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Celebrities as Media Critics: How Grimes and Jay-Z Are Dictating Their Own Mythology

If you’re a Grimes fan, you’ve probably already read her fantastic Tumblr post about how she’s tired of the way she’s portrayed in the media. If not, it’s definitely worth a look, because it’s basically everything we love about Claire Boucher — it’s articulate, intelligent, and heartfelt. Given her ambivalence about her Tumblr posts being reported as news, it’s not clear how she’ll feel about the response to the post, which is being reported everywhere. Still, it’s a pretty fine example of how today’s celebrities — for want of a better word — are using their Internet presences to push back in a meaningful manner at how they’re portrayed in the media.

In the age before social media, Grimes’s piece might never have seen the light of day — a PR type would have talked gently in her ear, asking her to tone it down, or a record company rep would have freaked out and worried about the effect it would have on her sales, etc. In the past, an artist’s image was a carefully constructed thing, and the last thing the people in charge wanted was said artist messing up the whole thing by actually expressing an opinion or otherwise going off message.

This all changed with the advent of Twitter. Sure, some celebrities had blogs and other online outlets before that, and there’ve always been ornery types who’ve delighted in being obstreperous in interviews — but even these things were still part of the game. It was Twitter that basically lifted the veil of fame, something that celebrities turned out to delight in — so much so, in fact, that the site’s own popularity and longevity became inextricably tied to its celebrity user base, with its success at least partly attributable to the enthusiasm with which famous people adopted it.

You can certainly see the appeal for these celebrity users; the very nature of fame means you’re often shielded from your fans and the world in general by a battalion of PR people and minders. Once your fame reaches a certain level, this is pretty much unavoidable — you literally can’t interact with the world in the way that “normal” people do, a phenomenon that must be awfully strange and alienating, no matter what the consolations of fame and fortune (cf. the brutally poignant stories of Michael Jackson having supermarkets closed so he could push a trolley around them and pretend to be an average person for an hour or so).

Twitter, however, seemed to provide a way to interact directly with the world in a relatively risk-free manner. The first celebrities to adopt the site basically used it as a platform to speak directly to their fans, in the process revealing the people who lay beneath the images that had been carefully created for them. The pitfalls of this — the fact that people on the Internet can be pretty horrible, and also the fact that an ill-considered tweet can do an awful lot of damage to your image — soon became clear, but (outside of a few high-profile renunciations) didn’t undermine the site’s popularity with celebrities a great deal. Ego, it seems, trumps discretion every time.

At first, the Twitter phenomenon understandably gave PR types conniptions, largely because their profession revolves around preventing famous people making asses of themselves. Several famous social media early adopters went and did exactly that, and the general default position in regard to celebrities tweeting was a sort of cost/benefit trade-off between the PR win of coming across as a regular type and the potentially disastrous consequences of revealing yourself to be kind of a dick. Either way, though, the process was an essentially superficial one, a sort of adjunct to the business of image construction that kept celebs happy and hopefully garnered some extra goodwill from fans.

This has changed over time, particularly in the last year or so. Whereas once celebrities limited themselves to satisfying “Plsssss it’s my bday can u retweet <3333″ requests, they’re now active participants in their own narrative. For some celebrities, their online presence is a way not only of interacting with fans, but also dictating the way they present themselves to the world. Crucially, they’ve have realized that having a Twitter or a Tumblr allows them to respond in real time to the way they’re covered in the media, to be an active participant in conversations about themselves rather than someone who’s discussed in absentia.

The reasons for this shift are twofold: first, because celebrities have gotten the hang of this whole social media business, just like everyone else, and have cottoned onto the fact that it allows them to present themselves as three-dimensional human beings, rather than two-dimensional images devoted only to the promotion of their work. (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a fascinating piece about this here: “Sorry, sports fans, but it’s true. After all these years, I’m ready to admit the truth: I do have many interests other than sports…. How should an aging, black jock like myself know anything about pop culture? Man, I am a living part of pop culture and have been for nearly 50 years. Beyond that, I think pop culture expresses our needs, fears, hopes and whole zeitgeist better than some of the more esoteric and obscure forms of art.”)

The other reason is the advent of celebrities who’ve either been on Twitter/Tumblr/etc. from the start, or are the product of a generation for whom social media is a way of life. Grimes herself is a fine example of this — she’s been on and off Tumblr pretty much ever since “Oblivion” made her a global star. An even better example is the current Mr. Grimes, James Brooks of Elite Gymnastics, whose Tumblr makes for consistently fascinating reading and is arguably better known than his music (which, by the way, is also great).

Celebrities’ new role as media critics has manifested itself in a number of ways. In the hip hop world, for instance, it’s often a case of unearthing a beat from your hard drive, laying down a vocal track, and uploading the result to Soundcloud, a process that can take less than a day. The best recent example of this trend is Jay-Z’s “Open Letter,” a song that is pretty much exactly that, the musical equivalent of a Tumblr post about the way the media had reported his and Beyoncé’s trip to Cuba. It was so powerful that it elicited a response from the White House.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of “Open Letter” is that it allowed Jay-Z to not only participate in the news cycle, but to direct it or even circumvent it entirely. Instead of doing an interview to set the record straight about his vacation, he bypassed the media entirely, dropping a track that functioned as a direct message to the world. No doubt he knew the new song would be reported widely, but in responding to coverage in the manner he did, it was he who dictated exactly what would be said.

It’s no surprise that Jay-Z has a knack for this — he’s always been a master manipulator, and no one doubts that a lot of thought went into the apparently spontaneous release of the song. What connects him with Grimes is that she also aims to not only protest but also direct the media’s representations of her, albeit in a manner that’s curiously (or perhaps willfully) naïve: she often insists on Tumblr that her posts not be reported as “news,” a futile request at best if you’re world famous and writing blog posts that are both opinionated and interesting.

There’s an argument to be made that this is ultimately all another aspect of the PR process: after all, trying to dictate a celebrity’s image in the media is basically the definition of PR. The difference is that, with the artists themselves taking the reins, many are presenting more interesting and nuanced public faces than their handlers and the press have provided in the past. It’s no coincidence that the media pounces on celebrities when these unmediated interactions fail spectacularly, but it’s time to admit that, more and more, they’re succeeding.

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