In September of 1992 I performed at the Bumbershoot music festival at the Seattle fairgrounds with the Lost Angel Stone Ensemble. When we finished our performance we packed up our van with all of our ritual objects and were told we would have to wait to leave the grounds with an escort behind Michelle Shocked, a well known folksinger of the day (the only access was the sidewalk which was packed with people and just wide enough for one vehicle). Michelle was talking politics to a small crowd from a band shell stage behind the venue where we had just played. When her discussion was finished she stepped down and I thought "Great, we're on our way". But then, most of the crowd came up to talk to her, and she stopped and talked to each of them, and shook their hands one to the next, and forty-five minutes later she finally made it the twenty feet to her limo.
In the midst of my impatience I had an epiphany: All my life I had the ambition, even the expectation, to become a celebrated touring and recording artist. However, at that moment, I realized that I could never do what I had just witnessed this woman do. I did not have the constellation to be even remotely that generous with myself or my time. Did this revelation depress me? Quite the contrary, it was liberating. I realized that I could pursue other music-related paths that were compelling and available to me, but without the need of being the center of attention. It was as if I had just dropped a huge burden from my shoulders.
In Tibet, India, and other parts of the eastern world, young people who are chosen or feel called to become spiritual leaders of their people are taught the skill to take on this task from a very early age. If they fulfill this destiny (like the Dalai Lama for instance), people flock to them by the thousands to experience in their presence a doorway to the world of the unconscious. But these people learn from childhood that as they grow older, their life will be a life in the service of others, every moment of every day, to be a selfless conduit and compass to help others to find the way to their own souls.
The late Joseph Campbell said "Artists are mystics with a craft". And so it is in the west that artists who achieve notoriety in a myriad of disciplines: film, theater, music, literature, and the visual arts, are overwhelmed by their adoring public much in the same way as spiritual leaders in the east. But, for the most part, they have no training to deal with being in such a position. They stand as a window to the world of the soul, but in many cases their motivation for pursuing such a role are the legendary riches and fame that accompany such a life, without even the faintest notion of the generosity of spirit that is required of them in return, or at the very least for them to play the part gracefully.
The Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung coined a phrase "You've suffered a success", because he had so many patients come to him in the midst of psychological crisis or depression who had just experienced some great accolade or financial triumph. He found that the psyche dealt with the situation by catapulting the personality to the opposite extreme in order to maintain a compensatory equilibrium. Even though I was intellectually aware of this when I won my first Grammy, a few weeks after the initial elation of the event I fell into a psychological black hole that took some months to climb out of.
In much the same way that soldiers experience repeated trauma witnessing and experiencing the horrors of war, young people who are exalted to the status of celebrity (with no preparation for such a thing) experience a repeated trauma of a different sort, but disturbing to the personality and nervous system in a similar way. What often follows is an addiction to a consistent gush of mass approval much like a drug fix, which is why so many resort to drugs and alcohol as their careers decline.In many cases the personality becomes crystallized or fixed at the very moment they are born to stardom. This was clearly visible in the life of the late Micheal Jackson, who retained many aspects of his childhood personality as an adult. I've observed this myself on many occasions. Some years ago I had to deal with a rock star in his 60's who achieved fame quite young. He behaved like a pathetic and abusive 17-year-old bully in his treatment of those around him.
Actor Hugh Grant stated in an interview that he had lost the ability to generate self-esteem, and depended on his adoring public for his feeling of well-being. He compared it to a hypo-thyroid condition, as if the organ that generated such feelings had shut down. Adam Duritz of the band Counting Crows explores this phenomena in the 1990's hit "Mr. Jones" when he states "when everybody loves you, you will never be lonely". I once gave an illustrious rock personage a lift to a gig who had achieved stardom in the 1970's, but seemed more gracefully adapted and adjusted to his situation than most. We spent an hour in the car together on the way to the show and he was a little surly, seemingly depressed, and not much interested in conversation. However, as soon as we arrived at the venue his personality did a complete and instant 180 degree turnaround, and suddenly I was treated like his best friend and he enthusiastically introduced me to his band and road crew. I believe this change in his personality occurred because he was on the threshold of the one experience that made him feel truly alive, that of standing before an adoring audience.
Of course many of those who have "greatness thrust upon them" have mature and grounded enough personalities to weather this psychological storm, and even learn to thrive in the midst of it. Such celebrities often gracefully carry this role forward into their old age. But just as common (if not more so) are those who crash and burn in the flames of drug and alcohol addiction and personal dysfunction. Whether celebrities as a group suffer more psychological difficulties than any other group of humans is hard to say, but their problems seem to be unique to their situation.
I find the ancient and primitive archetypes that are still at play in our culture's obsession with celebrity a very curious phenomenon. With the popes and royalty of old, much was projected on such leaders with regards to their influence on the well-being of the collective culture, and if they failed in their role the consequences were often violent and extreme. The higher the pedestal-the further the fall, as in the case of golfer Tiger Woods, who was crucified by the media and his fans for not maintaining his bigger-and-more-virtuous-than-life illusion. The same holds true for our political leaders...the oval office...the hot seat.
I admire the way David Byrne illustrated this notion in the Talking Head's film "Stop Making Sense" by wearing a bigger-than-life suit. It seemed such a playful and sane acknowledgment of the role he had accepted.