March 13, 2013

KOH: Living While You’re Young (and Famous)

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Don’t stop the music, I pleaded along with the rest of the nearly 18,000 strong crowd at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y., the first stop of Rihanna’s Diamonds World Tour. I was mesmerized, even though she missed half the words in her songs, and spent most of the evening swaying and writhing about on stage. (That said, I imagine that singing while dancing for over an hour is incredibly demanding, unless, of course, you’re P!nk.)  An hour and a half later, though, I’d forgotten that she had been criminally late.

As I left the arena I wondered why I had been so captivated. Maybe it was because, in doing everything with exuberance, Rihanna managed to hold a considerable spectacle together. She basked in the glow of the elaborate overhead projections, which included dramatic trompe l’oeil interiors, and the warmth of thousands of adoring fans. With a little help from her friends at Givenchy, the Bajan singer shone bright on opening night with mostly sheer ensembles that ranged from darkly romantic to fabulously shimmering. During the show, the camera’s gaze frequently fell on small elements of her wardrobe, like the back of a formidable stiletto (and the singer’s tattoo of a skull wearing a bright red bow). Riccardo Tisci, who designed Rihanna’s tour wardrobe, told Vogue, “Rihanna represents what young and amazing means today. She is punk and talented. She offers intelligence, energy and pure beauty.”

While risque lyrics and racy outfits aren’t strangers to pop stardom, Rihanna has embraced overexposure as effortlessly as no other performer in recent memory. I wouldn’t go as far to call her the epitome of all that is “young and amazing” — unless “young and amazing” refers to the hedonistic and confusing days of being young and wild. Recent press has not been kind to Rihanna or her contemporaries. When Rihanna admitted that she’d felt humbled after being told off by her mother over a stream of semi-nude pictures on Instagram, many were incredulous: Where had Rihanna’s mother been when the singer returned to her abusive boyfriend and sang about the pleasures of “S&M”? Justin Bieber’s bizarre antics during his O2 shows in London have been interpreted as signs of an imminent breakdown. Taylor Swift has also drawn flak for allegedly mocking her former boyfriend Harry Styles, by briefly assuming a British accent as she performed “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” at this year’s Grammys. Swift then appeared very guilty by seeming to apologize for the incident at the BRIT Awards, saying that, unlike British girls, she didn’t have a “cool accent.”

I was very relieved when actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, an experienced celebrity parent, pointed out the obvious last Sunday. Drawing attention to Rihanna, Swift and Bieber, Pinkett-Smith acknowledged that these young celebrities seemed very confused, but asked: Why shouldn’t they be confused? Swift, for instance, is 23. From her fairly introspective latest album, Red, it does look like she is trying to figure things out. Pinkett-Smith argued that young celebrities should be given credit for managing to grow up in the spotlight while trying to support their families and develop their talents. The media is bullying these young celebrities, who have been held to unfair standards — why should they be expected to behave responsibly, when the “adults” around them cannot demonstrate the same level of responsibility?

Young celebrity has a very dark side; pop artists like Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman have tirelessly explored this. But I think Elizabeth Peyton said it better. At her 2011 exhibition at New York’s New Museum, “Live Forever,” Peyton used bold colors and brushstrokes to compose celebrity portraits, that were striking for their energy and intimacy. Peyton seems to be on first name terms with her subjects — Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain is simply acknowledged as “Kurt” — though it’s not clear if she really knows them or not. The exhibition’s title also says a lot. “Live Forever,” an early hit off Oasis’ debut album Definitely Maybe, has particularly affecting lines despite Liam Gallagher’s scowling delivery, “maybe we will never be / all the things we want to be / now is not the time to cry / now’s the time to find out why.” It’s not hard to imagine a very young Noel Gallagher, in a council bedsit in Manchester, penning this anthem to possibly doomed youth.

What does all this mean, if anything? Youth isn’t wasted on the young, even if  it involves being “stupid and contagious” very often (as Nirvana so eloquently put it)? Growing up is hard, and fame just confuses things further. While being highly visible doesn’t mean you have to be a role model, maybe you should at least be aware of the influence you have over others, most of whom might be just as confounded as you are. Conversely, it’s easy to forget that you are influential, even if you’ll never be famous. Whatever you might think of yourself, and whether you like it or not, you change the people around you. In Woody Allen’s 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanours, Professor Louis Levy says, “we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices.” I’m inclined to think that we’re more than that, because we don’t choose a lot of the things that happen to us. But oh well, whatever, nevermind.

Original Author: Daveen Koh