You might not think of me as the kind of guy who hangs out with movie stars. If so, you’d be right.
Most of the time.
Recently though, my regular habit of spending zero time with celebrities was interrupted when I found myself standing around in the same room as actress and singer Vanessa Hudgens.
Let me explain how such an event came about. My wife enters contests online. Sometimes in the evening, we’ll sit down to watch television and she’ll enter lots of them all at once. She’s won a bunch of stuff: trips, a car, a grill.
Her most recent big win was a trip for us to Vegas to attend the Billboard Music Awards. We are not the kind of people who ardently follow the pop music scene, to put it mildly. But, we are also not the kind of people who turn down a free trip because we don’t know anything about Top 40 music.
So, we went. Part of the prize package was the chance to attend a backstage event on the Saturday before the show. When we arrived, we were ushered into a long hallway full of booths containing radio personalities from around the country. They were all sitting, waiting for some celebrity who would be attending or performing at the awards show to drop by to be interviewed.
It was pretty quiet until Vanessa Hudgens, who was co-hosting the show, walked in. Her presence generated a flurry of energy. She stalked from booth to booth in impractical heels and a flowery little dress. Once in awhile, she’d pause to have her picture taken, doing that hand on the hip, head-tilted with a coy smile that someone, somewhere has declared all models, actresses and college girls with an Instagram account must do.
The moment was surreal. People fawned over her, as if there was something in her, in her very nature that set her apart from regular people and allowed her to enter the rarefied strata of the celebrity world.
I felt exactly the lack of excitement I had anticipated. I had the opportunity to walk across the room to meet her and just felt like the effort couldn’t be justified. My apathy had been hardened when I saw the way Hudgens responded to the radio people whose job it was to joke around with her and to act as if hosting the Billboard Music Awards was a serious accomplishment.
When she was being recorded, she laughed and giggled. When the recording stopped, she put down the microphone and walked out without granting the people around her the dignity of so much as a good-bye. She carried with her the aura of a synthetic and shallow culture and it shone through everything she did.
The spirit she embodied was thrown into stark contrast a couple of minutes after I walked away from her. As I was cruising down the hallway, I noticed a face I recognized. It was Tiffany Alvord’s. Alvord is a prominent YouTuber some of whose videos I’d seen.
I introduced myself to her. She was genuine and pleasant. The energy that came from her was the opposite of what I’d seen a few minutes earlier in Vanessa Hudgens.
In short, my brief encounter with Hudgens confirmed the worst stereotypes of empty and narcissistic celebrities. Perhaps, because she built her career outside the Hollywood establishment, Alvord’s attitude was surprisingly approachable and open. The point, I suppose, is that the personalities and agendas of our cultural influencers vary widely and are not monolithic as it is easy to suppose.
Two things stood out from the experience. First, it’s easy for those of us who dissent from the messages of mainstream pop culture to think the decadence we see is the result of a gaggle of evil masterminds manipulating the levers of cultural power. There may indeed be some of that, but the fact on the ground is that our culture is made by flesh and blood people with all sorts of flaws just trying to make it in the world.
Vanessa Hudgens, whatever her faults, is not self-consciously radical in her approach to the world. She is just a girl who stumbled into an early opportunity to be marketed to other young girls by a corporation whose ultimate interest is neither cultural nor philosophical, but commercial.
Second, since pop culture is, in fact, made by normal people perhaps there is more in it that can be redeemed than I have tended to think. By no means am I suggesting a wholesale embrace of the image-driven, materialistic ethos of pop culture. But, the mechanisms of pop culture are more accessible than they sometimes seem, whether that means holding influential conversations with members of the entertainment industry or launching a YouTube channel.
My tendency has been to think we ought to simply abandon all that, walk away from the engines of cultural power and let the thing run its destructive course. One thing I got from my time hanging out with Vanessa Hudgens is the idea that perhaps I should reconsider, that maybe turning our backs on such things is merely to abandon our duties, to give up more easily than we ought.