We humans spend a lot of time obsessing over star power. Not the energy output of celestial fireballs, but the mysterious quality that makes younger women go apeshit, older women swoon and throw panties, younger men act slightly less aloof than usual, and older men chuckle fondly and tell the same story sixteen thousand times about how they met Mel Gibson. Star power is peculiar shit. Most of us are hypnotized by it to some extent; also, most of us recognize it, though none of us can define exactly what it is. I would guess that the average person, asked to take a stab at a formula, would come up with some obvious thing like this:
Star Power = Good Looks + Charisma
…but that’s atrocious. For one thing, a lot of megastars have not been conventionally good-looking, or even remotely good-looking. Robert DeNiro is an undeniable star but the man was only moderately handsome in his early prime, and looks increasingly like a cartoon of himself.* Tom Hanks is a guy who learned that being funny and nice would compensate for his soft, strange features, and he was completely right about that – especially in the 90s. And for another thing, “charisma” is a quality as badly in need of definition as star power. Hell, they’re practically the same concept.
So no, this definition won’t do. And as much as I’d love to provide you with one**, I’m not there yet either. I have taken a step closer though. And I believe this step is valuable. Stars are people straddling the line between being loveable and execrable. They are human split decisions.
I can offer a lot of anecdotal evidence to support this point, but really the proof is in you. You’ll have to search your own soul to realize the truth of this simple rule. Think of all the times you’ve had a conversation with a friend that went like this:
YOU: God, I can’t stand Julia Roberts.
FRIEND: What, really? I love her! I’ve seen all her movies.
YOU: I FEEL like I’ve seen all her movies. Every preview looks like a remake of one of the movies she did with gerbil boy.
FRIEND: Mark Hamill?
YOU: Richard Gere.*** God, I hate Richard Gere.
FRIEND: Oh, I love Richard Gere! I’ve seen all his movies.
YOU: You’re a fucking moron. I’m trading you in for some tacos.
TACO VENDOR: Hola senor! Will six tacos be sufficient?
YOU: Yes. Yes, they will.
Maybe not exactly like that. Anyhow, I think if you search your memory, you’ll find that you’ve had a lot of discussions or arguments over the years about stars – undeniable, huge pop stars – who you loved or hated and the person you were talking to hated or loved, in diametric opposition to your own opinion. Even if you’re one of those ultra-accepting droolcups who loves every star, you’ve probably had to defend your love of people like Kevin Sorbo to more cynical people with better taste than you.
I know what you’re thinking. The incorrect responses to this argument go like this:
A. Well, star X is just over-exposed. He or she is genuinely likeable and good-looking, but because we’ve seen star X’s shenanigans in so many movies or listened to star X’s crooning in so many big hit songs, many of us are simply getting sick of said star. It’s akin to how you get sick of even your favorite flavor of ice cream, or sweet delicious tacos.
– Answer: You are a fool. No one gets sick of tacos. How dare you, sir! …Actually, this is a misapprehension of the facts. A lot of people hate stars right out of the gate, before their incredible over-exposure. The idea of star burnout is truthful in that it definitely does happen for some people who are both sensitive to it and absorb a lot of media, but that just muddies the water for the argument I’m making here. I would propose that star burnout is a separate phenomenon altogether, and compartmentalize it as such.
B. The people who love/hate star X are simply maladjusted miscreants. The truth about star X is that he or she is awesome/a pile of crap, and anyone who disagrees with me is wrong.
– Answer: I can’t talk to you absolutists. Go read some Kant, you beast.
C. Well everybody’s entitled to their opinion.
– Answer: No.
The truth, Diane, is that stars are people whose genes and upbringing have combined to place them right on the fine line between love and hate. They teeter precipitously between the two. Some teeter more to the love side (e.g. Harrison Ford) and some more to the hate side (e.g. Tom Cruise post-1990) but teeter they must. Any declaration of pure loveableness turns them into just a schlub, and any declaration on the other side turns them into late period Anna Nicole Smith or Britney Spears. (Both of whom transformed from stars into sideshow exhibits. Come see the fat chick who is probably on drugs and goes barefoot into gas station bathrooms! Incredible and amazing! You won’t believe your eyes!) Stars divide our opinions because they have to; it is that very quality that makes them so fascinating to watch.
I offer as proof:
~ Bruce Willis’s smirk. Do you love it or hate it?
~ The way Nick Nolte talks like he just polished off a carton of cigarettes and a bottle of whiskey. Love or hate it?
~ Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” Love or hate?
~ “Show created by Joss Whedon.” Love or hate?
I could go on, but I want to wrap this thing up with my ace in the hole – the example that made me realize this truth in the first place. She enters to her own theme music: This shit is bananas! B-A-N-A-N-A-S! This shit is bananas! B-A-N-A-N-A-S! Ladies and gents: Gwen Stefani.
The first time I heard Gwen was in the No Doubt hit “Just A Girl.” I hated her immediately. Her voice sounds uncannily like a slightly feminized Geddy Lee+ in that song, and even Rush fans will admit that Geddy’s charming shriek is only appropriate in certain contexts (e.g. “Red Barchetta”). The song was catchy but annoying and the lyrics struck me as trite. Strangely though, when it came on the radio I would rarely turn it off. I usually listened to the thing start to finish, feeling a strange mixture of disgust and pleasure. It was hard to figure. Not long after that, No Doubt released a couple of other hits; mainly I remember one which I think is called “Spider Webs” – you may know it as the song where Gwen whines “Don’t tell me cuz it huuurrrrts!” With these treacly irritants in constant rotation I was pushed off the fence. I hated No Doubt, I hated Gwen.
Still, I found her oddly alluring. Not physically, though there’s a certain measure of that involved. It was her image as a sexualized post-riot grrl, her resonant squawk of a voice, her self-confidence, and the unstoppable hooks of her songs. I hated her but I sort of loved her too. This indecision swelled with everything she did – with the release of “Hey Baby” and “Hollaback Girl,” with every magazine cover featuring her plastic gaze into my soul, with her new commercial where she talks about her creative process (isn’t it just “call up the Neptunes and make them write me a hit”..?), with her little omnipresent cadre of harajuku girls. Every bit of Gwen that came down the pike was further increasing my confusion about how I felt about her as a star.
And then I realized this: Gwen is the rare star who sits exactly between love and hate for me. It might be a once in a lifetime phenomenon for all of us – it might never happen at all for some people. For me it has happened, and it opened my eyes. From now on I will always understand completely when someone says “I love Gwen Stefani” or “I hate Gwen Stefani.” Both of these sentiments make perfect sense to me. I will never again trade in a friend of mine for tacos over Gwen Stefani, because no matter how they feel about her, I agree with them completely. And this isn’t because I’m some freak with two warring brains. It’s just because of who Gwen Stefani is. From her molecules on up she was built to be loved and hated in equal measure. By everybody, but especially by me.
* Which explains how he could have appeared in “Bullwinkle.” Really it’s quite fitting.
** Maybe eventually they’ll have a machine or program that can figure this out – like the software you read about every so often that analyzes songs for their hit potential. Apparently the thing is amazingly accurate at predicting big surprise hits like Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” That, or it’s a piece of shit with good PR.
*** By the way, I am convinced that the Richard Gere rumor went around so quickly because the man kind of looks like a rodent. In the primitive part of the public mind, this thing made complete sense, for a reason no one could really lay their finger on at the time. We didn’t really think that Richard Gere the person seemed like a perverted rodent-fucker; we just thought he kind of looked like a rodent, so it would make sense that he would have sex with one.
+ I share this belief with my good friend Kit Malone.