Wednesday, July 17, 2013

It's Hard to Believe, But Celebrities are People

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. 

  • The answer to this is "Don't do the interview." And "How would you describe yourself?" is a *terrible*…
  • Seriously, there are pieces that can get away with "let me tell you how I hated interviewing this person" and not seem jerky. Most can't.
  • @nprmonkeysee If you ask a tough question and they walk, you have a story. If you accede, the story is "I am a terrible journalist."
  • @SamuelAAdams Well, and my question to that particular writer would be, "What piece did you *go* there to write?"
  • @nprmonkeysee The interesting piece that would might out of that would ignore the interview entirely.
  • @SamuelAAdams Well, sometimes you have to acknowledge that the profound cynicism is coming from inside the house.
  • @nprmonkeysee Those restrictions -- no written notes? -- are absurd. But guess who agreed to them?
  • @nprmonkeysee This is an interesting story about not getting the interview:…
  • @nprmonkeysee The ones that really grate are the clearly vengeful ones, as if a snarky piece will balance the scales.
  • @nprmonkeysee One the one hand, this whole scenario sets any writer up for failure. On the other, what an asshole.
  • @spacecitymarc Exactly! That's why I say the answer is don't do it.
  • @nprmonkeysee I think the choice of subject makes it seem like a cheap shot as well. Disney celebrities are easy to complain about.
  • @wordsmith85 Well, exactly. You want to be cheered, write that about somebody where loss of access to them actually costs you something.
  • .@nprmonkeysee The lack of self-awareness in this piece is stunning. "They prevented me from doing journalism by not letting me talk gossip"
  • @nprmonkeysee @TaraDBennett It's like asking someone, " What kind of music do you like?" Who doesn't answer, "all kinds"?
  • @jphilogden Right. It's ungracious to ask a lazy question and not expect a lazy answer.
  • @jphilogden @nprmonkeysee And if you say yes to such inane stipulations for an interview, then you better bring your A+ game with your Q's.
  • 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.  


    The End of the Alphabet Girl said...

    What you said about Selena Gomez being a 20 year old is right and your questions you would ask are spot on. I agree that that guy is just showing lazy journalism...totally infuriating that a writer can take an opportunity to interview/write about Selena for granted.

    Charis said...