In the new movie “Katy Perry: Part of Me,” before the pop star appears on screen, we see her young fans. They’re so grateful. In video testimonials that could be straight off YouTube, they stare into the camera and thank Perry — for her inspirational songs, for giving them the courage to be who they truly are.
Lately you can’t escape the rise of the touchy-feely pop star who has clearly taken a particular Beatles song to heart: “All we need is love.”
Granted, there are worse things than a singer espousing self-empowerment and acceptance. But it’s still fascinating to attend a concert these days and realize that at some point, the artist will stop the show to lavish the audience with praise and a message of uplift. I’m 34 and don’t have a single memory of a band or musician in the 1990s telling me I’m beautiful and worthwhile.
Perry champions her fans with a song called “Firework,” which, as we learn in the film about her, is her favorite of her songs. “Baby, you’re a firework / Come on, let your colors burst,” goes the celebratory chorus.
That’s nothing compared to Lady Gaga, who has evolved from pop singer to humanitarian. “Born This Way,” a massive hit that has already been christened a modern-day gay anthem, preaches the value of tolerance. That’s admirable and important, but I found myself irritated at one of her concerts last year watching her pander so heavily to her supporters. Eventually, I just wanted her to sing.
Sure, there were fan clubs and Beatlemania in the ’60s, but now pop stars are charged with building their own brand. They affectionately name their fans. Perry loves her KatyCats. Nicki Minaj has her Barbz (short for Barbies). Ke$ha is proud of her Animals. Gaga is the ringleader of her Little Monsters, who in turn call her Mother Monster.
This kind of mutual love used to be the exclusive domain of country music, which has and continues to put its artists face to face, cheek to cheek, with their boosters at events such as Fan Fair.
With record sales in the toilet, artists (and sometimes their labels) realize that connecting with their fans is now a pivotal part of achieving commercial success. Through crowd-funding sites such as Kickstarter and PledgeMusic, fans buy different levels of rewards that ensure a human interaction with the people they want to support.
With Twitter handles such as InNickiWeTrust, fans can now reach out directly. There’s no longer a wall between the entertainer and her fans. No publicist, no handler, no problem. A sample string of Twitter exchanges between Ke$ha and her fans:
“I’m here for u boo”
“I love everyone”
“I love you too!!”
It’s part of the new reality that pop stars are in our faces around the clock. From hourly updates on Facebook and blogs to a barrage of tweets every few minutes, we’ve become dependent on social media. We’re needy, and entertainers have responded to it.
On the other hand, some artists are just as needy as their base. Team Breezy is quick to rally around R&B singer Chris Brown whenever he courts controversy, which is pretty much at least once a week.
Others keep a respectful distance. Beloved and popular, both Adele and Beyoncé still never quite fawn over their admirers. They conquer them through their music.
It feels like a relatively recent shift in pop culture. Our stars didn’t always want to be our friends — at least not outwardly. Even a generation ago, with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, there was a separation of royalty and loyal subjects. You think Madonna is going to retweet you? Please. As overexposed as she often is, Madge wants to maintain a sliver of mystique. She doesn’t let you get too close.
Television shows such as “American Idol” and “The Voice” have obviously helped to erode the barriers. “The Voice,” in particular, levels the playing field and actually has the stars shape and coach their underlings. It’s hard to imagine the Beatles, or Elvis, or Springsteen doing that in their prime.
She’s not a Top 40 pop star, but Boston’s own Amanda Palmer certainly wields considerable clout with her fans. She recently raised nearly $1.2 million, in a single month, through a Kickstarter campaign that financed her new album, an art book, and an extensive tour. (She’ll be playing two sold-out rock concerts at the Middle East this week, plus an invite-only acoustic performance.)
Palmer insists she has boundaries with her fans, but they’re not immediately evident to a casual observer. At her shows in Brooklyn, N.Y., last month, she stayed long after the last song had been sung. Her fans lingered, so she lingered. They wanted photos, but Palmer insisted they be special. She gave them pecks on the cheek, wrapped her arms around them, chatted with them like they were old friends.
Because they essentially are.
“The thing about that,” Palmer told me a few weeks ago at her Boston apartment, “is that I really like having that kind of relationship with my fans. I want that love from them, I need that love from them, and I’m happy to give it back.”
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.