Last week I had the experience of witnessing the intense energy of celebrity first hand.
Because of the work I’ve done with the Jazz Foundation of America (check out my resource page for their link, they’re an amazing organization!!) I had the privilege of watching Bono up close as he performed at a JFA benefit.
I have been a huge U2 fan since I was a kid, have gone to many concerts, and have seen Bono speak before a small crowd on behalf of his One Campaign. Last week I watched him sing Angel of Harlem from backstage at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
When Bono finished his song and came off the stage near where I stood, I heard him exclaim the word “sweet!” to himself. In that moment, he seemed to have the energy of a prizefighter that had just scored a knock out. His performance was sweet, and passionate, and utterly delicious. It was really touching to witness that moment, he wasn’t phoning it in.
For the five minutes Bono was on stage, I watched him engage and mesmerize the house. When later I asked people what the highlight of their night was, everyone said it had been him.
Bono is the quintessential perfomer, not only for his mellifluous voice, but also for his ability to connect with an audience from the stage. Ironically, what gave him his meteoric rise to stardom maybe now keeps him from being able to connect with people more personally.
That night I also saw the isolation of fame. While working in such a tiny venue compared to the 70,000 seat stadiums that U2 commands, Bono still had to be sequestered in his dressing room. I saw a couple famous friends being sent to him though the green room. Other musicians mulled around and talked to each other, but not Bono. Effort is made to keep people away.
After his performance when Bono came out of his guarded dressing room to leave the venue, there were photographers both inside and outside the theatre, a news reporter and cameraman waiting for an interview, and maybe 50 fans yelling his name that had been waiting around since noon. He handled the obstacle course with seasoned grace, a man who has done this thousands of times.
After his SUV whisked him away so he could speak at the Global Food Summit in DC the next day, I was left wondering what it would be like to stand in his shoes.
Yes, the money and the access to just about anyone and anything in the world must be phenomenal, but what about the other side of it? I doubt Bono has much of an opportunity to go outside with any kind of ease. On a daily basis, there is a crowd waiting for him wherever he goes.
Exiting the Apollo, Bono was literally inches from me. I saw other people in the tiny stairwell reach out to touch him, almost like wanting to kiss his ring or touch the hem of his garment. Like Bono has some special power to heal the infirmed or walk on water. I had the split second thought that I too could reach out and touch my musical idol. And I could tell all my friends or post about it on Facebook.
I chose not to. There was something in it that felt so violating, so objectifying of another human being. Like none of this is really about him. It’s so much more about the projections we place on our celebrities. We fantasize that they know and understand us because we think we know them, or that meeting them can change our lives.
In that moment I really understood why David Bowie wrote the song Fame, or why John Lennon made the comment at the height of the Beatles frenzy that they were more popular than Jesus.
The other thing I noticed was Bono’s public persona. He was gracious and extremely polite. But seeing his eyes up close, I also had the sneaking suspicion that he was not entirely there.
Not because he was strung out on drugs, but because the only way to manage that kind of fame is to have a barrier, a shell that you present to the world. Something to hide your true self behind. I noticed he avoided eye contact with everyone but the people he knew. I assume that feeling many eyes on you wherever you go must feel rather disconcerting, even if public admiration is part of what you originally aspired to.
During the experience, I felt a little dissociated myself. Seeing someone I have loved and respected musically for many years in front of me hardly seemed real, but more surreal, like I was watching a video instead of seeing the real person.
I realized later that I, like most of us, am used to seeing Bono on a small screen or up on stage with the frame of the proscenium. It was a little bizarre to have those boundaries removed.
I’ve debated if posting this blog makes me just as guilty of doing what I’m describing here. Is sharing publicly my fly on the wall (sorry U2 fans!) account of Bono a violation in and of itself? I hope not. My purpose is to present my experience of witnessing fame in a public venue; I would not break any privacies if I had any to break.
I can imagine on some level how terrifying it must have been when Bono’s band really hit it big and he first became a household name. Suddenly everyone wanted a piece of him, and no matter how hard he had worked to get to that stature, I doubt one could fully envision the experience until it happened.
Feeling the manic energy that surrounds that kind of celebrity, I have a new found empathy for Bono and others in his position. Yes, Bono has the many perks of fame, but I felt a sadness too in the whole experience, an incredible burden on this man.
Yes, his profession certainly was chosen, but I don’t know how one copes with the circus without becoming the sideshow. His is a 24 hour a day job. Many celebrities have fallen under the pressure.
Bono can never fly under the radar, have a free and easy afternoon out with his family, or have a bad day that wouldn’t get him lambasted publicly. He has to be on every time he leaves the privacy of home or hotel. How utterly exhausting it must be.
Yes, he can go off to an island, he can even buy the island. But relaxing has to be in seclusion, and even then there is the risk of paparazzi or You Tube posts.
Bono does wonders with his celebrity and has become a tremendous humanitarian. But what pressure there must be in that position, what responsibility to live one’s life in the fishbowl of the public eye. Plus, I doubt he feels he can complain about any aspect of it. Imagine the headlines, “Spoiled Rock Star Whines about His Amazing Life.”
Days later, I’m still coming down from the experience. Yes, some of it is the excitement of the bird’s eye view of seeing Bono perform, but on another level I’m still trying to process the wild ride of a life lived publicly. The intensity of celebrity.
© 2012 Valerie Simon, LCSW, CP