I wrote a profile of Perez Hilton for the Sunday Times that came out last weekend. He’s ended up as both the embodiment of the culture of cruelty and a first-order victim of cancellation, and I still can’t wholly decide whether he’s stunningly cynical or preternaturally naive. (Wholly coincidentally, I started reading The Talented Mr Ripley this week.) One thing that doing the background for the interview absolutely brought home, though, is that the noughties were if anything more savage than I’d remembered.
Reading Hilton’s three books and as much of his blog as I could muscle through/access (the link decay on his site pre-2007 is drastic, which is a challenge for researching the period), I rediscovered many appalling things: he once blogged that Britney probably let bellboys “do her up the butt”, and one of his last posts about Amy Winehouse before she died included a reference to her “cracked-out snatch”.1 I’d also forgotten that he used to be friends with Lady Gaga, and this was almost the biggest shock of all.
Today, they don’t seem to live in the same world: she’s halfway to EGOT status and has sung for the president, he’s just launched some CBD gummies and his last big news was getting permabanned from TikTok. But c.2008, he was a big deal, she was an emerging act, and they met each other’s needs perfectly.
For him, she was a pop star he could credit himself with launching: in his 2020 autobiography, he says he promoted her on his blog and secured early gigs for her. For her, he was the arbiter of celebrity whose interest could turn her into the thing she wanted to be: in his account, when they first met she told him she read his site several times a day. And her presentation was perfectly calibrated to his vision: the Gaga persona was absolutely invested in fame for fame’s sake.
When she sang about love, she did it by casting herself as the paparazzi stalking the adored object: what could love look like other than devouring attention? When she sang about herself, her character was the party girl drunk on red wine, the slutty girl on the dancefloor with her shirt turned inside-out. Hilton’s premise was that everyone famous was high, whorish and doing it for attention. Gaga took that doctrine and made it the text of everything she did. The period of her rise overlapped with the years of Britney’s fall.
Something I’ve been trying to understand while writing Upskirt Decade is why this kind of playing with stereotypes is so pleasurable. What do I — a listener, an onlooker, a fan — get out of celebrity self-awareness? Why is it more enjoyable to watch a pop star acknowledging the tropes of stardom than it would be to watch them simply… be a pop star?
I don’t know the answer to this yet (and nor do I think my feeling here is a universal one, given that if everyone felt like me about pop music, Rachel Stevens would be the biggest deal in the entire world) but something about it must be the desire to feel that you and the people whose work you enjoy are participants in the same game.
Nabokov called art a “game of worlds”, and described the moment of artistic transcendence in the image of the artist and (in his case) reader meeting in the landscape the artist has created and embracing on a hillside. How much more significant that embrace might feel if the artist can say I made this, and you can respond yes and I understand it. In the exchange of knowingness, there’s a fleeting equality.
All this to say: I like Nabokov, and I like Gaga too. Or at least, I like her first album The Fame/The Fame Monster (the latter is an expanded reissue of the first), which is abrasive and bizarre and includes “Telephone”. After this arrival, she dropped some of the weirdness, and my interest dropped too. And then “Do What U Want” came out, featuring R Kelly, and my feelings about Gaga got altogether chillier, as discussed last week.
The accusations Kelly is currently on trial for did not suddenly come to light in the last few years. They have been entwined with his public profile since at least his work as svengali to the singer Aaliyah in the early 1990s. The album he made with her was titled Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number: the title song is a paean to underage sex. Non-coincidentally, Kelly was having sex with her. They were married in an illegal ceremony in 1994: he was 27, she was 15.
But 2013 was not 2017, and #metoo hadn’t happened yet. I remember feeling shocked that Gaga (an artist I vaguely, though incoherently, associated with feminism) would work with someone implicated in such terrible things. Still, this felt more like a private moral position than something I expected others to join me in. The world, broadly, seemed fine with him, so maybe I was the one in the wrong.
(And even with my nauseous feelings about Kelly, I’ve still made exceptions: “Ignition (Remix)” is an undeniable jam, and I’m always slightly horrified to realise that there is no way I could ever have danced to it without knowing Kelly is a predator, because my first awareness of him was via Aaliyah and “Ignition” came out in 2002.)
One of the curiosities of “Do What U Want” is that it’s a kind of cancellation that got cancelled. I wrote last week about how the video never came out because the accusations about its director, Terry Richardson, overtook it. Then in 2019, after the release of the documentary Surviving R Kelly, Gaga memoryholed the song entirely: it’s now deleted from streaming services and not included on new physical pressings of the album.
But before all that, the song and the video were a swipe at the media, including Hilton. By the time she was making it, she was publicly feuding with him (his take on this is that she “no longer needed me”), and many of the headlines in the backdrop could have been ripped from Hilton’s blog: “GAGA GOES TOO FAR”, “TWITTER FEUDING AGAIN”, “NO ‘APPLAUSE’ FOR GAGA’S LATEST ANTICS”. “Do What U Want” was a break with one version of her persona (the tabloid starfucker) into a new version (hyper-confrontational sex monster), which had to be almost immediately jettisoned, and eventually, as far as possible, obliterated from her story.2
Gaga’s decisiveness is a skill. She is adept at cutting people off when “edginess” skirts into “liability”, and that’s why she’s the one with the starring role in House of Gucci. (Have I been as excited about anything Gaga related since 2009? No, I have not. Please, will you just look at that hat.) But these feel like reputational choices as much as political or ethical ones.
She made her name as a seamlessly executed parody of the less fortunate girls — the ones who couldn’t read the game the way she could, the ones who really did get caught doing the things she sang about. There’s something about the lyrics to Gaga’s “Pokerface” that has always bothered me. The chorus announces that you “can’t read my pokerface”, but the innuendo of the title relies on reading it as “poke-her-face” — third person, not first. The sexual humiliation points outwards, at some other poor bitch.3
Do you have a pet theory about why self-aware art is such a buzz? I would love to hear it! Reply, or leave a comment.
How smarm took over in writing about celebrities. By Eleanor Halls, via Helen Lewis’s newsletter. The rise of militant fandom as a corrective to media criticism is one of the main reasons Hilton’s old blogging style has gone of business, and certainly more important that any supposed turn towards #bekind.
To mark the demise of its Saturday supplements, the Guardian interviewed Charlie Brooker about his tenure in the Guide section’s Screen Burn column (2000-2010, i.e. the upskirt decade). How does he feel now about the fact he was very, very horrible to celebrities? “In my head, I was writing about people who aren’t real. People on TV felt like they were almost cartoon characters. But then I remember the Sun’s TV critic, Ally Ross, had said to me once that he’d met some actor he’d been horrible about that turned out to be nice and he thought: who’s the asshole in this equation? And that phrase just kept ringing about in my head, like: who is the asshole?”
Britney deleted her Instagram! In a last post, she thanked #freebritney, and later posted on Twitter that she was just taking a break to celebrate her engagement. Variety's speculation that this might be a Swift-style herald of new material seems excessively hopeful, but I'm nothing if not willing to be pleasantly surprised.
Meanwhile, Buzzfeed did a deep dive into the conservatorship industry. And wow, it is grim.
My editor did not think this would fly with the ST readership and so I took it out the final copy.
It’s worth adding here that Gaga’s own after-the-event explanation involved positioning “Do What U Want” retrospectively as an unprocessed trauma response: “As a victim of sexual assault myself, I made both the song and video at a dark time in my life… I think it’s clear how explicitly twisted my thinking was at the time. If I could go back and have a talk with my younger self I’d tell her to go through the therapy I have since then, so that I could understand the confused post-traumatic state that I was in…” I think this can be both true, and further evidence of her astuteness in reading the room: in 2019, being on the side of the victims was the best place to be.
Are blow jobs always humiliating? No, but someone robotically barking “p-p-p-poke-her-face p-p-poke-her-face” isn’t exactly a celebration of joyful head-giving.