One of the topics we’ve been discussing in my Mass Media & Popular Culture class is the degree to which media figures (celebrities, for the sake of argument) have control over how they are represented in the press. Essentially, there is a contest between dueling structures of control: the brand identity of the celebrity and the framing devices in the news media.
By “brand identity” I mean the crafted, public persona of a celebrity including elements of style, biographical narratives offered on and off “stage,” the aesthetics or content of their public performances, and so forth. These brand identities are crafted by teams of culture workers (including the celebrity, their management, and a number of lower-level workers in the system, including stylists and songwriters, for example), and are constantly re-negotiated in light of their reception by audiences. They can also be multiple. The example that springs to mind here is MC Hammer, who re-envisioned his brand identity in the 1990s to become a “Christian rapper” only to face the public’s perception that he is an “artist who declared bankruptcy.” The force of the second narrative pens in Hammer’s ability to make the Christian rapper persona the dominant representation of his identity to the public. (This issue recently re-emerged as Jay-Z spits a line about Hammer in a track by Kanye West. Hammer recently issued a dis track in response.)
By “framing devices” I mean the many institutionalized structures of production that influence what parts of a celebrity’s experience are represented, and the modes in which this is done. For example, the booming industry of paparazzi forces most celebrities to reveal their experiences off the stage: shopping, playing with their kids or going out to nightclubs. For a second example, the typical “serious” interview with a celebrity follows a conventional format: introduce the newest project, query the celebrity about their inspiration, probe about their personal life, address any recent controversies.
Neither the brand identity nor the framing devices are strictly under the celebrity’s control–both are collective projects subject to institutionalized rules. But celebrities exert relatively greater control over their image than its projection, and higher status celebrities exert relatively greater control over both compared to lower status ones.
It follows that as a celebrity rises in status there are moments in which they engage in projects of control over both, and occasionally, they happen on the same afternoon. Here are two historical examples. The first is a famous press conference with Bob Dylan, held in 1965.
Here, Dylan contests the framing of his persona in the media–as an image-maker who exerts enormous control over the symbolism of his style (Dylan says: “But everybody likes motorcycles, to some degree”), and of his songs (the reporter says, in effect, “Your songs are supposed to have a subtle message.” Dylan responds, “Where’d you hear that?”). One question targets his persona directly: “Do you think of yourself as a singer or a poet?” Dylan responds churlishly, “I think of myself as a song and dance man.” Then, “Can you label yourself?” In this moment, we see the two structures revealed. “Fit yourself into the categories we use to understand celebrity personas and how they are framed” the journalist asks. Dylan responds as a (private) person would, as opposed to employing celebrity frames: I’m under 30. “My role is to stay here as long as I can.” And later, being poked by a journalist who claims he seems embarrassed to admit he’s a popular performer: “What do you want me to say? What do you want me to say?”
The second is an interview with Lady Gaga, held around the time that rumors she was a man in drag reached their apex.
The off-screen journalist sticks to the interview script here, and after Gaga responds to the “inspiration” question (“monsters and playgirls”), responds to the follow-up, “No I won’t elaborate. I just told you.” She’s starting to subvert the framing here, refusing to allow the frame to govern the presentation of the persona. The journalist hits pay dirt when he asks if she’s “scared” that “having sexual undertones…can undermine the music.” She starts: “I’m not scared. Are you scared?” to which the journalist responds to with a nervous laugh. Her rebuttal is a list of sales achievements. She’s claiming some territory here: I’m a big enough celebrity that I have some control over this interview, and your questions offend that control. She goes in for the kill on the next question. Her biggest thrill is “the gay community…’cause they don’t ask me questions like that.” She goes on to explain the gendered double-standard around sexual references in pop music: “If I was a guy [using sex in my music] you’d call me a rock star. But when I do it…because I’m a female, because I make pop music, you’re judgmental. And you say that it is, um, distracting.”*
Cut to the present. This week, Kanye West gave an interview to Matt Lauer of the Today Show and one of the topics they addressed was Kayne’s 2005 remark about President George Bush’s handling of the Katrina disaster: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Here is that interview:
My argument is that Kanye, like Dylan and Gaga, is contesting the media framing devices, seeking to use his popularity as a wedge to control how his persona is presented. The objective Kanye sets for the interview is to address his comment about Bush and articulate his evolving persona–as an empathetic person and specifically as someone who realizes that many of the barbs he threw at others have been thrown at him (specifically, the charge of racism), and now brings a greater understanding to his dealings with others. But he feels those intentions are being undermined by the framing conventions of the Today show, specifically, the requests to “look at Bush’s face” and the display (audio and visual) of the Taylor Swift incident while he is speaking about it. ** In the after-taping commentary by the hosts of the Today Show, they note they were following media framing conventions by playing the video. But as Kanye’s flurry of post-taping Tweets demonstrate, this is not an adequate response to the situation. He clearly feels he has sufficient privilege to control how the framing devices are applied to him.
I’m left to wonder if Kanye’s method is the most strategic means to accomplish his goal, leaving to the side for now the question of whether his desires have merit. It strikes me that if his goal is to communicate contrition, submitting to media framing is a better means to accomplish this. But insofar as that requires a compromise of his hard-won control over his branding, and his larger desire to transform that branding (from “racist” to “empathetic and contrite,” he’s boxed in.
* I’m going to ignore for the moment the absolutely asinine suggestion she makes next that feminists are man-haters. Shame on her, for that.
** Also, he breaks the fourth wall, asking people off-screen but on the set to quiet down while he’s talking.
UPDATE: Adding fuel to my fire, GrandGood directed me toward a Times Art Beat blog that reports Kanye hired a public relations firm to prepare for/manage the interview.