As I sat under the hair dryer this past week at my favorite salon perusing my regular supply of weekly entertainment glossies, I remarked out loud how breathtaking I thought singer Alicia Keys looked in her one-shoulder Vera Wang–designed wedding gown. On one particular tabloid cover, Keys seemed to glow as she kissed her new husband, Swizz Beatz, in front of a fabulous island. Now, usually a comment about a popular celebrity elicits an immediate response in my chatty salon. Not this day. My complimentary words about Keys were met with an odd silence that lasted five minutes or more. (For those who aren’t familiar with the African-American beauty-salon etiquette, that’s an eternity.)
Finally, the young lady under the dryer next to mine calmly turned to me and asked how I could admire a husband-stealing “floozy” like Keys. Before I could process that question, the woman on the other side chimed in by adding that Keys had one less fan now that she’d broken up someone else’s home.
To say I was floored by the callous reactions of these seemingly sensible women would be an understatement. Yes, I’d read all the blog accounts of how Keys allegedly began an affair with her then-married record producer, Beatz, while recording her most recent album. I’d even read interviews in which Beatz's “jilted’’ wife claimed Keys became pregnant months before she and her husband had officially divorced. (Keys has not commented publicly on any of this.) I skimmed most of the stories about Keys but only partially retained the scandalous and racy tidbits because, frankly, I just don’t care much about the intimate details of Alicia Keys’s life. I just really love her music.
When I explained my point of view to the women around me, they were clearly appalled at my lack of outrage. They pointed out the contradiction of Keys’s private life and her pro-female lyrics and classy onstage persona. As they listed the many ways in which Keys had disappointed them, they spoke as if they personally knew her—as if she were a friend they had drinks with every Friday night after work.
And therein lies the looming problem we as fans now face. Because of the mass influx of social-media networks, celebrity blogs, and endless celebrity-based reality shows, Americans have been lulled into a dangerously false sense of intimacy with the people meant only to entertain us. It’s allowed us to have detailed opinions on the actions and lives of people who used to be just fleeting and mysterious images on a video or in a film. Having “inside” knowledge about stars, their comings and goings, dating habits, and even shopping choices has somehow made us feel we share similarities with the faces that flawlessly grace magazine covers, light up the big screen, and sell millions of albums.
Accordingly, that so-called knowledge also appears to have given us the right to judge celebs as harshly as we would our actual friends without ever considering the fact that blogs, magazines, and even the celebs themselves rarely tell anyone the full story. Just take the sad predicament of Fantasia Barrino, the former American Idol winner who recently attempted suicide after the details of her alleged relationship with a married man were revealed in a lawsuit. Barrino was reportedly so distraught by the news—and the vicious and mean comments posted by fans on celebrity blogs—that she took a mix of sleeping pills and aspirin to shut it all out. That’s an interesting and sad turn for a celebrity who was created by a television show that allowed viewers to call in and vote on her success—now they’re apparently voting on her morality as well.
But where does that leaves us as fans when we decide we won’t support the career of some imperfect person whose talent or intellect has profoundly affected us? Is anyone out there really able to live up to society’s standard of being a “good person” and the perfect role model? Is there even such a thing? Thinking about all this led me to reflect on the lives of my all-time favorite singers, Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke—men whose music I simply couldn’t fathom being without. Both were involved in a number of scandalous affairs while still married, and both died violent deaths. Cooke was shot and killed by a hotel manager under mysterious circumstances, while Gaye was gunned down by his own father during an argument—not exactly the peaceful lives one would expect from men who wrote such iconic and thought-provoking songs as “A Change Is Gonna Come’’ and “What’s Going On.’’ During their lifetimes in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, only bits and pieces of their personal stories surfaced for public consumption. While fans of that generation surely heard the rumors, they never seemed to allow them to affect their love for the true genius of the artist in question. They simply separated the man or woman from their music. Maybe it’s time we do the same.
Editors' note: This story originally misstated the circumstances surrounding Sam Cooke's death. It was updated on Aug. 17, 2010.