Pop Playground
Sugar Shock #005: What Has She Done?

british graffiti artist and prime wedgie candidate Banksy recently dropped a few hundred “provocative” dupes of Paris Hilton’s debut into their original sleeves in stores throughout the UK. His social commentary is pretty weak—ha, Photoshopped her boobs!—but Banksy does supply three questions (in the guise of bogus “singles”) worth exploring. Paris asks:
1. Why Am I Famous?
2. What Have I Done?
3. What Am I For?
Everyone seems to want to answer these questions, but most participants in discussion and criticism of Paris are confused as to how to ask them. Some haters want to believe that Paris Hilton, famous for not doing anything, had no part in her album’s production (i.e., “what has she done”). So do some of her supporters. Positive and negative reviews alike reveal the same flawed logic: whatever Paris Hilton is must be reflected somewhere on the record.

But like Hilary Duff, Paris is elusive on record. Her persona, unlike the all-encompassing tabloid Paris-idea that almost everyone tries to summarize in a few sentences (Stephen Thomas Erlewine, All Music Guide: “Paris Hilton is famous simply for existing”), is diffuse. Part of the effect is purely technical; there are so many Parises floating around in each song that focusing on a singular identity in any given moment is nearly impossible. At her most minimal, she’s still twin-pop cubed. These vocalscapes (eek) are gorgeous in their own right—playfully kaleidoscopic in “Screwed,” cooing toward sexy in “Stars Are Blind,” icy and sinister, maybe conspiratorial, in “Jealousy”—but there’s no definitive Paris, which means there’s no handy link between her tabloid or public persona, the Paris-idea, and how she presents herself on Paris.

Many commentators force the link by turning to question 1. Why is she famous anyway? Is it for doing nothing? For doing whatever she wants? For existing? Here’s a question: does anyone really expect a satisfying answer to this question? Maybe Paris Hilton is famous because everyone has to keep asking, even when they know about a hundred possible answers to the question already. Besides, she’s infamous. I’m not sure if a single person in the world actually admits to liking Paris Hilton without reservation.

She can be valuable as a cartoon. Paris lets her detractors off the hook from expressing a thoughtful social or moral position on the (social, economical, gender, whatever) issues she is said to embody by becoming the issue—whether she intends to or not. Everyone gets to let off some steam, or a tangential think piece, without thinking too hard about the problems their own Paris-idea represents.

But steam-letting has its side effects: for one, the values that emerge in a discussion of the Paris-idea (i.e., who Paris is, or “why am I famous?”) infiltrate the discussion of the production of her album (i.e., what Paris is, or “what have I done?”). Because she is famous for doing nothing, it follows that she did nothing on the album. Or, according to Kalefa Sanneh in a recent New York Times piece, because she is famous for doing “whatever she wants,” it follows that she was carefree and unprofessional, unlike “grimly competent” professional amateurs like Danity Kane who “take their budding careers seriously.” Sanneh illustrates an “unprofessional” attitude in Paris’s public commentary, but he never clarifies how this not-too-seriousness really sounds; he doesn't explain if—or how—his Paris-idea (unprofessional “professional celebrity” famous for doing whatever she wants) translates to her music.

Many claim that Paris merely “bought” her album and passively allowed it to be built around her. To jump ahead to question 3, one thing Paris might be “for” is to reveal questionable foundations for critical judgments of pop music and its production. Paris raves that assume her involvement in the album to be slim to nil reflect a superficial acceptance of certain types of pop music (in vogue since buzzwords like “rockism” and “popism” have gained some exposure).

Several writers deny Paris authorship in any capacity whatsoever, despite her formal songwriting credits. Sean Fennessey simply lies about her authorship role in his scathing Pitchfork track review of “Turn It Up” (songwriting credits: Jeff Bowden/Paris Hilton/Penelope Magnet/Scott Storch): “Lyrically...I won't waste your time. She didn't write it and you won’t care anyway.” The same attitude is apparent in positive reviews, too. In her Phoenix review proclaiming Paris to be a “musical genius,” Sharon Steel sarcastically refuses Paris’s co-authorship, even when faced with possible documented evidence:
During an MTV special on the making of the album that aired two weeks prior to its release, I was transfixed by a scene that shows Paris hard at work in the studio with Storch. She claims that this is how the songwriting process went: he’d mess around on his keyboard with the beats while she’d grab a pen and write whatever came to mind. Wait a minute. Didn’t she hire someone to do that for her too? The camera pans down to her paper. I try desperately to make out what she’s scrawled on the page. Just as quickly, the camera flashes back to her cleavage. I’d kill for a better look at that notebook—it’s probably just a shopping list for new sex toys.
To further bolster the paradoxical assertion that Paris bought and orchestrated her vanity project but also had no legitimate input in its realization, writers invoke a mythical pop industry “system.” Stylus reviewer Jayson Greene presents his own version of this system in his review of Paris:
As we all know, such pop confections are not constructed by accident. An army of serious-minded professionals with impeccable pop credentials…have been called in and given big checks to make sure Paris passes some sort of pop muster. They have assembled the best record that could be made from the people who don’t mind submitting their talents to the credibility-sucking black hole that is the Paris Hilton cottage industry.
There are those serious professionals again. Of course, as we all really know, most of the artists working with members of this same “army” (more of a cabal, isn’t it?) are very much involved in the songwriting process, and there are lots of accidents: they try out lyrics and riffs and they take chances, even if they do plan and shape their songs carefully. Several performers receive co-author credit (Ashlee Simpson, Lindsay Lohan, the Veronicas, Pink, Paris herself) while others have varying degrees of creative input (like Hilary Duff, who is now working with Major General Kara DioGuardi to write and produce her next album).

The myths and fantasies persist in part because most of these culture commentators don’t know quite where they stand with Paris or Paris. They may not know Paris Hilton’s place in their own perception of the culture they comment on, and they may not know where they stand in the culture, either. I’m not so sure myself (that’s part of why I can’t stop thinking or writing about it): does my relating to Paris Hilton’s album put me closer to her? Do I want to be closer to her? Most commentators aren’t asking why Paris Hilton should or shouldn’t be allowed in “their” culture or in their lives. They don’t question how her music affects their own relationship with whatever culture she represents, or how and why they’ve formed their own Paris-idea in the first place.

These issues are concealed in false ones, in questions just as shallow and phony as Banksy’s. Thoughtful discussion of Paris and anything else related to “the pop system” or any other—which includes everyone from MySpacers to heiresses—is short-circuited and important questions remain unasked. Here are a few I’ve been asking myself: Where do I stand if I stand with Paris? What am I using her for? Why do I care? I’m still trying to answer them. But Paris Hilton, said to be too dumb to understand the meaning of Banksy’s “intervention,” is, among other things, a constant reminder for us to keep thinking, not only about her but ourselves. That's hot.

By: David Moore
Published on: 2006-09-21
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