Entertainment’s Alternate Reality

Jonathan Bellman

Soon I may be accused of vampirism—only feeding, blog-wise, off ideas Phil put out there first.  My current situation is close to that put forth at the beginning of his Four Theses blog.  Since I’m working on my book, pretty much full time, I’m focusing on my research, pre-publication…and I really don’t want to start throwing that around before it’s ready.  Plus, it is not exactly the sort of thing that appeals to the broadest musical interest.  My book is primarily about one nineteenth-century piece and its historical and musical context.  Even if I felt like putting a teaser out here, it would amount, pretty much, to an anti-blog.  How many people can I turn away from Dial M with one narrow blog?

I’ll spare you.

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying thinking about Phil’s Four Theses.  I can’t get away from the feeling that there’s something missing in the explanation of the self-referentiality of the entertainment world—especially film, theater, and vaudeville.  Phil rightly identifies the “level of discernment” that enables entertainers to not only give us what we want, but to also vary it, give us more or less, evaluate (often in real time) how well it’s working for us, work the distance between them and us, and so forth.  We applaud and (too often) abase ourselves (via our “entertainment reporters”*), and feed the narcissism.  The fact is, there’s a price tag, and on some level they all know about it far better than we.

The intensity of appreciation and adulation enjoyed by entertainers, night after night when things are good, and the opulent Technicolor life of the film stars are psychologically paid for by the fact that nothing is as transitory or forgettable as yesterday’s performance or film.  NOTHING.  The seedy Tennessee Williams tragedy called Britney Spears is only the latest illustration of this: Fortune’s Wheel turns, and you’re nothin’, yesterday, and you don’t get the body and buzz back.  Ever.  This isn’t a secret—cf. Bad Company’s “Shooting Star,” for example—but the very ephemerality that lurks beneath the Greatest Ever hype demands a counterstrategy.

That counterstrategy, it seems to me, is the mythologizing, a bona fide alternate reality.

As I blogged some time ago, entertainers were long written out of (that’s “exscribed” for fans of blathering academic quadruplespeak) The Narrative, the western birth-in-sin-to-death-and-hopefully-redemption model that governed so much societal practice.  Actors and jongleurs and so on were utterly excluded, denied absolution and church burials and legal protection.  They traveled, they were untrustworthy, they were impudent, and for a variety of reasons your daughter wasn’t safe around them…or, for that matter, your wife or son either.  So, given the apprenticeship circumstances by which young entertainers were brought into the fold, they must constantly be aware of the fickle duality of most humankind.  Applause, adulation, make you feel like a king…but they’ll wipe you off the bottom of their shoes if someone powerful is watching, and you’ll die alone, probably miserably.  The entertainers get that applause and energy, that raison d’être, from the audience (or movie fans), but I have to imagine they’re damned well aware of audience shallowness and caprice—kids more interested in the next boy band, Middle America more interested in the next starlet with bigger cat’s-eye sunglasses and no illegitimate child, the Next Thing.  Ultimately, both extremes of the class system are in force here: on the one hand, there is superciliousness of rich ladies asking Fritz Kreisler to perform in servant’s livery.  (The scholar Jolanta Pekacz has pointed out that Chopin, in the 1830s, was part of the Polish emigré community in Paris, but not equal with its most important members, whatever his gifts: he was a pianist, a musician.  Please!  It’s not as if he were a member of the old Polish nobility, after all.)  On the other, there’s the mute wonder of those watching a Greek tragedy: Elizabeth Taylor is so much higher than we, and look how the mighty are brought low.  We weep, allowing her tragedy to stand in for ours.  Then we go home and cook dinner and forget about it, while the celebrity as left with husband number 12 or her pills or whatever.

Hence the alternate, often campy, flamboyantly Janus-faced reality of the Entertainer.  Constant kiss-kiss false affection, rituals (no mention of the Scots play backstage, saying “merde!” etc.), narcissism, value system decoupled from anything consistent with the known universe (Paris Hilton, etc.), and, ultimately, all the self-referentiality.  When those entertainers are crowning each other king and publicly applauding each other, that’s when they’re just at the lip between the worlds.  They allow the rubes in the audience to observe that special Entertainers’ Reality they have constructed for themselves in order to survive, a reality in which they have more permanence and meaning than they do when performing at our whim—their world.  They are not entertaining us, at that point, they are orchestrating things so that we applaud them when they are NOT entertaining us.  In ostentatiously celebrating each other, they create (however momentarily) an entertainer-centered, celebrity-centered culture—ultimately a backlash against the medieval entertainer-rein culture from which they emerged as people drawn to the necessary, despised, and ultimately thankless role of taking people, however briefly, out of their miserable selves.

There is something crazily defensive about that, to me.  Also something deeply admirable.  Also something disgusting.  Ultimately, we’re an awfully messed-up species.

* “Entertainment reporter” is this blog’s submission for the Scroll of Oxymorons.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to Entertainment’s Alternate Reality

  1. Phil Ford says:

    Zombies are cooler than vampires. You should say you’re feeding off the decaying flesh of the living.
    Not like that’s a bad thing. This was an awesome post. “The seedy Tennessee Williams tragedy called Britney Spears”: awesome.

  2. Jonathan says:

    *Blush*
    What’s scaring me is that I can’t seem to write anything shorter than this. What does that mean for my poor book!?

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