In 2019, no one is hearing about Rihanna for the first time. On Wednesday, when Vogue published a profile of the 31 year-old singer and designer by the writer Abby Aguirre, I would hazard that you’d be hard-pressed to find someone coming into the piece without a noticeable if not overwhelming sense of admiration and awe for her. In the piece, Rihanna clarified her stance on the NFL, Colin Kaepernick, and turning down a Super Bowl performance (“There’s things within that organization that I do not agree with at all, and I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way”) as well as her disagreement with and disavowal of President Trump after the El Paso shooting (“It’s a slap in the face. It’s completely racist.”). These are reassuring words to read, yet they’re hardly surprising coming from such a tuned-in and outspoken artist.
The Vogue piece also included several off-the-cuff admissions from Aguirre that she had not prepared a list of questions for the interview itself. On Journalism Twitter, there was a palatable uproar — a mix of scorn, disbelief, disappointment, and confusion that a journalist would show up unprepared to profile one of the world’s most talented, beautiful, and enchanting black women. That this would happen with any subject of a profile is dubious — it’s not like Aguirre was completely unaware that she was interviewing Rihanna at some point — but casually mentioning it to one of the most revered artists operating in pop culture, and then making that the lede of the piece itself, was a major error in editorial judgment.
You... didn’t have time... to come up with questions for Rihanna... for a Vogue cover story.... pic.twitter.com/mFZdCg1JQ9— Lauren Chanel Allen (@MichelleHux) October 9, 2019
Imagine showing up to interview an über famous person for an über popular magazine w/o a single question. I'm all for confidence. But that typically comes from preparedness. Lindsey or whatever knew the interview was coming but looked Rihanna dead in her face and said: pic.twitter.com/X1MOluqdO2— April (@ReignOfApril) October 10, 2019
Okay, while we're all here, what are you asking Rihanna in your profile?— N is for Nicole, Who Fell Off a Cliffe (@Nicole_Cliffe) October 9, 2019
(Everyone gets one question and it can't be the R9 release date.)
I need to see this person, because wow, the privilege of it all. There are journalists that would give their first born for an opportunity like this.— Courtney (@CourtneyTRL) October 9, 2019
phone— Jazmine Hughes (@jazzedloon) October 9, 2019
list of questions for rihanna
(Aguirre soon took to Twitter to defend herself. “I had literally no notice,” she wrote. “The point was to convey how nerve-wracking this was, given my deep, bordering-on-psychotic reverence for Rihanna,” she wrote.)
Aguirre’s insertion of herself into the profile reads like a parody of the current trend of overly voicey celebrity profiles, in which a bumbling writer stumbles into a luxury hotel while the effortless celebrity consoles them for not being as perfect as they are, leaving them feeling comfortable yet awe-stricken. And while it is completely reasonable to take issue with the tone of Aguirre’s flippancy, whether or not she prepared questions wouldn’t have mattered. Celebrity profiles are not journalism, they do not seek to uncover the unspoken and controversial ills of our society. They are not opportunities for muckraking: they are business partnerships parlaying products, put forth for a braying audience to swoon over and then buy said products (in Rihanna’s case, her lines of clothing and cosmetics).
Rolling our eyes at celebrity profiles is in itself a cliche. I like to remember what Charlie, the narrator of Stephen Chbosky’s beloved teenage epistolary novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, writes:
I think it’s nice for stars to do interviews to make us think they are just like us, but to tell you the truth, I get the feeling it’s all a big lie. The problem is I don’t know who’s lying. And I don’t know why these magazines sell as much as they do.
Looking for authenticity or some sort of truth in a corporate magazine is more than naive, it’s dangerous. As the line between journalism and sponsored content has continued to erode, music journalism has dealt with major artists (Ariana Grande, Lana Del Rey, Lizzo, Nicki Minaj) scornfully tweeting at their critics, directing pile-ons of disgruntled stans and anonymous twitter trolls at writers who, for the most part, respect the artists and are only offering up well-intentioned critiques. In response, the wealthy artists wish them firings and layoffs that will surely come regardless, and hope that, as Ariana Grande once put it, “everybody that works at all them blogs” might finally know happiness. The precarious state of media keeps getting more delicate and fraught, and journalism mistaken for entertainment writing and public relations opportunities mistaken for thoughtful critical writing continues apace. Even the most well-regarded artists hold the most powerful media companies out there in the palm of their hand, demanding spotless coverage in exchange for the eyeballs of their fans.
The question of what celebrities owe us, or rather, what are our expectations of celebrities and why do we have them, grows more important with each passing news cycle, scandal, and press junket. From microfamous influencers to the White House occupiers, what do we expect and allow from whom?
The day after the Vogue story, Splinter, one of the few lefter-than-liberal politics websites left, was disbanded by its parent company, G/O Media. Months earlier, the editor-in-chief of Deadspin, another site of the same company, announced her resignation from the site by writing a scathing critique of G/O’s mismanagement. Within the past few months, there have been three mergers of major media companies (The Outline, indeed, was acquired by Bustle Digital Group earlier this year). We’re returning to a media monoculture. Blogs are disappearing, trustworthy alternative media sources have dried up, and all that remains are sites that exist at the pleasure of a single corporate sponsor, or those who rely on traffic granted to them by celebrity posts on social media.
As the media ecosystem becomes more fragile, it is necessary for us to speak about it more precisely. The entire foundation of culture is based on the translation of our interiority to each other, of being overcome by the emotional and moving aspects of art, of seeing ourselves in each other and vice versa. This is only possible when we see art for what it is, separate it from advertising. You can be compelled to listen to a Rihanna album from reading an interview with her, but no profile will make you genuinely connect with the music itself. To convolute the two does us no favors.