Lynn Hirshberg's cover profile of rapper M.I.A. in this weekend's New York Times Magazine has provoked the kind of reaction normally reserved for a significant movie or album, and for good reason. The spectacular—and spectacularly nasty—takedown is full of repudiation by scorned lovers, French fries as means of character assassination, policy wonk soundbites, and first-world-third-world clash. But the piece's reverberations really come from a question Hirschberg doesn't pose or answer directly, but that has been a consistent animating theme in her best work. In an age of faked memoirs, staged reality programs, and self-reinvention as quasi-religion, do we need our celebrities to tell the truth about themselves?
Some celebrity personae, of course, are so patently false that there's nothing to do but enjoy them. No investigative journalists need to be dispatched to determine whether David Bowie is actually an alien manifesting as an apocalyptic rock star, or whether Sasha Fierce causes trouble in Jay-Z and Beyonce's marriage. They're just vehicles, and amusing, harmless ones at that. No one is deceived, but everyone enjoys the music.
Queasy but great entertainment—and great entertainment journalism—have often come out of the disjunction between established celebrity narratives (at least the ones that are meant to be taken seriously) and reality, or the breakdown of a once-true narrative. Vanessa Grigoriadis's 2008 Rolling Stone profile of Britney Spears came as the former teen pop star was punishing her handlers, America, and herself for imposing a restrictive, virginal life story on her by going publicly, shockingly crazy. But the piece also exposed that story as false in the first place. Britney was sexually active before her breakout album, and she'd had breast implants. What was interesting was less that she and her management team lied about those events, but how she succeeded, and then failed, to live out the history that was retroactively created for her.
Similar—though on a much lower level on the pop cultural taste scale—is the dissolving marriage of Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, two reality stars from MTV's The Hills. There is something bizarrely fascinating about watching a woman who has drastically remade herself through plastic surgery, and whose husband has become increasingly eccentric and controlling, insist that everything is fine. We don't believe her, and it was satisfying last week to see her admit that we were right. But she presumably understood that we didn't believe her all along. The lies, and the capacity to tell them, are the only interesting things left about Heidi Montag.
What are we to make, though, of people who, unlike Spears, are apparently sane, or unlike Montag and Pratt, are artistically credible? Hirschberg has denied similarities between her M.I.A. profile and her equally buzzed-about profile of Courtney Love for Vanity Fair in 1992. But both pieces share a strength and weakness. They expose the possible unreliability of the stories M.I.A. and Love tell and told about themselves in order to live, as Joan Didion put it, and in order to pursue exceedingly lucrative recording contracts.
But neither piece actually proves those narratives entirely false. Hirschberg clearly establishes that M.I.A. has told mutually exclusive stories about what her father does now and what her relationship to him is, but she stops short of tracking him down and finding out which, if any version is true (she does better at showing that M.I.A. didn't follow through on grandiose statements about how she planned to give birth in a swimming pool). Similarly, Hirschberg reported out substantial suspicions about Love's drug use during her pregnancy, but never came up with rehab files or proof of the tests Love was rumored to have taken to prove her daughter was unharmed in the womb.
All of this only matters, of course, if we take entertainers and their output very seriously, which often feels like a corny, naïve thing to admit to. Once upon a time, it seemed like Courtney Love might turn out to be not just a rock star, but an effective and powerful feminist, someone who took thrift-store dresses, and zines, and said the market value of that aesthetic, that way of living and making music, was a million dollars. Once, it seemed like M.I.A. might be the model for a post-Bono, politically engaged rock star who was "from there," as she put it to Hirschberg—not just a third-world recipient of first-world hobbyism. But if you're an irresponsible junkie, it does affect your ability to be a role model as a feminist businesswoman, mother, and musician. And being from Sri Lanka does not automatically immunize you from behaving like a wealthy, irresponsible dilettante in matters of politics.
If entertainers want to do nothing more than entertain, if their good works are to be nothing more than a means of maintaining their celebrity, then leaving the contradictions in their lives largely unexposed is fine. The single-source celebrity interview will do. Their hypocrisies don't matter because their political or charitable work is channeled, contained. It may change people's lives, but it has no real chance of changing the world. But if celebrities do want to be something more, if they want to challenge industries and geopolitical orders, they had better be prepared for reporters even tougher than Lynn Hirschberg. Telling the truth about yourself and living your stated the ideals is the price you pay to tell the truth about everyone else.