Shia LaBeouf recently sat down for an interview with Variety to share some insights that make you want to say, “Wat?” and appeared Thursday at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival sporting a Macklemore-with-a-rattail hairstyle. The actor is a self-proclaimed performance artist who wore a paper bag on his head reading “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE” to the 2014 Berlin Film Festival premiere of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013), the same film which features an unsimulated sex scene from him while he was in a real-life relationship with another woman; not to mention all those pesky plagiarism allegations and other run-ins with the law. This is that same kid who was in Even Stevens on Disney Channel.
LaBeouf is but one of several celebrities who’ve recently decided that making a hot mess out of themselves in public is “performance art” just because they’re famous; during Amanda Bynes’s 2013 meltdown, there was speculation that it was all an “act,” as if that’s something to be expected of modern stars. Socialites like Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, and Farrah Abraham are regarded as “geniuses” because they get people talking with their controversial-for-the-sake-of-being-controversial publicity stunts. Miley Cyrus has spent the last few years beating us over the head with her foam finger and the fact that she’s effectively twerked Hannah Montana out of existence.
Now, let me be clear here – I don’t want to sound like one of those twenty-one-year-olds who acts like they know what the past was really like by saying something along the lines of, “Famous people today have no class.” Famous people were never “classy” – they’ve always been imperfect human beings, just like you or me; don’t believe me? Refer to: Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin, or others.
Hollywood used to be better at throwing some glitz and glamour your way to blind you from its darker side; Babe Ruth was an adulterer and a drunk, but you probably remember him as a good, ol’-fashioned, all-American baseball superstar because the sportswriters who travelled with him were coerced into propagating that wholesome, innocent, “heroic” image. Nowadays, anyone with an iPhone can document anybody doing anything, anywhere, and the more outrageous it is, the more viral its reach. Our exploitation of shocking behavior is a characteristic of human nature that can be traced all the way back to the circus and carnival “freak show” attractions of centuries past; we experience the “normal” and the “average” every day of our lives, so the “abnormal” entertains us because it’s where we go when we wish to escape and introduce some “fun” into the mindless routine of life.
But why do contemporary stars like Jaden Smith consciously choose to make spectacles of themselves? I think it’s telling that Lana Del Rey told Rolling Stone she wants to be dead already. Our culture has so fetishized and romanticized the myth of the suffering artist that we don’t believe a star is worth their salt unless they’ve had to “overcome” something, because, then, it tricks people into believing that something is more meaningful and “important” than it actually is, in this hypercompetitive artistic landscape where, again, you have to compete against everyone with an iPhone in order to draw attention to your work and make a living.
I think another contributing factor is the career and success of Lady Gaga. Gaga’s artistry makes headlines more often than her personal life, as it should be, so she has the credentials to back up her “pop performance art” brand. After “Bad Romance” made it big, Katy Perry dyed her hair blue, Nicki Minaj dilated her pupils for her music videos, and Gaga unintentionally launched a zeitgeist of pop stars trying to be “crazier” than the rest of their peers; whereas Gaga’s substance matches her style, however, these other performers privilege style over substance.
In any case, it’s up to us, the audience, to decide whether or not to reward these attention-seeking actions with… well… our attention. Just because something seems “deep,” doesn’t mean it is. If there’s no such thing as “bad publicity,” then let’s give “no publicity” a try.