Googling Sugar Man: Is it possible to remain unknowable in the Internet age?
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When I watched the wonderful, crowd-pleasing documentary Searching For Sugar Man at Sundance earlier this year, I had an advantage over audiences who caught it during its theatrical run: I didn’t know the fate of its subject, Detroit folk singer Sixto Rodriguez, who released two gorgeous, poor-selling albums in the early ’70s to a tidal wave of indifference in the United States, while a world away, his heavily bootlegged albums became smashes in South Africa. For the first half-hour, I did not know if I was watching a tragic documentary about an enigmatic folk singer who never got the attention he deserved and died in obscurity, or a rousing documentary about a brilliant but overlooked musician’s triumphant comeback.
In this instance at least, ignorance was bliss. If I’d done even the most preliminary research I would have discovered that Rodriguez was alive and well and living in Detroit, and not a tragic figure who killed himself onstage or died of an overdose in an alley somewhere, as his South African fans feared. For decades, Rodriguez unknowingly led a bizarre double life: Unknown and unheralded in his homeland, he was a towering pop icon and huge commercial force in a land he’d never visited. Rumors flourished throughout South Africa of Rodriguez’s sordid demise, even though in his native land he remained a public figure, albeit a minor one: a community activist who got a degree in philosophy, raised smart, passionate, politically engaged daughters, and even ran for political office.
Rodriguez’s double life as a secret superstar is a distinctly pre-Internet phenomenon. Accordingly, in the film, Rodriguez is eventually found through a website dedicated to tracking his whereabouts. The Internet may be flooded with misinformation, lies, rumors, and slander, but it also contains enough legitimate, verifiable information to make the world a smaller, less mysterious place. In a pre-Internet age, the question “What happened to Rodriguez?” would have sent dogged journalists on an epic, international quest for truth. In a post-Internet age, the question, “Whatever happened to Rodriguez?” can be answered within seconds simply by typing his name into Google.
Before the Internet, it was easy for folklore to spread in the absence of tangible information. That’s part of the reason it was possible for smart, informed fans in South Africa to imagine that Rodriguez killed himself in a public, dramatic way. But in the Internet age, artists are expected to engage in an endless game of strategic self-disclosure: They’re encouraged by publicists, agents, and the new realities of the business to tweet constantly, to Instagram up a storm, be active on Facebook, and generally treat the world to a running tally of their daily endeavors. What’s lost in this obsession with candor is some of the outsized mythology at the heart of pop-culture lore. On an emotional level, we need legends in pop culture, larger-than-life icons that transcend the everyday and point the way toward the mythic and the unknowable. It would be difficult to buy Jim Morrison as the Lizard King if he were alive today and posting constant messages on Facebook about his irritable bowel syndrome and ever-growing love for sports talk radio.
To cite a more recent example, when I was in college I fell in love with the music of Belle & Sebastian, specifically If You’re Feeling Sinister. At the beginning of the group’s career, Belle & Sebastian was a tantalizing enigma. Frontman Stuart Murdoch did few interviews early on, which allowed fans to imagine he was whoever they wanted him to be. Then he began doing a lot of press and revealed himself to be a pretty normal guy who just happened to a brilliant songwriter. That doesn’t make him any less of a genius, but it does make him less of an icon, and in rock ’n’ roll, icons matter.
It is possible to retain an air of mystery in the information age simply by opting out of the game. As my colleague Josh Modell wrote, Dave Chappelle has managed to remain a fascinating enigma by all but exiting show-business, turning his back on fame and fortune, ending his television show at the height of its power, and turning down film and television roles in favor of the very occasional stand-up performance. Because those performances are so infrequent and unexpected, they have a value and significance they wouldn’t otherwise.
Joaquin Phoenix, meanwhile, managed to remain a fascinating mystery by twisting, perverting, and subverting the base components of the current cultural climate to his own warped ends. Phoenix made an elaborate public show of abandoning acting in favor of a hilariously ill-conceived rap career for I’m Still Here, a documentary its creators (Phoenix and director Casey Affleck) pretended was an actual documentary until its release. In the film’s most talked-about scene, Phoenix appears on Late Show With David Letterman shaggy, chewing gum, and answering Letterman’s questions in a manner that is alternately incoherent and apathetic. Phoenix is trading in one fiction—that anything of value could be gleaned from a stage-managed “conversation” between a television personality out to sell ads for his network and an actor pimping his new project—for another, trippier, and more meta deception. In his Letterman appearance, Phoenix highlights the artifice and blatant contrivance that characterizes film and television publicity. He pretends to reveal everything about himself while exposing nothing beyond his warped sense of humor, chutzpah, and fearlessness.
Phoenix was following in the metatextual footsteps of Albert Brooks, who began his film career playing “himself” as a pandering show-business phony in his prescient 1979 debut Real Life (and before that on his groundbreaking early shorts on Saturday Night Live). For years, Brooks has been one of comedy’s most respected and least public figures, a guy who has written and directed only seven films in 33 years, doles out TV and film appearances stingily, and eschews the podcast circuit completely. (On WTF, Kevin Pollak did a devastatingly accurate impression of Brooks asking him “What’s a Nerdist?”)
But even though Brooks has little interest in the trappings of celebrity, he’s still found a way to fit into a climate in which maintaining some kind of social-networking presence has become an expectation. When Brooks was pressured to being tweeting by the publisher of his science-fiction novel, 2030: The Real Story Of What Happens To America, he began churning out jokes with the frequency and enthusiasm of a hungry young comedy writer. Brooks doesn’t bare his soul or provide intimate glimpses into his life via his Twitter feed. I’m not sure I would want him to. But the expectation that the artists of today need to be in constant communication with their fans created a space and a context for Brooks to do something wonderful: regularly turn out new material for the benefit of anyone who follows him, to entertain fans desperate for anything new from one of comedy’s most brilliant and least prolific geniuses.
So while romantics may mourn the demise of myth and mystery in pop culture, the increased accessibility of information has its tangible upsides. Not all lost artists wish to remain lost, and sometimes the resolution of a mystery can be its most satisfying aspect. Not too long ago, I had the pleasure of watching Rodriguez perform at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall. The atmosphere was hushed and reverent, almost church-like. Rodriguez had managed to roar unexpectedly back to life without sacrificing the mystery at the core of his appeal. He was funny, warm, and charming, doing what he should have been doing for the past four decades: performing transcendent music for sold-out crowds, none of which would have been possible if the makers of Searching For Sugar Man hadn’t been able to track him down.
At a key moment in Searching For Sugar Man, one of Rodriguez’s daughters tells a musical sleuth seeking her father that sometimes the legend is better than the reality. But what makes the Rodriguez saga so magical and heartwarming is that in Rodriguez’s case, the reality is actually far better than the legend. The enigmatic icon wasn’t dead or addicted or somewhere bemoaning the cruelty of fate and the short-sightedness of the music industry. He was living his values, trying to make the world a better place and keeping sharp mentally, physically, and musically.
Rodriguez’s unlikely backstory lent drama, pathos, and resonance to his performance at Lincoln Hall. We weren’t just watching a set; we were witnesses to a joyous and unlikely resurrection that included appearances on 60 Minutes and, appropriately enough, Late Show With David Letterman. We were a tiny part of an amazing story about an artist still steeped in myth. So while something important is invariably lost when the intriguingly unknowable becomes known, something wonderful can also be gained as well. Rodriguez seemed as happy to have been found and appreciated as the audience was grateful to have him back.