Famous people have public personas. Meaning, the public shall have its way with you, once you are famous. ‘Fame’, from Latin, fama: “talk, rumour, report, reputation, public opinion; renown, good reputation”, to “ill-fame, scandal, reproach”. Most folks have not considered what it’s like to be famous- and so that’s normal. Most people never examine the socialized sea they swim in, anyway. In the case of fame, most ignore complexities so that they can maintain the right to judge the famous. And what’s fame, if not a collective judgment? I mean, we can be a legend in our own minds…
which is pretty darn sweet. Since then it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. However, fame, as opposed to infamy, requires an appreciative, if not worshipful, audience. And there’s the rub. For though fame may have its pluses, it is indeed a fickle, double-edged sword- the other edge being, of course, infamy.
The ancients (as in Greco-Roman) were very hip to fame’s dualistic nature. The deity or muse Fama (from ancient Greek Pheme, fee-mee) is variously described in ancient sources and elsewhere. Wiki article: “… the personification of fame and renown, her favour being notability, her wrath being scandalous rumors.” I think that’s a simple and fair description. However, I would like to point out here that ‘rumors’ in English implies, in my mind at least, unverified information. I guess rumors could be about anything, not just the famous; Chicken Little taught us that much.
I would expand Fama’s wrath beyond rumor, to include negatively aspected stories spread in social groups, in despite of any consideration for truth or falsity. Pure venom or vengeance, not truth, is the usual point to rumor in my society. In this age of social media, it’s pretty hard to miss this hurtful side of fame, especially if we define fame loosely. An individual can be “famous” in their town, high school class, in their workplace, church, neighborhood, or what have you. And then they will be subject to the same dynamic Fama governs.
It doesn’t take much to stimulate some folks into envious exercising of sour grapes, for our downtrodden personal agendas (such as envy) can easily be more important to us than the possible ruination of others’ lives. It’s a jungle out there. And if the public believes what we hear and read, we increase the odds of spreading all sorts of negative information. For we naturally believe that what seems true (always a matter of belief) is rightfully worthy of our attention. And many of us have come to rely on media information.
As I shall point out, this venom born of frustration is all too common in my society, a culture that discourages us from self love. Our unclaimed love must be projected somewhere, and the famous are a common target. When the famous love object commits a theoretical misstep, however imaginary or unimportant, we retract our admiration, like so many little insecure hermit crabs retreating into our shells; fame morphs into infamy. We proceed to treat the famous one the same way we internally treat ourselves; with irritation or outright castigation should we seemingly misstep. ‘Misstep’ or ‘mistake’ is, of course, a negative judgement.
This blog is a written response to a personal experience that taught me much about the fickle finger(s) of fame, both within and without. To commence the lessons, I was asked to help feed a famous person, Judy Collins, at a local theater. The lessons began with that task, and proceeded through the concert and its aftermath.
My “feeding Judy” experience was one of the most educative experiences of my life. Though I never met the woman, or maybe because I did not meet the woman, I now have the utmost respect for her, and am super grateful for the opportunity she gave me of observing up close and personal how destructive is my society’s relationship with fame. Thanks, Judy!
Last summer I was invited to assist my friend Mary (not her real name) feed Judy Collins, who was coming to sing and play at the sweet little Crystal Theater in Crystal Falls, MI. Mary had been asked to perform this volunteer office of feeding the famous by a friend at the theater who knows Mary’s skills at farm-to-table.
First notice, a few months in advance of the event, had us ensconced in visions of relaxing excitedly (is that an oxymoron?) with Judy at Mary’s cozy, countrified table, stuttering questions about how she liked the drive over etc., and listening to well-earned compliments on the healthy dishes prepared and served with care and love. We would wave her off to her performance haloed with all the homey virtue we could muster. I do remember thinking that maybe Judy would get tired out by having to socialize with strangers before a concert.
No matter, for at some point instructions began rolling in from the theater manager. Judy’s meal would be served in the theater’s newly renovated backstage area, a space created to accommodate performers of a certain echelon. The paint was just dry on some of the walls upon Judy’s arrival. Thus Mary’s dream of hostessing Judy was punctured. Ah, well.
Next, we were informed that there was a menu we would adhere to. If I recall correctly, Mary began to experience her role like a sort of mini Taco Bell operation, when she had been hoping in her original expanded vision to be more like Aunt Jemima. In a good way. Not the racist way. Though both of us are White or white or whatever. Aunt Jemima obviously represents a particular homey feminine archetype that’s universal.
The meal was to be very light, we’ll just say, and simple. The request for organics was in line with Mary’s gardening skills, but the restriction on sauces or casseroles or much in the way of carbohydrates, etc., etc. cramped her style. Being no quitter of any sort, she forged bravely on, always thinking how to make the most of the situation and fulfill her promise to the best of her ability.
There is no way for me to include here all of the vicissitudes, so I relate a simplified version. The meal was to be served in the common space of this newly renovated area, and we went the day before to set up the table with carefully selected furnishings.
We also brought a screen, as requested, which would shield our prep area from the table. Mary still imagined, if I recall correctly, that she would pop out from behind the screen in her apron and headscarf, perhaps namaste our customers, explain the menu we had printed out, and thank Judy sincerely for coming to our humble town of Crystal Falls. For Judy was indeed the most famous act to grace the stage of the renovated Crystal Theater maybe EVER. I don’t know. It was a movie theater when it was born, where my parents, who grew up here, were entertained with Hollywood’s early offerings of the 40’s and 50’s era.
Though Mary might have envisioned that tableside opportunity for gratitude, on the day of we were informed that Judy did not want to see us AT ALL. Until, perhaps, we were sitting in the super fun front row chairs we had been comped. Now we had traveled, imaginatively speaking, as far away from Judy smiling companionably across Mary’s table as we could get. We were never going to meet her or greet her. She would know us only by the products of our labors.
Here I note that, I was only a sidekick, Mary’s Tonto, as I put it. I did make the salad, and committed other little supportive acts. I was much less invested than she. And therefore I had fewer expectations.
Judy’s needs and wishes were the careful provenance of a personal assistant; a tidy, intelligent, competent young woman with a headset that allowed her to communicate with the rest of the theater staff. We, as ancillary servants, had no headsets, which was more than fine with us. However, the prohibition on showing our faces made for a ludicrous situation, a big part of what set up the dramatic teaching experience for me.
It was a sort of tragicomedy, since the PA had to peek her head around the screen and whisper stuff to us. The table at which Judy, her manager, and her music director sat, was literally three feet away from us- but we were operating quietly as possible behind the screen. The PA had to police dishes, whisper questions, compliments, or requests (such as lemon juice instead of vinegar) and bring the next course out.
I know that Mary was more or less seething by the time we actually served Judy. She had been preparing for this for weeks, in many ways, including trials on roasting an organic chicken in a portable oven. There were several appliances, including said oven, that taxed the electrical system in the theater basement, and required a fair amount of troubleshooting and therefore general insecurity for the cook. Who knew when a fuse was going to blow; we had to keep checking.
Wires were running all over the place, and we kept getting different instructions on what to do about it, since it was a tripping hazard. We had been jerked around as to the timing of the meal three times, stopping, and then starting as though it were some sort of famous-person-emergency. Judy wanted to be fed. And then no, actually she didn’t. The braised vegetables in particular were way overdone. And we were personae non gratae.
We knew that, at one point, we waited because Judy was practicing. We leaned our backs against the prep tables and listened to her voice soaring upstairs, and it was like a concert just for us, in a sense. It brought tears to my eyes more than once, to listen to this venerable performer I had only ever listened to in recordings, as her director stopped and started HER, for well over an hour; repeating passages, stretching her range to the top, getting her warmed up, sometimes on songs she had been singing for decades. That’s what she did, this 80 year old woman, before she could sit down to her arrested meal. Amazing. Who was the servant, then?
By the time the three sat down to eat their salads, our nerves were shot, all hopes of perfection were abandoned, and we just wanted to get the thing over with. I noted and saved only one customer comment, Judy’s, to the effect of “What a lovely melange of tastes and colors!” in reference to the despairingly overwrought veggies.
My heart glowed, though I was not the one who grew and prepared those green beans and tricolored carrots. And I thought, I don’t need her to say more, and I don’t need her to say it to my face. In a sense, this is better. Better to be appreciated briefly, and invisibly, lightly, a fairy-wand tap. For many of those beings and powers that appreciate us are indeed unseen, and many of our marvelous life experiences brief. To be accurate, her manager, a tall affable fellow, did make a point of thanking and complimenting us afterwards.
The meal did of course end, and I went off on a prolonged chase after raspberries and cream for Judy, who wouldn’t eat Mary’s blueberry pie, a somewhat rebellious Michigan-themed contribution to the requested light menu. As a result of the search for Judy’s post performance dessert I was not able to shower and change into my concert dress, not that I cared any more. I returned from my raspberry chase, sat dirty, exhausted, and a bit grumpy in my front row seat, and the concert began.
The first half of the concert featured greatest hits. Judy layered these with candidly related anecdotes from her past, and I learned that she had been in show biz since childhood, daughter of a blind vaudevillian and consummate storyteller, in fact. A chip off the old blockhead.
As the concert wound out I began to get irritated because, as the hits rolled on, the audience ignored the fact that Judy is a songwriter. In other words, the house roared loudly into life according to the top 40 properties of a song, without regard for author. Cheers, stomping feet, whistles, and the whole nine yards for Cohen’s “Suzanne” and Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”. Judy’s compositions that hit the charts, specifically “Send In the Clowns”, “My Father”, and “Since You’ve Asked”, received a much more laid back response from the audience.
I’m sure I am keen to this dynamic because I am a writer, but if someone is a really big fan, I would expect they might have, over that last 40 years, investigated who wrote the songs, and made some effort to support the artist singing them. I would imagine that, instead of treating her like a radio, basically, they might consider supporting her core creativity. But, again, I am an artist.
Judy’s performance of all the oldies was strained, and she actually appeared to be reading lyrics for some of them. Standing with her guitar, she had a music stand nearby.
I thought about why this could be, that she might read lyrics, and of course short of asking her I don’t know the answer. But around the time of that concert tour there was a quote from her circulating on the internet about choosing the song you perform very carefully, since you might end up singing it for 40 years. The hit song ends up as drudgery, essentially uninspired, like most 9-5 job-jobs. And the brain is all too happy to check out in that case, as I am sure we all know.
After a very prolonged intermission, Judy returned to the stage alone; she had been aided by her music director on the piano in the first half. She sat at the lovely Steinway grand that was donated to the theater a few years back; Judy began her musical career as a classical pianist.
And here was a different performer; she swung into her songs with more joyful heart. This section of the concert was updated in its selections; it included some recent compositions of Judy’s. She shared how much she loved her Irish-American project. And I could hear her singing voice come alive.
Audience response to this new stuff was even less enthusiastic. Later, when I talked about it with friends, they did not notice the difference in Judy’s voice, or in her delivery. A matter of artistic sensitivity again, I assume. And as I will propose, my society’s relationship with fame allows us to be callous, however unconsciously, with the famous one. Underneath our obvious personal agendas, we are on alert for ways in which the famous one fulfills our expectations- or not. That personal agenda keeps us occupied, and therefore ignoring subtleties and complexities of performance art in general.
Some might believe cheering Judy’s songwriting is not her due; for she was there to fulfill a social contract she is all too well aware of after more than 50 years in the biz (first album A Maid of Constant Sorrow released in 1961). Due to the exchange of cash for art, we don’t feel the more personal or intimate responsibility we would with family and friends; to support her individual voice, expressed in her writing. We paid our money, did we not? Her voice and her history, her hands on the strings and keys, are her product.
In a consumer society, this impersonal nature of exchange is the common underlying assumption, when we hand over some cash. Money is awesome, but it easily assists objectification, if we’re not aware.
I am sure there were many disappointed customers indeed, when Judy’s stage manager intoned from offstage before Judy came out that there were to be no photos or videos. For bless our hearts, smart phone users are also sometimes figuring into the price of our seats, that we shall bring home some piece of the performer’s fame; pocket some little ray from her star. Photos and videos are now a common way to ensure we get the biggest bang for our fame-buck, as we port home our experience in digital form. Pocketing stardust is a sweet objective… but it’s a METAPHOR. Meaning, you don’t need a physical object to do it.
Many of Judy’s stories were such stardust; insider talk about the folk scene from her youth. And people loved it, of course; the audience in Crystal Falls area is, well, mostly aged. I could feel folks relaxing, soaking it up, laughing joyfully, in part that Judy generously let them in on stuff about those now iconic days that was more or less intimate. Her ability to relate candidly to the audience was striking; she learned from her Irish father, I guess. In those intimate moments we were in with the in crowd, however delicate this story-thread between Judy’s famous life and our own.
Judy was willing to play this fame game, to feed the monster; I’m not saying she is a victim. This blog is about my society’s relationship with fame, not about Judy. I assume she has survived and thrived in the biz so long because she figured out how to handle the public and its reactions.
Though folks were well sated, one would think, with the absolute best Judy had to give them, Fama’s ugly side rotated into view after the concert. As folks filed out the theater front onto Crystal Falls’ main street, Mary and I did some policing behind the screen. Then we waited outside in the rear parking lot, because we would not be able to drag our stuff out until Judy et al. left on their rented bus, parked and running a few feet away from the backstage door. We were to remain unseen, recall. There were a few fans lurking around the door that I briefly talked to; the one I remember was a jumpy, chain smoking young woman with old albums tucked under one arm. She hoped Judy would sign these for her, raising their value exponentially.
But mostly I talked with and listened to folks in little parking lot groups that sometimes included people I know, however casually. And there was a surprising lot of negative criticism for folks who had just had the amazing experience of listening to a musician of that caliber in their tiny home town theater. Previous to the concert, I assume they were jacked up, but in the aftermath a burgeoning small town buzz developed that Judy was shielding her famous self from the public; from us. I suppose it was in part the same irritation that Mary and I encountered in our own psyches, when we stood behind the screen in a bit of an eye-rolling huff.
So it must have been Judy’s fame that made the difference, that roused this lurking beast of cranky negativity. Some didn’t like that there were security guards around their little theater, so it looked like a darn prison. Some had hoped that she might slip over to the Infield Bar for a drink, and that’s why they lingered in the parking lot, their hopeful eyes on the backstage door. After all, they griped, Stephen Stills had done that, when he came to town last year.
I dare say that there was never any doubt in my mind that, when one buys a ticket to a concert, the event comes and goes without any personal interaction with the performers, outside of congratulations at the merch table with performers of lesser notoriety. I’m no spring chicken, I’ve been around; I have not lived in Crystal Falls all my life, for one thing. Not saying that’s a factor here; it depends on the individual. But I have never heard such negative gossip after a concert.
Judy was apparently a snob. It felt like I was in an old Western, and the locals were suspicious of a stranger that had come to town. It was a metaphorical wagon-circling, the plebes feeling defensive because winged Fama, in the guise of a hard working musician, seemed uninterested in sharing her glitter up close. She was morphing from Glinda the stardust-sprinkling Good Witch of the South, to the nameless Wicked Witch of the West. When we want to publicly punish and castigate we depersonify. Objectify.
Judy was not passin’ muster; time fer her to move on. As luck would have it, she was, anyway; she was done sharing her fame with us. She was just a super talented old lady, ready to go to bed with her gift bag of requisitioned raspberries and cream. The jumpy woman at the door was shooed off by security, Judy and her buddies emerged, got into the brilliantly lit bus, and it was all over but the shouting.
And shouting there was, as over the next days I talked to folks about my experiences feeding Judy. Surely Mary and I each held a little insider pocket full of Judy’s somewhere-over-the-rainbow stardust to scatter. I for one initially had fun sharing what I had learned on that roller coaster day in August, what a crazy experience it had been. I used my friends to help process my insider experiences, and imagined they would be able to mine some gold from the same.
However, soon enough I began to hold my tongue, for as it turned out, I was unintentionally gossiping. In other words, my stories invited negative judgment. It did not initially occur to me that the natural reaction to my stories would be to cast Judy as a heartless cad. Social conditioning itself is based on judgments of good and bad, and therefore, when we talk about famous people, we are automatically in that social courtroom. As I said, fame is social judgment.
This I learned to a fine point, because when I spoke of the vicissitudes of feeding Judy, of this rich roller coaster learning opportunity, some friends naturally wanted to defend me, assuming I felt ill-used. That my presentation was hopefully balanced and decidedly NOT venomous, mattered not, for we all have our own perspective.
As I was obviously unable to defend and stand up for myself in the face of such abuse, they were going to do it for me, bless their hearts. I am sure I have done the same in many circumstances.
Judy’s makeup was too heavy, her language was unladylike, her demeanor ungentle. Why didn’t she want to see her cooks? She must be anorexic (she is recorded as experiencing an eating disorder history). Unpardonable that she did not thank us. Why did she want security guards? She must be an ignoramus who doesn’t know what a small town is like; she has a huge famous-person-prima-donna ego and expects everyone to wait on her without thanks. Why didn’t she want to sign autographs for the pathetic tweaky fan? She doesn’t care about her fans, and so they don’t have to care about her, now.
Such petty disappointment can mean only one thing; social personas have fallen from some imaginary height. Judy’s fame in its positive sense is a figurative Get Out Of Jail Free card. The jail being, of course, our habitual limited perceptions of where we stand in relation to others. Such perceptions are part of our social conditioning. We imagine that being famous would bring with it some release from our social striving; from our personality’s constant, though usually unconscious, Sisyphean uphill rolling of boulders.
Of course this vicarious Get Out Of Jail Free card is, for those who buy a concert ticket, one time use. If we can bring home an autograph, a personal interaction, or some documentation on our phone, we might prolong the feeling. Catching a ride on someone else’s fame wagon is a fun idea, I guess- until it’s over. That’s what I found out.
Our social striving was temporarily unnecessary, as we basked in the aura of Fama personified as Judy, lifted on the wings of her divine voice, her anecdotes of the hip scene. But since we can’t take it with us, Fame retreated into her bus and we fall, and fall, and fall- back into the crude judgmental realities of the pecking order. Wings gone, closed-fisted betrayal and disappointment are all we have left, standing in a small town parking lot and longing for more.
And when we find ourselves back in the mud of our conditioned jails, we rattle the prison bars. We growl and protest and point fingers, for from the conditioned perspective, the fall must be someone else’s fault. Social conditioning is always both hierarchical and outer referencing, and when we find ourselves down a rung or two, it’s the fault of those who are UP the ladder, right?
Since fame is composed of good and bad judgments, we resort to bringing fame closer to our supposed level with negative criticism, Fama’s’s bad side. Vengeance is sweet, and we slather the shining star we’ve just lost ahold of with echoes of our own supposed inadequacies and self cruelty. When we feel ourselves falling we grasp at metaphorical straws, such as punishing others in order to feel better about ourselves.
It’s difficult for me to watch people assigning to a famous stranger the reasons for their (the stranger’s) behavior, and assessing them accordingly. My culture teaches that we bought some right to do so, by recognizing the fame position. “OK, I will admit you are famous, now that means I get to nose into your life.” The media, of course, encourages this, because it means they can sell THEIR product. The media feeds us little tidbits of fame in the form of information about famous lives, like a zookeeper throwing bloody bones into our plebian cages.
And, since we harbor lovely human tribal proclivities towards focusing on the exceptionally talented one(s) in our group, we may be inspired to follow that prerogative and dedicate our own personal creative powers towards the talented one. My society is very much in support of this activity. It starts in grade school, where the talented are given more attention than others for excelling in the particular areas of learning that a school system supports. Later, this focus on the talented morphs into an obsession with the notably famous, whatever their talents may be. Those with no claim to fame have been trained to be admirers.
The media keeps us gnawing at the fame-bones, though many citizens by now are aware that the veracity of such information is dubious at best. We willfully ignore this awareness, for we are addicted to the bones. And tragically, stories about the rich and famous are in support of our conditioned self concept as living unimportant lives.
Perhaps you think, “So what? Of course we want to hear about these wonderful people’s lives! And it’s important to be informed. ” Indeed I agree that in the case of ethical professions, such as religious and political leaders, a certain amount of disclosure is necessary to assess their fitness for leadership. Not that the media is reliable in that regard; truth is always relative, and, as I said, parceled. Popular media’s main raison d’etre is promotion, after all; not just of products such as famous singers, but of ideas, of points of view, of belief systems.
However, a performing artist is kind of the opposite of a politician. Their life directly affects mine only when I am in their presence, and in that interaction they never pretended to be any sort of leader. Unless they are Ronald Reagan. Information about performer’s lives is therefore none of my damn business. If they want to share, fine. But their stories are not necessarily “true”, either. We all get to pick and choose our stories, and if I want to lie about my life, I am free to do so.
Why Judy wears stagey makeup is none of my business. Why her hair has a pompadour when she supposedly used to just wear it loose like a cute hippie in a field of wildflowers is none of my damn business. Why she didn’t want me to see her eat/why she doesn’t want to see me while she eats, is none of my damn business. Why she wants to have security at her concert is none of my damn business.
I did see on some bio (Wiki?) that Judy quit the booze at some point. Maybe that’s true, maybe it isn’t; I don’t believe what I read, anyway. But whether or not that’s why she doesn’t want to share a pint with the locals at The Infield, is none of my damn business. And as I said, it’s just a socially conditioned habit strongly promoted by media, to believe that any of Judy’s business could be mine, or that anything I hear about her from the media rumor mill is true.
Why we even care, why we consider their lives a subject of conversation, is what I am pointing out here. We are accepting that famous people’s lives matter, without investigation. Personally, I now generally consider the lives of people I don’t even know a waste of my time and energy. I actually learned a lot from famous people’s biographies over my lifetime, but that’s kinda different from listening to the media spin tales.
We have been conditioned to this media-promoted cultural mythos of fame, so that we may join in the game of objectifying the famous. We learn to regard the performer as a thing, a product, an icon, that we, as a society, can do with what we will. Though we may innocently convince ourselves that we actually care about the famous one, the objectifying perspective is always devoid of true, stable, bone-deep respect for the one admired. Fame’s backlash proves the same.
Objectification is the way we plebes, the uninitiated, have learned to deal with the socialized power of fame, a power we may well envy on some level. If we don’t get what we want from the famous one, we will conjure some red hot gossip shoes (Cinderella) to make them suffer for the imaginary crime of being more awesome than we are.
More awesome in our own minds, of course; for the famous bear no power that we have not donated. We are in competition with them, though they don’t know us from Adam’s off ox. Maybe that’s the realization that strikes home when, metaphorically, Judy boards the bus; that we don’t matter. That’s the sting we want to revenge. Queen Judy did not walk among her subjects and cure their scrofula.
We are not awesome in our minds because we are used to stepping into that socialized jail of limitations, when negatively judged by self or other. We objectify ourselves, meaning, that we are all too ready to put ourselves down at any perceived misstep. We make of ourselves a puppet, a slave, that will be punished if it does not perform in the manner we desire; that’s the practice of self objectification. And since my society trains us to put ourselves down on a daily basis, disapproval is our constant companion.
If we were awesome in our own minds, there would be no need to concern ourselves with the concept of fame. Fame is promoted in my society in order to keep us thinking about something else besides how awesome we really are. It promotes the social agenda of life as one big comparison shopping trip- and we are the cheap goods, the dollar store versions, relatively speaking. Everyone eventually catches some flak in the socialized boulder-pushing struggle.
And that’s a wrap. So thanks again, Judy, for the ride. Thanks for the songs, the music, thanks for making me writhe and sweat behind the screen so that I would pay attention. For there is much to learn from fame, and here’s what I’m awesome at; gleaning wisdom from frustrating experiences.
What are you awesome at? My advice is that, when we catch ourselves giving any sort of goshdarn about the lives of the rich and famous, we donate to ourselves a resounding compliment. Then we will be too busy learning how awesome we are to judge that which is not our damn business. And we won’t need that Get Out Of Jail card, either!
Addendum: I like this quote about Pheme. “Despite her being infamous in heaven, and despite the fact that it is on her account that entire cities on earth are disturbed, many mortals love Pheme. For it is because of her that things become known, and mortals become well known.” It points out that fame has a very practical side, and can indeed operate devoid of the nastiness it engenders in my society. from http://www.maicar.com/GML/Pheme.html , The Greek Mythology Link, by Carlos Pareda, author of Genealogical Guide to Greek Mythology.