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Sad, dysfunctional artists vs the shiny, happy people they pretend to be, and the egregores that use them ...
I recently watched the movie version of Whitney Houston’s life, I Wanna Dance with Somebody, and it left me wondering who, or what, Whitney Houston really was. Not the person, but the public image, which was incredibly culturally successful as a brand. That public image was conveyed via millions of screens into millions of minds. Who or what did that image — does that image — really represent?
Houston’s life had plenty of drama, with an illicit lesbian love affair, dysfunctional relationships with the men in her life, and some serious crack smoking. The movie didn’t pull any punches, but it didn’t overdo it either. All in all, it portrayed its subject sympathetically, as someone you wanted to root for, but whom you knew was doomed, despite her massive talent and success.
Here’s what the movie really brought into sharp focus: the dramatic disconnect between Whitney Houston’s fun-loving onstage persona, especially during her early years, and the demon-ravaged, deeply depressed person she often was in real life. [Hey, I’m not judging her or anyone else for that; Lord knows I have had my dark moments, and plenty of them.] Obviously, she was never as happy in real life as she appeared to be onstage, and that made me wonder: whose was the glamorous party-girl image conveyed in all those music videos?
American Idols and Egregores
Suppose an egregore or demon can use a group of humans to manifest itself, and then direct the people’s attention and energy towards feeding it, spreading it, and sharpening its mimetic power? With music, it often seems that something bigger is at play, a kind of synergy that makes a great band so much more than the sum of its individual parts. Similarly, a storm system has a life cycle all its own and a structure which transcends the mere individual ingredients of wind and water and all that. Furthermore, as hurricanes are to particles of air and water, so are institutions to individual humans. Institutions behave much like biological agents; they consume resources, grow, replicate themselves, spread throughout society, etc., and they even seem to act with an intentionality and interests that may diverge from those of their human members. I say all of that to say this: there is something that is the case about each of these things that cannot be explained purely by reference to anything material or tangible, nor by reference to the constituent parts or even the sum of them. That something, whatever it is, can hardly be described or defined concretely, but it is nevertheless very real and can be measured in terms of its effects over time.
Anyway, many people worked together to create Whitney Houston’s image, and the enchanting aura that inflamed that image and brought it to life on radio speakers and television screens, thereby dispersing that image’s memetic power into millions of households around the world. Houston was certainly an extremely talented singer, but with a mega-blockbuster production like hers, there was a whole team involved to make it happen. There were the songwriters, the musicians, the producers, the videographers, the choreographers, the back-up singers, the backing dancers, the folks in charge of the equipment, the P.R. folks sprinkling their magic pixie dust over the public narrative about her life and career, etc. All those people, working together, created an image of a person who looked like Whitney Houston, but who definitely was not Whitney Houston. So who, then, was she?
A few weeks ago, when I wrote about how American culture tends to make women unattractive, because it generally cultivates in them an unattractive attitude,I said that an extremely attractive attitude for women to have is one of cheerful enthusiasm. Well, Whitney Houston, at least in her early years, embodied that attitude and sold it convincingly. Her music is upbeat, even when the lyrics, themselves, are sad, and that doesn’t even include the impact of her on-screen charm and charisma. She sang and danced like she really was this fun-loving party-girl who beamed with friendly warmth and infectious joy all the time, like she just wanted everyone around her to be happy and have a good time. This is the mood she expresses in the music video for I Wanna Dance with Somebody (embedded below):
Even if Whitney Houston (circa 1986) isn’t your type, just imagine a woman you do find attractive. Imagine that same women displaying an attitude of cheerful enthusiasm; I guarantee you, she is more attractive with that attitude — especially if she’s cheerfully enthusiastic about being with you. But the attractiveness of this attitude goes well beyond mere sexual or romantic attractiveness: when someone is cheerful and enthusiastic about life, others want to be around them and are more likely to buy whatever they’re selling.
Anyway, Whitney Houston created an enduring image — as in, years after her death, that image still endures via millions of people’s screens. That image is of an attractive woman with an attractive attitude. That image was completely at odds with Houston’s own life — but — it doesn’t matter, because that image now has a life entirely its own, independent of the existence of the person whose voice and name and likeness were used to create it.
It wasn’t Whitney Houston, the person, that people fell in love with; it was the image. It wasn’t Whitney Houston, the person, who sold all those millions of albums; it was the image. It wasn’t Whitney Houston, the person, who made audiences get up on their feet and clap their hands and shout for her to please do just one more song; it was the image.
Whitney Houston, the person, developed her voice and turned it into an incredible musical instrument, but when you hear that voice today, it’s not her voice. It doesn’t belong to her anymore. She’s dead and buried (or cremated, or eaten by vultures if there wasn’t enough money left in her estate to pay a funeral home to get rid of the body properly). She’s gone, yet the voice abides.
Suppose you took one of Morpheus’s red pills and learned that the whole world was created five months ago, and God (or Descartes’ evil demon, take your pick) used some super-advanced AI to engineer a convincing backstory, complete with historical records and music and movies from the past and all kinds of false memories for everyone to think they have, and included in that computer-generated backstory were all the images and songs of Whitney Houston. Suppose that when you watch a Whitney Houston music video, you’re not watching a recording of anything a real person ever said or did. Would any of that make the image of Whitney Houston, on display in those music videos, any less real today?
Are Attention and Emotional Energy Cash Crops?
The image that Whitney Houston created — or participated in creating or was used to create — had a memetic power that was (at least conceptually) separate and distinct from the person of Whitney Houston. That image retains some of that memetic power today, even though it’s been years since the actual person passed away.
That image has attracted, and continues to attract, the attention of millions of people. And when it has their attention, it affects their emotional energy. Now, think about the phrase “pay attention;” doesn’t it sound like attention is something with some real value, being given in exchange for something — or maybe being presented as a gift or offering. There’s a transaction of some sort. We know who is giving or paying the attention, but who is ultimately receiving it?
Now, returning to the idea of egregores or demons, could there be an entity or being, existing at some higher level of abstraction or in some larger (or smaller) spiritual realm, which desires all that attention? Which feeds off of it somehow? Which uses it to get some kind of energy or pleasure? And which might, like a farmer with a cow or like ants with aphids — or worse, like zombie fungus with ants — manipulate people into creating and maintaining that image, so that it can use that image as a focal point to harvest and channel all that attention and mental energy towards itself?
Of course, as I pose that question, I get an eerie feeling — here I am drawing attention to this image, too! What if that same egregore is using me in a similar way to write this? (Cue sarcastic voice making absurd ghost sound and going, “Whoooooo!”)
And Now for Something Completely Different …
On a different note, since I’ll be posting this on July 4th, let me end this post by embedding a video of Whitney Houston singing the National Anthem, back during happier times for both the singer and the country, when Houston and the USA both seemed to be on unstoppable upwards trajectories:
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This is true of men, too, but the attitudes in question are somewhat different.
The young Whitney Houston is similar to Morrissey — okay, hear me out before you shout your disagreement at me! Houston could sing a sad song and make it sound, somehow, happy and hopeful (giving it a kind of comic absurdity — at least to me, though, granted, I’m weird), and Morrissey did something similar when he sang his dour and depressing words: the light and airy mood of his vocals absolutely did not match the macabre madness of his lyrics — I mean, they did go together, but in the same way oil and vinegar go together: opposites that compliment each other well when done right. And Morrissey did it right. Suppose you did not speak English, and you heard him sing something like There Is a Light That Never Goes Out (with lines like, “And if a 10-ton truck, should kill the both of us, to die by your side, oh, the pleasure, the privilege is mine!”). If you did not know what the words meant, you would think, from just the sound of his voice, that he was singing something nice and uplifting, certainly not that he was pondering being gruesomely mangled to death by a delivery truck! Both Houston and Morrissey created a strange dissonance with the mood of their delivery and the mood of the lyrics.
Much like “the Dude” in The Big Lebowski.
Maybe it would cause you to change your mind about what that image means. But if so, that would not change the fact that the previous image existed in your mind at some point in the past and may persist today as a memory of that past. In some way, that original image (before you learned it was all fake) would still exist, even as a thought in your mind about what reality the image would have if it was of someone who really did exist and who really did sing and dance in the ways depicted in the music videos. Even if the image exists only as a hypothetical in your own mind, it still exists, in some way.