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28 May 2009

Celebrity Crisis: a short attention span essay about famous people.

Picture featuring (left to right, amidst lots of others) Bjork, Ben Sisario from the New York Times, Amrit Singh from Stereogum, Olof Arnalds, Dave Longstreth from the Dirty Projectors

Well, aren’t I late?

A few weeks ago, on Friday May 8th, Housing Works hosted a show featuring The Dirty Projectors enhanced by Bjork. In true internet vulture style, it was rapidly documented by its sponsors, analyzed by the paper of record, and parsed for tidbits of celebrity gossip. S’all good! — I just wish all the looky-loos put equal time into considering the songs: The Girls precision & lightness; Mr. David Longstreth’s persistence of vision, his eternal return & ever-tightening focus on certain musical ideas & lyrical notions (i.e. brown finches!); Bjork’s inspiring power & her voice which seems less like human singing than a natural force.

But, hey, this is the internet. Why would you want to read about this when you can hear it? Without further adieu here’s the introduction to the suite of songs written for the event…

After the jump I’ll post the second song from a different point of view.

So, yeah, no need for me to go deep on the music. The event and its insane afterparty has, however, aroused some thoughts about celebrity. In part that’s because it abutted two other fame-dense events I’ve attended in recent weeks — first, the Dark Was the Night benefit concert at Radio City (which my partners in Brassland so ably curated) and, second, a star-dusted appearance by Vampire Weekend at the Happy Ending Reading & Music Series at Joe’s Pub. (I am helping the series’s founder Amanda Stern here and there as an informal music advisor, gurudom being my latest career aspiration. But no, I had nothing to do with this booking.) As well, an unusual number of internet postings on the subject of fame have stuck in my mind of late. How could I forget this Craiglist ad offering “Many Items from Old R. Kelly House – $1 (Northside Chicago), and this recent edition of Bob Lefsetz’s crotchety internet newsletter about his dinner with Malcolm Gladwell.

Fame fame fame lingers in my membrane like a persistent Apple Macintosh rainbow wheel of death.

Yup, yup, that’s how we do!

It’s not like I’d ever deny the internet and our culture at large are awash in celebrity, but I’m usually able to avoid it. From my perspective, our celeb-fascination generally focuses on American Idol contestant this, Justin Timberlake that; Oprah this, and reality-tv-star-I’ve-never-heard-of-before that. I’m barely aware of such things because I spend most of my life so deep in a niche — television as much a blip on my horizon as classical composition is to most normal people. I’d more likely recognize Elliot Carter at a crowded bar than I would a cast member of Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. And, here’s the thing, I don’t even know or like Elliot Carter’s music. It’s just that he is a larger personage in the world I’ve chosen to construct for myself.

In the past few weeks, however, the famousish people I actually care about seem to be, for lack of a better word, “around.” Last month I went to my neighborhood hangout for my morning coffee and noticed Spike Jonze sitting down next to me. (It took an IM from my assistant to inform me he was dating the most famous resident of my ‘hood, but still…)

In case you ever are victim to this kind of thing, here’s a guide to recognizing Elliott Carter at your local coffee shop:
A helpful guide to recognizing Elliott Carter at your local coffee shop.

Anyhoo, it feels as if my universe is gentrifying, both literally (Boerum Hill is a much fancier place than when I first moved here) and metaphorically. Many of the artists I work with are now well-known enough that mentioning them in casual conversation causes even non-music fans to pause and say things like “Oh yeah, they are totally a buzz band?” — voices rising on that last syllable like the awed sound of yr average American teenager.

I wish I could say this was amazing or useful or even whatevs. Instead, it is mostly…awkward. Do I sound like a douche because I’m mentioning the name of a friend and the fact that they are making the kind of art I think makes life worth living? Or is it more douchey to play coy & alluring and only talk about the weather?


Now, let me make something clear. Other than the folks I’ve been working with for years, I don’t generally try to talk to the ambient Famous People, mostly because it’s hard to do so. There’s nothing casual about their presence. I recall the scene after a Nick Cave concert in Los Angeles many years ago. (This Nick Cave, not that one.) I was with some new friends from the indie rock sector of the music economy. Many of us were meeting one another for the first time but, as we introduced ourselves around the circle, I couldn’t help but feel a strange twinge of “C’mon now?!?” when the preliminary hellos got to the one-of-those-people-that’s-not-like-the-others, i.e. Christina Ricci. Yes, we’d all seen Beetlejuice. It felt a bit like being introduced to your own mom, simply unnecessary.

That was, perhaps, the first time I was struck by celebrity’s real & unfortunate gravitational force. A few more thoughts about this from someone other than me after the jump.

This passage from that aforementioned Lefsetz Letter really gets at the slightly displacing experience of being around the unnatural attractor of fame. It starts when Lefsetz’s friend, Atlantic Records CEO Craig Kallman, tells him he can arrange a dinner with Malcolm Gladwell. It outlines the experience of meeting a person about whom you know too much about in the most depersonalized way possible, and the conversational gymnastics required to figure out what topics are allowed and what topics are verboten.

    An evening was scheduled. We met at the restaurant at the appointed time. It was me, Craig, Felice, Malcolm…and a woman Malcolm was waiting for.Scrunched in by the bar, I noticed something immediately, conversation was not fluid. I figured Malcolm was preoccupied with the arrival of his friend, and when Craig wanted to discuss the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger and where this left Atlantic Records, I turned to him and conversed, for around half an hour, until our table was finally ready.

    Felice bonded with Malcolm’s friend over their respective ACL surgeries. And when we finally sat down at the table, I got a vibe… We were going to leave our identities at the door, this was going to be a friends evening. There’s no way to alienate a celebrity more than delving into their work, they oftentimes become uptight and raise a barrier, which is never ever lowered.

    It was revealed that Malcolm loved the Elvis Costello show, “Spectacle”. I ranted for a few minutes, figuring by stating my complaints a debate about the series would be engendered. But that never happened. Malcolm acknowledged my opinion, and after a few moments of silence, the subject was changed.

    And then dinner was finished. And I had an internal debate. Should I ask my one big question, the one that had been haunting me for months, whether you were fucked if you switched gears and entered a new territory, after devoting 10,000 hours to one?

    I took the risk.

    The change was stunning. Suddenly, this wiry Canadian turned into “Malcolm Gladwell”. The gentleman you see on television, the confident storyteller.

Reading this passage, I was struck with a bolt recognition. It’s a letter perfect depiction of the natural ambiguity that warps celebrity encounters. Lefsetz is frozen out by Gladwell for hours, until he gains the famous person’s trust. Or, wait, is that really it? Was Gladwell really being so uptight? Or was Lefsetz just nervous to talk to someone he admired? Did the barriers fall because Lefsetz gained the celebrity’s trust, or because they finally fell upon a subject that interested both of them?

The problem with meeting famous people is that you just…don’t…know. There exists an unspoken conversational DMZ but it’s never quite clear who is the aggressor, who is on the defense, who is supposed to keep the peace or, even, what is considered a provocative act.

Of course, the celebrity has a natural advantage: they don’t have to sweat the social judo of making a good first impression. Most people who meet them probably have an impression of them already, be it good or bad, fact-based or completely delusional. But with this also comes a natural disadvantage: mystique accompanied by a complete lack of mystery. Doesn’t matter if it’s Bob Dylan we’re talking about. Think about it. If you were to meet him he would not seem like the enigmatic poet that he wants to be; he would seem like Bob Fucking Dylan, the guy who sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” on the Washington Mall and fought for civil rights (as much as he denies it).

Which brings me back to Bjork and the Dirty Projectors. First, though, is part two of her performance with the band. (You can find the other segments on YouTube.)

What was so magical about the show at Housing Works and what followed was the unlikely intimacy of the whole thing. (There were about 300 paid attendees, and approximately an equal number at the after thing.) I could give a shit about the exclusivity or the Famous People. But the comfort level engendered by the whole thing allowed the participants to be less who they were supposed to be than who they are. Yes, Bjork is a natural force. But at the afterparty she was also the person who knew how to segue a DJ set from the music of Japanese Noh operas to Desi remixes of American pop hits to the aforementioned R. Kelly.

It’s a wonder to see someone with an aura of famous and mysterious become someone real and alive, someone in their element and unmediated by anything but bodies dancing. If I had a single hope about the nichefication of popular culture it is that the very possibility of celebrity will fade somewhat, that music will become less about icons and more about dancing, and that the icons will be given more chances to dance.



Bonus content for whenever that R. Kels’ Craigslist post is removed:


And a brief acknowledgment that I do, indeed, see pop culture. This shit is funny! Even though I’m a couple weeks late.

PPS – Not as good as R. Kelly!

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

Tags: , , , , , , ,


  1. On 2009-6-8 public school whitey said:

    you are one of America’s best music writers! seriously write a book STAT!

  2. On 2009-7-10 beatrix said:

    I really enjoyed reading this, I’m not the type to criticize, but, um, I think actually Christina Ricci was not in Beetle Juice…wasn’t that Winona Ryder? Maybe she needed an introduction after all….! :o)

  3. On 2009-7-11 AHB said:

    Thanks to my factchecking cuz Beatrix. Indeed it was Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice. And, indeed, my claim in the above essay that my definition of fame is somewhat…specific. Well, it has been proven.

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