In 2018, what makes an icon?

Thursday, September 20, 2018 - 6:21pm

Lizzo

Atlantic Records

On July 24, Gay Times Magazine tweeted out its Aug. 2018 cover featuring singer and songwriter Lizzo.

“Baby, how you feelin’? GOOD AS HELL!” The tweet read. “Get to know the iconic singer whose body positivity, certified bangers and general IDGAF attitude have made her a true ally for the LGBTQ community.”

The replies came rushing in, most of them positive with a few notable exceptions. One, in particular, caught the musician’s eye.

“Ok, but calling Iconic someone who has 56,000 followers isn’t a little to much,” wrote user @LivingForMad. “Are we going to call now Iconic and legends everyone, that’s will mean nothing. And I really don’t have to know everyone.” [Sic.]

Lizzo was quick to retaliate. “MY WORTH = MY ART,” she shot back. “Not a number on an app.”

The exchange stuck with me for months to come, leaving me with questions that I never realized I wanted to ask. In true Carrie Bradshaw fashion, I couldn’t help but wonder: During the age of doing it for the ‘gram, what distinguishes an influencer from an icon?

Creative industries have always valued clout. It keeps them relevant, even to those who may not feel truly invested in entertainment or culture. The emergence of social media has given rise to a new means of quantifying one’s reputability: Today, the size of an artist’s following is examined with perhaps more scrutiny than the work they produce.

Few in the fashion industry better personify this shift than Virgil Abloh. Abloh, who counts Kanye West and Kid Cudi as friends and boasts 2.7 million Instagram followers, had no formal design experience before launching streetwear label Off-White in 2012. Six years later, he was named the chief creative officer of Louis Vuitton menswear, a decision some industry experts have attributed to his heady Internet presence rather than the integrity of his work.

Though Abloh has only sent one collection down the runway so far, the brand’s parent company, Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH), has been quick to flaunt its shiny new “visionary” as the driving force behind its recent growth. According to The Fashion Law, LVMH’s first half report notes “the remarkable growth at Louis Vuitton” thanks to “the arrival of Virgil Abloh, as Menswear Artistic Director, whose debut fashion show was widely commented on across social media, and was exceptionally well received.” The inclusion of the social media tidbit is definitive proof that LVMH views Abloh’s Internet following as an asset offering tangible returns. Yet the question remains: Does the devotion of millions of young hypebeasts equate to truly sustainable “success,” however we may choose to define that?

Should we choose to view success in financial terms, there are clear benefits to amassing a sizable following online — that is, if you’re comfortable commodifying your own existence. Take Kylie Jenner, who can charge up to $1 million for an Instagram post advertising a product. No matter how you slice it, that’s one hell of a profit for little to no intensive labor.

But is the promotion of SugarBear Hair Vitamins what she’ll be remembered for? Or is there something going on beneath the surface, after the #PaidAds and follower counts are stripped away, that will permit Jenner to make a lasting impact on pop culture as we know it?

To some extent, mainstream media has always perpetuated the notion that “icon” status is a prize to be won via some tabloid-driven popularity contest. However, not everyone places real value on that assessment. Many of the world’s most powerful tastemakers haven chosen to turn their back to others’ evaluations of their influence. After all, none of them asked for a world with social media in it — why should they feel obligated to embrace the tropes of the Instagram age? Just look at Lizzo, the songstress introduced sex-positive lyricism to the mainstream with far less followers than the average Instagram model, or Adam Selman, the mastermind behind the game-changing chainmail gown Rihanna wore to the 2014 CFDA Awards; some of his posts don’t even hit a thousand likes (gasp!). Many of our culture’s most defining moments are created by those who couldn’t care less who watches them what they do. If anything, an artist’s decision to throw social norms to the wind makes them even more iconic.

Here’s what I think: A following can help an icon spread their message. That increased reach can allow them to touch more lives than ever, reaffirming the value of their work. But followers don’t make someone iconic. As Lizzo so candidly reminded us, it’s about what we do with real people in real life, not numbers on a tiny app on the tiny screen of a tiny phone in our (physically or metaphorically tiny) hand.

So yes, @LivingForMad. Lizzo is an icon, no matter how many followers she does or does not have. Not to beat the pun to death, but she has every right to feel good as hell about that.