The era of reckoning
Flipping through the channel guide over spring break, I stumbled across an early 2000s gem in my Florida-heat fueled haze: “Hannah Montana.” For those readers who are (sadly) unfamiliar with the show, “Hannah Montana” was a children’s television program from Disney’s long-gone Golden Age. The show followed the shenanigans of a teenage popstar: By day, she was Miley Stewart, a “normal” teenage girl; by night, the international celebrity, Hannah Montana. As I reminisced while binging, my thoughts swirled around the program’s iconic catchphrase and the refrain of its title song, “You get the best of both worlds.” This concept of maintaining dual identities was true to both the show, and Miley Cyrus’s actual career. “Hannah Montana” was Cyrus’s alter-ego, a way for Cyrus to maintain a normal life while also pursuing a very public career.
This idea of cultivating a separate, public image has also been significant within the greater music industry, too. Having a public image, or alter-ego, allowed artists to push boundaries and focus on their careers without compromising their personal lives. Take, for instance, Lady Gaga and stunts like the iconic meat dress. Her early public image catered to the shocking, strange and creative, and these displays significantly contributed to Lady Gaga’s ascension to global fame. In turn, the persona “Lady Gaga” protected the creator, Stefani Germanotta, from the darker edge of fame.
Of course, the practice of crafting a particular celebrity image hasn’t been used by all artists, nor has it always been successful. For some, it may have been necessary –– whether to grab attention, or to preserve some treasured privacy –– while for others, it may have simply been for fun. After all, who hasn’t envisioned what their stage name might be, or who they could be, with a little fame (and a little money, too). Some artists have even utilized temporary identities to produce and perform music that otherwise conflicted with their already developed image: Think of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” or Hank Williams’s “Luke the Drifter.” And while Hannah Montana’s fan-base was limited to prepubescent youth, the concept of “Hannah Montana” –– what she represented, and how she came into being –– exemplifies this practice of separating private and personal life within the public spotlight.
The music industry, however, is changing. The public of the 21st century is demanding a reform: These days it seems the fine-art of “show-biz” is out, and transparency is now in. No longer do global audiences want a carefully cultivated celebrity persona. Instead, listeners desire authenticity, vulnerability and truth.
In the past, artists could hide behind the shield of a stage-name, a wig or an eye-catching outfit. However, in the digital age it is becoming more and more difficult for anyone –– celebrity or regular Joe –– to maintain privacy. Part of this is a result of social media culture, which encourages individuals to share the minutiae of daily life. On the other hand, the ease with which information is shared with nearly uninhibited accessibility also makes it easy for the personal lives of high profile individuals to be exposed. Whether it’s scrutinizing the President’s tweets, gossiping over voyeuristic tabloid shots or analyzing the ups and downs of the Kardashian family politics via Instagram “follows,” everything is up for grabs.
Now, artists are obligated to not only impress the public with their performances and entertainment value, but also uphold their personal reputations. Nothing highlights this better than the recent string of sexual assault scandals which dog the steps of some of the most esteemed members of the global music industry. From R. Kelley to the King of Pop Michael Jackson, no one is exempt from the public demand for accountability and transparency. And whether you believe the allegations against these two aforementioned stars or not –– and that’s simply scraping the surface of the disconcerting, dark underbelly of the celebrity ranks –– the 21st century has declared itself to be the end of an era where fame and fortune are enough to impede the quest for justice.
That is not to say that this is the end of excitement and creativity within music. Rather, the music industry is slowly shifting to accommodate this demand for transparency. The artist has reached a new level of significance. Not only must their music be inspiring and original, but the artist themself must similarly be an individual of good character, moral and principle.
This is the so-called “renaissance” of the music industry. Now, who is making the music we consume, and how it is being made, is just as important (if not more) as the art itself.