[Written by James Taylor (He/Him)]
‘They are always very interested to hear you don’t read music… Motherfucker, I am music.’*
Zadie Smith is not Billie Holiday, but her writing could certainly make you believe it. In her introductory essay to a book of Billie Holiday photos, she performs what she defines as ‘some form of ventriloquy’, amounting to Smith inhabiting the persona of Holiday through language. She captures the cadences and trills of the jazz legend through a graceful second person narration, summoning a powerful vision of Lady Day, mink furs and all. The essay in essence, is a look behind the façade of Billie, a literary surgery of the person behind the bluesy performer – Smith is aware of the inherent artificiality of Holiday. Before there was Lady Day, and Billie, there was Eleanora Fagan; her stage persona, like Smith’s essay, is a glamorous construction. By the end, even with the glimpses into Holiday’s painful personal history, she remains a manufactured voice, a glove puppet.
Billie’s stage-self survives with her music, and it is in the music industry we see the constructed self at its most prevalent. In other forms of culture, like literature or art, the figure of the artist is secondary to the work they produce, their presence less influential. In music, however, the artist is the art; their craft is centered within them, their voice, look, and personality. The individual must reflect what they sell, because the two are now inseparable. Nowadays, Lady Gaga has replaced Lady Day, and the most popular Billie is now a moody American teenager who recorded an album from her bedroom. Yet the idea of the persona persists; it is the only way we engage with celebrities and pop stars. As Smith writes, ‘They never doubt you’re Lady Day – matter of fact they knew you were She before you did.’
Why do we as a culture rely on this so heavily? The ideas these celebrity figures present are intoxicating, representing the indulgences few of us can relate to. On one hand, they represent the beauty, talent, adoration and influence we would all like to experience but probably never will. On the other, they embody universal fantasies – varying from uninhibited sexuality to indestructible confidence, and bodily power. Personality must be as catchy as the music. The ‘persona’ has engulfed the industry to such an extent that it sometimes overshadows the art, but it often initiates important cultural discussions. Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B dominated one such discussion surrounding female sexuality with their collaboration, while Harry Styles provoked another regarding gender fluidity and masculinity. These conversations are undoubtedly important, but they show we engage much more with the constructed persona and what they represent, rather than what they produce; the production becomes a secondary facet to the persona. These celebrities are essentially glove puppets, their personas are just hollow enough to give whoever listens to them space to wriggle in and inhabit them, to feel what they are purported to feel. They present a space of total freedom, singing the thoughts and wearing the clothes we all wished we could, if it were not for the stifling mundanities of our own non-celebrity identities.
It is worth considering whether the celebrity use of persona is a kind of shield, as again Smith writes, ‘You paint the face as protection… It’s the border between them and you. Otherwise, everybody in the place would think they had permission to leap right down your throat and eat your heart out.’ So, the more complex a manufactured self is, perhaps the more protection an individual feels from the glaring eyes of culture. Maybe Elizabeth Grant feels more comfortable as Lana del Rey, for example. But Del Rey also utilizes the power of aesthetic in her melancholy persona, she has become the focus of cultural idolatry, with her winged mascara image commanding greater focus than herself. It creates feelings of intimacy, although we know deep down the empathy we feel is not for a real person, rather a glamorous, industry-manufactured self. It’s true that not all artists totally rely on baroque personas, but all of them rely on commercial viability, and this viability is often its own artistry.
Persona is representative, and it is through engaging with it that we experience its symbolism, be it Girl Power or Men in Skirts. But these personas are a craft in themselves, the product of an industry that plucks obscure, guitar strumming Norma Jeans and transforming them into stadium selling Marilyn Monroes, so to speak. It results in the blurring of identity – where does Lady Day end and Eleanora Fagan begin? And in a way eerily similar to how we engage with celebrity personas, where did Zadie Smith end and Billie Holiday begin in her essay? No one is born a Billie Holiday; Billie Holidays are made as a music executive, or Zadie Smith, might well say.
*Smith Zadie 2018. ‘Crazy They Call Me’: On Looking at Jerry Dantzic’s Photos of Billie Holiday’ in Feel Free (London: Penguin) pp.164 – 172