Concluding our series on the power of women’s public images, Ann Hackett reflects on moving to New Orleans from Brooklyn and feeling the presence of Solange Knowles.
It is August. I am sitting in a window seat on an American Airlines flight from John F. Kennedy airport to Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. It is hot in New York; it is hotter in New Orleans. I am reading an article about Solange Knowles. Solange is fleeing Brooklyn for New Orleans. I don’t know why. I am leaving too. To me, we coincidently synchronize our escapes. To her, the coincidence does not exist. There is no coincidence in one odd person moving across the country from Brooklyn to New Orleans around the same time that Solange Knowles moves from Brooklyn to New Orleans. But for me, even though I know I am paying attention to a celebrity because she is a celebrity, even though I have no evidence to support its existence, even though I create it out of thin air, I feel a connection.
I am a writer. That’s why I moved to New Orleans: to complete a degree in creative writing. For my own sake, I’ll point out that creative writing is creation in a vacuum—desires, motivations, relationships, connections, being out of nonbeing, sentience from oblivion.
The article isn’t really about Solange, it’s about the house that Solange is moving into: a two-story Creole cottage in the Bywater. The only two-story house on the block, its outside walls are painted a deep yellow with black trim and black shutters. The floors are bare wood. Inside, the walls are painted in cheerful contrast to the ceilings (blue and green, pink and blue, white and teal). Painting the ceiling (and the floor) is a New Orleans tradition, a lovely pre-modern method of keeping insects out, the article informs me. Colorful interior design is something I associate with New Orleans; it’s something I want to associate with myself, and something I now associate with Solange Knowles. There is an old-fashioned porcelain sink in the kitchen. There are clawfoot tubs in all of the bathrooms. Clawfoot tubs are in many New Orleans houses. They are not rare. People salvage them and keep rows of them in their backyards to use as planters. I don’t know this. Solange fell in love with the house, so much so that she wrote the owner a handwritten letter saying that she “couldn’t wait to feel the house’s aura and being.” This is the kind of metaphysical confidence that I want to cultivate in myself. Am I in love with New Orleans? I don’t know. I want to be.
Maybe I picked up the magazine Vanity Fair at the Hudson News kiosk in the American Airlines terminal at JFK because I was listening to Solange Knowles (her EP, True) through my headphones. Or maybe I started listening to True because I began reading the article and learning about the woman (and her house). I don’t know. But I began by listening to “Losing You,” the first song, the single, somewhere inside of Terminal Eight, and then again as I was lining up at the gate, and over and over throughout the two-hour flight to New Orleans. Every time the song ends I think I will let the next song play, and every time I surprise myself by pressing the back button. Next I will listen to “Lovers in the Parking Lot” for a few hours. I’ll follow that with “Some Things Never Seem to Fucking Work.” After that I will listen to the album in full, on repeat, possibly for days and days, but I don’t know any of this yet. This is not obsession. This is how I have always listened to (good) music. And right now “Losing You” is speaking to me, or speaking about me, and making a connection. I am losing people and things: a love, friends, a job, and my home of eight years where I became an adult and where I was very, very happy. And I am afraid I won’t be able to be happy ever again.
There are plenty of narratives about obsession and some about celebrity obsession. Sometimes we like them (The Little Mermaid). Sometimes they are creepy (All About Eve). Generally the person doesn’t get what they want, and sometimes they pay with their lives (Fatal Attraction). And yet, an enormous amount of journalistic energy is devoted to cataloguing the lives of celebrities. Studies conducted by researcher Dr. John Maltby in the early 2000s on Celebrity Worship Syndrome on 3000 people in the UK revealed:
Only around 1% demonstrate obsessional tendencies. Around 10% (who tend to be neurotic, tense, emotional and moody) displayed intense interest in celebrities. Around 14% said they would make a special effort to read about their favorite celebrity and to socialize with people who shared their interest. The other vast majority of people will identify a favorite celebrity, but don't say they read about them or think about them all the time. Like most things, it’s fine as long as it doesn't take over your life.
I wonder about socializing with people who share your celebrity interest. I guess this is what fan clubs are about. I wonder about worship. Worship implies that the obsessive thinks of the object, the celebrity, as a god, but what about other relationships that are less serious and more common or at least more visible in pop culture? What about romance? What about friendship? Maltby connected Celebrity Worship Syndrome to anxiety and depression, things we associate with other, more familiar mental illnesses, as well as “high levels of dissociation and fantasy-proneness.” For a creative person, striving to create something out of nothing, could a moderate level of disassociation and fantasy-proneness be helpful? Could light indulgence in this mental disorder strengthen a person’s inner life? In 2003, the BBC published an article that cited anthropological evidence that celebrity emulation helps individuals rise within a society—“in prehistoric times this would have meant respecting good hunters.”
It is October. I am lying on my bed in my New Orleans bedroom. My bed is an air mattress on top of a canvas cot. I bought the cot to keep the cockroaches off. The cot is narrower than the air mattress so I cannot shift my weight and I cannot roll over without risking the collapse of the entire apparatus. I must be very still while sleeping and while sitting. I don’t have any furniture in my bedroom. This cot is the only place to sit. I avoid the rest of the house. There is a couch in the living room, a wrap-around so big that my roommate had to saw it in half to fit it through the front door. I do not think about the violence of the action: sawing a couch in half and forcing it through the front door. But I recognize the violence when I see it.
My bedroom is painted a dingy yellow that the landlord called “optimistic yellow.” She said it was a new paint job, but there is already a layer of dust coating it. The baseboard is painted grey. There are spots where I tried to strip the paint with a spray I bought at Home Depot. I stopped when I gave myself a chemical burn. The paint underneath is green. I was optimistic when I moved in that I could paint this little room, strip off the clumpy gray paint on the floors and baseboards, but I have given up. I was also optimistic about my roommate, about making a connection. But the apartment is too gross, too dangerous. There is mold in the bathroom walls. I ignore everything. I don’t have the money to move into another house. I am paying $600 a month for this room in this place.
My apartment is one half of a shotgun house—four rooms lined up like one long hallway with one window per room, air-conditioning units in all of them. I recognize Solange’s house from the pictures in Vanity Fair. It’s one block down. The shutters are almost always closed. There is a sign on the door saying, “by appointment only.” This is the sort of thing a celebrity would do, I believe. I play her music as I drive past her house, windows open, imagining that she might step out to hear it. I imagine that I may see her walking down the street, that she will nod at me as we pass by each other.
Stephenie Meyer borrows the zoological term imprinting in her Twilight Saga. Imprinting is when, in the absence of the true mother, a baby animal chooses another animal to be its mother—even a different species of animal. In the Twilight universe, imprinting becomes “the involuntary mechanism by which Quileute shape-shifters find their soulmates.” Meyer must love the hopelessness of the process, the absence of free will, the idea that you can’t choose who you love, and, in Breaking Dawn, Jacob cites imprinting as his justification for falling in love with Bella’s newborn child. The more common definition of imprinting is to leave a mark; in Jacob’s case, to create a soulmate in an image he designs. Celebrities are attractive candidates for imprinting because even though we read about them all the time, we ultimately know that we don’t know them. They are blank pages compared to the flesh-and-blood humans that populate our lives.
I share my house with a man from Mississippi. He must walk through my bedroom to reach the bathroom. (And he does often.) I must walk through his bedroom to reach the front door. (And I rarely do. I go out the back door and walk along the side of the house to reach the sidewalk.) He works as a manager on an oil rig—three weeks on, one week off. He’s an ideal roommate except for the days when he is home. There are things about him that make me nervous. He drinks too much. He does some drugs I can’t identify. His friends are loud. I don’t interact with them, but when they leave I see the evidence of their energy on the furniture, the walls. Three weeks on, one week off, except that now he’s been fired, and I don’t know why. We had one moment of connection, when we agreed to rehab the backyard. We weeded together, drove to Lowe’s and purchased a few flats of jasmine, and planted them in the backyard. Now I avoid the house as much as I can. I stay at school until the library closes. I go out almost every night. When I get home, I perch on top of my mattress and I try and do my homework, my writing. I wear my headphones. I have one friend who I see constantly. I am not doing very well in school. My writing is unfocused and people say so. I am unfocused. I have been wearing the same clothes. I am not focused, but sometimes I think of Solange sitting in her bone and teal parlor in a 19th-century rocking chair, and I try to connect to her creative strength, her creative strength and her personal strength. She is two years older than me and she has already raised a child to almost adolescence. She has escaped the shadow of her much more famous sister. She is in a committed relationship. She would know what to do.
It is early in the morning. I turn off the lights. I lie on my bed with my eyes closed. I am very still. I hear the front door slam. I hear my roommate’s heavy footsteps on the floor. I hear him walk through the front room, through his bedroom, to my closed door. The footsteps stop and I know he is standing on the other side of the door waiting. He begins to walk around his room. I hear him walk back to the front door and slam it. I want to hear his car starting and driving away. Instead, I hear his footsteps on the stairs, the slam of the door, and his footsteps on the floorboards of the front room. I hear him hammering on his bedroom walls. Is he building something? No. I hear the sound of drywall giving way. He is ripping something down. I hear him approach my door. He opens it. I dig my head face-first into my pillow. He walks through my room to the kitchen.
He continued hammering the walls, slamming the front door, and walking back and forth through the house, including my room, for several hours. I thought that my life was in danger, but I stayed lying on my mattress with my eyes closed until five in the morning. I called my ex-boyfriend in New York until he picked up and I whispered into the phone. “Are you okay?” “I’m okay.” Then I packed my laptop and some clothes into a backpack and went out the back door. I walked through the narrow passage on the side of the house to the street. I’m not sure if my roommate saw me as I was getting in my car. I didn’t look back at my house and I played “Losing You” as I drove past Solange’s house. I would move in with my friend a few days later. His friends would become my friends. I would not listen to Solange again for a long time, and I would find out, two years later, that Solange never showed up to the closing on that house, that she never lived there with her child and her partner, that she was never going to see me on the street and greet me as a neighbor or an artist or a friend.