Archive | January, 2012

It stops at my skin

31 Jan

I hate compliments. I crave compliments. I fidget when you tell me I look nice, but I do like it: that’s not an affectation so much as an unconscious reaction. When you compliment me, I feel like I need to correct you. When you don’t compliment me, I wonder what I’m doing wrong. I swear I’m not trying to be difficult—this is just how my brain works. And there are some, uh, kinks in the system? Eh, I’m not mechanical-minded enough to continue this analogy.

I’m writing this for a couple reasons: first, I like to navel gaze; and second, I find myself apologizing to people more and more often after they offer a compliment. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I wasn’t fishing for compliments.” And that’s true. If I disparage myself, it’s because that’s how I feel and sometimes I don’t know when to keep my mouth shut. But as soon as I hear the standard response, the obligatory (but often sincere!) “Hey, stop it, you’re great,” I know I’ve done it again. “You don’t have to say that. Ugh, I didn’t mean to make you feel like you had to.”

You’ll know when I’m fishing for compliments, because I’ll ask. I don’t play mind games, and I’m a terrible liar. So it goes something like this: “You’d make out with me, right?” And yeah, what a dick to put you on the spot, but I only really ask when I already know the answer. You’ve said as much before, but I need you to remind me. I haven’t suddenly turned repulsive, have I? Did my face fall off while I was talking? Are my insecurities seeping through my pores? That happens sometimes, like when you eat too much garlic.

I hate that I need validation almost as much as I hate the fact that it’s never enough. And I don’t say this to be an asshole. It’s not that compliments mean nothing to me—it’s that they mean less than insults. Even perceived slights, however minor, will worm their way into my thoughts. The compliments are nice to hear, but they feel perfunctory—and when I do ask for them, surely that’s my own fault. I know I’m not the only insecure, neurotic person who feels this way. I also know it’s frustrating as shit, for me and for the people who care about me.

This phenomenon applies to writing, too, of course. I’m more secure about my work than I am about my physical appearance: if you tell me you liked an article or a blog post, I’ll likely thank you without feeling like a fraud. But all it takes is one negative comment to dissolve all the compliments away. And that’s silly. It’s completely illogical. “I hate this” should not be worth 100 iterations of “I love this.” But it is! And very few people get 100 iterations of “I love this,” and very few people only get one “I hate this,” because the internet is a dark, judgmental place.

The title for this post comes from the movie Shortbus, which provided what for me is the most articulate explanation of how it feels to not be able to process the good, and to let the bad overwhelm everything else. “Jamie loves you,” Caleb tells James. “You have so much.” To which James replies, “I see it… all around me… but it stops at my skin. I can’t let it inside.”

The only other way I know how to explain it is as a subversion of the playground chant, “I am rubber, you are glue, everything you say bounces off of me and sticks to you.” Like that, but with compliments. And the insults, those stick. When I say it like that, it sounds so absurd—mostly because, you know, playground chant—but also because I can see how little sense it makes. My skin should be consistent when it comes to the rubber-glue dichotomy. If the good bounces back, why does the bad stick?

Because I hope for the best and expect the worst, and it’s a lot more of the latter than the former. I’m not as cynical as I sound—except when it comes to myself. And then, yeah, I’m a total defeatist, or at least a self-deprecating pain in the ass. I find humor in it, because it would be completely insufferable otherwise. When you expect the worst, you ignore the good things: it’s not intentional, but they don’t fit into your vision of how things work. The bad, though, that’s exactly what you knew was going to happen.

Let me put it in terms of compliments. If I feel ugly, and you tell me I look nice, that is good to hear. I thank you, sincerely. But the swell of pride is fleeting. If I look nice, why don’t I feel like I look nice? And then—oh, look! Someone on the internet is calling me ugly! I look like pathetic and greasy and fat. These are the things I think about myself, so those are the words that matter. It’s not about the insult: it’s about the confirmation.

And oh, this all sounds so much sadder than I wish it did. I think a lot of us are like this. I know I’m not the only who ignores compliments and dwells on insults. But how awful to crave compliments when you can never get enough. And what a terrible flaw to take each insult to heart when these things are an unavoidable part of life. I’m self-obsessed enough: why can’t I be a true narcissist? “You’re just jealous,” I’d tell the haters. And whenever someone praised me or “like”-d something on Facebook or tweeted a link to my article, I’d say, “Yes, yes, thank you, I’m wonderful, I know…”

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Is it by mistake or design?

25 Jan

I love Lana Del Rey, but her performance on Saturday Night Live earlier this month was godawful. Let’s get that out of the way first. I’m not surprised by how negatively people reacted to her TV debut, because it was bad. Bad! No need to qualify it. And no need to defend her either—she choked.

But I’m interested in the more general rejection of Lana Del Rey, the accusation that she’s somehow “too manufactured.” I won’t contest that—Lana Del Rey is no more authentic than any other pop star, indie or otherwise. She’s a calculated assemblage of attractive traits designed to lure us in: her persona is just as important (if not more so) than her voice. And Lana Del Rey isn’t doing this because music is her passion (she’s said otherwise) or to save the lives of bullied gay teens (however noble a cause that is). She’s doing it because she can, and she’s upfront about it.

Why does that get under our skin? Is the admission of fakeness worse than the fakeness itself? While most would be loath to admit it, I’d say the answer is yes. We don’t want to see the man behind the curtain—or in this case, the forced hipster buzz propelling Lana Del Rey to insta-fame. We don’t want to distinguish the performance from reality, and artists like Lady Gaga pander to that. It’s an open secret that however weird she may have been growing up, Stefani Germanotta did not wake up one morning dressed in meat. As a rallying cry for queer youth, “Born This Way” works, but let’s not pretend Gaga’s behavior isn’t an affectation.

I love Lady Gaga, too, and so far she’s shown more promise than Lana Del Rey. (At the very least, she’s a lot more prolific!) Still, I roll my eyes at her assertion that yes, she would dress the way she dresses even if she weren’t Gaga. I’m not questioning her authenticity: I’m questioning why authenticity is even an issue. By now, we’ve been exposed to shows like American Idol—we’ve seen exactly what goes in to the creation of a pop star. This is the way it’s always been, but now it’s more obvious than ever before. So when Elizabeth Grant plumps her lips, bats her eyelashes, and becomes Lana Del Rey, why do we care?

Even growing up with ‘N Sync’s No Strings Attached, we knew there was a puppeteer, right? Sure, there’s a difference between bubblegum boy band pop and Lana Del Rey’s “indie” aesthetic. But both are different products created to appeal to contemporary sensibilities. For me, part of Lana Del Rey’s likability is her self-awareness. There’s talent there, yes, but she’s not “real.” That works for me, because I know that no one is named Lana Del Rey, and that no one is born looking like that. If she tried to convince me otherwise, I’d appreciate the effort but I’d sneer just the same.

When people rail against Lana Del Rey, I’d guess their anger has more to do with the fact that what she’s doing is working. She went on SNL and gave what some would call a career-destroying performance (I wouldn’t go that far, but I grimaced the whole way through)—and she’s more successful than ever before. In the wake of that televised debacle, she has given a few cringe-worthy interviews. Talking to FUSE, she put it plainly: “You can’t expect too much from my show.”

But here’s the real kicker: I don’t buy that either. That “honesty,” the disaffected response to the haters, is as fabricated as Lana Del Rey herself. It’s all part of the creation, a weirdly meta character who is somehow in on the joke and above it at the same time. When a performer admits, “I think, like, the people who have been listening to my music for a little while know that I’m more of a writer and, like, a studio singer,” she is daring you to like her. (Like, seriously.) Can you hear shit like that and still get behind Lana Del Rey?

Of course. I don’t care, and neither should you. Because while Elizabeth Grant might give a shit, Lana Del Rey doesn’t. When we attack an artist for being fake, we’re attacking her for exposing the artifice, which is silly. If Lady Gaga can capitalize on our naïve perception of individuality, why shouldn’t Lana Del Rey be able to make a career out of subverting it? Perhaps it reflects poorly on us: she flubs, she shrugs, she rises to new heights of fame. But that’s on us. We can no more criticize her than we can a Kardashian: Lana Del Rey has fashioned herself into exactly what we need her to be.