What do we want from celebrities? In the era of social media – with constant access to curated messages supposedly sent directly from the source – nothing is as valuable as a true, unexpected confession: the kind of controversial revelation you wouldn’t get in a PR statement or an Instagram story. Historically, this is where traditional media has thrived, confronting famous people with probing questions or insightful critique, forcing them to provide readers with an authentic, spontaneous response. Today, when celebrities are arguably more powerful than ever before, such interviews are increasingly valuable, and are becoming the only place where painstakingly crafted PR narratives are subject to scrutiny.
When Time magazine announced Taylor Swift as its Person of the Year, with an 8,000-word interview boasting long, candid quotes from the pop star, many people were excited. But the resulting profile was anticlimactic: despite the unique access to Swift, the interview revealed no information that wasn’t already available in Swift’s social media posts or her lyrics. Beyond a few nuggets about the timeline of her current relationship with the NFL star Travis Kelce, the discussion amounted to a rehashing of old statements about her public falling out with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West in 2016, disputes over the ownership of her master recordings, and the promotion of her upcoming and ongoing projects. While fans were predictably gratified by these crumbs of information, others were outraged that a pop star was chosen for what they apparently believe is a serious honour. Ultimately, Swift is inarguably the most zeitgeisty cultural figure this year: that – alongside her rabid fandom – also makes her the person most likely to shift print copies of Time.
But many readers mostly seemed to be surprised by the mundanity of the interview. This was perhaps the most surprising reaction of all. What else did anyone expect? This is dullness by design – the inevitable result of a media culture in which the most powerful people in the world now set the terms of engagement and are never forced to contend with any real criticism.
Thanks to social media, the celebrity interview has been dying a slow and quiet death, where celebrities only need to do traditional media in circumstances where there is a guarantee that it will make them look better. Publications need celebrities to survive, far more than celebrities need journalism – and so magazines and newspapers are bending to their will more than ever, lest they withdraw access. Celebrity and entertainment journalism is seen as a service to fans: USA Today recently hired a Taylor Swift reporter who is a dedicated fan, rather than an impartial journalist.
Journalists no longer feel empowered to critique or question the image celebrities want to project, as the Time article made explicit. “Swift has told me a story about redemption, about rising and falling only to rise again – a hero’s journey,” the interviewer, Sam Lansky, wrote. “I do not say to her, in our conversation, that it did not always look that way from the outside – that… she did not look like someone whose career had died. She looked like a superstar who was mining her personal experience as successfully as ever. I am tempted to say this.
“But then I think, ‘Who am I to challenge it, if that’s how she felt?’ The point is: she felt cancelled. She felt as if her career had been taken from her. Something in her had been lost, and she was grieving it.”
Are Swift’s feelings really the point? While we know celebrities typically only do traditional media when they have a guarantee it will be positive, Time’s Person of the Year holds some gravitas – meaning the interviewer is in a unique position to pose tougher questions. What is the purpose of celebrity journalism that only provides obedient affirmations of the subject’s flattering version of events?
The reality is that this is increasingly what our culture wants and expects from its media. We see it everywhere: Beyoncé’s only interview last summer ahead of her new album, Renaissance, with the British Vogue editor Edward Enninful, heaped embarrassing amounts of praise on its subject, and provided little else; a GQ profile of Kim Kardashian in November was similarly enthusiastic about Kardashian’s ambition and success, without any criticism of the negative impact she’s had on body image and culture. When a figure is scrutinised, it’s typically someone with less fame and power (such as this New York Times interview with Britney Spears’s ex-husband – then fiancé – Sam Asghari, which Asghari claimed violated pre-agreed terms).
While celebrity interviews have traditionally had a reputation for encouraging soft journalism, they haven’t always been so pandering. In 2007, when Angelina Jolie’s PR team tried to get media outlets to sign a contract agreeing to strict interview terms, it became a tabloid story in which the star was subjected to widespread ridicule for suggesting an arrangement that now seems commonplace even for D-list celebrities.
It’s notable that the other viral celebrity story in the past week was a review in Vulture that critiqued Beyoncé’s Renaissance film. Fans eviscerated the writer, doxxed her and sent her death threats for daring to suggest that Beyoncé’s albums and tours might be commercial projects rather than acts of racial or feminist liberation. (Beyond the Vogue interview last July, Beyoncé has largely shunned traditional media over the last decade.)
We live in a time where celebrities hold outsized power, reinforced by social media. Among all of this hyper-positive noise – generated by fans and celebrities alike – traditional media is a vital source to question their authority and get to the truth of their unique influence. But the celebrity profile is just another PR vehicle, presenting skewed, sanitised versions of reality – written not by journalists, but by celebrities themselves.
[See also: How permanent are our digital memories?]