Megan Brown is the author of American Autobiography after 9/11, published this week. She reflects in this post on contemporary examples of the performative aspect of confession and how we have come to expect that as an audience. Brown is an associate professor of English at Drake University, and her new book is published in the University of Wisconsin Press series, Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography.
I need to confess something here: I am an avid fan of the kinds of pop culture that many in my field readily disparage. Yes, I’ll crank up the car radio volume if “Bad Blood” comes on, and yes, I like to cackle about episodes of the various Bachelor franchises with my friends, and yes, I’ll probably keep doing these things even as Taylor Swift songs and reality television shows become more predictable and repetitive over the years. Indeed, the predictability and the repetition are the very things that I find not only appealing, but also fascinating. Some viewers and listeners might find the familiar tropes—insisting on being at the week’s rose ceremony for the “right reasons” or dissing unfaithful men in uptempo C major—comforting in an uncertain world, but I find them strange. They are shorthand, performative gestures toward confession that blur the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction by manipulating and satisfying audience expectations. As Michel Foucault reminds us, audience is central to the workings of confession—as he writes in The History of Sexuality, “one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession.” The confessor is expected and compelled to follow tropes of confessional narrative, and listeners will respond—often with credulity—according to the confessor’s level of fidelity to that narrative.
Let me explain further by turning first to Taylor Swift’s 1989, featuring the singles “Style,” “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space,” and the aforementioned “Bad Blood.” As these songs and their videos became popular, writers in music magazines and on social media alike focused on one factor above all: the lyrics. Billboard dished on 1989’s references to Swift’s ex, Harry Styles of One Direction fame. The Washington Post offered an extended analysis of “Bad Blood,” using quotations and screenshots of fans’ Facebook posts and tweets to suggest that the song was intended as a takedown of Swift’s fellow pop diva, Katy Perry. Questions swirled as listeners tried to map the singles’ lyrics onto the singer’s life. This phenomenon is by no means limited to Swift—consider, for instance, the summer 2016 arguments about the “real” identity of Beyonce’s “Becky with the Good Hair.” Why, though, would anyone assume that song lyrics are autobiographical? Why would we assume that “Becky” is a real, identifiable person, and that Beyonce’s Lemonade is her account of struggles in her marriage to Jay Z? Can’t a popular performer sing from the point of view of a fictional persona, or write songs about fictional characters? In interviews, Swift coyly drops hints about life events that inspired her songs, but—more importantly, in my view—listeners assume autobiographical narrative in her lyrics because she performs “what confession sounds like” in contemporary memoir. Her songs come from a first-person perspective, and they signal authentic vulnerability by presenting a flawed narrator (the girl who “goes on too many dates but can’t make them stay,” as “Shake It Off” proclaims) with less-than-pretty emotions.
Think, too, about the confessional imperative—the idea that Swift “keeps it real” is central to her appeal. Firmly ensconced in celebrity culture, she is always expected to write about her love life, to keep the conversation and speculation going, even if the songs become formulaic. While her audience is not “requiring” the confessions in the way envisioned by Foucault, her continued relevance may well depend on meeting listener/viewer expectations for autobiographical narrative. Her songs, and the items about her in gossip columns, feed each other in a symbiotic relationship that may assure her career longevity. (Or, at least, assure her ongoing notoriety—it’s interesting that her controversial 2016 dispute with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West is again about “autobiographical” lyrics, this time in West’s “Famous.”)
If we turn to the example of reality TV, we can see how the performed confessional—again, the outward signs of authentic vulnerability—becomes crucial to contestants’ longevity or popularity on a show. Summer 2016 brought the twelfth installment of The Bachelorette, and the most recent Bachelor in early 2016 was the twentieth season of that series. In both of these iterations of
the reality franchise, the contestants receiving the most screen time spent much of that time confessing their feelings and telling stories about their pasts. Maybe these contestants were coached by show producers or by viewings of past seasons, but they seemed to know how to perform; one front-runner, Robby Hayes, was the first to tell the titular Bachelorette, JoJo Fletcher, that he loved her, and he led up to his confession of love by telling a dramatic part of his life story: “I came here [to be on The Bachelorette] because of huge changes I made in my life. Last year, on April 17, my best friend from growing up died. . . . It made me realize that if I’m not happy in the job I’m in, I’m not happy in the city I’m in, and if I’m constantly questioning the relationship I’m in, tomorrow might not be here.” This revelation, while potentially heartfelt, also worked as a strategy for Robby—JoJo later tells the cameras that Robby’s confessed feelings and experiences influenced her to keep him on the show and helped her trust him even when tabloids claimed he might have broken up with his previous girlfriend just so that he could appear on TV. The eventual winner of the season, Jordan Rodgers, similarly deployed autobiographical detail to win JoJo’s trust in the wake of controversial tabloid revelations. JoJo, and her viewing audience choosing to watch and commenting online, expected confessions and rewarded adherence to the well-worn tropes of autobiographical, confessional narrative.
Given the pop music and reality TV references in this post, a reader might be tempted to dismiss the observations here as trivial or irrelevant, but the performance of autobiographical conventions also affects, and can even shape, our politics. Just after summer 2016’s Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton enjoyed a “bounce” in her polling numbers, not just in terms of responses to her policy ideas, but also in terms of potential voters’ opinions on aspects of her character, such as being “in touch with the problems of normal Americans” and being “a president you could be proud of.” One reason for the post-Convention bounce? Former president Bill Clinton’s speech, which—as sources ranging from the New York Times to the Conservative Review commented—focused almost exclusively on “humanizing” the candidate via autobiographical stories about the Clintons’ relationship and family life. (This humanizing strategy was highly gendered, creating a portrait of self-proclaimed policy wonk Hillary Clinton as an emotional, even sexual, entity—a topic for another post.) Like Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Kanye West, and The Bachelorette’s many contestants over the years, Bill Clinton knew and used the power of the performative conventions of autobiographical narrative.