Fan Power? (Interview)

August 2, 2012. The French magazine atlantico.fr published an interview with Mathieu Deflem, Professor of Sociology and teacher of "Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame", about fame and the role played by fans. Check the link for the French original or scroll down for an English version.

Transcript of the original interview:

1. Madonna’s fans are complaining because her concert, for which some of them paid more than 200 Euros, only lasted for 45 minutes. Likewise, Kristen Stewart’s fans are threatening to boycott her forthcoming movies because she cheated on her partner, who is also one of the heroes of the movie Twilight, Robert Pattinson. Today, can the fans destroy the carrier of the star they admire?

Well, the popularity and fame of artists are always to some extent based on the reception by the fans and, more generally, the audience. Fame is not a characteristic of an artist, but of a relationship between the artist and the audience. One is not famous as such, but one can be famous only towards an audience, which consists of the fans (who like the famous person) as well as others (those that look on to famous persons and talk about them because they are different). What is different today are, I believe, at least two things: 1) Some people are famous simply for being famous. Examples include the reality TV stars or people like Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. They are completely dependent on their audience because there is nothing else to make them famous. They may come and go... But other people who are famous for some substantive reason (e.g. because they make music, make movies, write books, etc) rely on their talent as well as on their public. So they can control their fame to some extent, e.g. by making sure to make good music, a good movie etc. 2) What is different today for all famous people is that the audience can participate much easier in voicing their concerns or support, primarily because of access to new communications technology, via Twitter, Facebook and so on. So the public is more readily involved in making or breaking a career indeed.

2. Are the stars responsible for this phenomenon, given that they got closer to their audience, through Facebook or Twitter?

Yes indeed. Interestingly though, the phenomenon takes place whether the stars use these technologies themselves or not. The public will use the technologies anyway. It is probably better for famous people to participate on the internet rather than not. For instance, Lady Gaga has exclusive access to her own Twitter and Facebook accounts, so it is very personal and she controls the content. But other stars, when they are not on Twitter, they are being talked about anyway and they become the subject of gossip... Few stars can take explicit advantage of their absence from the public to retain a sense of mystery (e.g. Mylene Farmer), but I suspect this is not typical for the famous people of today.

3. Thanks to internet, social networks and medias, such as Twitter, which fosters proximity, did the relationship between fans and celebrities change?

Yes, as I said before. Also, one important element is that stars who are online create the sense that their interactions with their audience are more personal and direct. This can be achieved by assuring that the artist is tweeting and posting messages (rather than a manager) and by occasionally tweeting to or about a fan. This creates the idea that the artist is really involved and cares about the audience on an emotional level. For instance, by tweeting a message to one fan, Lady Gaga creates the idea towards many fans that they too could have a personal contact with Gaga, even though realistically this is very unlikely. It's like the chance to win the lottery: the chance is small, but there is a chance.

4. What is the difference between a fan and any ordinary person belonging to the audience?

Good question, because fame is not merely a function of fans but also of others. These non-fans can either be neutral or against the artist. For instance, there are feuds, twitter wars between the fans of different pop stars. Fame of a more durable and profound kind relies on a wide audience. By example, everybody talks about Lady Gaga, not just the little monsters.

5. On Sunday, we will celebrate the anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death. It seems unlikely that Madonna’s and Kristen Stewart’s misadventures could have happened to her. Did the definition of a “star” change? Is it easier to become a star today?

There are in fact just as few stars today as before, because the internet and other media only create the illusion that everybody can be famous. But mostly this fame is very fleeting. A star is by definition somebody with special skills and a special talent, and that remains difficult. If anything, it is more difficult now because the bar has been raised and it takes more to impress somebody, at least in any lasting degree. Our time only sustains the illusion that stardom is open to everybody. But it is not, by definition.

Interview with Mathieu Deflem conducted by Ania Nussbaum.

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