Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: Let's deconstruct celebrity

Tuesday, November 1, 2016 - 5:33pm

Walking into The Loving Touch in Ferndale on a cold, dreary Thursday night, I was surprised to see, standing right in front of me, the artist whom I had come to watch. Greta Kline, the lead singer of Frankie Cosmos — one of my favorite bands — was selling her group’s merchandise, standing behind a propped-up table. No security in sight, no intra-crowd shoving or cursing to get Kline’s attention. She stood there, engaging with her fans, and we responded with equal calmness.

I found this experience surprising for many reasons. Principally, I find that we as a culture endow celebrities and artists whom we admire with certain divine attributes. We shake their hands and then do not wash that hand, as if the artist’s talent might literally rub off onto us. We configure lives for them, somewhat based on their music, but mostly upon our projections and fascinations and imaginations.

And I do not mean to distinguish myself from this culture of fanaticism. Last month, after seeing Bernie Sanders speak at UMMA, I felt viscerally saddened when I could not shake his hand. He was quickly swept behind a curtain by a big, burly security guard, and he was gone — whisked away and thrown back into the confines of my mind, where I can project fantasies and ideas about Sanders the celebrity, ignoring Sanders the human.

But Kline’s warm welcoming of her fans seemed to blur this very distinction between the celebrity and her fans. Instead, if only for a moment, she became one of us. Dressed in an oversized striped shirt, blue jeans and a simple baseball cap, Ms. Kline interacted seamlessly with the dozens of people asking for photographs. Many of these fans stood and stared in disbelief at Kline’s unequivocal generosity and welcoming attitude.

Immediately upon entering the space, I came up to her and asked if she would be in a photograph with me. She accepted, and turned to me — admittedly, I was sweating (I sweat more than anyone I’ve ever met, outside of my brother (and this is something we bond over a lot and he’s coming this weekend so if you see me feel free to empathize or to check in with us about our surely sweaty armpits and backs and faces (and do you feel the effect that this anecdote about my sweat had on you? You now feel like you know an additional element of me, the writer, Isaiah (Hi, I’m Isaiah), because I shared it with you, I said, “Hey, I can actually share more than I normally do because I trust my reader not to call me out. I trust that I can be a little bit vulnerable and playful with my reader. That’s what I think was at the core of Kline’s open welcome to her fans))). I struck a pose — and, without a hesitation, Ms. Kline stuck her tongue out and her hands up as if we were best friends — and, in that moment, I felt like we could have been! She was right there with me, in that moment, equally embracing our shared sense of silliness and playfulness.

Eventually, the show began. Having seen Kline in this casual, playful context made me feel so much closer to her music, which deals explicitly with the narrator’s self-consciousness and anxiety. There was no longer any alienation between myself and the words and sentiments in the songs. This could be about me, this could be about any of my friends whom I’m dancing with, about any of my friends from home.

I think there’s a lesson to be learned from this experience: By fantasizing and imagining lives for celebrities, we do not, in fact, get closer to them. Instead, the conclusions at which we arrive have their footing in other assumptions that we make. And I’m not saying this sort of fanaticism is inherently wrong. Not at all. As I said, I engage in it — it’s fun to narrativize and to make characters of real-life human beings.

But I think if our goal is transparency — if our goal is to actually understand artists or celebrities for who they are — then we ought to try to break down the social barriers between fans and their idols, between public figures and their followers. We ought to have be able to interact with them in less strictly constructed settings, where they will not shy away from engaging with those who have flocked to witness them. Because in this kind of a space — one in which people engage freely and set aside the cultural currency attached to their bodies, we get a little bit closer to one another.

It takes courage. It takes both parties trusting each other not to humiliate or taunt. This is how we should regard one another by default. Just like I believe you, the reader, to be decent enough to know that I sweat, horribly, humiliatingly, disgustingly without criticizing me. My body gets exorbitantly wet. It does! And that’s OK.

Isaiah can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu.