appeared on The Conversation.