What We Talk About When We Talk About Brangelina

brangelina by tshein / CC-BY

brangelina by tshein / CC-BY


Picture the person who comes into the library and heads straight for the magazines. She beelines for People, maybe spends some time with Vanity Fair. She may or may not tear a few pages from the copy when it suits her needs. She loves celebrities: she’ll read InStyle if you have it, Cosmopolitan if you don’t. Picture another patron: he likes USA Today. He reads the Parade section of the Sunday newspaper and frequently spends an hour with GQ or Esquire even though, at least by appearances, he doesn’t seem to be that interested in fashion. And then there’s the older woman who spends a lot of time chuckling at microfilm of old Photoplay magazines in the basement.

These descriptions might fit specific patrons that you recognize, or they might serve as stand-ins for a whole group of people who visit the library, read celebrity gossip, and leave. Some might say that these people are misusing the library, or at least missing the point of libraries in general.

But are they? The library, broadly defined, is a place where people of all ages can access information that, we hope, will make us more educated, engaged citizens of the world. We go to the library to look for comfort. We go to the library to look for a challenge. We seek Greek cookbooks and jazz CDs, poetry and hiking guides, newspapers and knitting magazines. By happy accident or librarian recommendation, we sometimes happen upon a text we didn’t even know we sought or wanted. And through this process we gain something: knowledge, understanding, texture, and nuance.

Celebrity gossip provides all of those things. In fact, the magazines that contain it may be some of the most valuable cultural artifacts currently housed in your library.

Stay with me here. I’d like to provide a history of gossip and celebrity, and their place in American culture—enough for you to reconsider your current valuation of People and its purpose within your collection.

Celebrity has a long history. As Leo Braudy argues in The Frenzy of Renown (1997), the phenomenon extends as far back as Alexander the Great. Put simply, a celebrity is a public individual who becomes well known for an achievement (Napoleon), misdeed (John Wilkes Booth), or by birth (Prince William). The cult of celebrity strengthened with the expansion of the printing press, which allowed information about popular figures to circulate broadly and regularly. Celebrity is a particularly modern phenomenon, symptomatic of a culture that attempts to “know” a person through mediated forms (the magazine, the newspaper, the newscast).

Stardom is a particularly potent form of celebrity. Stardom first began to develop on the 19th century stage—think Sarah Bernhardt—but truly exploded with the expansion of the American film industry in the late 1910s and ‘20s. ((The development of stars is a fascinating and complicated process with much more nuance than is appropriate here; for more, see Richard DeCordova’s excellent Picture Personalities (1990).))

A star isn’t just someone who appears on screen. Rather, a star is formed when audiences combine information about the star’s onscreen performances (the type of person she plays on screen; Reese Witherspoon, for example, is “America’s Sweetheart”) with information about the star’s off-screen life (her romances, her children, and other gossip). Put differently, a Star = Textual Information + Extra-textual Information. Each star’s “image” is the result of this alchemy.

Actors do not become stars because they are beautiful or talented. There are hundreds of beautiful and talented actors who appear on-screen every year, but only a select group get to become the Tom Cruises, Will Smiths, Julia Robertses, and Angelina Jolies of the world. These actors become superstars because their images—what they seem to represent, on- and off-screen—embody something vital to contemporary American identity. It’s no accident that Tom Cruise’s brand of white, working class-turned-suave masculinity resonated in the 1980s, or that Julia Roberts’s postfeminist approach to sex and relationships gained traction in the early 1990s. As Richard Dyer suggests, “stars matter because they act out aspects of life that matter to us; and performers get to be stars when what they act out matters to enough people” (Dyer, 17, 1984).

Looking at a star or celebrity as an ideological construct and unpacking that construct is the work of “star studies.” Like hundreds of other scholars the world over, star studies is the bedrock of my research. We look at popular figures and try to figure out what their popularity indicates about a culture’s current understanding of race, gender, sexuality, class, politics, and a host of other issues. ((Some classic, accessible examples of star studies work in race, gender, sexuality, class, and politics include:

Mary C. Beltran and Camilla Fojas, eds.
Mixed Race Hollywood
Richard Dyer
Heavenly Bodies
Christine Gledhill, ed.
Stardom: Industry of Desire
Adrienne McLean
Being Rita Hayworth


I publish star studies on my blog and as part of my scholarship, but other writers and journalists outside of academia do the same sort of work every day. Chuck Klosterman, David Foster Wallace, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Molly Lambert, and dozens of others have thoughtfully profiled stars, trying to get at the meat of who they are and why they matter (Klosterman’s “Bending Spoons with Britney Spears” is a classic of the genre; Sullivan’s piece on Michael Jackson, republished in this year’s Pulphead, is a marvel).

But I don’t need to make a case for you to acquire the books and magazines in which those type of essays appear for your library’s collection. Pop culture criticism is an easy sell: the public consumes these texts, so it behooves the library to carry work that contextualizes that consumption. For instance, the library may not broadcast football games, but it does offer biographies of football players, guides on how to coach football, and histories of the game. The same idea applies to drugs: the library doesn’t offer heroin, but it does offer ways to think about heroin use.

Perhaps a shift in perspective is necessary here. Instead of thinking of the library as a place where culture is accessed, we might also think of it was a place where culture is created: where the individual and information collide and meaning is made.

That’s what happens when the library hosts an expert or invites a storyteller. That’s also what happens when you carry a magazine with pages of glossy photos of a celebrity, or columns detailing who wore what, appeared with whom, and left too late. These magazines and newspaper columns, and the discourse they foment, are the building blocks of the star image. (( One of my reviewers asked, “Are they really? I see it as a cycle: consumers of pop culture and celebrity gossip need the information, and the media makes them need more of it. It hard to to tell where one starts and the other stops. Assigning all the power to the media doesn’t do it for me.” My response: I don’t at all see star formation as an entirely top-down process. But the fact remains that the starts are produced before they’re consumed, and the meaning is made somewhere in between.))

I use the academic term “discourse” to describe what happens when someone sees a picture in a magazine, but you could also say that these magazines encourage gossip.

Gossip has a history even longer than celebrity. Ever since there have been social formations—villages, schools, clubs, neighborhoods, secret societies, political parties—there has been gossip to structure them. By definition, gossip is characterized by “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.” We gossip about people we know and people we don’t know, about our co-workers and our family members and our closest friends.

As countless sociologists and anthropologists have underlined, gossip is a means of social policing. In other words, we gossip about those who test the status quo: the man who wears too much pink or the mother who breastfeeds for “too long.” We talk about those who bend or break established societal rules, in part to discourage others from challenging what has been established as “the way things are.”

Of course, gossip can be destructive, and it is particularly noxious when it comes to the policing of women’s bodies. It can also be startlingly conservative, especially as it pertains to established sexual and social mores. Just when you thought it was okay for young girls to be tomboys, the uproar over preschooler Shiloh Jolie-Pitt’s cropped hair and “boy” clothes—and the belief that her parents (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) are “turning her into a boy” —demonstrates that gender play is still fraught territory. This is gossip at its most regressive, a club wielded to keep others in line.

But gossip can also be progressive, especially in the wake of scandal. Actions that cause scandal are never de facto scandalous. Rather, an action becomes scandalous when it ruptures the accepted standards of behavior—standards specific to time, class, race, and gender.

When Ingrid Bergman became pregnant with Roberto Rossellini’s child in the late ‘40s, it wasn’t “being pregnant” that was scandalous, but the fact that she was married to another man. Bergman transgressed rules for appropriate behavior on the part of a woman and a public figure. The resulting gossip was tsunami-like in strength, fueled by the vitriol of gossip columnists (Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper) writing in major newspapers, as well as dozens of fan magazines (Photoplay, Modern Screen, Motion Picture). Bergman was even denounced on the floor of the United States Senate, melodramatically deemed an “instrument of evil.”

Bergman fled to Europe, where the expectations for female sexuality and behavior were somewhat less puritan. But what happened to Bergman matters less than the conversations it helped start. Some conversations were certainly focused on shaming Bergman and reifying standards. But it also led to questions of context. Why did Bergman cheat? What was the relationship like between her and her husband? Had she married too young and too quickly? As men and women attempted to make sense of how a woman like Bergman could break a rule so flagrantly—her image up to that point had been that of the “Nordic Virgin”—they were also making sense of what happens when young women are forced into marriages with older men, and what can and should be excused of the behavior that follows.

Any time a major star challenges the status quo—by smoking marijuana (Robert Mitchum), by flouting the marriage contract (Elizabeth Taylor), by coming out as homosexual (Rock Hudson), by showing love by jumping on Oprah’s couch (Tom Cruise), or by spewing racist epithets (Mel Gibson)—it starts a conversation. Hudson’s example is particularly instructive, because it helped introduce words that had been theretofore unspeakable—gay, AIDS—into dinner conversation. Again, not all of that conversation was positive, but it was a conversation nonetheless. As star scholar Adrienne McLean points out, scandal does not simply “upset the status quo temporarily;” rather, it may function as “a wedge driver,” illuminating “the vulnerability of many ‘primary social frameworks’ that together make up what we so often refer to as dominant ideology” (Cook and McLean, 2001, 5). Making ideology and cultural expectations visible, even legible: that’s what celebrity gossip does best.

Celebrities can also serve as cultural reference points: conversational anchors that help us displace topics too intimate for discussion. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Brangelina,” in other words, are our own perspectives on love, marriage, divorce, and the formation of family. Celebrities are no less fictional than characters in novels. Just as the divide between “Team Jacob” and “Team Edward” says a tremendous amount about how young women (and men) think of contemporary masculinity and romance, so too does a preference for Justin Bieber over Justin Timberlake.

When we talk about celebrities with whom we want to be friends, we’re actually talking about the qualities we value in “real” friends. I want to be friends with Tina Fey because her image is that of an intelligent, self-deprecating, hilarious, multi-tasking woman—attributes I seek and value in myself and others. Similarly, Paul Newman is my “eternal star boyfriend” not because he is handsome (although he is certainly that) but because his image is inflected with advocacy, charm, ruggedness, wit, and steadfastness, all of which are qualities I seek in a partner.

Which is all to say that celebrities, the texts that cover them, and the conversations they engender are important: they represent and produce culture.

Why, then, is there such opposition to taking these texts seriously? Whether at libraries, in journalism, and even in academia, there is tremendous resistance to celebrity-oriented publications. Put differently, why does Us Weekly remain a “bad object”?

The reasons for this status are complex, but not altogether indecipherable:

In academia, star and celebrity studies are ascendant. They’re a cool kid in an already cool discipline (cultural studies). More and more graduate students are doing work in celebrity studies and the adjacent fields of television studies, media industries, and new media. But celebrity is still a low-brow subject in a discipline that has historically been rooted in the study of the high-brow. While this has been gradually changing since the late ‘70s, it’s still thought of as a less “rigorous” object of study than, say, Iranian film or avant garde feminist cinema.

For journalists, celebrity is both necessary and nasty. With the new click-oriented metrics of online journalism, celebrity coverage is a sure-fire means to more hits and, by extension, more advertising dollars. As a result, “serious” coverage is enervated with “breaking news” on celebrities of all kinds. Celebrity exacerbates our culture’s already short attention span, making it easy to subsist on a media diet composed of fashion and gossip reports—and little else. Before you’d have to buy the entire newspaper in order to get at the gossip column, and would probably pick up some “real news” on the way. Now, even serious, high-brow publications use celebrity hooks to snag readers. Even pieces bemoaning the spread of celebrity culture exploit it: a recent article in Slate, for example, asked “Where Did All the Accomplished People Go?”—yet used Kim Kardashian’s photo and name to promote the story (the link includes the words “kim_kardashian_why_does_she_fascinate_us”).

But fascination with celebrity is a symptom, not the disease. It illuminates how journalism is currently struggling to make the transition to new, digital paradigms, but it’s not the problem. Instead, it’s evidence that the system is broken. It’s also an easy target, as are the teeming, anonymous masses who opt for brief, easily consumable stories about celebrities over lengthy, complex pieces on international affairs.

In libraries, the prejudice against celebrity materials is most likely the same as the prejudice held by society at large. These magazines are low-brow, glossy, and trashy. They’re all fluff, no substance. They’re junk food. They’re a waste of time. A guilty pleasure. They’re directed at a specific demographic that excludes large swaths of the population. You can pay for your own, but state-funded organizations shouldn’t pay for them for you.

Consider these assumptions: celebrity materials are “bad” because they’re popular, directed at women, and “low-class”. Because they’re filled with images, they’re somehow bereft of ideas. Because people want to consume them, they’re not as ideologically potent and, by extension, valuable as things that people don’t want to consume. Because they’re gendered as “feminine pleasures,” they’re less valid than masculine pleasures like watching sports or, for that matter, reading Sports Illustrated.

These are sexist, classist, and outdated assumptions that fail to account for the meaning made through gossip consumption, as evidenced above, as well as the varied audience for celebrity materials. While most of People’s readership is female, middle-aged, middle-class, and straight, its audience also includes those who are male, queer, teenaged, and elderly.

If you stock the magazine shelves with gossip fodder, will you turn your library into a coffee klatch? Into a hair salon in disguise? Will it prompt heated discussions about whether stars have a right to privacy when it comes to their sex lives?

Would that be so wrong? Libraries, at least in their current iteration, are more than depositories and archives: they’re cultural centers. Just as many librarians took the success of Twilight as an opportunity to organize discussions about the tradition of the vampire or encourage broader reading in the genre, you might likewise look at celebrity culture not as a pestilence, but as an opportunity.

Whether patrons access these texts at your library or at home, they’re not going away. Just as I use the classroom as a means of helping students dissect, but not destroy, the meaning and pleasure they receive from popular texts, so too can the library. Here’s how:

Celebrity culture isn’t going anywhere. My suggestion, and what I’ve spent my academic career attempting to get people to do, is to stop wasting time decrying it. Instead, use that energy to make sense of it.

I hope this article has inspired you to think differently about your own relation to celebrity gossip, as well as the unstated assumptions that have formed and continue to structure that relationship. By extension, I hope it has encouraged you to think expansively about the potential relationship between celebrities, gossip about them, and the public, intellectual, cultural space of the library.

Many thanks to Emily Ford and Sophie Brookover for their insightful questions and suggestions on an early version of this piece. Brett Bonfield has been gracious, patient, and tremendously encouraging throughout the process, and helped persuade me that librarians would, indeed, like to read about celebrity.

17 Responses

  1. jay

    “Whether at libraries, in journalism, and even in academia, there is tremendous resistance to celebrity-oriented publications.”

    “In libraries, the prejudice against celebrity materials…”

    I think I’d like some more context for these assertions. Perhaps because I don’t work in a public library, I’m not familiar with the evidence for these claims.

  2. Good question.

    The largest and most explicit prejudice I see is against acquiring and preserving celebrity-oriented materials. As someone who relies heavily on celebrity texts for the bulk of my research, it’s nearly impossible to find circulating copies of fan magazines (that are not Photoplay) from before 1980, and even after 1980, it’s mostly just People (which masks its “celebrity-ness” in the guise of “personality journalism,” but that’s another article). I’ve requested various research libraries to acquire and/or start archiving celebrity materials, but the move to collect, index, and archive old materials has been almost wholly on the part of scholars tired of buying copies off of eBay.

    Now, you might wonder if “not acquiring and archiving” equates to “prejudice” — and no, not exactly. But US Weekly (rarely acquired and archived) is just as vital a cultural object as Ladies Home Journal (long acquired and archived) — one just has a stigma of the “popular” and the “trashy” attached to it. I’m happy to elaborate further if you’re curious.

  3. I think you hint at part of the reason librarians are hesitant about pop tabloids: celebrity mags are simply terrible primary information sources. That is, the actual claims made by the celebrity mags (the propositional content of the gossip itself) are largely conjecture and the magazines are not reliable sources of knowledge. Put simply, US Weekly is probably not going to generate any real knowledge about Brangelina or the Kardashians. And since librarians have a duty to avoid spreading misinformation, they don’t want to get into the gossip mag business.

    However, as you argue, US Weekly is a terrific source for those who want to understand contemporary culture. As sources of second-order cultural information (i.e., information about information), celebrity mags are invaluable artifacts, and your argument is that librarians should focus on the secondary, academic value of gossip journalism. I completely agree with you. The only problem is that when librarians are asked to consider the academic value of information sources at the meta-level (as you recommend), we end up having to collect everything because anything can be interpreted as a reflection of our culture and values. Tabloids, newspaper inserts, spam e-mail, street signs, Taco Bell receipts…at a certain level everything becomes an information source.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is that librarians are in a bit of a bind. If we go “meta-” then we have no decision procedure for deciding what to purchase with our limited funds. If we stick to the primary level of information, we have a decision procedure (i.e., is it a reliable information source?) but then gossip mags are ruled out for most budgets.

    Anyway, thanks for a cogent defense of the value of pop culture in the library.

      1. You’re arguing that a text has merit in a library collection, if it (1) provides a means for understanding cultural norms and (2) offers distinct and discernible pleasure. You’re right that this should rule out Taco Bell receipts. But, the addition seems ad hoc: distinct and discernible pleasure is not generally a factor when we collect information sources (though it may be relevant when collecting fiction). So, while I agree that gossip mags may offer pleasure, I fail to see how that’s a relevant distinction.

  4. Re: Some might say that these people are misusing the library, or at least missing the point of libraries in general.

    Rather than focus on the patron, I’d say library directors and librarians are missing the point and misusing libraries when they include celebrity gossip magazines as part of the collection.

    You have persuasively argued that gossip and celebrity have long-standing cultural prominence and merit scholarly consideration. I’m confident the texts you recommended are good sources on the topic and I’d endorse a library promoting these resources thematically by putting the works on display together, inviting an expert to speak, inserting a brief topic summary with references in a newsletter or on a website. This is so in keeping with a key purpose and timeless mission of libraries: to collect and contextualize quality materials with the goal of enriching people’s individual and/or collective engagement with the world — and to blaze a trail for further discovery and engagement.

    For some, merely seeing the display or reading the newsletter might cause someone to make a mental note the next time they’re in a supermarket checkout line surrounded by gossip magazines. For others reading one of the books or hearing a speaker may raise awareness of the class and gender issues you touched upon. For others, increased awareness and curiosity of a particular time period or artistic genre (e.g. film) might be ignited. The speaker events or conversations with library staff might catalyze discussions that would be unlikely to occur wherever else the materials might be present: retail outlets, hair salons, Amazon.

    This is a library’s “special sauce”: discernment, organization and facilitation. It is what distinguishes libraries from a range of other public and private organizations. It is what distinguishes libraries from mere sites of information – which are virtually anywhere-and-everywhere today – to sites of knowledge conveyance and meaning-making.

    Maintaining gossip magazines in the collection is ill-conceived for two reasons The first is these materials are readily available elsewhere, for low cost. There is no need for libraries to carry them.

    The second is that having them in the collection comes at a high cost. Their direct cost means sacrificing materials that are more dear, such as the texts you recommended. The greater cost comes in staff time taken to acquire, manage (and let’s face it, read) them which takes time away from engaging with topic experts or colleagues to create more collections and programming.

    In essence, carrying this material means trading what is unique and special about libraries for what is common and unnecessary. It’s a trade that hurts libraries and patrons.

    1. I see your point, Jean. But to follow your argument to its logical extension, the library should not subscribe to any popular periodicals. No Sports Illustrated, no Ladies Home Journal, no cooking magazines, no knitting or hunting magazines. No Poetry Magazine, no feminist quarterlies, no Vanity Fair. The information covered in all of these publications is available in greater depth — and in more sophisticated form — in books. Plus, all of these magazines are, like gossip magazines, available elsewhere, for low cost (as are romance and science fiction novels, but that’s another article).

      Your conception of the library seems to be limited to that of a place for patrons to access high quality information that they cannot access for low-cost elsewhere. I agree that this is one function of the library, but said conception obviates the library’s potential as a place of “culture creation”…..and the library as a resource to those excavating culture. In other words, collecting now is collecting for the future — collecting for scholars, like myself, who look to the past to explain the present.

      1. Hi Anne – sorry I missed your reply and am weighing in late.

        Whenever I argue for discernment, library folks usually reject it. Seems you have done so too by lumping together a variety of periodicals and types. They also dismiss my conceptions of library mission/purpose/practice by branding them elitist or reducing their scope to something narrow and indefensible. My notions of library go beyond what you characterized in your reply so I’m going to take another bite at the apple.

        In essence, I believe we support libraries to provide knowledge resources/services we cannot provide for ourselves. In the age of scarcity this might have meant access to a librarian who could read and write, when most of the general population could not. It might also have meant acquiring a full set of encyclopedias or newspapers from farway places – things that were beyond the reach (due to awareness and/or funding) for most individuals. Public education and the internet have raised the bar and though the information landscape has changed dramatically since libraries took root in America, I believe the library mission is the same.

        If I were a library leader, I’d be asking “what knowledge and information services can libraries provide today that are not readily available elsewhere?” Materials like People Magazine and 50 Shades of Gray are readily available and receive widespread promotion. The same cannot be said for feminist quarterlies and some of the other materials you listed. Discernment is also scarce. Most other information distributors or sources (supermarkets, Amazon, newspapers, TV talk shows, etc) are going to push whatever sells, and in a superficial way. IMO, libraries should provide an alternative to this by curating a collection based on thoughtful standards.

        A curated collection is valuable, to be sure – but so is the selection process. I never fail to be educated and enriched when librarians engage the topic of collection development with me and we drill into various genres, criteria, dimensions and dilemmas. The knowledge, range of concerns and frankly integrity that librarians bring to these matters is what is scarce today. It is a key component of their unique value-add and it pains me when people in the library community say things like “we’re just giving people what they want” or “you can’t assess quality because one man’s trash is another’s treasure”.

        The other argument I often get is that there is no public appetite for discernment. I disagree based on the large audiences for public broadcasting, content like TED talks & blogs on special topics, etc. Loads of people want to engage around civic issues & rich artistic and cultural content. Most public libraries have positioned themselves differently and aren’t attracting patrons with those interests. It’s a mistake however to take this as a sign that the public interest isn’t there.

        In summary, I promote libraries providing what people cannot easily get elsewhere. The dialogue & insights you’ve offered about your research do this; People Magazine as an uncontextualized artifact does not. Similarly, selection and promotion of a psycho/sexual non-fiction work that is well-written, has strong plot & characters, extends the boundaries of the genre, is perhaps written by a promising author whose work has not received much attention do this. Circulating 50 Shades of Gray and letting it drive so much conversation in the library world does not.

  5. The Librarian With No Name

    Fun fact: reading a thoughtful article questioning the traditional prejudices of collection development is acceptable reference desk behavior. However, and this is important, having a second tab open with the title “Britney Spears Gallery – Sexy Topless Photos of Britney Spears” can lead to an awkward conversation with your manager.

    I’m just glad she knows who Klosterman is.

  6. Justin

    One of the differences between magazines like US Weekly and People and magazines like Ladies Home Journal and even Vanity Fair is that the former profit from the direct invasion of real people’s lives–people that tolerate but on the whole do not ask for this treatment. You write that “celebrities are no less fictional than characters in novels,” and I know what you mean by that in its context, but the fact is that what an organ publishes about a celebrity has the potential to affect an actual human life, whereas a fictional character has no reality to damage. If there is a danger in all this, it is that the profits of periodicals like US Weekly and People depend on highlighting, magnifying, and often enough distorting the personal lives of real people. This is harmful. Ladies Home Journal does not harm to that extent. I’d argue that neither does Sports Illustrated.

    My point, I guess, is to suggest that there is an element of invasion, of profit at the expense of a real life, inherent to celebrity mags like US Weekly and, to she extent, People. A library’s unqualified inclusion of these magazines might not represent an implicit endorsement of this kind of behavior, but it would seem to.

  7. Anne Beech

    As a secondary teacher (currently studying for my Masters in Information Management), I agree that popular culture and celebrity gossip magazines can be used alongside other information sources. These magazines are familiar to students and provide a contemporary context in which to approach issues in historical or literary texts. Given the ‘cult of celebrity’ that seems to enthrall much of society, I think it is important that students are given the tools to become critically aware readers of these publications.

    It was not that long ago that comics (as they were once called) were considered to be not that significant. Now, most libraries proudly promote their collection of ‘graphic novels’ and these texts are also finding a place in the curriculum. Perhaps the gossip magazine will experience the same fate.

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