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Thursday, May 15, 2014

What is "celebrity"?

The stars of film and music, known as "celebrities" and "rockstars", as well as professional athletes or basically anyone in the media spotlight, start and finish their day like everyone else.  When the final score is on the board and cameras are off and the encore is over they're just people; parents, husbands and wives, siblings, family and friends like the rest of us.  This seemingly moot observation is surprisingly hard for some people to grasp, thanks to the glamorization provided by media outlets working tirelessly to keep us "connected" to them.  Paparazzi lurk behind every corner to capture the next headline-grabbing image of these everyday people, thanks to the demand and fascination of those who perpetuate the "line in the sand" that separates the stars from their followers.
This is the so-called "price of fame", the irrational movement that prevents celebrities and public figures from being able to live their life as a person but rather as a character or persona.  Their ability to manage the moments when their personal and professional life overlap determines how they're viewed or judged.  For the average person, this would be like leaving work to go home and being followed by everyone who is affected by your work one way or another, expecting some kind of unwarranted interaction as if you owe them a moment of your personal time; the undisclosed cost of your career choice.  Grammy-winning, multi-platinum selling Rap icon Eminem has mentioned the cost of fame in his song "The Way I Am" with the following lyrics...

But at least have the decency in you
To leave me alone, when you freaks see me out
In the streets when I'm eating or feeding my daughter
Do not come and speak to me...
I don't know you and no,
I don't owe you a motherf***ing thing

What are "celebrities" really?  In most cases, they're just uniquely talented people who followed their dream and achieved success in any industry that's followed by media.  Professional athletes are just the kids on the playground who had a special gift which helped them to excel in their favorite sport; with hard work and determination they earned the right to play professionally and make a living doing what they love.  Our favorite movie stars were just kids who were starstruck by the people in their favorite movies and aspired to do the same, and their talent was developed and recognized so they could live their dream.  Rockstars were kids who grew up with posters on their walls of their favorite artists and bands, whose vocal or musical talents caught the attention of people in the business and they became the faces on the wall of the next generation. 
In other cases, they're merely people who ended up in the spotlight through the fame or attention of others and remained a public figure, or became famous from a single headline-grabbing event.  There are "good" and "bad" figures in the public spotlight, some of whom become unwilling role models when their actions inspire bad behavior or they are blamed or criticized for what they do in their personal life.

Dave Grohl, founding frontman of his post-Nirvana band Foo Fighters, urges the next generation of dreamers to cross that line in the sand and his message makes the impossible dream seem perfectly within reach for anyone.  During a passionate and inspiring keynote speech at 2013's SXSW Music Festival, he walked the crowd through his own personal journey from hearing a simple guitar riff to joining an underground culture of musicians who managed all aspects of their career while working to become signed artists.  During Nirvana's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction Grohl took advantage of another opportunity to blur the lines by telling the crowd

"...You look up to your heroes and you shouldn’t be intimidated by them; you should be inspired by them. Don’t look up at the poster on your wall and think, "Fuck, I can never do that." Look at the poster on your wall and think, "Fuck, I’m going to do that!" 

In all corners of the entertainment industry, there are people like Dave who haven't forgotten where they came from and stay connected to their humble beginnings, and then there are those who abuse the fame and fortune they have and choose to dig that line in the sand deeper.  Sadly, the spotlight seems to aim more at the latter because it sells more magazines and generates more Internet traffic.  For those who appreciate Dave's advice and approach and choose to be inspired by your favorite stars, choose wisely so you're among those who work to inspire and erase the lines because they only exist as long as we allow ourselves to be intimidated by those we look up to or admire.

Monday, May 5, 2014

"Better To Burn Out Than Fade Away"

For the fans and families of iconic Seattle-based Rock band Nirvana, the year 2014 presented the perfect convergence of events to celebrate their music and remember frontman Kurt Cobain on the 20th anniversary of his death.  The timeline almost makes their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (in the first year of eligibility) seem suspiciously opportunistic, but occasionally it's perfectly acceptable to accept such timing as fate.

Not only has the anniversary of Kurt's death and their induction re-ignited the passion of Nirvana's fanbase, but also refueled the widely shared opinion of foul play surrounding his death, ruled a suicide by Seattle PD following a very short and horribly flawed investigation.  For 20 years, fans and so-called "conspiracy theorists" have challenged the investigation and conclusion, almost universally pointing the finger at Kurt's widow Courtney Love.  The work of private investigator Tom Grant, originally hired by Courtney, has revealed a far more contemptuous relationship than the final section of the note she read publicly upon news of his death on April 8th, 1994.

Nirvana was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame on April 10, 2014 by R.E.M frontman Michael Stipe.  After their acceptance, drummer Dave Grohl, bassist Krist Novoselic (on accordion), and guitarist Pat Smear played a 4-song set of Nirvana tracks featuring an all-female cast of guest vocalists, accomplishing the same kind of uniquely unorthodox result they had achieved with their appearance on MTV's "Unplugged" series.
  Following their induction, the same lineup performed a secret invitation-only 16-song set at Brooklyn's Saint Vitus club.  Among the documented highlights of their induction was a gesture of peace between Courtney Love and Dave Grohl, ceremoniously ending their headline-grabbing public feud.  Of course, the sentiment is only truly relevant to those who have never questioned the circumstances of Kurt's death. 

As a fan of the "Big 4" from the Seattle music scene of the early 1990's (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains), I recognized and followed them all, but my allegiance weighed most heavily towards Pearl Jam.  That's not to say that I didn't recognize the impact that Nirvana's massive breakout album "Nevermind" had as its early buzz quickly escalated to a thunderous ripple in the musical landscape.  The success of the album occurred so quickly that the band was still driving a van with a U-Haul trailer on tour as the album reached Gold status.  Their 3rd album "In Utero" was released in September 1993, followed closely by their acclaimed performance on "Unplugged", which has become one of the most highly regarded of that series.  At the peak of their career, Kurt was found dead in his home by an electrician after leaving rehab early and flying home alone about a month after Nirvana's final show as a band.

Kurt's contempt for the fame and business associated with the music he made, likely exacerbated by his heroin addiction, was highlighted in the note that Courtney read to the public.  The line "better to burn out than fade away", borrowed from a Neil Young lyric, offered a glimpse into his struggle with the trappings of success and how it left him disenchanted and unable to enjoy or appreciate the connection his music made with fans.  Neil has said that seeing his lyric associated with Kurt's death affected him deeply, and that he had attempted to reach out to Kurt to offer some advice.  There's no telling to what level Kurt had wanted to achieve success (or fame, if any) but when it comes at such an accelerated pace, along with the other stressors in his life, it certainly took its toll.  However, Kurt was on a path of rejuvenation, starting with rehab, and had appeared in excellent spirit shortly before his death.  It's likely the note he had written reflected an attitude he was looking to leave in the past upon returning from rehab, but the next chapter in his life never began. 

There are several cliched phrases which can be attributed to that feeling of finally appreciating Nirvana as they bask in the afterglow of their induction and enjoy this renewed attention.  While I wasn't among their biggest fans I certainly enjoyed their music but I've embraced its power and impact recently more than ever, especially as it was captured in their Unplugged performance.  There is no doubt that Nirvana's music will captivate and inspire future generations with no end in sight.  Whether the renewed attention on the case surrounding his tragically untimely death will lead to new activity
remains to be seen but this year will prove to be monumental for celebrating and appreciating the magnitude of Nirvana's impact.