After reading the article on "The Promotion and Presentation of the self: Celebrity as Marker of Presentational Media" by David Marshall, I decided to take a look at Ben Folds through the perspectives offered by the author.
To start, I would like to begin by saying that I find a great deal of truth in what Marshall is saying. In fact, I think that the introduction of the internet based medium have benefited celebrity a great deal. Not just in the fact that they can have more exposure to the public, but in the fact they now have more of an ability to control that exposure. The tabloids are attempting to capture their "real" personas in as much as they would love to see all the dirt that is a celebrity's life. However, with Twitter, Face book, You Tube, etc. celebrities now have the ability to control both their "professional" persona and what they would like people to believe as their "real" or "private" persona. The truth of the matter is that it is as fake as ever, but the perception of reality only bolsters their image, and, at the end of the day, that is what this is really about is being able to sell their image. Why else do we pay an extra $50 for a pair of jeans with their name on it (or because they wore a pair just like them in the latest movie they were in).
But I digress slightly. I find it interesting that the majority of celebrities sighted in this article were actors. Not to say that there weren't musicians, but those musicians that were mentioned I think were not so prevalent in the modern musical scene, but rather from years past. Their creative output has long since ceased which leads me to my first thought.
I find this concept a little less relevant for a musician like Ben Folds. There are a large number of musicians that do not write most if any of their own material now days, to which medium like Twitter and Face book become more important for the dissemination of the "personal" side of them. However, someone like Ben Folds, who write all his own music, has an advantage to the actors and other musicians in the fact that his music already reflects that personal side that others are trying to show in their controlled manner. Folds uses his songs to discuss the events that are currently going on in his life. He has written songs about his two children, dedicated an entire album to his latest divorce, and discussed his past three marriages all through his music. We talk about music being one of the most primitive natures of man. We talk about it being an insight into the soul. With the music of Beethoven and Brahms we are able to get a better glimpse into the specific events that were affecting them at any given time (take Brahms Symphony No. 4 for example). I know I rail against the "lack of music" in today's music, but if we look at from a music and text standpoint (which we must with all popular music) when dealing with a song writer we already have a glimpse into their collective soul...a look into their personal life that is in many ways the same or deeper as the controlled look into the actors life we get through a medium such as face book or twitter.
This does not mean it is not necessary for a musician such as Folds to use these other medium. However, they are many times going to use it more as a public relations and marketing tool. In many ways it is a brilliant public relations tool. You look at a website for a musician and in order for it to really be effective you have to get your listeners going to that site. To get new people there you have to hope that those who already visit the site "spread the word" for you. However, with something like Face book, you get your 200,000 fans or so to sign up as a "fan" or as a friend (depending on how you establish your page) and many times anytime you send out something to them, it also gets disseminated to every one of their friends. You have this exponential growth of the people who will see your material in one way or another. You still have the ability to control your message, control your image, but introduce new people to that "message".
Something like Face book or MySpace, etc. can serve as a way of two way communication even when the celebrity doesn't necessarily mean to have a meaningful two way conversation. Look at one of Ben Fold latest projects "University A Cappella". This was started because a college group took one of Folds' songs and turned it into a completely a cappella format. They then proceeded to send it to him via one of the various modes of internet communication. Folds saw this and began a dialogue which ended with a nationwide search for the best a cappella arrangements of these pieces which he recorded and released in 2009. Through the use of this medium he did two things. First, he was able to create a meaningful communication with some of his fan base. He made them feel like he cared by listening and responding (when in previous years this may have been sent to him via CD and might have ended up in the trash with a form letter). Second, by taking their idea and expanding upon it, he created an environment where college a cappella groups were interested in his music because they might have the opportunity to be on a CD performing one of this songs. What a great marketing tool. It actually led to a video on his MySpace page about the making of the CD and talking about the various groups that participated. He has maintained his "down to earth" appeal, show fans that he cares about what they have to say...in a meaningful way actually, and created a project with their help. He has created new fan base for life through the use of these internet based medium. (He created his own "reality TV" show so to speak)
Folds uses Twitter as well as a part of his arsenal following in the vein of Oprah Winfrey in that he has a following but does not follow anyone. The Tweets are fairly bland, discussing "a big ass birthday party" or "Gracie (his daughter) in a mask". Just enough personal information to keep you interested but nothing that is actually all that revealing or all that important for that fact.
At the end of the day, what are we talking about when we talk about celebrity? Are we talking about selling an image? Are we talking about an overblown popularity contest? I think the answer to these two questions is "yes" personally. In a day and age when people are on the web 24 hours a day and the news cycle runs the same way, it only makes sense that celebrities would want that same presence. As I said earlier in this post, what it comes down to is control. People want to know the "real" celebrity so celebrities now a have a way to show their "real" selves...the self they want the public to think they are. The problem is that I think people are smarter than that. Many people I think might follow these things for their novelty (or in order to get updates on events that may not be as publically advertised). However, we know that people's real lives are often fairly dark with many secrets or personal issues that a celebrity would not readily share (which is why they have to be careful in their Twitter posts ala Elizabeth Taylor). As a friend of mine said to me yesterday "it is not really about the dissemination of information, it is about the consolidation of power". Perhaps all this really is is a grand marketing strategy...
As I said earlier, however, the advantage that I think listeners of music have (when their artists are actually the song writers) is that they perhaps give away more than they intend through their musical outlet. Their music in combination with the other forms of communication solidify their "realness" for us and only make them that much more attractive.