Friday, 20 March 2020

Parasocial relationships, the flip side

Okay so aside from a quick update, I haven't posted in 6 years. It's not that I don't have thoughts. Maybe I have better outlets for them? But today I want to ramble on about a topic without boring my Discord friends so it's time to dust off the old blog. I'm going to start by saying *I'm insecure*. I worry endlessly about what other people think of me. Yeah, yeah, I know, they aren't thinking of me at all. But when I'm talking to them, is there ever just a flash of "this chick is weird" in a not good way? And just when I think I'm, you know, okay, someone comes along to make me question all over again. Most recently, it was Oliver Thorn's brilliant short film, Artists and Fandom, which you can watch here: Go ahead, I'll wait. Now of course this is Ollie's personal if educated opinion and experience. And he certainly wasn't talking to me as our contact would be generously described as minimal. But *could* he have been talking about me? He's not the first one to address parasocial relationships. I felt similar dread when Wil Williams wrote a piece on them specifically in the podcast industry (yeah I feel *very* indicted) I invite you to read here: So since I have strong feels about this, I thought maybe it would help me - and maybe others - to write about parasocial relationships from the other side. From the point of view of the fan. A couple of starting principles. Parasocial relationships (I'm just going to say PR from now on) are by definition one-sided. They are a relationship between a consumer and an image. The people and things behind the image (and this goes for Oliver as well as breakfast cereal) can manipulate this relationship for well-meaning or not-so-well-meaning ends. I just want to point out that, to one extent or another, the fan is being used. To sell something, to get more YouTube hits, or occasionally to become a better person. But used nonetheless. Now a word about art, and not the same words Ollie used. Art is self-expression and therefore reveals some part of the artist to the viewer (or listener). Sometimes you may not understand what is being revealed (like abstract art) and sometimes it's very clear. But there is a vulnerability being uncovered for public consumption. And this creates a power imbalance. I'm going to go out on a limb and say artists create because they want to be seen. They want to be known. There is a deep human need to be witnessed and acknowledged and hopefully accepted. If it weren't important for strangers to do this witnessing, this acknowledging, this accepting, people wouldn't display or share their art, or they'd just go into therapy where their vulnerabilities remain protected by doctor patient privilege. Blogging is actually the same thing. I'm not saying this ramble is art. But my thoughts and opinions are acts of creation. Writing them down is an act of creation. And rather than writing them in a notebook and shoving it in a drawer, I'm putting it on the internet. In the hopes that you will understand. In the hopes that you will agree. In the hopes that you will disagree. In the hopes that somehow this will create a connection between you and me. So does that not make art an act of reaching out? Are we as the recipients of art not expected to reach back? I mentioned before about the power imbalance. The artist is exposing themselves which puts them at a disadvantage. But at the same time, hopefully they feel some fulfillment by being "seen". The human response is to try to correct this imbalance by exposing our own vulnerabilities and experiencing that same sense of being "seen". But the PR model presupposes this to be unhealthy. It's fine to form attachments to artists but it is not acceptable to try to make it a two-way relationship. If you want to be seen, you too must become an artist and express your vulnerabilities not to the ones who created this need in you, but to more strangers. Is it any wonder everyone has a blog and a YouTube channel, not just artists? Is it any wonder people sign up for talent shows and reality TV? We have an ingrained drive to find our place in the social hierarchy through acceptance into higher and higher status groups, and in a culture where anyone can be a celebrity and where we are becoming increasingly isolated from the people sitting next to us, it is instinctual to seek approval, to seek connection, with the highest-status person we think we can reach. I mean, you went to high school, right? This is Lord of the Flies 101. It also brings to mind an episode of the sci fi television series Crusade - a terrible virus infects a spaceship, transmitted by touch. The crew form a human chain, holding hands as the virus races from person to person, out the airlock and into open space, and when there are no more people, the virus dies in the vacuum of space. So instead of creating two-way bonds, we create an endless string of one-way bonds in an attempt to feel validated. So my argument is that it is not unhealthy or bad to try to create a two-way connection with a stranger who has been vulnerable to you. But celebrities seem to want it both ways. They want to be able to benefit from the PR through box office sales and Twitter followers but don't want to deal with these same people *talking to them*. I am taking this a little to its most ridiculous conclusion. A little. Obviously the real problem is with boundaries and what a lot of PR essayists bash on about is that the fan perceives a relationship which is not there. And have we not all had people in our daily lives we thought we were a lot closer to than it turns out we were? When you find out you're only a "4" friend when you thought you were a "5"? (this is from my as-yet-completed friendship scale) But even I, as the logical, level headed person you've met in this essay, am not always clear on the boundary. I tread lightly around the edges, mostly. I have sent letters of appreciation to performers who have done some particularly moving work. I do not expect them to then validate me. But there is the tiniest element of selfishness in even that act. At the same time as I am saying, "your work is important to me", I am also saying, "I exist". "See me". This is still only a 1 on the friendship scale but it is something. If I admire someone's work, and I like what I know about them as a person, of course I would love to move on up the friendship scale, just as I would have loved to have gotten closer to the cool theatre kids in high school. But I have to accept that this is unlikely and move on. Also I would like to interrupt myself to say that I think the way we treat performers in the media is appalling. I personally do not read tabloid stories *about* celebrities, at the same time I enjoy interviews and their opportunities to talk about themselves and their work. I am only interested in consuming information they wish to put into the public domain. I think they are entitled to private lives. We may as a species want to see pictures of them walking their kids to school (or in a bikini on holiday) but I don't think that justifies photographers following them around on the streets. This is not news, it is not in the public interest, and we are not entitled to it. This is definitely PR gone wrong. Oliver Thorn, if you want to talk about "giving the people what they want" you really needn't look any further than any Insta account with a young woman posing in her underwear or … whatever the male equivalent is. Are these photos body-positive or cries for attention? Okay back to my main point, if I had one. Right, so you've got the Andrew Scotts on the one hand who are a 1 on the friendship scale. Then at the other end you've got people who write audio drama alone in a closet and then are surprised that people all over the world enjoy their work. And these often quite shy people emerge squinting into conventions and festivals to discover they are beloved of strangers. In my experience, they are generally very keen to engage and move up the friendship scale. Maybe not as high as I'd like, but certainly into non-binary numbers. And it is a little weird when, by enjoying their art, you do know a little bit about them, but even the most popular do not consider themselves celebrities and are consequently not standoffish (if they are standoffish, it's usually social anxiety). I should note I have also experienced this level of mutuality in theatre. I no longer "do stage door" as it only exacerbates my own neurotic "us vs them" world view. But one of the reasons I fell so hard for The Grinning Man (the greatest musical production ever) was the fact that the people involved loved the fans as much as we loved them. Too often, commercial entertainment loves fans' money, but not them. Much like harassment, stalking is in the eye of the beholder, and it is often not clear to the fan what makes the artist uncomfortable. Building up a whole imaginary romance and expecting the artist to participate is a hard no. Sending lingerie to an artist is another no. Ollie mentions being bought clothing (he does not say "inappropriate" clothing) as being a boundary-crosser, whereas other artists are ecstatic to be sent gifts. I'm a gift giver, it's true. I do beadwork and I have made jewelry and pins as gifts for some of the people to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. I have never given underwear. None of my gifts have been sexualised as, for me, that's an absolute no. I once recorded an album's-worth of cover songs to try to "share back" with an artist. I don't think at the time I was trying for the "I'm an artist too and therefore am justified in creating art" angle but just that it was what I had to give. This is probably a whole therapy session on its own. I have seen fandoms ruined by fans. Yeah. It happens. I even refused to use the word "fan" because of its roots in "fanatic" when Cumberbitchmania was at it's height. I became an "aficionado" because I can use words with many syllables. Or an admirer, because that was true. I wanted to distance myself from the people I felt had formed an unhealthy attachment to a performer. But almost without exception these fans just wanted to get to 1 on the friendship scale. For a person they admired to know that they existed. When I love something, I can get overexcited. I get passionate. I run out of superlatives. And I want to share that excitement with the people who created the thing. I think this can maybe be overwhelming sometimes. I don't think I do anything quote unquote wrong. I am certainly not dangerous. I try to make sure I don't get more personal than I would with any other stranger (but I can get *real* personal with strangers). But I do feel a greater paranoia when building a maybe friendship with an artist than with someone who is not a creative or whose art I do not consume. Because I worry that they are judging my every move, to make sure I don't cross this invisible boundary, that I don't try to get too close, constantly on guard for toxic behaviour. I don't know how to navigate through this if artists don't communicate their boundaries. I'm sure Oliver (yes, I'm picking on him because he has so recently delved into the topic) thought it would be educational to identify types of toxic fans, but the descriptions of behaviour he found unacceptable were still vague for someone needing a set of rules for "do" and "don't". There really was never any risk of my sending clothes - or naked pics - to him. But now I feel quite uncomfortable responding directly to him or addressing him. Even this blog post, in which he features heavily, is written about him and not to him. I don't want to be mistaken for a … debater? I think if I got to know Ollie I'd probably really like him, but now, he just makes me nervous and I feel judged. No matter how many times he says "the vast majority of my fans are lovely and very much appreciated". I'm not sure if I've made a point here. Takeaways: I'm insecure. And I assume everyone else is insecure as well, even paranoid. Because I don't know what level of intimacy makes an individual uncomfortable and they are unlikely to communicate this clearly to me, I am inevitably going to stomp all over boundaries but the last thing I want is to invade anyone's personal space. I'm happy with a high degree of emotional and psychological intimacy (or I wouldn't be posting this on the internet). I know I will be judged and misjudged and that makes me a little bit miserable. But the desire to connect to another human being is natural. And as Wil says, podcasters are people. Artists are human. I'm not going to stop trying to make these human connections because someone is a creative (hell, that's generally the most attractive thing a person can be). I will make people uneasy and I will alienate some but occasionally I will make a real connection. And then I will forever question that connection, if history serves. But as long as creatives use their art to reach out, I'm probably going to reach back. Namaste, y'all.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Celebrity Once Removed ...

... or why I love Nerina Pallot and am angry at Benedict Cumberbatch.

Sometimes I think celebrities have too much influence over our daily lives. Look at how many entertainers are in Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential list. And I'm not saying entertainers can't or shouldn't use their visibility. I'm just saying there's little in their professional training that equips them for such a role. Athletes, generally less. And I could write a whole blog post about how politicians probably shouldn't be influential, but I can't be arsed.

Anyway, that's by way of an introduction to today's topic. I know I haven't blogged for ages, so long I don't even remember writing that last post, but I suppose I'm still hoping to inspire some sort of intelligent discussion, so I'll keep trying, every few years or so.

I love Nerina Pallot because she's brought singing and playing music back into my life. And a bit of songwriting. I might have taken the occasional multi-year hiatus from making noise, but I suppose I've never truly stopped singing. But the reason I credit her so highly is because it has become as important to me as breathing and I'm enjoying it now as I never did before.

I am actually classically trained, which sounds more posh than it is. My mother loved to sing, sang at church and in community chorales, went to the opera ... As soon as I was old enough, we started taking voice lessons together. And I learned to do scales and arias and recitatives. Classical music really isn't my bag, but some of the pieces weren't terribly dreadful and occasionally we'd come across a quirky art song and that could be fun. I performed and competed, and I hated it.

I spent a couple of years retraining myself to breathe to cure my chronic asthma, during which time I was afraid to sing for fear my body would think I was hyperventilating. Even now, almost entirely wheeze-free, I sometimes emerge from a practice session with a bit of tightness in my chest. But it goes quickly. Anyway, during that time, I lost most of my high register and a chunk of notes at my passagio. Subsequent attempts to sing were marred by the fact I sounded terrible. But it turned out exercise really was all I needed. At least for the middle notes. I'm resigned that I'm no longer a colloratura soprano but rather a mezzo (but I don't have the rich low notes of an alto).

The fact I didn't enjoy singing didn't temper my love of listening to music, and Nerina has been my go-to singer/songwriter since I discovered her around 2006. She comes to Cornwall every year for concert and we've seen her each time for the last 7 years, I think. But late last year, I was listening to one of her EPs (the specific song, if you're curious, was Eleven) and I had a bit of an epiphany. My definition of an epiphany is when you get hit over the head with an idea that really should have occurred to you decades ago. Part of my classical training, and my nature to be obsessed with getting things right, is to concentrate on technical perfection (which, I think I've established, at this time was nearly nil). I've never naturally connected emotionally to music. Or much else. Animals, always, for good or bad, and if I'm lucky, people, although that is getting way easier as I get older and stop caring so much about whether or not it's appropriate to talk to a complete stranger in a way that reveals your soul. You know, as I'm doing here.

So my epiphany was how much BETTER you can sound when you clearly stop worrying about the technical and start feeling the emotion in a song. That didn't come out quite right. It sounds like I'm saying Nerina doesn't have technique. She has an amazing, beautiful voice and she knows how to use it. But she also has a relaxed approach to singing. She trusts that her voice will do what it needs to do, which is something I never have done, and I still don't trust it not to crack or simply stop for no apparent reason. But I've had to let that go.

Now I know I don't sound technically perfect. I know when I was younger and my voice was in better shape, I sounded more polished. But I'm enjoying singing, enough so that I'm cautiously sharing it with others, even though I still hate "performing." And I've had to learn not to beat myself up when a note comes out in an unexpected way. Or when I forget the words or play the wrong chord. But one of the side effects of choosing songs I am in love with is people do ask me if I sing any happy songs. No. I don't. I don't feel happy. But for now I'll settle for joy.

So why am I upset with Benedict Cumberbatch? What could such a well-spoken, polite, intelligent young man possibly have done to earn my ire? He only bloody reawakened my love for theatre, the git. I thought it was dead and buried after the theatre and I had a rather messy break-up in 1990. We didn't even speak for years after. And until recently I was quite happy that we could see each other VERY occasionally, exchange a few words, and then go our separate ways. I was contented with the less rubbish television and romantic comedies at the cinema. I could cope.

Then HE happened. I'm not going to apologise for appreciating the man's work. But to my peril I enjoy watching him perform so much I'll watch anything he does. The low point was probably the racing. It took me an hour to realise that some of the cars were identical, so the car I was cheering for because I liked it's paint job the best was actually two cars. But bully for me, they came in first and second. Yay, pretty paint! Actually, that probably wasn't the low point. I tried Nathan Barley. I don't "get" that kind of humour. I watched one full episode, then just the few seconds the Batch was on screen. He was great, as always. Probably best he didn't have a larger role or I would have had to watch even more seconds of that ... ahem.

So of course I went to see Frankenstein when the National Theatre rereleased it last year. Both versions. And since then I've seen other NTLive productions. And recently, I saw Birdland live at Royal Court in London. I can feel a lump in my throat just thinking about it. I've got another trip to London coming up and I will see at least one live performance a day. And know that it still will only scratch the surface of what's on offer. And the reason this is a problem is because IT IS NOT ENOUGH. And I think most people have experienced some kind of unrequited love in their lives, and it sucks! Right now, it appears very much as though, even if I have not gotten over the theatre, it has very much moved on and is just fine without me.

I generally strive to be fair, so some of the blame has to be given to Tom Hiddleston for being so brilliant in The Hollow Crown, but that wasn't live theatre. It wasn't even semi-live theatre, like Frankenstein. But it was Shakespeare. And I'll also blame Andrew Scott for being so amazing on stage in Birdland. And Simon Russell Beale for breaking my heart as King Lear.

And it is NOT ENOUGH to watch live theatre from the relative comfort of my local cinema, although I appreciate the fact it is available. It isn't even enough to enjoy increasingly amazing drama on television and in the movies. I'm not sure what will constitute enough. But I have a feeling that, when I find out what that is, I'm going to be too busy to tell you about it. UPDATE: I am revisiting my blog nearly 6 years later because I have *thoughts* and I have reread this post. I still love Nerina and am looking forward to seeing her perform live once the pandemic (COVID 19 for those of you - and me - in the future who have forgotten about this). I surprisingly have no strong feelings about Benedict Cumberbatch. I moved to Essex, just outside of London, nearly 5 years ago, and in to Whitechapel nearly 2 years ago. I've gone from 2 live shows a week to 4 live shows a week to several a month. I love the fringe theatres the best, and if I don't have to move my feet for the performers to get by, or if I'm not spat on at least once, I'm not close enough. I have also gotten into podcasts, which you would think is a retrograde step. But not at all. Podcasting is brilliantly interactive. Having the voices go straight into your head is intimate, and podcasters are an accessible lot, through Twitter, Discord, and even live shows (where you can get spat on). Podcasters are, in general, the best people on the planet. Oh, and I've seen Cumberbatch, Hiddleston, and Scott live on stage (Scott more than once and I even spoke to him at a charity function). I've discovered amazing talent I'd walk over broken glass for. I did training in stage management and I've even directed. Even as the theatres of London are shut down this week (and who knows for how long) and I worry so hard about their survival, I never once stop being grateful that I have had the opportunity to experience live theatre every few days when so many people can only get it on special occasions. I could write a whole essay on why theatre is important *to me* but I can summarise it as "it's a safe place to fall in love". Theatre means different things to different people, but it is so important y'all. Love and light. Zx

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Don't worry, be happy

I know I haven't posted in a really long time, but today I'd like to share a little story.


Once upon a time there were two brothers. They may have started life the same, but by the time they were adults, they shared only one thing: a dream of finding gold in the mountains in which they lived.

Every morning as the sun touched the tops of the pine trees they got up and carried their tools up the mountain. They dug deep into the earth. They drove their picks into the stone. They panned the water for signs of the treasure waiting upstream.

Jonas enjoyed the feel of dirt between his fingers. He enjoyed the smell of it, and the fresh air around him. He listened to the song of the birds and watched for deer making their way silently through the trees. He enjoyed swinging his pick and he loved the feel of the cold water flowing over his hands.

Thomas set his mind only to the digging, the picking, the panning. He didn't notice much of what went on around him.

As the sun slid below the horizon, Jonas made his way home where his family was waiting. His wife kissed him and asked him how his day went. "Nothing yet," he smiled. "Maybe tomorrow." After dinner, he read aloud until the children were asleep, then he and his wife would sit quietly watching the fire burn to embers.

Thomas went home to an empty cottage. He had never had time for courting. Maybe once he was a successful prospector, he would find a wife and build a family, he told himself.

Day after day followed the same pattern. Days turned into weeks; weeks into months; months into years.

Until one day, they both struck gold. Jonas was delighted and ran home to tell his wife, clutching a chunk of the metal to his chest.

Thomas too was delighted and clutched a chunk of the precious gold to his chest. And he realized that for the first time in his life, he was happy.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Life, vicariously

The other day I was talking at work about chocolate (which is becoming more and more common) and one of my compassionate colleagues offered to eat chocolate and tell me about it. Funnily enough, my husband has invented a creature called a Sense Monkey who does the same thing.

Unrelatedly, one of my favourite songwriters was blogging about marrying someone with an advanced work ethic and the fact he wasn't impressed with her industriousness when she managed to both make the bed AND buy the entire series of Grey's Anatomy on DVD in a single day.

So with both of those things in my head, and fantasising (while driving out near Lamorna Cove) about living in the country and also not ever having to leave home, it occurred to me:

The point of artists must be to live life fully and then tell the rest of us how it was.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Are you paying too much for ...... customer service?!?

This will be a relatively short one.

I'm concerned about a growing trend with UK companies. I don't know if this has caught on in the US yet; I certainly hope not.

More and more service companies are switching their toll-free support numbers to premium numbers. These can cost from a under a pound per minute to several pounds.

I'm not naive. I know that there are costs associated with providing customer service. This and other business expenses are normally spread amongst the entire customer base when providers set their fees. So I do know that these costs are ultimately borne by the consumer.

I also understand the benefits of apportioning certain costs only to the customers who use them. For instance, cell phone providers routinely let you choose between paying a set rate for texts, or only paying for the texts you send. I can see why businesses would like to remove every cost possible from their normal running expenses - because then they can advertise a lower rate.

But in this case, the overwhelming reason *against* such premium numbers is that ultimately there is no impetus for businesses to improve their products and services to reduce the consumer's reliance on phone support.

Our phone and internet provider, Toucan, is the most recent we've noticed to move away from toll-free support. Their rates did not reduce, but when our internet went out, we had to pay to phone them - twice - only to find out that the problem was at their end. An exchange had blown. I fail to understand why we had to pay to find out they had technical issues.

It's a problem I've encountered frequently since moving to the UK. UK companies seem to have no sense of customer service. Waitstaff are surly and inattentive, shop assistants seem as though they would rather you shop elsewhere, and the big companies, well, just don't get me started on the big companies. The fact that UK concerns feel it is appropriate to charge customers for the shortcomings of the business just follows on from that.

So if you are shopping for a service provider in the UK, be sure to factor in potential support calls into the cost of doing business with a company. Because if companies won't listen to their customers over the phone, perhaps they will listen to their plummeting sales.

In case companies don't catch on, I would like to do them one better. From now on, I would only like to pay for the portion of their advertising budget I use.

Friday, 2 January 2009

What Women Want

or ... the problem with boys.

For those of you (men) who haven't figured it out yet, please let me explain to you the phases of a relationship.

Phase One: The Education
[lasts from first date through Honeymoon]

The Education Phase is quite simply those months or years of a relationship in which the female shows the male how she wishes to be treated within the relationship long-term. She will often demonstrate the correct preparation of meals, cleaning schedules, and apportioned independence (in the form of "boys' nights out"). Sometimes the male, keen to impress the female, will offer to participate in some of these activities. It is important to take careful note of the female's response, often along the lines of, "Don't worry, honey, I like doing things for you."

Phase Two: The Transition
[lasts from the end of the Honeymoon until the female gets too frustrated to continue]

During this second phase, the female initiates the reversal of the relationship. Signals are given to the man subtly, at first, by asking or suggesting the occasional reversal, for instance, "I've had a really rough day, honey, would you mind heating something up for dinner?" Latitude is granted, as the female knows the man has, until this point, only been observing the desired behavior. However, in line with the "see, do, teach" formula, it is important to gradually increase the opportunities for the man to do things. Only through practice will the man achieve competence in these activities, and in early stages may require supervision and gentle correction. In time the male will be capable of carrying them out without assistance. The female may also begin to exercise her apportioned independence ("girls' nights out" or "pedicures").

Other techniques for initiating the reversal include: assigning chores, trading/withholding sexual favors, and nagging. No studies have confirmed the efficacy of any of these techniques.

Phase Three: Full Reversal
[length of phase varies]

During the third phase, the role reversal completes and the male has been fully trained to treat the female in the appropriate manner. He now seeks domestic duties and, should the female offer to help, the reply is along the lines of "Don't bother yourself, sweetie, you know I like making you dinner. Here's a glass of wine, why don't you go have a nice hot bath?" Whilst less perceptive males would at this point be wondering why the female has become surly, dinners less elaborate and the house less clean, and why the relationship seems to be in a tailspin, the male who has reached Phase Three is content in the knowledge that he has been properly trained to be in the relationship, and is confident that he is doing a good job.

Ideally, Phase Three is of equal length to Phase One. This can vary, however, depending on how smoothly Phase Two progresses. If Phase Two must be repeatedly extended due to the male's resistance to or failure to understand the reversal signals, this is tantamount to the continuation of Phase One. But, theoretically, at least, Phase Three would have a terminus, at which point the relationship moves naturally into Phase Four.

Phase Four: Equilibrium
[you didn't think there would be a phase four, did you?]

In Phase Four, the male has proven himself fully capable of treating the female in the ways he was shown. This qualifies him for promotion, to use a business analogy. Throughout Phase Four, equilibrium is reached through the female resuming some of the activities from Phase One while the male continues all other activities from Phase Three. An organic give-and-take ensues until both the male and the female are sharing the activities equally and without artificial rotas, schedules, gender-based assumptions or "understandings."

Phase Four, in theory, carries on until the death of one or both of the parties. The sad fact is that few relationships survive Phase Two. The most widely accepted theory for this is that males in general seem to misinterpret Phase One as a demonstration of the relationship rather than a mirror of Phase Three. This theory is not without its detractors, however no rival theory better explains why many male subjects have been observed to complain, "I don't understand what she wants." This common complaint clearly illustrates that the male has not correctly identified the instructional nature of the female's behavior.

It is my hope, by making these findings available outside obscure research journals, to increase general understanding of the four phases of a relationship and perhaps even increase opportunities to observe Phase Three behavior.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

I couldn't say it better myself