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The Age of the Hyper-Scandal: Why Pop Stars Like Ariana Grande Can't Seem to Escape the Trap

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Illustration by Diego Patiño

In July it was DonutGate, in which the 22-year-old chart-topper Ariana Grande was caught on a security camera at Wolfee Donuts in Lake Elsinore, Calif., covertly licking a few pastries while loudly disparaging obese people and America to her new boyfriend, backup dancer Ricky Alvarez. Naturally the video went viral, spawning a gazillion posts and tweets, appearance cancellations and apologies (one non-apology, one groveling apology), and no doubt outperforming news of global wars and climate disasters in the daily clickbait race.

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This is the kind of uproar that -- like Donald Trump’s stunt presidential campaign -- makes one wonder if we’ve lost all sense of perspective. What might once have been a not exactly commendable but trivial incident of young, romance-besotted obnoxiousness becomes, in the hyper-efficient 2015 ecosystem of scandal and reaction, a frenzy. It felt like a symptom of a media culture eking out a living on public shaming, and a society determined to peep (or at least click) through every open window in the name of “transparency.” As the essayist Wayne Koestenbaum wrote in his 2011 book Humiliation, “Many forms of entertainment harbor this ungenerous wish: to humiliate the audience and to humiliate the performer, all of us lowered into the same (supposedly pleasurable) mosh pit.”

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In the same news cycle, however, came a report by Huffington Post journalist Jason Cherkis. It revealed the alleged public rape of a drugged, then-16-year-old Jackie Fuchs (aka Fox) of the seminal all-teen-girl band the Runaways by manager Kim Fowley at a New Year’s Eve party in 1975. The emotions that shuddered through the music world were a greasy smear of shock, disgust and rueful recognition, a sense of what comedians and TV people have been feeling as the Bill Cosby scandal built and built.

The late Fowley’s sleaziness couldn’t be called an open secret; it was more like his proud calling card in the Los Angeles rock scene of the day. Worse, one couldn’t help thinking of all the other sordid reckonings in little rooms through the decades that have been covered up or laughed off in the names of excess, glamour and rock’n’roll -- or hip-hop, or swinging Vegas grooviness, or just plain showbiz. No one will ever be able to account for all the women, from performers to label employees to so-called groupies (not to mention characters in song lyrics), for whom exploitation and abuse have been the price of a backstage pass. If Fuchs’ ordeal had happened in the age of TMZ and social media, perhaps it could not have been suppressed for so long. Maybe the same mechanisms that have hounded Grande are also looking out for her, and for the rights of LGBTQ people, people of color and anyone else at a disadvantage in the money-and-machismo hierarchy of the record game. (Or maybe not. Many people have held onto excuses to dismiss Ke$ha’s allegations against producer Dr. Luke in ways that Fuchs has said she finds familiar.)

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These trade-offs indicate one of the prime dilemmas to be posed about the incestuous workings of social media and scandal in 2015. We are at a point when image, rumor and the taking of offense often seem to be as big and lucrative a business as music, movies and TV shows. Yet even when that activity is not a vehicle of justice or enlightenment, it would be too puritanical to sneer at the very human desire to know more about our cultural idols.

As Rich Juzwiak, a longtime celebrity blogger and an employee of the leading scuttlebutt site Gawker (itself lately the object of scandal for a widely condemned outing post and the internal war that followed), points out, “Social media has enabled people further ways to engage with gossip: by spreading it, creating it, distorting it and speaking out against it, whether sincerely or in time-consuming faux outrage.”

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Arguably, just as the 1970s rise of investigative journalism instilled a more widespread awareness of how profoundly political power corrupts, the early-21st-century peak of social media is helping us understand how often cultural power and the bubble life of celebrity warp reality and enable malfeasance. That sensation is especially sharp when it comes to such reality TV stars as the Kardashians, who literally have no enterprise other than nurturing their notoriety.

Of course, the pursuit of the secrets of the rich, famous and/or talented isn’t new -- think back to the heydays of Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper, Confidential magazine and Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. But just as technology allows stars to circumvent journalists and critics and speak more directly to their fans, it creates opportunities for their own egos and tunnel vision to trip them up. When Nicki Minaj reacted to the recent MTV Video Music Awards nominations on Twitter with a point about the industry’s unequal approval of black and white women’s bodies, Taylor Swift, with lightning speed but uncharacteristic clumsiness, took it personally and counter-tweeted with what some saw as spoiled narcissism. (To her credit, she almost as quickly dampened the debate with an unqualified apology.)

As the veteran gossip reporter Michael Musto observes, “In the old days, stars were button-lipped and routinely protected by publicists. Today, they shoot off at the mouth on Twitter and Facebook and often create and/or feed into their own scandals by being so outspoken.”

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Perhaps that warts-and-all effect flattens the hierarchy, in a healthy way, between the famous and the rest of humanity. But since we regular people then get to shoot off our (virtual) mouths right back at the celebrities, it sucks us all deeper into the fantasy loop of stardom. For every Azealia Banks or Cee Lo Green, whose half-cocked tweets have hurt their careers, there are ordinary citizens who’ve torpedoed their own online reputations with thoughtless remarks or clumsy jokes. (See the U.K. writer Jon Ronson’s recent book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.) Andy Warhol’s aphorism didn’t make it explicit that your 15 minutes of fame might be followed quickly by weeks of public immolation, though we probably should have known. With our pocket multimedia studios, we have all become our own paparazzi.

Some of it may help heighten social consciousness; the question is how much. Musto, for example, often has used his blind items and other rumor-mill greasing to further the cause of gay visibility, though he also has been criticized for outing people. As he puts it, “Scandal and gossip bring up relevant issues -- about personal responsibility, usually -- and can educate people about the rigors of success and the pitfalls of forgetting everyday values. But sometimes there are still gratuitous scandals that are either made up, exaggerated or exploited to get clicks.”

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The dynamic is fraught particularly for musicians, who more than actors and models are designated explorers of transgression, not just in their personal behavior but for how their musical and visual styles cross and confound cultural codes. Young white women such as Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus are chastised for their sexuality because older people are overprotective toward their tween audiences. Spears crumpled under those (and other) pressures while Cyrus (perhaps due to her celebrity upbringing, and by using social media to her benefit) has defied them ecstatically. But when she was critiqued for twerking at the 2013 VMAs, it was through an uncomfortable alliance between progressives who accused her of racial appropriation and conservative moralists who scorned her for celebrating her physicality. (She got the last, or at least latest, laugh recently when she was announced as the host of the 2015 show.)

Similar lines get blurred when a former staunch scandalizer like Sinead O’Connor, the 1992 Saturday Night Live pope-picture shredder, turns in her later years into a scandal scold, ripping into Cyrus and Kim Kardashian for what she sees as their shallow, nonfeminist displays. One generation’s provocation is another’s predation. Along racial lines, there’s a similarly tangled tango, as one batch of online commenters rips into (Kardashian mate) Kanye West for his supposed arrogance -- as if he were in a different category from previous impolitic and impulsive white superstars like, say, Bob Dylan or Mick Jagger -- while others pile on Robin Thicke or Eminem for sexually aggressive lyrics while leaving alone black R&B and hip-hop artists who do the same, because the politics of privilege there just get too complicated.

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Then there is the deeper aesthetic issue of separating the singer and the song. What are we to do, for instance, with the enormously troubling alleged sex-crime history of R. Kelly when his music is so irresistible?

Social media also brings clashes between segments of audiences. Many young female fans stubbornly defend Chris Brown despite his admission and the obvious evidence of his beating of ex-girlfriend Rihanna. She in turn perhaps gets a more sympathetic reception to her own explicit and violent video for “Bitch Better Have My Money.” One of the questions becomes what all these participants feel when they get glimpses behind the gilded curtain. The likely illicitly obtained, widely circulated police photo of Rihanna’s battered face has become burned into many of our minds. When we stare upon scandal, do we feel empathy (for victims or for perpetrators), concern, relief to be exempted, contempt and superiority, revulsion or a guilty excitement?

Asif Kapadia’s recent documentary Amy unfolds like a contemporary passion play, with the young British “Rehab” retro-soul star Amy Winehouse seen passing through the stations of the modern scandal crucifixion, complete with its Roman soldiers with their whiplashing long-lens cameras. The tragic end is known in advance, but through the momentum of narrative, we keep hoping it will be averted. If she could just step back, we think, recover her sense of self, it wouldn’t have to happen. The movie is abundant with her music, making it clear how much more she has to offer than a spectacle of self-destruction. But at each wrong turn, her entourage or her boyfriend or her father or her label or the press or the public will not let her withdraw. The film’s audience watches through stinging tears, but we watch. We watch. 

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of Billboard.

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