Avril Lavigne, Chad Kroeger, and How Celebrity Gossip is Misanthropy Without Tears
I've been thinking a lot about Avril Lavigne and The-Guy-From-That-Awful-Band this week. (By the way, the band's name is Nickelback. But from now on, I'll refer to him as TGFTAB, otherwise pronounced "Chad Kroeger," if you're reading this aloud). Maybe you have, too. And now that the initial shock of their engagement has cooled off, I find myself trying to picture the reality behind the headline. And you know what? I find it really hard to conjure the image, a moment that apparently happened on Earth (this Earth?), when TGFTAB swallowed deep, closed his eyes in fright, and popped the question to Lavigne. And she said...
This is the world of celebrity gossip I've invited you into this week. It's a cheap world, a tawdry world -- sure. But a world not without its uses.
Case in point, I first heard about Lavigne's engagement via Twitter. Then, via Twitter, I heard about it again. And again, and again (you know how it goes, I bet). Each tweet fired on the subject was more scathing than the last. "Avril Lavigne is engaged to Nickelback singer, Chad Kroeger," one tweet started. "HAHAHA. Oh my heavens, I feel so sorry for both of them. Gross."
Avril and Chad, via Avril's Twitter
This is where celebrity gossip's utility comes in. Can you imagine this tweeter saying these things about people he knows "IRL?" Can you imagine me filing a 750-word column poking fun at a friend's choice of fianc√©?
But the more I've thought about the weird simulacrum in which I've spent much of this past week, the more I'm sure it's a worthwhile place to visit after all. I would even say it fulfills a social need. And I'll venture further and say that need isn't too different from one art often caters to -- this is our need to examine life and human behavior with a certain detachment and without consequences. The need is the basis of the most popular narrative arts throughout history: TV dramas, sentimental novels, mythology, among others -- and now that it's passed a point of saturation, I think we can add celebrity gossip to the list of things we talk about when what we're really trying to understand is each other and ourselves.
Here's how it works: for non-celebrities like you and me, celebrity gossip is like engaging in a wider social circle -- a sort of membrane fit around our actual relationships. As membranes tend to do, this one is here to protect our friends and ourselves from our baser habits-of-mind -- the part of our brains impatient with others' physical imperfections and pretensions.
And here's where it functions in a way similar to certain story-centered arts: it allows us to take extreme positions on ethical matters without offending people with our piety. Just like when we discuss the characters in an Edith Wharton novel or Aaron Sorkin series, we can judge without seeming judgmental. Some of us will chastise a scandalized star and say they got what they deserved; others will empathize and wonder how someone strong enough to attain a high level of success in a competitive business could turn out to be so fragile.
Celebrity gossip is a conversational safe-zone where any waves that are made within the discussion are unlikely to extend into reality. And because most celebrity gossip is exceedingly negative, its cumulative effect tends to leave a cheerfully savage dent in the conversations it enters. In other words, celebrity gossip is misanthropy without tears.
Hence the Twitter feeding frenzy that erupted over Lavigne. On the surface, such reactions as the one I shared above are confrontational in the extreme. It would infuriate you if someone said this about you or anyone you were emotionally invested in. But I think the safe-zone allows us to behave more honestly and from the gut, without the usual concerns of propriety that hold us back among our real friends. This is useful because it lets us explore flights of thought that might quickly crash and burn within the more gravity-bound and turbulance-prone relationships we cultivate in real life.
So I wonder: When he popped the question, did he take her to one of the corny, usual places, like Hawaii? Did he do it along the canals of Venice? Did he do it in a spa at the Huntington Hotel? Or did he do it where, once upon a time, a younger and slightly sillier version of myself imagined I would one day do it -- near the salt mines of Salzburg, where Stendahl formed his beautiful metaphor of love's crystallization?
Did his voice crack twice as his throat grazed the all-important noun in his question: you marry me? Did he search her eyes for affirmation that would extend beyond a simple "yes" or "no?" When she smiled, did TGFTAB feel reborn? Was his manager present?
Or maybe she popped the question to him? Or forwarded her longing through her publicist?
It's impossible to know for certain, even if the details were issued with bullet-points in a press release to Rolling Stone. Because a celebrity is to the real person what a tip is to its iceberg. The amount of reality gained when shifting your point of reference from, say, Jeff Daniels' character on The Newsroom to Jeff Daniels the pretty-famous-guy is approximately the same as when you shift further from Jeff Daniels the pretty-famous-guy to Jeff Daniels the real-person-with-an-unknowable-past. Likewise, Lavigne and TGFTAB. As celebrities they are, by definition, overexposed. But as people they are enigmas, like you and me.