There’s a moment in the director’s cut of Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical story of a teenage rock journalist, that reveals the music industry’s true currency. When the 15-year-old William Miller files a no-holds-barred cover story to Rolling Stone about his time on the road with Stillwater (a fictional composite of 70s bands), making them come off like “buffoons” (which of course they are), their newly acquired manager Dennis Hope delivers a lesson in mystique. Hope, a corporate prat played by Jimmy Fallon in one of his more convincing forays into acting, extends both his hands: the left open with a Zippo sitting in his palm, the right closed in a tight fist. “As long as you can’t see what’s in this hand, you’ll always want it more,” he says, unfurling his fist to reveal that it’s empty.
Ergo, the less you know about someone, the more powerful (and lucrative) the fantasy becomes, even if it’s a front for nothing. Egos bruised, Stillwater deny 90% of William’s story to Rolling Stone’s fact checker to protect their image – at least at first. For all the debauchery and excesses embraced by rock ‘n’ roll stars, it’s the prospect of revealing themselves that proves too rebellious for them. Reality is nuanced, messy, divisive. The fantasy remains alive for as long as you hold back.
This lesson in mystique reared its head again at the end of the 2010s in response to the explosion of social media. After a chaotic decade of reactivity and oversharing that gave us Britney’s “Does anyone think global warming is a good thing? I love Lady Gaga” tweet, Lindsay Lohan’s beef with Kettering, and Danny DeVito’s foot, there was a calculated return to silence as a marketing tactic. It’s why we have no idea what Beyoncé’s up to unless she’s performing, why the smallest peep out of Frank Ocean sends every adult man with an earring into a frenzy, and why Burial has released like two photos of himself since 2006. It’s the bedrock of Harry Styles’ solo career.
“Beyoncé reminds me of Rachel, the prettiest girl in my high school,” one New York Times reader offered in a 2015 debate over the artist’s silence. “Rachel never spoke up in history class (the only class we had together). She had a seat at the “cool table,” but conversations would unfold basically on top of her as people talked around her and through her.” In 2016, culture writer Daisy Jones posed a similar question in VICE about the famously evasive Harry Styles: “It is very possible that Harry Styles doesn't say anything because, well, he has nothing interesting to say,” she writes. “Perhaps if he opened his mouth and shared his innermost thoughts and feelings with the masses, we might discover that he’s just as basic as the rest of us.”
What’s different about tactical mystique in the 21st century is that it’s accompanied by greater consumer awareness of marketing, and the suspicion that, much like Jimmy Fallon’s right hand in Almost Famous, it’s smoke and mirrors. A facade, once a successful marketing tool, now feels like a wrench in the machine of fame, which has evolved into an exchange of status for accessibility. We expect celebrities to be ‘real’ and ‘relatable’ and ‘messy,’ more like us, even though we criticise these qualities when they’re actually on display. This, I think, is where the more contemporary concept of ‘lore’ comes in.
Lore is the opposite of mystique. It’s similar to mystique in that it’s the stories and myths surrounding a particular person or band. But where mystique is acquired through being withholding and evasive, lore is the result of saying too much, with your own mouth, on the internet over a prolonged period of time. Matty Healy has lore. Doja Cat has lore. Prince has mystique. Lana Del Rey is a rare hybrid; her lore somehow colluding with her mystique so that we have scraps of hyper-specific information about her (passing through Florence, Alabama, for instance, she served a Waffle House regular a coke with no ice and an extra cup for chewing tobacco) but not enough to stop her from being whoever we want her to be. Julia Fox has lore, Azealia Banks has lore, Grimes has lore. Hell, even Elon Musk has lore. Jennifer Coolidge has mystique. The Weeknd had mystique in spades before he started ‘clapping back’ in defence of The Idol on Twitter, now he has neither mystique nor lore. See what I mean?
You have to wonder whether mystique is incompatible with the nature of fame in the 21st century. In a post-Kardashians pop cultural landscape, any glimpse of it tends to boil down to being withholding in a way that seems more to do with avoiding conflict. Mystique, at its most intoxicating, is a genuine art form combining the charisma that leads to stardom in the first place with a desire to keep a part of oneself for oneself (it’s no surprise that celebrities with the most mystique have historically tended to be sex symbols, like Marilyn Monroe and the aforementioned Prince), but after years of icon after icon turning out to be some sort of disappointment, we’ve developed a tendency to want people to show their cards up front. This is where we’re at now; suspicious of the unknown and resigned to the fact that content equals attention equals reputation. More is more is more.
Earlier this year the Evening Standard wondered if we were entering the era of the celebrity overshare. Three months later, Glamour declared 2023 “the golden age of oversharing.” Similar opinions have come from Huffington Post, The Bubblegum Club, GUAP. All of them reference disclosures of a sexual nature, and many are particularly concerned with the rise of celebrity PDA – be it Emily Ratajkowski and Eric André hanging out naked in a photo that could not have screamed “we’re having loads of sex!!!” any louder, or Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly proving their love by drinking each other’s blood (personally I welcome this revival of ride-or-die romance, but each to their own). Most acknowledge the widespread belief that wanting to be perceived, or drawing attention to oneself, is shameful; something to be condemned, even though it’s something we’re all guilty of.
The way we talk about oversharing lays bare its trappings, which are no different to those of mystique. Paris Hilton puts up a smokescreen (interestingly, one she’s spent the last decade dismantling), and she’s presumed to be a dumb blonde playing shop with daddy’s money; Cillian Murphy is actively disinterested in most interviews and he’s read as a brooding and mysterious artiste. The risks of oversharing are similarly weighted. It’s typically considered brave for men to share their private thoughts and humiliations, but embarrassing for women. It’s risky for actors to overshare because their discipline requires them to be a void inhabited by the characters we associate with them, but less so for music artists whose bread and butter is physical contact with an audience.
Mystique creates more space for fantasy, but so does lore. Sending out a constant stream of information can be as much an act of deflection as sharing details very sparingly: both generate a swirl of conversation that leaves people scrambling to piece the puzzle together. We have a lot of intimate details about Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly, for example, but do we know who they are? The 1975’s Matty Healy is one of the most discussed people of 2023, owing entirely to the controversial things he has publicly said and done. But ask a room full of people what they think of him and it will produce radically different opinions. A lot of us covet the kind of magnetic sexuality that was projected onto Marilyn Monroe, but nobody wants to be Matty Healy.
Mystique and lore, withholding or oversharing – it’s all illusion at the end of the day. Perhaps lore just feels more authentic because the ability to disseminate so much information to so many people directly is still new. Mystique has been wrapped up in business for too long now. It feels calculated, spurious. That’s the point of Jimmy Fallon’s lesson in Almost Famous: what you don’t say, you’re always in control of. Remove money from the equation, though, and mystique recovers its original meaning – not as a strategy, but as an innate human quality.
It might be something Stillwater is attempting to cultivate, but the person with the most mystique in Almost Famous is the one who stands to gain the least: ‘band-aid’ Penny Lane, the effervescent muse and beating heart of the story, whose real-life inspiration Pamela Des Barres produced easily the most interesting memoir in rock ‘n’ roll history. While the film and the Rolling Stone story within it ostensibly revolve around the band, they play second fiddle to her throughout. A similar thing came up when I recently interviewed photographer Rebecca Thomas about her portraits of the indie sleaze era: festival line-ups and NME covers boasted infinite ‘the’ bands ft. five identikit lads in winklepickers, totally obscuring the fact that the style and spirit of the decade was driven by creative young women.
In spending so much time decoding what can’t be pinned down, we often miss what’s right under our noses. I, for one, try to remind myself of this whenever I get sucked into a DeuxMoi wormhole trying to decode some gossip about the Olsen twins.
See you next time,
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Current obsession: Doja Cat’s VMA performance – I can’t remember the last time the VMAs have been good, or even newsworthy, but this year’s ceremony celebrating 50 years of hip hop went some way to reclaiming its title of ‘music’s biggest night.’ Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion came out like yassified WWE champions, Taylor Swift was white girl wasted during Lil Wayne’s “A Milli,” and Doja Cat made a statement that will go down in history. Bringing a hardcore punk energy (Death Grips and Beastie Boys are cited as influences on her new album), a concept with teeth and a confrontational energy that seemed to genuinely unsettle some audience members, it’s a middle finger to anyone who had her pigeonholed as another pop girly du jour. Here she stands toe-to-toe with Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar, early Eminem. An electric performance from an artist with nothing to prove but everything to say.
Best new discovery: The Woman in the Wall – A ghost story made from the finest ingredients: murder mystery, a protagonist losing grip on reality, and trauma rooted in society’s very real horrors – in this case, the abuses of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The subject matter can make it an exhausting watch, as well it should, but it’s a gripping BBC drama that pairs well with the time of year when you start bailing on all your plans to sit on the couch and eat dinners that go in a bowl.
Most looking forward to: Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla – Talk about mystique! There is no 20th century figure more mysterious or more maligned than Priscilla Presley, except for Elvis Presley, and no one better to render her story than the master of dramatising feminine pain.
Alex (Senior Editor): Following his recent appearance in our Daddy Issues column, I finally managed to get stuck into writer Gabriel Krauze’s searing debut Who They Was. It’s a brutally vivid account of growing up in a side of London rarely depicted in literature – except by outsiders, who know nothing of the lives led by Gabriel and countless other young men like him.
Isaac (Social Editor & Photography Writer): The Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol is always worth a visit if you’re in the area and strangely revealing pictures of the UK are your thing. Its latest exhibition, Abandoned, is a joint venture between Adrian Tyler – whose ‘Dust to Dust’ project explores in striking detail the empty homes in the Outer Hebrides and Orkney, as well as the degrading Bibles found in them – and Jill Quigley. In her ‘Cottages of Quigley’s Point’ series, she takes a different angle – splashing the dilapidated homes near Donegal in Ireland with paint and sculptures, giving them vibrant new life in the process. It runs until December 22.
Also ‘Postcards from Italia’, the new EP from Mykki Blanco, is absolutely worth a listen. Moving away from their usual avant-garde take on hip hop, the six-tracker is guitar-laced, melancholic, and nostalgic – perfect for any reflective autumnal vibes.
Josh (Print Editor): I was going to write I’ve been watching something highbrow here but that would be a lie. This is a lowbrow era for my TV consumption. If you haven’t seen, and you probably have, then give the meme-spawning BECKHAM documentary on Netflix a go. I was expecting it to be a total puff piece buffed with Beckham beeswax but it was surprisingly raw in places and showed just how merciless and awful football fans are, even against one of their own. If there’s any takes from it, the world’s best footballers can be surprisingly devoted to one another and the guy really, really loves having an ordered wardrobe and playing football.
I’m most looking forward to The Freaks Came Out To Write - an oral history of the groundbreaking publication The Village Voice. Boasting an insane alumni of people like Norman Mailer, R.Crumb, Matt Groening, Lorraine Hansberry, Allen Ginsberg, Ezra Pound and Lester Bangs (to name just a few), former staff writer Tricia Romano has done over 200 interviews with past staff to tell the story of the pioneering work the paper and its writers covered. Also it’s got the best name for a book I’ve heard of for a long time.
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