As a child, if there was any story I heard a thousand times to drive home the idea that I could do and be whoever I wanted, it’s Oprah’s. The tale of a young black girl from rural, impoverished Mississippi turned billionaire. Now that I am older though, I have been forced to think a bit more critically on the limitations life presents to me and other fellow artists, as well as just how dishonest the media can be when presenting these limitations.
Every time you look up (or in this case, down at your phone), there’s some shiny newcomer sweeping the headlines in the entertainment biz. There’s a bunch of buzz created around their name, emphasis on their newcomer status, how they compare to their predecessors, and all this rhetoric around them once upon a time “being just like you.” For a while, this trend had me believing that one day I could earnestly be at their level too—but as the veil was slowly lifted, I found that a lot of these folks had their foot in the door long before they’d make mainstream media.
Now, thanks to New York Magazine’s recent coverage on the topic, the term “nepo baby” has been flying around the past few months, so clearly I wasn’t the only one who noticed. I mean, what are the chances of your Dad being an Oscar Nominated rapper from West Philly (Will Smith), your mother being a Gilded Age Icon (Janet Leigh), or Gabrielle Union being your distant Cousin (Saweetie)? It leaves a lot of us normies asking, “how do we get there without that?” and “well, why make anything anyway?” In the next few paragraphs, we’re going to dive deep into these questions and challenge the marketing we’re faced with to understand the reality of why being an independent creator is so important, and why you don’t need to aspire to be like the next hot newcomer.
The marketability of relatability is what has normal, everyday people in a chokehold when it comes to the parasocial relationships many of us (myself included) have formed with our faves. Social media has woven a tale that Hailey Beiber is your long-distance bestie, and that big businesses have your best interest at heart, not just your dollar. We all know that deep down that couldn’t be any further from the truth, but then why does it feel real? Aside from algorithmic manipulation from popular apps like Instagram and TikTok, it’s all part of a carefully thought out PR plan.
Once you become a celebrity, every part of your being is now “marketable.” So aside from having a marketing plan for your next upcoming project, it’s encouraged that celebrities curate their online presence in order to build a following. Think of the mysterious allure of Lori Harvey, or the opulent conceptualization of the Kardashian/Jenner Klan. There has been a massive cultural shift from celebrities flaunting wealth and opulence to looking more “normal” for their “normal” audiences. Sure, Kim Kardashian may be a botox filled billionaire, but check out her selfie at the dentist! Wow. So relatable.
An example of someone who fights back against the delusion of parasocial relationships (who is also the daughter of famous South African Actor, Dumisani Dlamini) is Doja Cat. The Kiss Me More singer ruffled feathers in 2022 on Instagram Live when she boldly stated to fans that she’s “not their friend,” following up with “I’m not [making music] so that you like me, I’m doing it because it’s fun.” While this may seem harsh, it effortlessly snatches the veil off of the idea that sitting around and living vicariously through a celebrity will somehow add to your life.
Your famous faves (problematic or otherwise) and the machine behind them use their resources and the illusion of social media to paint the picture that their lives are somehow both average and spectacularly perfect—ideals that are both entirely false. Yet we fall for it anyway and get discouraged.
This fixation on the image of an artistic idea opposed to the actual focus of that creativity is what can lead to a lapse in productivity. Overtly observing others via social media has been proven to lead to comparative behaviors, and comparing yourself to others can increase feelings of falling behind or unworthiness, according to Medical News Today.
This is where all the spicy rumors, sale fluctuations, and mishaps with our faves stem from. In the midst of a heated trial, Megan Thee Stallion (daughter of late rapper Holly Thomas) admitted in her 2022 Gayle King interview that hanging out with “who’s hot right now” to seem popular/boost her own status could have been a key factor in her persistent drama. What fans can take away from an instance like this is that it is not about how many friends (or followers) you have, more so who are the kinds of friends you have.
In my own experience, there are plenty of celebrities that I love (and still do) only to find out that they’ve had an “in” with the industry long before they were even aware. While I don’t find this to be inherently problematic, it did once upon a time leave me wondering how someone who doesn’t have any famous connections could reach a level of success that could provide creative freedom as well as financial stability.
At the end of the day, I’ve realized creation should be about expression—not profit, not the approval of others, not even “success.” With the cyclical nature of nepotism, roles or deals are always going to be made to keep money in the family name (literally why does Kendall Jenner have a tequila brand?). While there usually isn’t any insidious harm from that, it can lead to many pitfalls for both existing and aspiring artists.
By gatekeeping and limiting access points for people to get the support they need, it narrows the gap of entry for storytelling and music, decreasing the variety as well as the idiosyncratic nature of both art forms. But concentrating on the integral parts of your art form cultivates standards of respect, community, and consistency. When you share what you create, those who truly value your efforts are your true audience.
So yes, we could all be pessimistic and throw in the towel, but I still say shoot for the stars. The worst thing you can do is miss and have to try again.