When Artists Let Us Down

“And I was alone then, no love in sight
I did everything I could to get me through the night
I don't know where it started or where it might end
I'd turn to a stranger just like a friend.” 
- “Lookin’ for Love” by country singer Johnny Lee (1981)

When it comes to relationships, we humans are really good at making mountains out of molehills. We have a tendency to read too much into each other’s words and actions, imagining love or disdain where neither exists. 

This is frustrating enough with people we actually know. But what about when we project these feelings onto those we don’t know, and whom we’ll probably never even meet? 

On paper, this might sound ridiculous, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all done it. From celebrity crushes to identifying a little too closely to a fictional character, pretend relationships are a simple fact of the modern world.

And while it’s not inherently bad to feel connected to cultural figures, things get a bit more complicated once we allow ourselves to be disappointed by our imaginary friends.

It’s All Pretend...Or Is It?

In a 1956 study, psychologists Richard Wohl and Donald Horton coined the term “parasocial interaction,” to describe the emotional attachment a television viewer develops to TV characters.

Wohl and Horton conducted their studies during the “Golden Age” of television, when viewers were becoming ever more smitten with the fictional characters they saw on their TVs. Ralph Kramden and Lucy Ricardo weren’t just images flashing on a screen, they were friends who came to visit every week.

As fictional programming was joined by talk shows and game shows, in which gorgeous and/or charming celebrities played themselves for audiences, these connections took on a new dimension.

Today, thanks to aggressive paparazzi coverage and a culture that generally values oversharing, we know more about famous people now than ever before. With all this information, we’re bound to get attached. 

Parasocial Media

With platforms like Twitter, it’s never been easier to “get to know” our cultural heroes—with regular updates and commentary from artists making fans more personally invested. But, as many famous people can attest, fans are sensitive, and quick to judge celebrities based on their own ideas of who they think their famous friend should be.

Wohl and Horton spoke of the “illusion of intimacy” offered by television, and how a single knowing glance at the camera was enough to stir up real feelings of connection in viewers. 

To make matters even weirder, social media has done little to dispel the notion that actual, reciprocal relationships with celebrities might actually be possible.

On Twitter, for instance, there exists the real possibility of interacting with cultural icons, even if it’s limited to 280 characters. Sure, I may not really know Mike Dirnt, bassist for Green Day (and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee, class of 2015). But I’ve admired his work for decades. Just maybe, if I hit him up with enough baldfaced, uncritical praise, I can finally get him to follow me back. (I don’t expect him to follow me back, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to pretend.)

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The Benefits of Imaginary Friends

Indeed, some research suggests that parasocial interactions are completely healthy, and will even yield positive results for us in our daily lives—such as reduced loneliness and improved self-esteem.

No, thank YOU for being a friend.

Plus, spending time with our favorite music, movies, and other cultural icons can be a great way to get a quick endorphin boost, or to grapple with our own personal issues. Generations of music enthusiasts have gotten over an ex with a little help from Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear or Joni Mitchell’s Blue. And even if we’ll never have dinner with Marvin or Joni, these artists can still can still feel like friends to us through their work.

So yes, our imaginary friendships can be good, so long as their contributions to our daily lives are positive. But it’s always possible to take things too far.

According to Wohl and Horton, part of the appeal of the parasocial interaction is the lack of reciprocity involved. When we project our feelings onto an artist, we shouldn’t expect anything from them in return. But when we demand something back in a relationship that is, by definition, one-sided, we are inevitably setting ourselves up for disappointment. 

The Pitfalls of the Parasocial

Consider the legendary Bob Dylan who, after galvanizing a generation of folk music fans against racism and war with just a harmonica and acoustic guitar, had the nerve to experiment with electric instruments and—gasp!—a full band.

That’s Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. If you don’t have five minutes to spare, skip to the 4:55 mark to hear the crowd let him have it.

For those traditionally minded folk fans, the booing at Newport was about much more than the music. It was about challenged identity. In the minds of those in attendance, Bob Dylan had sold out...and where did that leave them?

But while some diehards swore never to buy another Bob Dylan record, many fans have stuck with him to this day. For his part, Dylan’s never looked back. Nearly sixty years into his career, he’s won 11 Grammys, an Oscar, and, most recently, a Nobel Prize in Literature.

There’s a lesson here. While we might not literally expect our favorite artists to keep on doing the same thing that first drew us to them, ad nauseum, we can’t help but feel a little hurt when they inevitably try new things. And this is about as logical as getting offended when they don’t follow us back on Twitter. 

In other words, it’s important to remember that it’s not about us. No matter how much we feel like “they really get me, maaan,” our relationships with cultural icons are, ultimately, an unrequited love.

But, so long as we remember that artists are actual human beings, with their own needs, ambitions, and flaws, so, too, are we much more than our favorite song, play, or painting.