Two videos by precocious, fame-seeking kids are making the rounds this week. They're drawing millions of clicks and equally big prognostications about the future. One is set to be the next young anthem of the year and heralds the coming of a future celebrity overlord; the other heralds the end of childhood and the Children of Men-style cultural and childhood apocalypse.
Willow Smith, nine-year old spawn of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith's celebrity biomatter, is beautiful and rich, has already been in a couple of blockbuster flicks (I Am Legend, Kit Kitteridge), and launched her first mega-budget music video for "Whip My Hair" on Monday.
The video, which is undeniably well-produced and catchy (maybe because it really only has one line; guess what it is), has already had a couple million views, spurred a pretty awesome Sesame Street mash-up video that has climbed to number five on the viral video list, and got tweet props from Justin Bieber ("oh and a heads up...got to see a rough cut of my lil sis Willow Smith's video for WHIP MY HAIR. It's CRAZY!! She is killin em! GET READY!"), which was sent out to his, oh, 5.7 million Twitter followers. It's attracted praise from every quarter: from tabloids like The Daily Mail ("an impressive debut for such a young performer") and People "insanely catchy... a stunning, high-octane production that leaves little doubt that this precocious Hollywood progeny is the real deal" to typically snotty sites like Gawker ("And, honestly? It's good. Actually, it's really good. Like, really good.") Commenters after the video mostly rave about her talent, with a few worrying that maybe the lyrics are a tad, um, simple.
On the other hand we have Cecilia Cassini, an 11-year-old fashion designer with her own fashion line, slick website, an LA Times feature in which she's described as the "youngest fashion designer in the country," and is tagged as as a future reality TV show "star." She went on a pretty low-production talk show, Nate Berkus, this week to show a few of her new wares, and the clip hit Gawker, where the writer opined, "good god. Kids are no more... her presence on the show was so terrifyingly trying to be adult." After the post, one commenter asked, "When did 'precocious become a synonym for 'whore,'" and another, simply, "Holden weeps."
Are her clothes any good? They're trend-conscious, sparkly party dresses for the pre-teen set. Not my thing, but let me reiterate -- she's 10 (and I'm not about to put Willow's song on my iPod, even though I acknowledge it will be ear crack to those in the teen, pre-teen and pre-pre-teen set, and even some adults, who like this kind of pop song). Cassini knows how to design and cut and sew, and how to appeal to her demographic. If I was a 10-year old aspiring party girl with a big spending allowance and a penchant for glitter, I'd love them.
So are some girls just born as future queens and some as "whores"? Well, if by "whore" you mean someone who has to work for it and sell it, whatever "it" may be, then, in a word, yes. The brilliant Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon asked if Willow Smith's video is evidence of true talent or child exploitation? But I think it's instead just an example of the American Dream's dirty little fame secret.
Fame is simply a machine and a class system. Just like being a doctor or entrepreneur or tiler, becoming famous takes a few things; for the sake of argument, let's call those talent, training, tutelage, practice, birth or upbringing and a lucky break moment. And talent is the least of them.
Sure, you need some talent. And as Malcolm Gladwell polemically argued in Outliers, his book about how some people become megastars, everyone who becomes a megastar has some. But as any kindergarten teacher will honestly tell you: pretty much every kid has talent of some kind. What matters is the shaping. So for that of course you need some skills training (how to sing or how to sew, in this case), then lots of practice: 10,000 hours of it, according to Gladwell.
But as much as that, or more, you need tutelage. Willow clearly got some hot-shit advice from a whole bunch of pros for this video. Her team nails it. Not just the production values, but the context, her costumes, her specific positioning as precocious but still young. A bazillion small cultural signifiers were right on, and that takes help. She obviously got encouragement, nurturing, coaching. And that matters a lot. Cassini, on the other hand, is clearly ambitious and talented but also pretty obnoxious. Who coached her? Someone with no actual experience who learned everything about fame from reality shows? Not inconceivable.
When you're trying to break into the fame game, it helps to have help. It helps to get a break. I can't imagine it was a coincidence Willow was cast in I Am Legend with her dad (or that her brother Jaden was cast in Pursuit of Happyness). Only a few people in the world can give or get that kind of opportunity. And only a few people, nevermind nine-year-olds, nevermind unproven artists, could get access to the kind of production financing that is big enough to pay for several Ivy League educations, or a yacht, or a whole block of apartment buildings in some towns.
Yes, of course you can work it yourself. And plenty of people do. And by plenty, I mean a rare few. And because a few do -- like Will Smith's character in Pursuit of Happyness and him in real life, or even the Lady Gaga herself (whom Willow wants to work with) -- it can seem like anyone can make it if they too just want it and work hard.
But the myth of the self-made starlet and of the fame meritocracy are exactly that -- myth.
My friend's in a band one night a week and her eight-year-old daughter has written a few pretty awesome songs and even made a video. It's gone viral: that is to say, about 50 of our friends have seen it. A few of them have music industry connections, but no one would be able to set her up Whip-Your-Hair-style. And I have another talented friend whose band might just have been as big as Coldplay if he had a connected parent.
It's not just academic French sociologists, like Pierre Bourdieu, who argue we're basically a product of our exact cultural environment and class we grow up in, and that we have very little "agency," that is, very little ability to move beyond our conditioning. Gladwell meticulously and almost scientifically dissects the myth of the self-made person in Outliers. A recent Psychology Today piece, reviews a report in which 2,200 millionaires and billionaires were interviewed, and most said they "believed they prospered in large part to things beyond their control and because of the support of others."
And the tabs and blogs that praise Willow's talent even seem to know this is how it works. "Given that her famous father started out in the music biz, Will Smith (formerly known as The Fresh Prince) has probably provided his daughter with some valuable tips on making it in the industry," writes The Daily Mail. You think? And "Just as baby Moses floated to his destiny in a woven basket in the river Nile, 9-year-old Willow Smith arrives today in a weave of ornately-sculpted hair... Clearly, the Scientologist celebrity incubator that hatched this child was working overtime," writes Gawker.
There are millions of words and images devoted to making famous people seem like they possess magic, that they possess something the rest of us just don't have. And, like kids watching magicians in tattered top hats, audiences want to believe those myths. It's a fantasy-escape... and it could be us next! So that can be blamed for the fact that actually, in the celebrity world, the self-made mirage is even more obvious if you look at the facts, than if you try to figure out the nepotistic and class connections of other worlds (in the boardrooms of North America, for example). But this is the trick: most famous people have famous, rich and connected parents. Stars are mostly made and not born.
And it's obvious that reality TV shows and self-made stars are the trashy cousins of the aristocrats and aristo-brats. No matter how hard she works, Snooki's career, opportunities and public treatment will never match Angelina's. Brittney will never be Gwyneth. Cecelia will never be Willow.
Cecelia is a working girl; Willow is a princess.
So why am I bothering to rain on the fame picnic? On Willow's moment in the sun? Partly to figure out why Willow is cool and Cecelia is obnoxious when they're both clearly talented, beautiful, hard working and ambitious. And maybe because I don't want my friend's kid to think her song just isn't as good as "Whip Your Hair." It rocks.
This post first appeared on The Tyee.
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