In the third grade I won The Gwen Stefani Award. My friend Patrick asked me what this meant and I told him that my teacher had noticed my borderline unhealthy obsession with No Doubt, looked them up, decided Gwen Stefani was a good role model and gave me an award at the end of the school year.
Lately I’ve been listening to “Simple Kind of Life,” on repeat. These words keep repeating in my head: “I always thought that I’d be a mom / sometimes I wish for a mistake / The longer that I wait the more selfish that I get / You seem like you’d be a good dad.” I’ve never been lucky in love—and I’m twenty five now, and trying desperately to wrestle control of my life, to have a future that I can be happy with. When Gwen sang those songs, she was just turning thirty and disappointed with how her own romantic life had ended up, even as a hugely successful singer in a massively famous band. I think about those words she sang all the time. Even now they have a hold over me. “For a long time, I was in love,” she sings. “Not only in love, I was obsessed.”
There are a few things I do to ignore my mounting problems. I have been listening to Return of Saturn over and over, I have been playing Love Live and I read the entirety of The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato.
Love Live is a free to play rhythm game that’s a tie in for an anime and a console videogame. My friends had been tweeting about it in increasingly frantic terms for weeks before I downloaded it, and now I know why. The scant story centers around nine girls in high school that want to become pop idols, but it isn’t the plot that matters. It’s the girls.
You’re given the option of a few girls to start with. I chose Nozomi Tojo, not knowing much about any of them, purely because her description said that she was interested in fortune telling. When I open the game, Nozomi greets me and reminds me to reach for the next goal or to check in on the members of our little school club. If I tap on her with my finger, she says, “If you’re touching me, you’re saying you want to be touched, too.”
The Ghost Network concerns Molly Metropolis, a Lady Gaga-esque pop star that goes missing in Chicago, as investigated by Catlin Taer, as written about in a manuscript by Cyrus Archer, which was found and finally edited by Disabato herself, according to the story. I started reading it at first because of the specificity of its Chicago-ness (at times, it was like reading Fun Home in Mudd Library at Oberlin, where I went to college, and reaching the scene where Alison Bechdel is reading a book in Mudd Library, in Oberlin, where she went to college). But at the end of the book, I was obsessed with Molly Metropolis, like Caitlin, Cyrus, and the fictionalized version of Disabato.
The Ghost Network is more open about the machinations of stardom than Love Live, but they both are steeped in obsession. In Disabato’s novel, she unfurls a little bit of Molly’s life in each chapter, and I found myself eagerly anticipating more song lyrics, more descriptions of her video shoots, more of Molly’s strange idiosyncratic habits. I was becoming Caitlin Taer—I needed to not just know about Molly, but to know her. Molly Metropolis would paraphrase Guy Debord in her tweets, so I opened up a Wikipedia page on the Situationists and stayed up until 3 AM reading, as if by being interested in the things she was interested in, I could make her come to life.
But stars aren’t people that you can be close to—they just want to invite that closeness, that intimacy. To be a star is to look like you contain everything, but to be just empty enough to become whatever your fans want you to be. I know now that Gwen Stefani was singing about Gavin Rossdale specifically in “Simple Kind Of Life,” but I always feel like she’s singing about me, my failed romances, my deep need to be loved, my fears of growing older, my selfishness, my pain.
To be a star you must have a gravitational pull, you must make the world revolve around you. I bought all of No Doubt’s albums, I used to look at the liner notes by myself at recess, memorizing each and every song lyric. I saw them on tour in the fifth grade, traveling two states away. Gwen in my memory seems effortless and powerful, like she wasn’t quite real, like I wasn’t there but I was watching it all happen on TV. She brought a fan up on stage, a young woman who held a sign saying that she was also named Gwen. I was jealous, for months, fuming, thinking that I deserved it over her, to go backstage and meet my idol. Being a star means inviting obsession, even if it will take over the lives of your fans.
The point of Love Live isn’t to become proficient at its rhythm game, which, don’t get me wrong, is incredibly fun. The point it to become closer to the girls. You level up by selectively choosing which girls to “Practice,” with the ones you want to keep, to earn EXP. Those other girls will disappear after practice—you’re basically feeding cute anime girls to other cute anime girls. If you get a duplicate of one of your favorite girls you can “Special Practice,” which “Idolizes” them, giving them a fancy new outfit and a higher level cap. While you play the rhythm game, you are raising your “Relationship” with those girls—if you have a max relationship with an Idolized member you are awarded with a short little story about them. Everything you do in Love Live is in pursuit of a relationship, a closeness, an intimacy with your favorite Idols.
My friends Arden and Ali have repeatedly equated playing Love Live with descending into hell. My friend Malcolm now plays every single day. My friend Maddy has alluded to “trying to quit Love Live.” I feel deeply guilty for missing special events, for letting my tablet die so I have to contort myself on my bed in order to tap at the screen while it’s plugged in, for failing songs. For a while, Nozomi didn’t occupy the “Leader” position on one of my teams, meaning that she wouldn’t be the one to greet me when I opened the game. I leveled her up until she was a leader again, so I could see her instead of Nico, who is, frankly, obnoxious. I have started strategizing which songs I play so that I can further my relationship with Nozomi and learn more about her. I want to be close to her. I am getting closer to her. After I complete each song the little progress bar tells me so.
By the time The Ghost Network is done, we do get to meet Molly. But she’s just as much a mystery as ever, or maybe an even larger mystery than before. It turns out we didn’t ever really know her. She is impossible to know. We want that closeness, but we can only ever know what stars are like—we can’t ever know what they are.
Today I will listen to “Simple Kind of Life” one more time. I will pretend that it is speaking to me. I will play Love Live before I go to bed. And I will pretend that it is speaking to me, too. In my bed I will think about Gwen Stefani, and I will wonder if I told her about my heartbreak, if she would even care.
Gita Jackson has dedicated her entire adult life to wading through the marginalia of popular culture and finding gold. Find her on Twitter @xoxogossipgita.