Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato, and Why we Feast on Celebrity Trauma

Taylor Swift (R) and Demi Lovato attend the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards
Taylor Swift (R) and Demi Lovato attend the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards at the Forum on August 24, 2014, in Inglewood, California. MTV/MTV1415/Getty Images for MTV

Celebrities keep telling us it hurts them to be famous. Then they get more famous.

Halfway through Miss Americana, the new Netflix documentary about Taylor Swift, Swift tells us a little about why she became a pop star.

“We’re people who got into this line of work because we wanted people to like us,” she explains. “Because we were intrinsically insecure. Because we liked the sound of people clapping, because it made us forget how much we feel like we’re not good enough.” She gets audibly teary as she adds, “I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I’m tired of it!”

It’s a candid, revelatory moment, and one that speaks to how much pressure Swift has put on the fact of her fame to prove something to herself about her self-worth. The rest of Miss Americana takes pains to show us all the ways that fame, in turn, has put pressure on Swift: pressureto starve herself, to reinvent herself, but also to remain forever stuck at the same age she was when she first became famous.Famehas pressured her to stay silent about all the things she does not wish to stay silent about, lest she give anyone cause to dislike her.

All told, Miss Americana makes a solid argument that fame is not good for Taylor Swift’s mental health, that it has hurt her. But the movie makes that argument from within the framework of the very celebrity industry that dealt that damage. It is a Netflix documentary that the entire Taylor Swift publicity apparatus participated in, because Miss Americana exists, at least in part, to sell Taylor Swift to us.

At this January’s Grammys, Demi Lovato made her first public performance since she was hospitalized following a drug overdose in 2018. It was a muchhyped return for Lovato, and the song she premiered on the Grammys stage, “Anyone,” was explicitly about her troubled relationship with fame and celebrity. Her performance made the argument that Lovato’s fame is intimately intertwined with her addiction, her history of self-harm, and her eating disorder.

“I feel stupid when I sing, nobody’s listening to me,” Lovato sings, and, “I used to crave the world’s attention, I think I cried too many times. I just need some more affection, anything to get me by.” According to “Anyone,” Lovato is driven to addiction in part by a deep and existential loneliness. And her career as a pop star only exacerbates that loneliness.

As Spencer Kornhaber argued at the Atlantic in 2018, Lovato’s substance abuse issues have figured into her image for a long time now.In fact, for some of the industry, they are part of what makes her a valuable star.“All along, her resistance to being airbrushed — literally and figuratively — has been part of her appeal,” Kornhaber writes. He cites Lovato’s former manager Phil McIntyre on whatmade Lovato appealing to Disney Channel executives when she was launching her pop career as a teenager: “There was a natural edge to her that made her authentic,” said McIntyre in 2017. “They needed her to make their projects cooler.”

Lovato’s Grammys performance was undeniably and genuinely moving, a moment of true emotional honestly on the Grammys stage. But it was also a moment that the apparatus of celebrity all around Lovato was working hard to package and commodify. That performance exists, at least in part, to sell Demi Lovato to us.

It’s fashionable right now for celebrities to admit their weaknesses, to be transparent, to tell us exactly how much it takes out of them to turn themselves from ordinary human beings into the larger-than-life figures they become for us onstage and onscreen. We like it when celebrities show their work — which, in turn, makes us feel closer to them than we were before. The transparency generates intimacy.

But what’s odd about this current moment of vulnerability from Swift and Lovato is that they are explicitly telling us that the intimacy we — their audience — feel with them is hurting them. Being famous is hurting them. It’s making Taylor Swift starve herself and obsess over whether people like her enough; it’s making Demi Lovato binge and purge and cut and use.

Then the celebritymachine around those two stars, the infrastructure that has turned them each into multimillion-dollar industries, is taking those admissions and using them to manufacture an even more intense sense of intimacy between star and public. It is reinforcing the very relationship that both Swift and Lovato say is hurting them, and it’s reinforcing that relationship because it’s profitable.

I don’t want to suggest that rich and famous celebrities are the powerless victims of a machine they can’t control, or that they’re not getting anything out of their fame. Both Swift and Lovato are enormously wealthy: They have money and awards and industry acclaim, and they both appear to genuinely love their fans — to love, as Swift put it, “the sound of people clapping.” But it’s also very clear that their fame has been psychologically painful to both of them — and that whenever they say as much, the system all around them turns that pain into something on which the public is invited to feast.

Essentially, we’ve created a system in which part of the intimacy between celebrity and public is the public’s knowledge of the harm our attention is causing to these people. Our knowledge of that harm then draws them ever closer, creating yet more attention that can then be digested into cash for both the celebrity and the infrastructure surrounding them. It’s self-perpetuating and self-feeding, and right now, it feels endless.

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