Since her last tour show in 2018, we haven’t really heard much from New Zealand singer-songwriter, Lorde. After deleting much of her social media presence, leaving only two tweets and three Instagram posts, Ella (Lorde’s real name) seemed to disappear off the face of the Earth. That is, bar the email updates she’s been sending over the past couple of years, giving us a glimpse into her life and developments surrounding L3, her upcoming album.
Ever since leaving the world of social media and choosing to communicate through the medium of emails, Lorde has changed her relationship to her fans. You would think that only hearing from her once or twice a year would mean the relationship would have weakened, but if anything, I feel closer to her than I ever did during an album run. Each email feels like it’s coming from a family member who moved to the other side of the world, or a friend who wants to know how you are, not a critically acclaimed musician who you’ve never actually met.
In a sense, these emails build on the intimate relationships we have come to expect from celebrities through social media, feeling as if they are our real-life friends. Through their social media pages, we have a more direct line into their worlds than ever before. This is especially the case while we’ve been in quarantine, as I feel like I’ve had a private tour of so many homes I could never imagine living in. With celebrities like Charli XCX inviting us to join her making soup on Instagram stories or Haim offering dance classes on Zoom, it feels like traditional celebrities have turned into the vloggers we all used to watch in 2013. More generally, social media makes it feel as though the traditional boundary between fan and celebrity has faded away to reveal a more reciprocal, mutual dependence on one another; fans need celebrities and celebrities depend on fans. Fans place celebrities on a pedestal, providing them with the financial benefits of fame and the career that they set out to achieve. We make celebrities out to be more than human, but does this mean they owe us every interaction we crave? I would argue that the joy I saw from people on my Twitter timeline when we received Lorde’s recent email is proof that, if anything, fans don’t only desire social media interaction, they just want to know their favourite celebrity is keeping well. Or maybe we’re just so desperate for new music and, after hearing nothing for months, an email is enough to tide us over for now.
Every day on social media we see people commenting on and replying to celebrities’ posts, almost instantly, however mundane. These replies range from declarations of undying love, to cancel culture fuelled hate. Due to this onslaught of intense digital interaction, many celebrities choose to take time off or hand over their social media presence to management, such as Lizzo did at the start of 2020, after the number of trolls on Twitter got too much for her to cope with. Given many ordinary people find social media a difficult space, even without such a public image, it is unsurprising that celebrities’ constant interaction with fans and critics alike can build up and have a negative impact on their mental health. Lorde is another example of a celebrity facing this dilemma. In her recent email, she cites social media’s addictive nature as leading her to take this break from the Internet. But as Lorde’s email shows, it is still important for celebrities to connect and communicate with their fans even if they aren’t using social media in a traditional manner. Finding a balance between performing authenticity while protecting their own wellbeing must be a challenge, but in 2020, sadly, it’s a challenge that has to be dealt with upfront in order to remain relevant.
Lorde’s emails feel different to what we see on celebrities’ social media as their content is heavily curated, both by PR teams and the celebrity themselves; we never really know who we are talking to. When it comes down to it, these people are trying to sell us a product or lifestyle and social media presence is used as part of a business and promotion tool. It is the seeming authenticity and friendliness behind these interactions and endorsements that makes us care, and caring is what makes us spend money. Problematically, many celebrities have been known to use their wide influence to promote unethical products and behaviours, such as the Kardashians (and others) endorsing use of damaging diet products. Alongside the fact that celebrities and influencers are able to use their platforms to profit themselves, they also have a large platform which they can use to raise the profile of important causes. This again has the potential for issues, especially at the moment when many celebrities are failing to use their platforms to support the Black Lives Matter movement, opting for performative activism rather than financial aid or consistent, anti-racist content. While social media is a powerful marketing tool for celebrities, they also have a greater responsibility to use their platforms appropriately, considering how their actions contribute to wider social narratives and issues.
By taking a different approach to fan interaction following years of communicating in a traditional manner, Lorde has changed her relationship to those who love her work. Personally, I love receiving emails from Ella because somehow it feels less staged, as though she truly does want us to know how the album is coming along, how she’s feeling about tour and, more importantly, what she’s been baking recently. But alongside this, the constant messages she receives from fans that miss her and how she used to use social media, are equal proof that using social media is a key and important way of creating and maintaining the fan-celebrity relationship in 2020. I wonder whether Lorde will be able sustain her relationship with fans purely via email in the longer term; can a celebrity really remain relevant with no social media presence at all?