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The Psychological Consequences of Fame

When fame becomes crazy-making.

I'm teaching a class on psychobiography now, my area of specialization. This time around, we're studying the lives of John Lennon, Elvis, and Kurt Cobain, and like psychobiographers do, trying to superimpose the life and personality on the art to see how the subjective origins of the art can be illuminated. Quite a lot always comes up, but one theme that interpenetrates when it comes to Lennon, Elvis, and Cobain concerns the psychological consequences of fame itself. I find this a fascinating subject. How do people contend with fame and its often absurd demands? Do they enjoy or resent it? What do they think of their fans? The media scrutiny? The sense that their lives are not their own?

It's a bit of a Catch-22 sometimes. Artists want fame, they seek it, they purposely do things to achieve it, but then when it comes, they can't get away from it fast enough.

My sense is that some people are simply temperamentally unsuited to be famous. Their talents merit fame, but their personalities don't stand up to it. And I think that, to varying degrees, this is the case for Lennon, Elvis, and Cobain.

John Lennon is probably the most mixed case. For the most part, he seemed to enjoy fame, particularly early on, and he was quite competitive in measuring himself up against peers. He read Billboard avidly and followed his chart success. But he was basically shy, nervous, insecure, and traumatized by an early childhood full of loss and abandonment. Before performing he often threw up, or at the last second felt he could not go on. This occurred more and more as his live performances became less frequent. And as most people know, in the years before he was killed, he dropped out of the game altogether to raise his son and bake bread. The dream is over, he said. I was the dreamweaver, but now I'm reborn. He was John now, not the "walrus."

Elvis had an incredibly deep sense of inferiority stemming mainly from his poor roots in the South, where he was "white trash." When he was 3, his daddy was jailed for forging a check. In his amazing so-called Comeback Special (go rent it; you won't regret it), he's palpably discombobulated, especially when talking instead of singing. In the unplugged portions of the filming, he was so clearly agonized that producers begged his backup band to joke and make endless small talk just to calm him down. This was a habit Elvis relied on increasingly: joking and running himself down and even sabotaging his own songs in order to combat anxiety (see my earlier post on Are You Lonesome Tonight?). Drugs provided relief, too, as did women, many of whom—even, weirdly, young girls—were steered by Elvis into playing the role of a comforting mother, particularly after his real mother Gladys, to whom he was deeply devoted, died. I don't know. I don't think Elvis enjoyed fame. Almost literally, he couldn't live with it. Did it kill him? Perhaps, to a degree. Most think it killed his mother, who simply could not deal with Elvis being Elvis. Consciously or unconsciously, he blamed himself for her loss.

Cobain detested fame, and detested most of his fans as well, since in his mind they resembled—and sometimes were—the very same small-minded, misogynistic, racist, homophobic, hate-filled high schoolers he ran up against repeatedly in his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington. Like Lennon and Elvis, Cobain (despite his various bizarre, extraverted-seeming antics) was an introvert, fond of drawing, tormented by his parents' divorce. Like Elvis, he often undermined performances of hits like Smells Like Teen Spirit, singing the song in a slowed-down lower register, channeling a kind of punk Dean Martin. He took to wearing dresses when performing or making videos. And fame gradually forced him more and more inward, not always a reassuring place for Cobain to be—from an early age, he was depressed and fantasized suicide. He also, as a kid, experimented with a huge array of drugs—he huffed, he puffed, he did acid, he drank. Heroin was the final stop. He says he began using it to treat a chronic stomach ailment. Ironically, when he took his own life, he wrote an apology to his fans, saying essentially that he could not bear to go on faking it anymore. He was sick of the act. He chose not to "fade away," killing himself as he predicted he would do even before he achieved the slightest measure of fame.

Now, of course, a lot of people seem to deal with fame just fine. They manage it. They like it. It likes them, you might say. So I am not saying that fame is somehow intrinsically destructive. But it can be crazy-making for some. The psychological cost, for some, is too high. For Elvis and Cobain especially, it's the old "be careful what you wish for."

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