The starlet reflects the culture. The culture reflects the starlet.
It's tough for any girl on the cusp of adulthood, trying to figure out your sexuality. I don't necessarily mean your sexual orientation—I knew that I wanted to have Relationships with more than one gender of people from a very young age—but your sexuality. I'm 34 now and I'm just starting to get comfortable with my sexuality—my desires, the things I don't want in bed, the kinds of relationships I want, the kinds of relationships I don't want, how to love and fuck on my own terms. I've been dating for roughly 20 years, and I'm just starting to get there.
And I'm nobody. Imagine trying to figure out who your adult self is and how that adult self handles difficult, fluid things like love and sex from within the crucible of fame. I don't mean to absolve anyone from the consequences of her actions or talk about how it's harder for celebrities than it is for 'normal' people (that's ridiculous), but growing up groomed for fame must be a really surreal and particular thing.
This is a process as old as—arguably older than—the rise of Annette Funicello. It's a process perfected by K-Pop management agencies/record labels; they don't even have to go out of their own houses for the entire creation, production and management package (American models are a bit more synergistic and a bit sloppier). It's a process shows like American Idol and The Voice give us glimpses into (even as they are tightly managed in and of themselves): how do you create and maintain a starlet?
The young starlet (she is usually white or reads as white) was a Disney Channel or comparable star, so she's a household name to her target demographic already—or she could have been. At the very least, she has been groomed for this from her childhood onward. If she's not known by the age of 17, she's probably screwed. She conforms perfectly, or as perfectly as possible, to white Western beauty standards. Red or nude glossy lips, white teeth. Thin. Perfectly ironed or curled hair. Styled to the last detail. Big eyes, rimmed with black. So many eyelashes. She has had every adjustment made to her so that she will both fit the mold and perpetuate it.
Her voice is good. Autotune will take care of whatever she can't handle. In some rare cases her voice is great. It's good enough to handle two octaves comfortably, three if you stretch it (not everyone can be Mariah or Christina), though she'll only sing in just over one for most of the songs that are produced for her because her fans will want to sing her songs in the car with the windows down and at karaoke. You can't make them too difficult to sing or they won't be relatable.
The rare candidate can really dance. She must be able to learn choreography, at the very least.
The songs that will be prepared for her will be about these things, which are both personal and general enough to seem intimate while actually applying to a great swath of the audience:
Having A Good Time With Friends
Having A Good Time After A Breakup (Fuck You)
Missing Someone After A Breakup
Sex (Heterosexual, or at least heavily implied)
Being A Star and/or Being Better Than Someone Else
Having A Hard Time; Overcoming Said Hard Time
Meeting Someone New (Crush Feelings)
How Much I Love You
I'm So Bad (But Not That Bad Really):
Her first single will be uptempo or midtempo. It will be full of hooks. It will be sleek. It will be shopped to a few other starlets before it gets to her. Her public personality will be constructed, presented as relatable, vulnerable, a little wild but not wild enough to be dangerous or unpredictable or scary. She will be presented as the norm, though she is not.
She will sell things. Her perfectly constructed look as she tells us about a new Cover Girl product will be both what we are supposed to aspire to and what we know we are not. We have not had years of styling and grooming and we have not been test-marketed. We are not safe bets.
She will live her life in a funhouse—an echo chamber in which every mirror tells her she's the princess, tells her she's the one. It will be easy to slough off any criticism, legitimate or not, as coming from "haters." But she is a person, of course. She is a person who is sometimes dangerous and unpredictable, a person who doesn't have it all together, a person who doesn't know where she's doing or where she's going. She will have such a full schedule—full of appearances and recording and styling and marketing—that she will have little time to read if she wants, to catch up on news, to do the things that actually make someone a person. It will be difficult for her to establish herself as a "real" artist, as she will have little control over her work until she becomes famous and powerful enough and she is proved to have staying power in the pop canon into her thirties.
It is in this perfectly constructed panopticon, in which she has little privacy or alone time, that she is supposed to develop her sexuality, that she is supposed to find herself, that she is supposed to present her adult self to the world as she transitions out of her teen years. What does she have except the songs in her mouth, the songs of her peers, the tight script provided to us in fragmented glimpses by society of what love and sex should look like.
That narrative is always heterosexual (though you are allowed to 'play' with queerness as long as it isn't taken seriously because lesbians and bisexual women are there to be gazed upon and consumed by men, as in porn—see Katy Perry). A successful relationship ends in marriage. A breakup will make a better song. (See Taylor Swift.) It is often abusive; behavior like being harassed into a relationship is codified as romantic and desired (his persistence shows he really loves you! It's not stalking!).
There is no script for that. Rihanna's narratives are some of the most interesting to me, as her albums since being thrust into the public spotlight regarding her relationship have reflected, a real amount self-determination. She may not be making the choices we, her audience, want her to make, but she is trying to navigate her world on her own terms. How does she choose to present herself? How much of that is mitigated by her management? All I can say as someone who was in a series of abusive relationships in their late teens/early 20s that a lot of her attitude resonates with me.
When you attempt to discard the script, how does the pop machine respond to you?
The starlet reflects the culture. The culture reflects the starlet.
Some starlets do a decent job of handling the transition. Some make mistakes and are reborn, using some kind of a recognizable redemption narrative. Some become artists and producers in their own right. Then, there are people like Miley Cyrus, who has been written about to death over the last couple of days. Her attempts at publicly wrestling with her own sexuality start with the whole stripper pole at the Teen Choice Awards in 2009 thing, for which she was roundly criticized (for being too young and too gauche; imagine if she hadn't had the benefit of whiteness, as well) and lead up to the disastrous, obviously racist mess that was her VMA performance, in which she (continuing the trend from her 'We Can't Stop' video) used black people, particularly black women, as props in addition to appropriating black American popular dance. New York magazine pop critic Jody Rosen, who wrote a scathing and insightful piece on the parallels between Miley's VMA performance and minstrelsy, wrote on Twitter yesterday about the further complicated and interconnected history of minstrelsy and American popular music. He also asked: "My point is, how, specifically, is MC negotiating her sexed-up brand relaunch?"
I write about this not to castigate Miley or any other starlet for examining her sexuality—by all means, I support the positive and safe exploration of sexuality but to ask—why does a young white woman who has grown up in the starlet machine feel as if she needs a cartoon of black female sexuality to explore her own self as an adult, as a sexual adult? I would suggest this says a lot about how we as a culture don't value black women's sexuality and autonomy and that it is taken as a given that black women are sexual beings (without their consent or say-so), as many black feminist theorists and artists have explored in their work. These women are her props and her proxy. It's all very, very sad and disgusting.
There is a reason starlets are created and coached the way they are—because they are salable, and because we buy what they're selling. I'm not immune to a shimmery pop hit and I find myself dissecting current pop hits for aesthetics and meaning all the time because I think that cracked open they are as fascinating as they are together. Pop is an engine of capital, a billion dollar business. It is meaningful in what it contains and what it omits and the patterns it uses and reuses. Young women use pop narratives all the time to try to understand and relate to our relationships—Destiny's Child helped me through many a long hard night with the abusive relationships I mentioned above, and I will absolutely tell you now that their music helped me get the courage to leave a horrible situation (even though at the time I was way too punk, or cared about being perceived as punk, to admit that), and there were definitely times I looked to pop models of female sexuality to try to figure out what I was supposed to be. (After all, I am of the Madonna generation, the Janet generation. Janet Jackson's negotiation, declaration and determination of her sexuality on The Velvet Rope was an absolute milestone and, in my mid-thirties, is increasingly meaningful to me.)
I wish this for the starlets, and for all young women and other young non-dudes: to have a moment away from the machine, a moment to reflect. There is no way to find yourself and become truly comfortable with yourself and your desires and your boundaries otherwise. There is no way to be accountable otherwise. Step away from the narrative if you can, question it at every chance. Consume and act thoughtfully.
Jessica Skolnik is on Twitter — @modernistwitch