While I have generally been pretty critical of celebrity culture, I do find it interesting that the latest single by musician Billie Eilish deals with the question of power and its abuse as well as the strange way it makes people feel. Most of the time when I think of celebrity culture I think of the malign uses of cultural power that celebrities engage in, encouraging other people to follow after their disordered and generally disreputable lives as if they were models to be followed by an increasingly corrupt and debased general culture. To be sure, celebrities themselves both revel in their power in seeking to encourage people to vote for terrible politicians with terrible worldviews and agendas and support worthless causes as well as argue about the ways that they themselves are not as powerful as they would wish. Celebrities are merely the public face of entertainment culture, and a great many of the even more powerful figures recognize that their power comes from not being known, and that if their power was known as producers and executives and the like, that they would deal with a lot more hostile attention from those who dislike how that power is used. It is easier to build up and then tear down celebrities than it is to face up to one’s own abuse of power which is all the more profound because it is not obvious and openly acknowledged.
It does not appear as if Billie Eilish is reflecting upon her own power. As is commonly the case, those who feel themselves to be taken advantage of and victimized tend to respond, understandably, with a great deal of hostility towards those who have taken advantage of them and do not tend to reflect upon the way that they too abuse power in different realms and in different ways. The fact that someone may have abused their power against us in some fashion does not in any way prevent us from abusing our power in that same way or in different ways against others. Being a victim in our own tales does not prevent us in any way from being the villain in the tales of others. Speaking personally, I must admit that I have always been greatly puzzled by the way that I have appeared in the villain tales of others, as if others have willfully and perversely twisted some aspect of my behavior of personality and deformed it beyond all measure and beyond all recognition, all to satisfy their own longing to claim some illusory moral high ground.
Yet if it is lamentable that celebrities like Eilish are a bit too quick to consider themselves victims of others and a bit too slow to recognize their own problematic conduct, it is nonetheless true that celebrities can easily be victimized. At least anecdotally, it appears as if a great many people who seek stardom do so because of the damage of the lives that they have faced. It is natural to expect that those who have been victimized seek some sort of power so that they can feel strong and secure, and that those who hold real and often hidden power might use the lure of apparent power from celebrity status as a means of taking advantage of those who are power hungry but not sufficiently worldly wise to recognize the many layers of power that exist. It is easy to talk about corrupt societal structures, but it is hard to create and to maintain just societies in the presence of people who are nearly all in their own ways highly unjust in their own fashion. It is a very important lesson to desire not to abuse one’s own power.
And yet the desire to avoid abusing one’s power does not mean that one is successful in avoiding its abuse. A great many people have seen “Your Power” as a soulful and vulnerable discussion of a relationship between Billie and an older rapper that went south, even though to her credit Billie asked her fans not to bully and harass and abuse him in turn. Yet the song openly asks the older rapper, known by the intriguing name of Q, whether he is only concerned about the personal repercussions he will face, including perhaps the loss of his recording contract, as a result of the fallout of his relationship. This is indeed something that an older person in a relationship with a younger person has to think about, the fallout and the repercussions. There are some people who would argue that there is something inherently problematic and unequal about a relationship where one partner is so much more experienced in life than the other person, so much more worldly wise. To be sure, this sort of power dynamic does require a great deal of care, and those who seek to gratify their own longings are perhaps not the most conscientious about how they serve the best interests of others in that gratification.
Power can be abused, after all, in a variety of ways. People can abuse their beauty, their charm, their strength, their intellect, their wealth their backgrounds, their power in institutions, the sympathies of others, and anything else. Anything that people can possess as some kind of resource, anything that can do our lives any good, can also be corrupted and used in an abusive and predatory fashion. Anything that can give us power and a sense of agency in our lives can also be used to torment and afflict other people. Most of us are highly attuned to the way in which other people use and abuse their power to make our own lives more difficult and more stressful and less pleasant, but we are often far less reflective about the way that our own use of our own power has negative repercussions that other people are simply left to deal with as best as they are able. Hurt people hurt people, after all, abused people abuse people, and this world is full of hurt and abused people who are consumed with the wrongs that they have suffered and blind to the wrongs that they inflict on others who suffer in turn and who also long for vengeance in turn, and who hurt and abuse others blindly in turn. Where does the cycle stop?