Social media trumps celebrity press for stars

NEW YORK • You cannot judge a magazine by its cover. All glossy magazine superstar covers may look the same from a distance but, inside, you are never quite sure what you will find.

Take next month's issue of GQ, which features Paul McCartney. For decades, he has leaned on familiar Beatles anecdotes.

But in GQ, over several long conversations, he revealed himself to be unstudied, slightly wishy-washy and much less preoccupied with the sanctity of his own image than you might think.

The story worked in two ways: For the reader and fan, it was appealingly revealing. For McCartney, it was a welcome softening.

This took a willingness to answer probing questions that come with a profile of that scale.

But not all big stories demand such transparency of their subjects.

Take this month's issue of Vogue with Beyonce on the cover. The accompanying article is not a profile, but a collection of only-occasionally-revealing snippets on topics, from motherhood to body acceptance to touring.

Editor Anna Wintour refers to the story as a "powerful essay" that "Beyonce herself writes". There was a journalist in the room at some point - the piece has an "as told to" credit at the end - but outside perspectives have effectively been erased.

Instead of using traditional media, rapper Lil Xan went online to discuss his health struggles and relationship with singer-actress Noah Cyrus (both above).
Instead of using traditional media, rapper Lil Xan went online to discuss his health struggles and relationship with singer-actress Noah Cyrus (both above). PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

For fans of Beyonce, this might not matter. But for devotees of celebrity journalism - the kind of work that aims to add context and depth to the fame economy, and which depends on a productive frisson between interviewer and interviewee - this portends catastrophe.

It is not an isolated event.

In pop music especially, many famous performers eschew the press. Singer Taylor Swift has not given a substantive interview and access to a print publication for at least two years. For rapper Drake, it has been about a year.

What has replaced it is not satisfying - either outright silence or, more often, uni-directional narratives offered through social media.

Monologue, not dialogue - it threatens to upend the role of the celebrity press.

This generation is one of all-access hyperdocumentation, making the promise of celebrity journalism - emphasising intimate perspective and behind-the-scenes access - largely irrelevant.

An emblematic example is rapper Lil Xan, who in recent months has played out several microdramas online: discussing his health struggles and how they put him at odds with his management; falling for and then breaking up with Noah Cyrus, Miley's younger sister.

Traditional media might catch up to his story some day, but he is not waiting to be asked for a comment before providing one.

Sometimes, social media posts take the place of what was once the preserve of the tell-all interview.

Ariana Grande mourned her ex-boyfriend, Mac Miller, in an Instagram post; XXXTentacion replied to allegations of sexual assault on his Instagram Story; and YouTube star Logan Paul used his usual platform to apologise for a video in which he filmed a dead body.

These are one-sided stories, with no scrutiny beyond the comments section. And so they have become highly visible safe spaces for young celebrities, especially in an era when one's direct social media audience - via Instagram, Twitter and more - can exceed the reach of even the most prestigious or popular publication, and in a way that is laser-targeted to supporters.

All of which leaves celebrity journalism in a likely unsolvable conundrum. The most famous have effectively dispensed with it and the newly famous have grown up in an age where it is largely irrelevant.

Over time, the middle space may well be squeezed into nothingness.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 24, 2018, with the headline 'Social media trumps celebrity press for stars'. Subscribe