When I set out to write something about Stromae, I was intimidated. I’ve known about his phenomenal European success for awhile now, but I’ve mostly avoided thinking too much about it. Stromae’s celebrity is so very different than American celebrity, whatever force drives his success comes from a completely separate place than the one that drives Kim Kardashian’s.
In America we like our pop stars in control. Celebrities are our paragons of order, living out strictly regimented public lives with little to no inconsistencies. Lady Gaga barely exists outside of videos and award shows. Beyoncé doesn’t even give interviews. Taylor Swift runs her PR campaign like a presidential candidate, and when she slips up its borderline cataclysmic. Erratic behavior, drunkenness, anything resembling actual unplanned intimacy, is out of the question.
Consider the tabloid apoplexy that went down this summer when Ariana Grande was filmed licking a donut in an L.A. pastry shop. Like the elevator incident of the summer before, donut-gate demonstrated how fascinating it is to watch an idolized figure come totally unhinged before our eyes. Ari’s subsequent apology tour was nightmarish from a PR perspective but somehow pleasantly relatable despite it all. She was behaving like an actual fame-addled human: she did the wrong thing, said the wrong thing, and came across as a painfully real person. It’s this sort of destructive self-exposure that makes the younger class of American celebrities -Grande, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Rihanna, Chris Brown, and, to a more contrived degree, Miley Cyrus- fascinating to watch. But it’s only sustainable because their performance of life is segregated from their performance of art. We know a lot about our pop stars’ lives -it’s part of why we like them- but we can separate those lives from the commodified vessels that contains their actual product.
Stromae, more than any American celebrity, seems to inhabit the vessel that he throws out at us. Like fellow trans-Atlantic crossover FKA twigs, his best-used tool is his body. He’s not a great dancer in the regimented Beyoncé sense; his talent comes across in his unhinged bodily presence. His limbs and digits so in-tune with his expressions that his movements are almost painful to watch. His latest video, Quand c’est? has him contorting along to the black vines of metaphorized cancer, breaking himself as he writhes along with the tangle before giving up on autonomy completely and falling into a field of lifeless corpses. It’s unsettling, less a meditation on a public health crisis and more the exposition of an intimate body slowly broken down into lifelessness.
That intimacy is there even when he’s not in the throws of computer-generated death. One of my favorite Stromae videos is a bit he did this September with Fader. The video shows him arriving in Seattle for the first time, where he goes to a dive-bar open-mike show and performs his European no. 1 hit Formidable to an ambivalent roomful of Pacific Northwest day-drinkers. By the end a few of captivated people is taking cellphone videos, but for the most part the crowd is visibly uncomfortable.
The performance is almost identical to his famous 2013 appearance on France 2, where he performed Formidable to a small straight-laced crowd of television personalities. He staggers, he growls the bitter second verse, he sways in their faces and sits on their table. For the most part they avert their eyes and wait for it all to be over. The discomfort is equally present in an empty bar where he’s a drunk nobody and a television performance where he’s a drunk international celebrity (you can also check the great invisible camera official music video for Formidable: ground zero of Stromae’s big time) .
You don’t get this kind of performance in the U.S. An intoxicated (faked or not) appearance on a talk-show is a sure indicator of broken decline. Our more fetishized stars -rappers, rock stars, ex-starlets- can be drunk all they want, but our mainstream stars, our collective moral center, require absolute self-control. Stromae actively challenges that control, and he’s conquered a continent by his refusal to comply to it.
Stromae is in the midst of his first major U.S. tour now, and the question on most of his fans’ minds is the inevitable, “will he finally make it in America?”. There’s a lot getting in his way -he’s a bit too tall, a bit too gender fluid, much too French (even if he’s actually from Belgium)-. But I think his biggest obstacle is that he demands more intimacy than the typical American pop fan is willing to give. We idolize pop stars on our own terms. We demand that they play by our rules, we process their music separately from their personal lives, we get exactly as much intimacy as we want out of them. With Stromae, we don’t get to make the choice. There’s no sprezzatura: his voice, his body, his personal life are all present in the up-front Stromae experience. It’s incredible to watch, but it might be asking too much of the American consumer to keep watching.