It’s often been said that Marilyn Monroe was one of the great actresses of her generation. If you’ve seen her films, this may come as a surprise. In films like Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Monroe does not give the kind of performance viewers might associate with the great thespians of the era or the immersive Method acting practiced by Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. If Brando’s performances are towering in their greatness, Monroe’s characters feel airy and improvised, as if she were playing herself.
In truth, Monroe took roles that catered to the persona she cultivated for herself, that of the “dumb blonde.” Jean Negulesco’s “How to Marry a Millionaire” cast Monroe as the perfectly named “Pola Debevoise,” a near-sighted social climber who refuses to wear her glasses when courting male suitors. “Men aren't attentive to girls who wear glasses,” Pola says, paraphrasing Dorothy Parker. She romances a shady oil tycoon with a Snake Plissken eyepatch (Alexander D’Arcy), but there’s just one problem: She hasn’t the slightest clue what her suitor actually looks like. If she could, Pola might see he’s a fake.
It’s Monroe’s persona, though, that was counterfeit. Born Norma Jean Mortenson, she was a former foster kid who played up her sex appeal and breathy voice. Norma Jean was a shy brunette who read poetry and was obsessed with Goya and Abraham Lincoln. “[Lincoln] was the only famous American who seemed most like me, at least in his childhood,” she recalled in her autobiography. Marilyn, though, was a bottle blonde and a pin-up teen dream of a woman, known for doing interviews in the nude. Norma reportedly referred to Marilyn as “her.”
In living her persona, Monroe’s biographer writes that she sparked a accidental revolution. “Marilyn had done something more than create a character,” says Barbara Learning in “Marilyn Monroe.” “She launched a brand name.” That brand was incomprehensibly successful: Monroe was the biggest box-office star of 1953, starring in three films that grossed over $25 million. That’s over $481 million today. By becoming someone else, Norma Jean became an industry.
It is impossible to understand celebrity today without that concept—how narratives are shaped and invented by those charged with the maintenance of their star persona. To be famous is not simply to be a talented person who has reached the top of your field but to play a role, usually with the help of a dedicated PR team who helps control your image and what it means. Jennifer Lawrence is not simply “the actress who stars in ‘The Hunger Games’” but your ideal best friend, someone with whom you could share a beer and belch in public. Miley Cyrus, depending on one’s interpretation, is a genderqueer rebel, a fallen teen idol, a privileged white person appropriating black culture, or a vapid annoyance.
The fact that Cyrus remains these many things at once is a testament to the fragility of narratives: They often haunt those who create them. There’s an apocryphal story of Marilyn Monroe that I will paraphrase (and possibly butcher): One day she was walking in public undetected until someone noticed a resemblance between this tiny woman and her larger-than-life persona. “Do you want me to ‘do her?’” Monroe asked. When she turned on the act, Monroe was suddenly surrounded.
No person, aside from Marilyn, has been better at playing that game better than Taylor Swift. The singer is currently embroiled in yet another of a string of controversies involving Kanye West, the rap artist who famously interrupted her 2009 speech at the VMAs when he claimed the award should have gone to Beyoncé. Since then, both artists have built empires on their respective roles in the fracas. Taylor, the aggrieved, commonly portrays herself as a victim of others’ cruelty. In “I Knew You Were Trouble” and “Bad Blood,” she plays the scorned woman, whether it’s following a breakup or a perceived betrayal from a friend. Kanye, true to his style, is more blunt. “Everybody knows I'm a motherfucking monster,” he once sang.
A recent conversation between the two seems to call the official story into question. In a recording leaked by West’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, the rapper asks for Swift’s permission to sing about her in “Famous,” a track from his recently released “The Life of Pablo.” The lyric reads, “To all my Southside n****s that know me best, I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex.” During the call, Swift consents to its use. “I mean it's like a compliment, kind of,” she says, adding: “[G]o with whatever line you think is better. It's obviously very tongue in cheek either way. And I really appreciate you telling me about it, that's really nice.”
The singer clarified in an Instagram post that she wasn’t aware of the next line, the one that actually upset her: “I made that bitch famous.” She wrote, “You don’t get to control someone’s emotional response to being called ‘that bitch’ in front of the entire world.” What’s intriguing about her reply is that it appears to have been drafted well in advance of the leak. Swift typed the response in her “Notes” app, frequently used by celebrities who want to post lengthy text to Twitter and Instagram. In her post, a “Search” button can be seen in the upper left-hand corner. That option would only be visible if the post had been pre-saved ahead of time and she were searching for it in her phone.
New York magazine concluded that “Swift played herself by revealing that even in the midst of a celebrity feud, her supposedly off-the-cuff social-media response was constructed artifice.” But even more so, their feud should be a reminder that so much of what we perceive as “authentic” is part of a narrative designed for popular consumption. If Marilyn Monroe patented the concept of celebrity persona as an “always on” performance art, today’s media landscape is populated by famous people who are professional versions of themselves. All Taylor Swift did was show us the strings.
The idea of the celebrity as a character co-written by the masses truly came into its own at the dawn of the new millennium, when a slew of pop artists emerged peddling extremely similar content. What distinguishes the music of Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, and Christina Aguilera? Very little. They work in the same genres and use many of the same producers, including Max Martin, the Swedish superproducer behind the early-aughts pop explosion. Both Aguilera and Spears were Mickey Mouse club vets.
To stand apart, Spears played the naïve virgin who isn’t aware of her overwhelming eroticism, while Aguilera proudly displayed her tramp stamp on songs like “Drrrrty” and “Can’t Hold Us Down.” In the latter, the former Disney star called out the double standards around sex, where promiscuous men are applauded but women who do so are sluts. Simpson, the daughter of a preacher, trumpeted her Christian background. Moore, who was uncomfortable with her teen idol status, didn’t have a narrative or perhaps didn’t want one. She was also the least commercially successful of the bunch: Her highest-charting song, “I Wanna Be With You,” failed to crack the top 20.
It’s difficult to understate just how important one’s ability to sell those narratives becomes. Simpson’s musical career peaked following the success of “Newlyweds,” the MTV reality show that packaged the singer as a kind of lobotomized bimbo, less a dumb blonde than a barely functional human being. In the show’s most infamous scene, Simpson is confused by Chicken of the Sea. “Is it chicken or is it fish?” was the “Who’s on first?” of the reality television golden age.
The show was a smash hit for its network, so successful it launched a spinoff series for her sister, Ashlee, but it was also a boon to her record sales. “In This Skin” sold 7 million copies, making it of the biggest albums of 2003. That album is a kind of paratext for “Newlyweds,” designed to further the image of romantic bliss. “With You” was reportedly inspired by her real-life relationship with ex-husband Nick Lachey. “Nick loves me with nothing but a T-shirt on, so that's where the song idea came from,” she told MTV. “Take My Breath Away,” a cover of the Berlin ballad from “Top Gun,” was playing the first time they kissed.
It is possible to listen to “In This Skin” without knowing its subtext, but that is certainly not why her audience bought it. “Sweetest Sin,” the album’s lead single, was released before the premiere of “Newlyweds” and didn’t chart on Billboard, barely making a dent in radio play in any country where the song was released. “With You,” the album’s most successful tune, hit radio a month after the show premiered. It instantly climbed to the Top 20.
Other artists have understood this concept well: While there’s room for well-made, stand-alone pop in the marketplace (see: Sia or Carly Rae Jepsen), a story gives an audience something to relate to. After Rihanna was battered by her ex-boyfriend, she appeared on “Love the Way You Lie” with Eminem. A bracingly honest track about domestic violence, the song became the best-selling single of Marshall Mathers’ career, spending seven weeks at No. 1. When Justin Bieber debuted “Sorry,” it was the first leg of his apology tour, a mea culpa for his years of bad behavior in the limelight. It was also Bieber’s first chart-topper.
Taylor Swift, though, has taken the concept of narrative to another level. “Like Marvel superhero movies, when a new Taylor Swift song comes out, we come to it with a certain portion of our comprehension meter already filled,” writes Emily Yoshida for The Verge. “Any new music is just another episode in the Taylor Show; it becomes nearly impossible to judge or experience in a vacuum.” Swift’s music is just one facet of her transmedia machine. This includes her tabloid ubiquity and carefully curated Instagram account, where you can catch the singer surprising fans or hanging with her ever-expanding squad, a celebrity friend group that has more members than the Polyphonic Spree.
That girl-next-door image is designed to play down her shrewd business savvy, as well as her enormous ambition. Ronnie Cremer claims to have taught the singer how to play guitar in her youth, but as Swift emerged as a force to be reckoned with in Nashville, he found himself erased from her biography. Cremer was rebranded as a computer repairman who happened to spot a guitar in her parents’ house, where he “taught her a few chords.” Shortly after, the legend goes that the youngster wrote her first song, as if by miracle.
But as he told New York Daily News, the truth was that Cremer gave her bi-weekly lessons after being hired by her parents. He recognizes, though, that the reality doesn’t have the Dickensian magic of the “official” version. “A 36-year-old bald guy taught her,” he told the Daily News. “That ain't gonna work. If you say, he worked with her six hours a week, it was basically Tuesdays and Thursday from 5 to 8. That ain't gonna sell.” After registering the domain itaughttaylorswift.com, Cremer got a cease and desist letter from her legal team, threatening further action if he didn’t relinquish the name.
Swift has been incredibly skilled at making sure her version of the truth stands in for the real thing, but killing her own artifice could arguably good for her career. Paris Hilton made her name on playing yet another Marilyn type in “The Simple Life,” where she put on a baby doll voice and removed her brains for ratings. In an interview with Broadly, Nicole Vorias, who produced the show, said that the program’s most famous moment was scripted. “Remember that line when she was like, ‘What’s Walmart?’” Vorias explained. “She knew what Walmart was. She [created the line] herself and made it something that she knew [would] be like a water cooler [moment].”
Hilton might not be a genius, but she’s no dummy. The former reality star is a one-woman business: As Vice reports, she’s sold “$2 billion worth of perfume alone.” Jessica Simpson joins her in the billion-dollar club, releasing an absurdly popular line of affordable shoes. Freed from their cages, Britney Spears has become a mother and Vegas staple, while Christina Aguilera had a successful run on “The Voice.” Even Mandy Moore finally found herself, releasing a string of Joni Mitchell-inspired indie albums.
The door has been unlocked for Taylor Swift. The only question remains: Will she fly?