When Mitski met Taylor Swift

(on the secrets of selfhood and celebrity)

Grant McCracken grant27@gmail.com

the argument: In a world shaped by a post-Diderot effect, the individual is more individual and identities are less identical.

Mitski describes it as a traumatic event.

“I remember Taylor Swift talking to me, but I don’t remember what I said back to her. I remember her saying, ‘Well.’ And then leaving.”

The evening was filled with celebrities. This was hard on Mitski.

“I started to get a headache and heart palpitations. My hands started to shake. I thought I was gonna throw up, I really did. I told my manager, ‘I need to get out of here,’ and I practically ran out.”

She says, “I’m not the kind of person who gets starstruck.”

But clearly she was.

It’s not as if Mitski is not a celebrity. She has 8.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify. This is not even close to Taylor Swift who has 57 million. But still.

I think it might have something to do with the Diderot effect. This says that things travel in packs. And that means if I know one thing about you, I probably know several other things about you, too. Because things travel in packs.

The Diderot effect was in effect for most of the 20th century. It said that if someone loved NASCAR, well, several things were probably also true about them. Or if someone was a Silicon Valley bro, you could make several predictions right down to their Patagonia vest. Or if someone was a jazz saxophonist, some things were probably true and still others probably not. (No place in the Hamptons, for instance, or career in professional tennis.) These weren’t certainties. They were “educated guesses.” The Diderot effect did the educating.

Then the Diderot effect began to decline. We could learn that someone drove a Subaru and increasing that was the only thing we knew about them for sure. We could know someone’s sexual identity, even a courageous one, and not make any safe guesses about the rest of their lives. We could know someone was a gun owner and the rest remained a mystery.

Ethnicity, race and region used to be good indicators of the rest of selfhood. Now they’re not. Touré says “the definitions and boundaries of Blackness are expanding in forty million directions.” Increasingly we are PDE (post Diderot effect). To refit Whitman’s famous phrase, we are multitudes.

This brings us back to Mitski.

She shows evidence of going PDE, of having escaped the gravitational power of the Diderot effect. In his Vulture essay, Jung says

[Mitski] has lived in various countries — Malaysia, Turkey, the U.S. — and tried on various personas. She discovered she could do it and that all of those iterations were a part of her. She could make herself outgoing and be one of the popular girls, or become the ultimate loner and not speak to anyone, not a soul, then break herself open singing “I Will Always Love You” at the end-of-year talent show. This allows her a sociological perch from which to view humanity. She feels as though she could be anyone and live anywhere. And, actually, that anyone could be anyone.

“Various personas.” “Anyone, anywhere.” These are signatures of someone who is PDE. Mitski got range like Viola Davis. She can be both thrillingly popular and the ultimate loner. Her selfhood is diverse, rich and complicated. Once, perhaps, she had a standard issue, well organized, monolithic selfhood, buttoned down and up in accordance with some prefab instruction set. She was a person we would recognize as an X or a Y or a Z.

But Mitski’s selfhood is now diverse and complicated. It is also non directional. No one part of her selfhood determines the other parts. No one “life choice” makes all the other choices. We can know that Mitski is Japanese-American, and nothing else is clear. She’s an artist. Normally that would mean she lived in LA or New York. But, no, she lives in Nashville. Nashville? Surely, as an artist, she’s on social media. Nope, she quit all that in 2019. She is a woman. So? Mitski is “all over the map.” She doesn’t “stack.”

It must be exhilarating, to have all these genres, selfhoods, this sheer multiplicity, spread out around you. This is one of the benefits of going PDE. You are released from a single point of view. You can be many creatures, speak in many voices. You can, in effect, go anywhere in our culture. You can take up residence in anyone. Perfect for an artist. Perfect in any case for Mitski.

But there is a dark side. And I think Mitski glimpsed this at the celebrity event, the one staged by Taylor Swift and attended by the likes of Lana Del Rey, St. Vincent, and Blake Lively. What she saw there was not exhilarating, but terrifying. Something about those shiny people disturbed her.

What?

Celebrity culture is pretty on the outside. Inside, it’s a zero sum game. What goes to one celebrity must come from another. This is palpable when celebrities gather to cast competitive charisma for public consumption. One celebrity does a brilliant turn on the red carpet and another’s “Q score” drops a notch or two. It’s all glitter and glory on the surface but something different underneath. Maybe Mitski saw distress.

Mitski comes to the party as a celebrity in her own right. But she also occupies what Jung calls her “sociological perch.” She is among them but not of them. This gives her powers of observation and empathy. Maybe Mitski felt distress.

Then there is a still uglier secret of celebrity culture, the one we can see but not bring ourselves to say. Every celebrity is an Icarus waiting to happen. For all their fame, beauty, charisma, talent and support staff, these people live in peril. They rise and when they fall, they plunge. Popular culture is strewn with the wreckage of beautiful careers. Maybe Mitski saw this too.

May it please the court, I offer the following careers into evidence:

Lil Peep, Brendan Fraser, Lara Flynn Boyle, Margot Kidder, Brian Wilson, Mickey Rourke, Catherine Zeta Jones, Michael Jackson, Joaquin Phoenix, Whitney Houston, Charlie Sheen, Mac Miller, John Belushi, Charlie Rose, Amy Winehouse, T.J. Miller, Lindsay Lohan, Russell Brand, Shia LoBoeuf.

This pain and suffering is unexpected. Celebrity life is supposed to be a charmed existence. Even minor celebrities are wealthy, loved, interviewed, photographed, talked about, listened to, doted upon, and welcome everywhere. Most of all, they are adored.

Perhaps this is why we never think about celebrity as a challenge or a problem. In fact Hollywood is a space program, for which, for some reason, no one has thought to do the engineering. We fire people into deep space. We don’t give them space capsules or even space suits. There are no survival strategies. There’s no recovery vehicle. Way out there in outer space, bad things happen. Celebs slip into crisis or addiction, and we go, ‘Well, who knew that was going to happen?’ The stats are clear. The odds are terrifying. There’s a good chance that was going to happen. Did we prepare them for it? We did not.

Perhaps this is what struck Mitski. It wasn’t the celebrity of the guests that got to her, but their vulnerability. All those celebs on a tight rope. Still bravely singing. Of course, she was going to tremble. How could this empath not? But there was a deeper question. Was this her future too? Was she an Icarus rising?

With 8.5 million Spotify followers and best selling albums, is Mitski now high enough up to worry about the fall? (What altitude tempts disaster? A wild anthropological guess: somewhere around 500,000 listeners. Mitski passed that ages ago.) Perhaps Mitski was thinking “Oh dear God, what if I am one of them? Get me out of here.” From her sociological perch, Mitski could see trouble coming.

Which brings us back to us. Because celebrity is, finally, all about us. The celebrity’s real responsibility is to test selfhoods for aerodynamic properties and tensile strength. And what celebs demonstrate is the reality and the peril of the PDE selfhood, an identity that’s various and fragile.

Recently, I met someone who’s a farmer, a libertarian, a gun owner, and gay. “Oh, come on,” I thought, “Pick a lane.” More and more, we don’t. Once we sported pre-fab selves made of group-approved elements. Now we are post-Diderot and exhibit untypical constellations made from diverse elements. For some of us, this will mean new instability, Mitski-scale anxiety, and moments we too are bilious, trembling, and poised for exit.

Personal

In a world shaped by a post-Diderot effect, the individual is more individual and identities are less identical.

This spells trouble.

If choices don’t travel in packs, what’s an identity? What, for that matter, is a group? (Don’t you have to share things to build one?) We used to form as individuals and groups around constellations of object and activity. Those constellations are breaking up. Where does that leave us? Lost, some of us. After all, some people can’t know who they are unless they are who other people are. (Some people take their identities from other people, and only when those other people are stacked, coherent, recognizable.)

The rest of us will contend with a radical individualism, the one that says everyone has their own truth. If truth is contingent in this way, what about the continuities demanded of us by church and state?

“Yes, Pastor, I did promise to love and to cherish him. You were there. I remember. But, you see, a certain truth was upon me. I was being true to a moment and a selfhood, both of which, I’m sorry to say, have moved on.”

If our selves are short term assignments, ports of fleeting call, in some sense they cease to be identities. They are merely a way of signaling an emotional inclination, a strategy of self presentation, a performative preference that, hey, could change and probably will. PDE means that ritual and ceremony, normally so good at delivering us from one state to another, cannot do its job. We are, Mitski-ish, “all over the place.”

It’s hard to know what sincerity looks like when each of us is a crowded house of possibility. What happens to honesty, honor, trust, and dependability? We are like the actor who is utterly convinced of truth of the present performance and then, whoops, moves on. Celebrities are first into the breech here too. They practice “selfhood amnesia” for a living. And what we learn from them is terrifying.

This is not a moral problem only. It’s also a matter of whether we can read the world around us. There was a student at MIT in the late 1990s who insisted on wearing harem pants. This might have been his tribute to the TV show “I Dream of Jeannie.” We couldn’t tell. Perhaps he was quoting MC Hammer, an entertainer who peaked by the early 1990s. Complete guesswork. No one could tell what this student meant by his fashion choice. And this might be because it was a deeply individual choice from a deeply individual guy. We couldn’t generalize.

Of course, we shouldn’t generalize. Especially now when we are actively demolishing gender, racial, and ethnic stereotypes and falsehoods. But we humans are a surprisingly surmising bunch. They like to leap to conclusions. When we do not harbor ill intent, this is no bad thing, as the Scots say. It makes social life more efficient and occasionally, more gracious. Now that every one is many creatures, it takes a deft touch, a diplomatic acuity, to find the best connection. Generalizing, if without prejudice, serves us. Is this now gone? Must we treat everyone as if they could be anyone? This would make us sociologically scrupulous but social life inscrutable.

Cultural

PDE should mark the beginning of the end of racism, sexism, and antisemitism. Prejudice supplies its own warrant. It doesn’t just say “Hate group X.” It says, “Hate group X is because they have properties Y.”

PDE stops this cold. It forbids generalization. It disputes attributions. It says, “Wait, what? How do you know? That’s not obvious.”

But there’s bad news too. We know that the early moments of PDE make a social, cultural world that is hard for some young people to grasp. The developmental ladder is slippery with indeterminacy. Oh for the days when a young man could say, “I am a New Orleans Saints fan,” and let that determine much of the rest of what is true about him. In our culture, for some young people, it’s all snakes and precious few ladders. By one account, 7 million people now suffer “failure to launch,” marooned on the verge of adulthood.

Professional

Communicators, educators, marketers must generalize. Unless they are prepared to contend with a universe of ones, they must posit demographic segments, lifestyles, personae, tribes, archetypes, and geographic clusters. It was always easier to capture the world in chunks instead of fragments. How do they generalize now? What happens to social categories (e.g., punk, prep, VSCO girl)? What happens if those categories are dissolving?

This is one way to think of this. Perhaps the PDE model works like this: we craft the self by making modular choices. We choose our gender style from column A, stylistic choices from B, speech mannerisms from C, and so on. It’s a “mix and match” approach. It doesn’t leave us with a macro-identity, but the bits and pieces are still recognizable. The wholes are gone but the parts remain clear. This modular approach to identity expands our semiotic range and the ability to express a more complicated selfhood.

Someone might wear a button-down shirt, a Patagonia vest, and a pair of Harem pants. The overall effect is “what?” But if parts are stable in their meaning, we would could still detect “preppie,” and “bro.” The pants…well, we still have no idea what the pants mean. But if shirt and vest still “send a message,” that’s something. Parts we can study. Parts give us something to talk about. And with.

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Grant McCracken

I'm an anthropologist & author of Chief Culture Officer. You can reach me at grant27@gmail.com.