One of the unfortunate aspects of art and celebrity culture is that there is a big disconnect between who we are and who we appear to be as stars. The difference between person and persona has always been present, and persona involves a certain amount of deceptive image management in the best of times. But in our times, as is the case with so much else, this problem has gotten out of hand. What makes things so difficult is the fact that a great many of us have personas that may bear only a passing resemblance to the person that exists, and as it is the persona that people are familiar with and that they think they know, the end result is that people react to their understanding of a persona and often fail to note the fact that there is a person. This is made all the more complicated when people attempt to infuse their persona with certain aspects of their person. Today, I would like to talk about one such example in the contemporary pop singer, Bebe Rexha.
Like several contemporary artists known for their hustle and desire to be famous (this includes Dua Lipa, whose mother’s maiden name was Rexha, and Ava Max), Bebe Rexha is an artist of the Albanian diaspora. She wrote songs before performing them under her own name, and is one of a variety of singer whose vocals were used by popular songs without credit, making her someone whose voice was familiar and whose songs were familiar even if she was not. She has had some hits under her own name–her biggest one being “Meant To Be,” which was counted as a country song despite most of its airplay coming from pop and adult contemporary and hot adult contemporary stations, ending up being a record-breaking hit on the Hot Country Charts because of its inclusion of Florida-Georgia Line. Other than that, most of her singles have had considerably less success. Though her first album was certified platinum on the strength of its biggest hit, her second album has fared less well, with “Beautiful Mistakes” debuting at #140 on the Top 200 album charts.
One of the notable aspects of Rexha’s career as a pop musician is the way that she has tried to release music that expresses the messiness of her life and her insecurities. This has not proven to be a particularly successful approach. Her song “I’m A Mess,” from her first album, nearly hit the top 100 songs of the year and was widely hated by music critics. Similarly, a great deal of critical scorn was heaped on the only single from the present album cycle to even hit the Hot 100, her duet with Doja Cat called, “Baby, I’m Jealous.” Despite the fact that a great many human beings live messy lives in the contemporary world, and have a heap of fears and insecurities, the realness of Rexha in her works has not led her to be thought of as an artist with a great deal of charisma and personality. Even though it is easy to admire her hustle, it is a bit puzzling to see the disconnect between her personality as it is revealed in her desire to be respected and recognized for her contributions to pop music and in the lack of resonance that she has had with the general public and especially with harsh music critics.
What makes the most sense to me is that Rexha, and other artists like her, suffer because of the lingering appeal of sprezzatura. In order to be cool–and this has been true at least since the Renaissance, it has been necessary to appear as if one’s efforts are in fact effortless. To be cool one has to act like one does not care even when one cares very much, one has to appear effortless in one’s behavior even when one puts a great deal of effort into success and appearance. Those people who are too open about the effort that they take to be successful get labeled as “try-hards” and are most definitely not considered to be cool because they are too candid and too open about the sort of effort that is required to be successful. There is a great gulf between those who celebrate work and those who celebrate the appearance of studied indifference, and Rexha is on one side and hipster critics are on the other. For all of my disapproval of some of Rexha’s life choices, and my wish that she would work harder on overcoming her insecurities and messiness instead of wallowing in it, I am on the same side of that divide that she is on.