Reacting to the recent death of his longtime companion L’wren Scott, Sir Mick Jagger posted a heartfelt statement on his Facebook page. His Facebook page? Jagger has been among the ten or twenty most famous individuals on the planet for some forty years, yet he socially networks. The Rolling Stone’s Facebook posts are more or less the same as what most users put up: travel pictures, candid family snaps, remarks about a favorite sport (his seems to be cricket), and updates about various events and activities in his life. Except Mick Jagger’s various activities consist of flying around the world on his private jet, giving concerts to twenty thousand people, and mourning the loss of his glamorous fashion designer partner.
The Rolling Stones’ song “If You Really Want to Be My Friend, ” from 1974, features the lines
I know you think life is a thriller / You play the vamp, I’ll play the killer
– the words of a man dissuading someone away from his own reputation and from the mirage of being a public person. Forty years later, for even a huge celebrity to use Facebook tells us something about the flattening of fame in the online age. Facebook, commonly, affords us ordinary people the opportunity to promote ourselves as if we were celebrities – here are our flattering photos, our observations on current news, and an ongoing chronicle of our careers, romances, and personal milestones – yet apparently the site also lets celebrities present themselves as if they were ordinary people. Or is stardom something that even stars still aspire to?
Fame is something which generally sounds appealing to a lot of us, but the lived experience of fame in particular may be oddly frustrating. Not only are there the public embarrassments and the routine invasions of privacy – paparazzi, phone hacking, stalkers, et cetera – but there is too, perhaps, the realization that fame is something that must be shared with other famous people. Robert DeNiro, for example, is a famous actor, but he never played Tony Montana, the Terminator, or Forrest Gump; Michael Jordan is a renowned athlete, but he was never called the Greatest, the Great One, or Mr. October; Mick Jagger is a legendary rock musician, but he never set his guitar on fire, bit the head off a bat, or sang “Smoke On the Water,” “Born to Run,” or “Forever Young.” Mick Jagger is famous as a singer, songwriter, and performer, but maybe he wishes he could be famous as a cricket commentator, a travel writer, a grieving spouse, or anything besides the things he is already widely known to be.
There is, too, a darker side to the desire for celebrity. The more imperfectly human our stars appear, the more imperfect are the humans who seek to be stars. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dylan Thomas are very rare exceptions to the great run of alcoholics who never authored classic novels or poems, just as Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, and Mick Jagger’s pal Keith Richards represent a tiny fraction of heroin addicts through history. Yet the visibility of those men and women has served as a justification for countless unfortunates who emulated them: if Scott Fitzgerald, Lady Day, and Keef got away with it (and appeared more interesting to boot), then why shouldn’t Joe or Jane Average give it a try? The notion that stars are stars by virtue of their eccentricities or their indulgences, rather than their talents, their hard work, or pure luck – all of which probably combined in Jagger’s case – has dangerously distorted the fantasy of stardom that many vulnerable people have entertained. Celebrities themselves are not the only victims of celebrity.
It used to be that talk shows were the main vehicles of this illusion. Seeing world-famous actors or rock ‘n’ rollers sit down and chat openly about their private selves allowed spectators to imagine that they too might get to do the same thing, and be revealed as quirky, charming, and humble folks in front of a mass audience. Now there is reality TV, Youtube, and, yes, blogging, whereby otherwise unremarkable people can publicize their inner beings to everyone else, at least theoretically. Above all, there is Facebook. It looks like Andy Warhol’s familiar prediction wasn’t exactly right: today, no one is very famous for fifteen minutes, but everyone can be a little bit famous indefinitely. Even Mick Jagger.