Reality got a little too heavy for Jennifer Lopez at a performance in Connecticut last week. Singing a ballad about monogamy while surrounded by a chorus line of dancers dressed to resemble the frequently married star's famous exes, and then confronted with a gigantic projected image of herself holding her twin children in a Gucci ad, Lopez broke down in tears. "I'm just a girl, like everybody else, trying to find my way," she later told a reporter. But she also intimated that her loss of composure was, at least in part, an act.
Lopez's feelingful display made for great tabloid fodder, but it also shows how muddled the pop-cultural definition of "reality" has become. It took place in a venue that's all about stimulating unrealistic dreams a casino, the Mohegan Sun and it came on the heels of several similar mini-operas, including Lopez's ex-husband Marc Anthony weeping at his Miami birthday concert in September. As pop autobiography it was patently ridiculous. What kind of delusional egotist dresses her dancers as Ken-doll versions of the guys who (allegedly) broke her heart? Yet the routine accomplished exactly what J. Lo must have wanted: whipping the fans present into a sympathetic tizzy that then spilled outward to become a media event.
The whole non-affair was a triumph for a star well known for playing in the huge, but deceptively hard to measure, gap between stardom's fantasyland and the block where most folks live. It also said a lot about contemporary celebrity as a strange mutation of personal expression.
All art that employs the first person creates a semi-fiction, splitting the difference between an imagined "I" or "me" and the breathing, sweating one that's telling the story. Popular culture, selling us dreams of our better selves, encourages us to overlook the difference. It's been nearly a century since the advent of the microphone made it possible for performers to whisper and moan instead of scream, and since the close-up made a fluttering eyelid a source of drama. Since then, performance has been a matter of modulating the connection between private and public.
In pop music, self-expression stole the spotlight from artful interpretation sometime around the 1960s, when artists began having widespread success singing songs they'd written instead of ones churned out by a hit factory (this is why Neil Diamond and Carole King are important bridge figures: they found success on both fronts). The balance has shifted back and forth the Idol juggernaut to which J. Lo has tied her boat, for example, is all about the cover song but the actorly grace of a Barbra Streisand or a Frank Sinatra now holds a dim candle next to the writerly panache of Bruce Springsteen or Prince. Even someone like Beyonce, who co-writes with a shifting array of hired guns, finds her work analyzed for signs of marriage problems or baby bumps.
Artists give of themselves within their work, but pop stars are also marketing themselves their private lives are a valuable commodity. Online gossip, which demands a web hits-worthy scandal ever hour on the hour, only intensifies this uncomfortable situation. The better known an artist becomes, the harder time she'll have cultivating a quiet zone that allows space for reflection, and therefore might produce meaningful autobiographical art. As artists love, fight, have children and survive tragedies in public, what they confess in their music is often less a revelation than a commentary on what anyone who scans Google News already knows. Taylor Swift's songs about her famous ex-boyfriends are a good example she's spinning, not sharing.
What useful role could autobiography play for a pop musician now? For Kelly Clarkson, it's become a way to build her brand. The original American Idol winner has long won hearts and moved units by playing a kind of powerhouse underdog: the feisty gal who will not be broken by the jerks life puts in her way. Her biography, which has included a period of struggle to maintain control of her career followed by careful compromise and renewed success, is like that of a lot of smart professional women (watch Laura Dern's new HBO series Enlightened for a less successful take on the same theme). Clarkson has been called a vengeful screamer, but in truth her hits are more about coping than about taking prisoners: her warm alto, never scary even when she's pushing it full throttle, communicates the kind of exasperation and struggle for self-composure familiar to many women trying to maintain power and dignity in their relationships, as workers or students or moms, or when they're getting cat-called just walking down the street.
On her new album Stronger, as on her four previous albums, Clarkson offers a complement of such scenarios and possible responses. She imagines herself as furious, broken-hearted or cautiously optimistic. But one key to her believability is the refusal to completely give herself over not only as a lover who doesn't easily open up, but as a famous person who mistrusts the spotlight enough to feel violated by it. The most obviously autobiographical songs on Stronger, the moody "Mr. Know It All" and the punchy "You Can't Win," are not about exes with bold-faced names. In fact, they're about privacy: Clarkson's struggle to remain herself even within the corporate image factory and her insistence that others' judgements are not her truth.
By making her right to not disclose everything a key part of her message of empowerment, Clarkson not only challenges her mostly female fans to examine their own impulses toward over-exposure (hard to resist in the YouTube age); she neatly turns her rejection of the tabloid-centered life into proof of her own veracity. Few stars can pull this off. One reason Clarkson can might be her often-declared love of rock, a genre whose usually male stars have always been expected to be authentic onstage while elusive, or at best prickly, offstage (think of Springsteen, whose brief marriage to actress Julianne Phillips led to both tabloid attention and what many think of as an artistic low). Rock stars may be flamboyant, but they've historically stood up against being absorbed into the glamor games that rule Hollywood and which are now so key to promoting "reality" stars like the cast of Jersey Shore.
Where rockers are expected to stick to well-established stories is within their music. The sound of a band can become its biography: straying from it can seem like a betrayal, a kind of sonic untruth. Metallica has dealt with this conundrum before in the mid-'90s, the totemic metal group group tried on some new styles inspired by alternative rock and was roundly accused of selling out. The quartet later entered the tabloid fray by approving Some Kind of Anger, a behind-the-scenes documentary that provides fascinating insights into the perilous process of keeping a band alive. Yet what matters most to Metallica's following, what it sees as the band's truth, is musical consistency.
Now Metallica has messed with that ideal again. Lulu, a song cycle named after and inspired by Frank Wedekind's groundbreaking German Expressionist plays about femme fatalism and sexual compulsion, is a thorny, demanding work that's closer to Reed's mid-'70s output than to anything Metallica has done. It's not officially out yet, but it's already inspiring harsh criticism and more than a few parodies. The fact that the artists themselves have been saying in interviews that making Lulu was deeply energizing a bit of autobiographical disclosure that, perhaps, they hope will make fans receptive doesn't seem to be influencing Metallica purists to spend the time needed to give it a chance (for the record, I dig the effort).
There is one way to navigate the tricky matter of one's "real" story, whether it's a personal or musical one: create a persona that nobody believes could be anything but a put-on. Tom Waits has done this for decades. Once a practitioner of tipsy piano balladry with an autobiographical edge, Waits became one of the prime movers in avant-garde pop by refashioning himself as character that could never be perceived as authentic and by developing a clattering, off-kilter musical style that startles as frequently as it pleases.
The Russian Formalists called this method ostranenie, or "making strange." It helps the audience remember that what's going on is a construction, a work of art. For a pop star, it also solves the problem of autobiography, since nobody expects something so weird to reflect ordinary life.
Waits is the master of this approach. Yet in the midst of the circus he's constantly recreating, Waits does occasionally do something that feels personal. Consider "Kiss Me," a beautifull little ballad from his excellent new album Bad As Me. It's a torch song about longtime lovers trying to renew their spark. "Kiss me like a stranger once again," Waits croons to the object of his affection; it's hard to not imagine him whispering to his wife and longtime collaborator, Kathleen Brennan, who's never granted an interview but whose mark is on all of his work. But before we begin to gossip, notice the trick in the song: it's about pretending to be someone else so your beloved will again admire you. Waits' moment of honesty is a call to refresh an illusion, to put on a role. Perhaps his message is not to Brennan, but to all of us: imagine your favorite artist as a stranger and you might learn to love them in a whole new way.
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