Sometime in early 2012, Lykke Li got engaged. The only reason we even know she was once engaged is because Andrew Wyatt of Miike Snow congratulated her for it on stage at Coachella in April of that year. She’s never spoken openly about it. In a 2014 interview she mentioned that her new album, I Never Learn, is inspired by a recent break-up, but we have no specifics. There are no blog posts with juicy details. There are no headlines about a split. In interviews, she brushes it off.
When she announced her third album in January, 2014, Li told NME that the songs were inspired by a “recent romantic split.” Again, no details. Was the split she referred to the broken-off engagement? When did it happen? Why did it happen? Who was this person? In April, 2014, the month before her album would be released, she told Pitchfork, “It doesn’t matter. It’s about how deep you were and how much you were there.”
But doesn’t it matter? Isn’t this how we relate to stars in this age of information? We know every detail of Rihanna’s personal life. Part of the reason we know so much is because she shares a lot of it herself, and part of the reason is that Rihanna has become the type of pop star that is just as much a celebrity as she is an entertainer. Those two things seem to be becoming synonymous thanks to reality TV, TMZ, and social media. The public’s interest in Rihanna’s personal life is just as fervent as our investment in her music. We know who she’s dated, where she hangs out, what financial troubles she’s had. We’ve witnessed her bruised face after the violent incident with Chris Brown. We’ve seen almost every inch of her body. In this time of social media and a crumbling of the barrier between celebrities and their fans, Rihanna has embraced—sometimes without much of a choice—the opportunity to share her life. She is hiding nothing.
In September of 2013, Rihanna told Elle, “Well I Instagram everything about my life, whether it’s smoking pot, in a strip club, reading a Bible verse—how crazy, I know!—or hanging out with my best friend, who happens to be Chris.” She goes on to explain that “it’s all about honesty.”
A strange thing about all of this is that I follow Rihanna on Instagram, read her interviews, and pay attention to what other people write about her. And I don’t feel like I know Rihanna at all.
A strange thing about all of this is that I follow Rihanna on Instagram, read her interviews, and pay attention to what other people write about her. And I don’t feel like I know Rihanna at all. I listen to her songs, which are written mostly by other people, and I couldn’t feel more distant from Rihanna, the human being.
Sometimes I scroll through the Facebook pages of old high school friends that I haven’t seen in years and ex-girlfriends who I no longer talk to, and I feel this same kind of distance. I see when they start new relationships, what jobs they have, what their lives look like. I read their open letters to the world: “Thank you for all the birthday wishes! I’ve got the best friends in the world!” I don’t know these people anymore.
The internet has connected the world in ways we couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago, but it’s also disconnected us in ways that we’re still clumsily learning to cope with. We’re inundated with a constant barrage of information that everything begins to feel a little bit less meaningful. It gets more and more difficult to cut through all the noise and decide what matters, what you actually need to know, and what’s just creating another layer of distance that comes with becoming an uninvolved spectator.
For the average person, figuring out what to share comes with experience (and maybe a little common sense). When you post on Facebook that you’re eating a turkey sandwich and the world fails to give a fuck, it’s pretty clear that you’ve shared something without value. But for pop stars with millions of fans, everything seems important. If Rihanna posts about eating a turkey sandwich, the world will react:
“Turkey is the best!”
“What brand though!?”
“BUT HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT HAM?”
In the five years that I’ve been a fan of Lykke Li, I’ve learned very little about her personal life. Her Facebook page, which has over 1.3 million likes, is updated with cryptic quotes, song lyrics, and links to new music, videos, and tour information. Her Instagram uploads are mostly photos from magazine shoots and the occasional shadowy selfie.
“I always feel like I’ve been slightly misunderstood. As a woman you get judged for appearances or things like that I don’t really care about,” Lykke Li told NME. “If anything I want to be seen as a singer-songwriter rather than a pop artist.”
Where Lykke Li does her real sharing is in her music. In her lyrics, she holds back nothing. We don’t need to know that Lykke Li has just gone through a break-up, because her lyrics on I Never Learn say it all. “How can we turn around the heartache? Oh I, I’m alone tonight babe and I’m never gonna love again,” she sings on “Never Gonna Love Again.”
These are the thoughts that we hold in, cover up, and let fester inside of us while we post pictures of dinner.
She embraces her pain, her longing, and her confusion, and she does it with an honesty so rare in pop music that it’s almost uncomfortable to listen to. When she starts off “Gunshot” with the caustic words, “I am longing for your poison, like a cancer for its prey,” you don’t feel like you’re reading a tweet from a friend, or even a private diary entry—it’s more like a glimpse into the toxic thoughts that we all go out of our way not to share. These are the thoughts that we hold in, cover up, and let fester inside of us while we post pictures of dinner.
“I wanted you to feel like you held my beating heart in your hands,” Li told DIY about her goal with the new album.
A few days ago I followed up with a rep from Lykke Li’s label, Warner Music, about getting an interview with her. I’ve been trying ever since she announced the album, but if you’re reading this, it means that the interview didn’t happen. “Frustratingly we still haven’t had word on this from management,” the rep said in an email. “Hopefully we will get some feedback overnight.” There were only a few days left until the album release, and then Li would be busy with a string of tour dates in New York, Paris, London, and California.
I’ve thought a lot about what I’d ask Lykke Li if I got the chance. I’d talk to her about sadness, and if she really believes that it’s a blessing. I’d ask her how hard it’s been to stay so private and if she has secret social media accounts to keep in touch with her real-life friends. Does she enjoy being alone? How does she spend her free time? If she could live in another time period, what time period would it be? How does she feel when people call her “hot” or “sexy” instead of talking about the music? If she doesn’t care about appearances, why did she sign a modeling contract? What does she think about ASAP Rocky using the word “hoes” in his verse on the official “No Rest for the Wicked” remix? What are her thoughts on her very personal songs being used in commercials to sell cars and underwear?
I may never get to ask Lykke Li these questions, and I’m alright with that. I don’t need to know these things any more than I need to know what club Rihanna was at last night or what pair of shoes my ex-friend from high school bought this week. As pop stars become more open personally, they become a part of this never-ending stream of information to filter through. It becomes harder to place value on the things they share, or to figure out what we really care about when it comes to this person as a celebrity, as an artist, and as a human being. The fact that we get a glimpse into the personal lives of our favorite pop stars may make us feel like we’re making some kind of real connection, but when it comes down to it, we’re just as distant as we’ve always been. We don’t know these people.
It’s hard to imagine that a series of photos, social media updates, and gossip could ever relay the sentiment carried in I Never Learn.
The fact that Lykke Li chooses to share so little of her personal life just makes her music that much more engaging. In music, sharing operates differently. As with all art, anything shared through music has a frame around it. It’s deliberate and controlled, and often times it’s obscure and indirect—in a lot of ways, it feels less “real” than a Facebook post or an Instagram picture. But it’s hard to imagine that a series of photos, social media updates, and gossip could ever relay the sentiment carried in I Never Learn.
Lykke Li doesn’t want to be a pop star, and she doesn’t seem to want us to feel like we’re her best friend, sharing our afternoon brunch details and thoughts on current events. It’s more complicated than that. Lykke Li wants us to feel like we’re holding her beating heart in our hands, and that’s something that music does far more effectively than a selfie.