Celebrity, Personality, and Visibility: Smoke & Mirrors in a Right Now World
#140conf London Nov 17 2009
My name is Thembisa S. Mshaka, I am a wife, mother, sister, auntie, mentor, journalist, hip-hop culture guardian, entertainment industry veteran, small business owner of SEEIT Live, Inc, and most recently, the author of Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business, a career mentorship guide out now for anyone who wants the secrets to industry success. I bring all my roles to Twitter, and I am honored to be here among the illustrious characters at the #140 conference and would like to thank @Jeff Pulver for the invitation—at the recommendation of my good friends @Fiona Bloom of The Bloom Effect and James Andrews of Be Everywhere–@keyinfluencer.
For the last 17 years, I’ve been behind the scenes in the business of star-making. Whether in the form of advertising or television production, I’ve made my living using words to break artists and help build the brands of Lauryn Hill, Beyonce’ and Nas; capture the essence of movements in pithy phrases I coined in the ‘90s like Generation NeXt. I’ve had a lot of contact with real stars and over the course of my career have come to know them when I see them. Working closely with artists like Wyclef Jean and 50 Cent have given me a unique vantage point. I’ve watched them work, stumble, even be cast aside after being shot—and return victorious. The key elements all the people I’ve mentioned possess are a tireless work ethic, a desire to keep improving through experimentation, and a hunger…a hunger to continually deliver their personal best; primarily, they compete with themselves. These are just a few indicators of stardom; others include recognition of oneself as a vessel for expression and creativity; the requisite amount of well-placed swagger when it’s showtime, balanced with the understanding that no matter how successful you become, you are only as good as the people that surround and support you.
Stars with these characteristics shine behind the scenes as well; stardom is not just about who’s on the dais or in front of the camera. Behind-the-scenes stars let their work speak the loudest. They don’t look to multi-platinum plaques or awards to affirm them. Excellence, commitment to craft, a reputation marked by integrity and providing opportunity through service are their hallmarks—myself included. I didn’t become who I am on my own; God, my parents, family, mentors, alma maters and colleagues have helped to shape me; given me the opportunity to let ‘this little light of mine shine’ as the spiritual says. I consider myself, and push myself to be the best at what I do. Please understand I say all of this not out of ego, but to make the point that if I, a relative unknown who has quietly impacted urban music, hip hop industry, and pop culture can be considered a star by my peers, it is entirely possible that some of these famous people–who are famous for simply being on camera–are actually not stars at all. They are celebrities with an expiration date.
I am here this afternoon to talk about stardom because many seem to have it twisted—and I don’t like what the confusion is doing to entertainment—both in terms of content and context. Before we had reality TV stars, the confusion started on the music side. The major labels resisted, feared and felt antagonized by the digital age. This resulted in major revenue losses, because they ceded the power of delivery and pricing of their product to technology players, the biggest being Apple. The hemorrhaging that followed caused artist and executive talent development to suffer in the interest of making money faster. Trouble with that was, the faster money wasn’t faster than the Internet. When the major label systems sacrificed quality control for profit, star production dropped, especially in the urban space. Additionally the Internet toppled the barriers to access that labels once imposed, turning the music business into a 99-cent or pence single proposition. If the music landscape were a movie, its title would be Attack of the One-Hit Wonders.
But none of this changes the fundamental anatomy of a star. Neither celebrity, personality, nor visibility on their own can be defined as stardom. I asked one of the foremost star-makers and star-keepers in music to speak to this in Put Your Dreams First. She is Yvette Noel-Schure, the media specialist behind Beyonce’:
“The tabloid person is a celebrity. The star is someone you don’t see often in magazines. They only do large features or covers, and you only see them when they’re promoting a project. If people who look up to Beyonce’ could freeze-frame her, they’d see a girl who bruised her leg to get the step right, who was supposed to be on vacation but went back to into the studio, who got no sleep but called the morning show. She’ll give fifty interviews for a film and treat interview number fifty like interview number one.”
The way this shows misperception about celebrity versus stardom shows up in entertainment is simple: it fosters a generation of creative people and recording artists impaired by what I call ‘The Microwave Mentality’ in my book. If the Microwave Mentality had a Twitter page, it’s bio would say “gimme 30 seconds, and I’mma be HOT!” It consumes so many of today’s emerging artists that I spent a full chapter on it. Unbeknownst to them, mediocrity is the order of the day, because it’s easier to get away with than ever. It has crippled the music business and polluted the broadcast industry. This mentality is the gateway to temporary celebrity. It is the anti-stardom! It makes anyone think they can just show up and become stars. And what’s worse, any amount of critique you extend to people in the interest of their personal or professional development is usually met with the accusation of “you’re hatin’ on me”.
The immediacy of visibility in today’s world is skewing the perception of what it takes to make stars, be stars, and remain stars. The Internet and social media are key to the skewing of this perception. And while both have enabled real stars to shine through and be discovered when mainstream studios, networks, or labels ignored them, both have also opened the floodgates to the ocean of mediocrity in which real-world stars must now swim. The impact of this is far-reaching and at this point, immeasurable in terms of how it will leave generations of artists and audiences, but I can already see some disturbing signs.
-Digital downloading has changed the way people hear music—and diminished the human appetite for superior sonic quality, both in terms of actual music—and how music sounds.
-Video streaming and uploading have allowed for anything to become programming, giving the false impression that because it CAN be uploaded or shared, it OUGHT to be.
-The blogsphere has given way to a galaxy of voices, fogging up the atmosphere with wannabe journalism, amateur writing, and content jacking that eschews original or critical thought. What is read on blogs is far too easily upheld as some form of gospel instead of the opinion-based material that it is. The crush to break a ‘story’ is compromising the ethics of reporting; blogs have the 24 hour news loops going tabloid just to keep up.
-Social media itself is generating a cult of personality; yesterday’s super-nerds are today’s virtual rock stars. Some deservedly so based on expertise, effort and track record; others purely from their numbers of so-called ‘friends’ or ‘followers’. When did stars get crowned by the number of followers they had? In my business, you rely on the ability to recognize a star long before a fan base does. Are people with fewer but loyal followers any less entertaining, engaging, thought-provoking or important because they have less than a thousand followers? My answer to these questions is no.
Look, I didn’t come all the way from New York to be the wet blanket. I am the last person people who know me would call a ‘hater’. My book is called Put Your Dreams First; I am very much an idealist who operates from a place of what’s possible. Social media is a transformative tool, doing good in ways unseen moment by moment—but you’ll hear plenty about that at this event.
At present, the urban entertainment world seems currently more concerned with using social media as a marketing tool or de-facto A&R device than a vehicle to save lives, heal the world, mentor the next generation, or amplify the voices of the voiceless. I see this shifting, thanks to people like Emmanuel Jal and his Gua-Africa organization, Wyclef Jean and his Yele Haiti foundation, and MC Lyte who created the Hip-Hop Sisters social network. Sure, the hip-hop generation brings the sexy, the flavor, and, to quote @thehotnessgrrrl Nicole Moore, founder of TheHotness.com, “the hotness” in social media. But on the other hand, in my world, yes-men abound—to the detriment of the art and the business, so I’m calling it as I see it. I am a champion of stars, not celebrities—and this goes for the real world as well as the one comprised of ones and zeros.
I want to turn this lens through which we view stardom on ourselves for a moment: As leading minds and participants in now media, it is critical that we look deeper. That we discern social media’s hollow virtual celebs from the actual stars who shine at whatever point they may occupy in the galaxy. It’s so easy to be lazy in the Now Media world. In the same way that most bloggers aren’t journalists—most of today’s rappers aren’t lyricists. Something is missing here: a work ethic. We must recognize that we ARE, in large part, cogs in the now media machine—and stay mindful of Public Enemy’s advice: they said don’t believe the hype. And as Flav’s career path shows us, this advice is more important to remember than ever.
It is even more vital that we examine who we as individuals—and collective communities–are going to be in social media. Are we going to add to the online waste, or be conscious of the environment? Are we going to be additive and contributive, or subtractive? Are we going to be satisfied with shortcuts—or are we going to put in the time it takes to be great? Are we going to be personalities that fade (a one-click wonder)—or be the social media stars who shine through and through, not just on the surface? What will be the legacy of your timeline? I’d like to spend the balance of my time discussing these questions with you. I’m on Twitter @putyrdreams1st– and to Jeff, thanks again for the opportunity to be here. Thanks to all of you for listening.