|Not pictured: A swarm of overprotective publicists.|
Last week Vinay Menon, a staff writer for The Toronto Star, wrote a scathing "profile" of Selena Gomez, who was on a publicity tour for her new album, Stars Dance. Basically, the PR phalanx Menon had to run through was at the heart his lengthy whine about today's music and the vapidness of celebrity and the soulless gears of the PR machine.
The worst part is that it didn't have to be that way. Criticwire's Sam Adams, NPR's Linda Holmes, and others had a really interesting Twitter discourse about it, which writer Cailley Hammel captured.
And Hammel's take on the article is outstanding, so I feel like I'm about to use a housepainter's brush to add my little touch to the canvas. In reading Menon's article, the one thing that came across was his inability to treat Gomez like a human being. Yes, she's another manufactured pop idol rolling off the assembly line, but she's still a 20-year-old kid, living a life that isolates her from the experiences of her peers. OK, so you cannot ask about Justin Beiber. Her music stinks. But there are questions you can ask that are connected to "the music." Ask her about what it's like to have an army of publicists cater to her every whim for this interview? Does she have any friends her own age who aren't on arena tours? Does she get tired of this Disney-bred publicity grind? (It would seem to me she is, given her participation in Spring Breakers.) Would she like to go to college and be normal after the music stops?
Here's my guess, and it's purely a guess. In arranging the interview Menon probably got enraged dealing with the publicists and their insane demands. That is completely understandable, but not if you let it tarnish your job. And if the demands are too much, well, as Holmes wrote, pass on the interview. Tell your editor to run the AP story. Life goes on.
But if you accept the story, and aggravation rules, you have to rise above it. Why? Because shit like this happens all the time. Every journalist has a story to tell, even me.
A few years ago, I interviewed legendary record producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who have been profiled roughly eight billion times, for ICON. I had an hour with them, and within five minutes you could tell they were bored stiff. (Huff started our talk by doodling on a notepad; Gamble jotted down song ideas for an upcoming concert.) I thought I had good questions, but their answers were uninspired and rambling. Long story short, I didn't think I had enough for my original plan, a straight-ahead Q&A. So, I started making phone calls and came up with a retrospective on these two men, their music, and how it defined Philadelphia. My editor was happy, I was satisfied, and I still enjoy the Sound of Philadelphia to this day.
Let's go back to Gomez. As Hammel writes, it can be intimidating to interview celebrities. And this is whether it's one-on-one or in a group setting. (When I participated in a roundtable interview last year with Maggie Gyllenhaal, whom I adore, I felt like a eighth-grader sitting across from his crush. I'm still shocked I didn't ask her out to winter formal.) But everyone you interview is a person. Singing, acting, writing: they're all occupations. A good interviewer has to find the person inside the occupation. Menon did not do that. And what's worse, he didn't even try.