R.E.M. has a line from the song E-Bow the Letter, written in the mid-90s, that I find very meaningful in its simplicity. Stipe sings, "This fame thing, I don't get it." Not being famous, I have no way of knowing what it must be like to be recognized wherever you go. For people to talk about you and write about you who don't actually know you. For people to care about every small detail of your life. It's weird, for lack of a better word. And it can be intoxicating or unsettling or both for the person on the receiving end.
I'm also reminded of a line written some twenty years earlier by Jackson Browne, "I don't know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels." Artists, like athletes, have a unique position in that what they do for love and money, their career choice, their avocation, puts them in the public eye whether or not that was the goal. They go out on a stage or a field or a stadium and are cheered or booed or both by mostly complete strangers. That is to be expected. They know that you cannot make a living without someone who supports what you are doing, so fans are a necessary part of the equation. But what do you owe those fans who support you and enable you to continue to make your records or play your sport?
Before I go on, let me clarify that I am separating artists from celebrities those who seek the spotlight as an end in itself, see, for example, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. Being famous, living that crazy life, is something they sought, something they expected, something they continue to want. By contrast, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt may be celebrities, but their initial goal was simply to perform. The celebrity, and the problems that come with it, came later.
In the old days (before I was even born, so you know we're going back a bit), artists had little direct contact with their fans. Their public image was mostly controlled by the studios or labels that owned their contract and the media, which was so much smaller then, was mostly a party in scripting the prearranged public image. When I was growing up, the highlight of my "celebrity" encounter was getting Johnny Bench's autograph as I leaned over the dugout at Dodger Stadium or seeing Van Morrison in the parking lot after a concert. I never expected to communicate with them or hear from them on a regular basis.
But with the advent of social media, many artists and others have taken to MySpace or Facebook or Twitter to communicate with fans. Personally, I wonder if some of the magic is lost. When I was younger, I looked forward to the next Springsteen release without having him tweet "just wrote Dancing in the Dark, think it'll be a hit." I didn't need to hear from Alan Alda that he was excited for the tenth year of M*A*S*H or from Steven Spielberg that the mechanical shark was acting up on his new film. I didn't need to have a personal relationship with the artists or athletes I liked. But now we expect to have that connection because it is so easy to do. But as we parents tell our children, or at least should, just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should.
So what do artists owe their fans? How much of their life should the fans be entitled to? I'm not sure they owe us anything other than what each of us owes each other -- respect. They should put out their best effort and be honest (so athletes shouldn't take performance enhancing drugs or cheat, artists shouldn't steal or pass someone else's work as their own). They can choose to communicate with us and we can choose whether or not we want to hear what they have to say, but it should not be expected or demanded.
I'm fine with Michael Stipe not tweeting where he is today or putting out a Facebook post about his upcoming album. I'll eventually get the information, either from more mainstream routes like interviews or by going way old school and just waiting for it to come out and listening to it. I'm also fine with Trent Reznor tweeting about his new album if that's what he wants to do. Neither approach is better, and neither will make their respective albums any better. All I feel they owe me -- if anything at all -- is the best album they can make.