The curiosity surrounding celebrity and the coverage of its allure in the media are not things inherent to the millennial generation. Long before Justin Bieber and Instagram there were titans like Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, and John Wayne. The scandals existed, but it was a different time that adhered to a different social contract with the public. With the emergence of digital natives, in an era of technological development that would make your head spin, we begin to see personalities come out of the woodwork as distractions to our banal daily lives, as fantasies of a life we could lead one day, of Kardashians and the things that goes bump in the night.
Our tolerance for the vulgar and grotesque grew exponentially in union with our connectivity to the digital world. Entire marketplaces surrounding the celebrity and their influence emerge. We were taught to care about the shallow and to give reverence those in the limelight out of principle, despite whether they were deserving of such adoration.
Recently I was confronted with a dilemma, one that is unfortunately too familiar in the current environment of popular culture: how much can we tolerate from an artist/creative/celebrity before we say enough is enough and cast them out into obscure irrelevancy, a punishment worse than death? After all the drugs, the sex, the destruction to our everyday morals — to which the celebrity does not answer to — what is left to hold them accountable for? Anything short of killing another, and sometimes not even that, seems to merely inconvenience the famous.
Social media presence maketh the star, so goes the updated adage. Rappers with fancy watches and fancier cars get tens of thousands of likes from their literal millions of followers. Fake internet points, quantifiable affection, to somehow bridge the distance from Nowheresville, Kentucky to Calabasas, California. From music blogs to celebrity gossip mags, we perpetuate the normality to live in such opulence with little regard to the message it sends. Is it okay to hit your wife if your net worth is larger than what most Americans make in a lifetime? Is a lifestyle constructed out of smoking blunts and drinking lean amenable to the promise of the American dream? If everyone paraded around town with a hundred-dollar bottle of liquor and a “fuck the world” attitude, would the trains still leave on time? Would they leave at all?
There is a measure of “pot calling the kettle black” here. I am prone to the fascination with celebrity. I try not to buy into the culture but oftentimes it’s not as simple as “yes” and “no” ultimatums. Entire brands have evolved with the conflicted middle-America consumer: if one doesn’t get you, another will.
Back to the inciting incident. I was listening to an upcoming Florida rappers newest release, an album that marked the debut of something special, something different in the current state of things in hip-hop. To mixed critical reception, XXXTENTACION (also known colloquially as ‘X’ due to most mispronouncing his name) dropped his first commercial album, 17, on August 25, 2017. Before the release there had been an investigation into alleged domestic abuse against his ex-girlfriend who was pregnant at the time.
Later, a 174-page witness testimony was leaked online. In it, Geneva Ayala, X’s former partner, detailed a truly harrowing and heinous account of an established pattern of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. Charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness-tampering, Jahseh Onfroy, a.k.a XXXTENTACION, was due for arraignment at the beginning of October. With that in mind, there’s still a need to assess the merits of his music, the implications of which are still unknown for the arts of Hip-Hop and R&B.
17, had it not been built from this very controversy, would in any other reality be disregarded as the byproducts of a lunatic. But with the way X has embraced the accusations, laughing at them over Instagram live, he has engrained this music into the annals of contemporary Hip-Hop history. Stemming from the early days of unknowns self-releasing amateur projects on the music streaming service Soundcloud, X has lauded his unconventional rise to stardom and uses this elevated forum to only further differentiate himself from the mainstream establishment that, in some ways, is no better than Jahseh Onfroy himself.
Should we even be discussing the products of someone accused of such apprehensible behavior and inconceivable violence? The consumers would say yes. I am more, understandably, torn. I find myself listening to the short 22-minute album on my rides home from work, a retail job in a crowded shopping plaza. It perfectly bookends my commute, wrapping up nearly succinct to me putting my car in park. When I get out of my car, the album doesn’t leave me. It’s as though I am enabling that very alleged violence itself and at the same time I can look at the music, solely the album itself, and find the necessity for discussion.
The album is alright, erratic at times and at war with itself, at war with X’s amateur and self-earned fame and the expectations that being a commercial artist carry. I also cannot condone any behavior that X has been accused of. To me, it’s a wash; the crimes will forever hang low over the album, eclipsing whatever fame it might bring with a haze of darkness. And yet others don’t hold the same opinion as I do — many discount it all together, the crimes serving as evidence enough, and others still back the side of X, innocent until proven guilty.
The point to all of this is simple. It’s a rhetorical question, really. How did we let the ego of celebrity reach such a point? How is this even a discussion? Chris Brown very publicly beat Robyn Fenty, a.k.a Rihanna, and yet he still has a career.
I will leave you with this: a man, who has yet to announce a record deal and who is currently awaiting trial for charges including aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, is also the same man who has eight singles on Spotify alone that have been streamed collectively over 266 million times. How much pain can we swallow before we upset our own stomachs, our moral sensibilities? Within the cult of personality some celebrities hold, it seems ridiculous to ever think they will fade into white noise backdrop of social media chattering. We care what type of clothes they wear, what trendy restaurants they go to, which other famous person they’re sleeping with. People tune in because we’ve been trained to care and people will still listen, because what would happen if we ever missed something?