Tell All the Truth But Tell It Slant

So, over the weekend, I kind of decided that my initial reaction to Lynn Hirschberg’s M.I.A. profile had maybe been a little lazy. And so I wrote a column about it for The Atlantic, situating it in a larger argument about about celebrities as reliable narrators:

Some celebrity personae, of course, are so patently false that there’s nothing to do but enjoy them. No investigative journalists need to be dispatched to determine whether David Bowie is actually an alien manifesting as an apocalyptic rock star, or whether Sasha Fierce causes trouble in Jay-Z and Beyonce’s marriage. They’re just vehicles, and amusing, harmless ones at that. No one is deceived, but everyone enjoys the music.

Queasy but great entertainment—and great entertainment journalism—have often come out of the disjunction between established celebrity narratives (at least the ones that are meant to be taken seriously) and reality, or the breakdown of a once-true narrative. Vanessa Grigoriadis’s 2008 Rolling Stone profile of Britney Spears came as the former teen pop star was punishing her handlers, America, and herself for imposing a restrictive, virginal life story on her by going publicly, shockingly crazy. But the piece also exposed that story as false in the first place. Britney was sexually active before her breakout album, and she’d had breast implants. What was interesting was less that she and her management team lied about those events, but how she succeeded, and then failed, to live out the history that was retroactively created for her.

It goes from there. This whole thing has been an interesting exercise in a phenomenon I’ve been thinking and writing about a fair bit lately, the investment and ownership fans feel they have over celebrities they care about. I take pop culture really, really seriously, something I cop to in the piece and have never been shy about here. But there’s almost no creator of pop culture I care about so much that it would hurt me to see them behave badly, or make bad art, or that it would be difficult for me to acknowledge that they’d behaved badly or put out a rotten movie or whatever.