As actress Julie Christie almost wrote in these pages the other day, celebrity is a labyrinth in which everyone who enters becomes some kind of minotaur. As hip-hop star Lauryn Hill is about to find out, you can't stop the metamorphosis just by shouting, "Hey, that's not me."
Hill certainly tries to demolish her former image on her new double album, which Columbia Records released last Tuesday. Lauryn Hill MTV Unplugged 2.0 is 100 unvarnished minutes of song and monologue about how the system that helped make her a star imprisoned her in a tissue of lies.
"This is the first time y'all are meeting me," she informs the small audience assembled for the live tapings last summer. "Don't think you've met me before."
Millions thought they met Hill in 1999, when her first solo album won five Grammys, including best album. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a landmark in hip-hop's invasion of the mainstream. It also marked a kind of coming-out for Hill, who was suddenly revealed to be much more than a junior partner in the best-selling trio The Fugees. Overnight, she became queen of the 'hood.
But her throne, she now says, was poisoned. It made her a slave of appearances, and the mascot of a 40-person entourage. It got her deep into the embrace of "the Enemy," whose plan of ambition and greed fouled up her relationship with God. It even turned her against the very thing that used to be dearest to her -- music.
"How did this thing that I love so much so easily and so quickly turn into something that I loathe and hate?" she muses on the MTV discs. ". . . I had created this public persona, this public illusion, and it held me hostage. I couldn't be a real person."
Now the real person is back in charge, or almost. Hill frankly admits on the discs that she's "a mess," and abandons a lengthy performance of I Gotta Find Peace of Mind when tears choke off her already roughened voice.
The new songs are wordy elaborations of the same themes that dominate her talk. Hill's acoustic guitar (her only accompaniment) mostly lurks around a couple of alternating chords, which makes the tunes seem more similar than they really are. Several numbers feel underdeveloped. The best is probably I Remember,a love song that has a more distinctive harmonic character and isn't clogged with text.
Hill's confessions have not gone down well in the music press. One critic captured the general tone by suggesting that the album should have been called Lauryn Hill: Unglued. Another complained that "ultimately, Unplugged's thrills are only voyeuristic." In other words, Hill may think she's breaking through the illusory appearances of the entertainment industry, but for some people she's just supplying another, more lurid appearance.
And so the queen morphs into the fame-damaged superstar. One pop-culture stereotype supplants another. Hill moves from the category that includes self-willed icons such as Madonna and Aretha Franklin into the one that holds tragic flame-outs such as Kurt Cobain and Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett. Even Hill's insistence on getting real again is a familiar trope, retailed on even the most blatantly commercial hip-hop albums.
One of her ways of getting real is to propose new roles for herself that the system can't digest. Strumming her guitar, she calls herself a hip-hop folksinger, and says that even though she's performing again, she's no longer a performer. She even claims to find power in her confusion. Appearing to be a bit crazy isn't bad, she says, because "when they think you're crazy, they don't mess with you. . . . It's a blessing."
But try as she might, Hill can't escape the labyrinth, in part because her effort is compromised by her medium. To denounce the celebrity apparatus on a double-album from a major record company is, to borrow a line from the late Pauline Kael, like putting up a neon sign to announce the soullessness of neon.
We might have seen this coming. Hill's first solo album was an inquisitive and passionate piece of work. It was also highly skeptical about the motives of others, especially those in control. Being controlled is the great fear running through Hill's work, and it resonates like something buried deep in racial memory.
How deep? The title of Hill's first album was a play on Carter Woodson's 1933 book, The Miseducation of the Negro,which is still revered as a classic by many African-Americans. Woodson argued that after the abolition of slavery, white society controlled blacks by teaching them to despise their own culture, while barring them from equal status in any other. Blacks were thus condemned to "meaningless imitation" of white ways.
Hill doesn't mention race in her new songs or monologues, but the bogey of meaningless imitation is everywhere. The new impossible standard is the one invented by show-business, with the formerly eager participation of Hill, whose first album came with several photographs of the exquisitely made-up star checking her image in the mirror.
That image is still there. It has just been altered to fit the available show-biz categories. Lauryn Hill will be crazy till further notice. As she says in Superstar,from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,"They'll hail then they'll nail you, no matter who you are."