We're all narcissistic to a point. If we're normal, we possess self-confidence accompanied by the ability to question our limitations or imperfections. True narcissists--in the clinical sense of people suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), which is separate from ASN--would never question themselves, though, because they are not selves at all. In a nutshell, they can experience themselves only in the reflection of someone else and need other people's approval to validate their otherwise empty lives.
By age four, most children figure out that they are their own person, separate from others but able to bond socially. This doesn't happen for people with NPD, and they alight on a lifelong journey in search of constant validation. Classic symptoms include lack of empathy, grandiose fantasies, excessive need for approval, rage, social isolation, and depression. Until recently, it was generally believed that, say, if you make it through junior high before suddenly becoming obsessed with being the perfect student with the best hair and right clothes, you are on track personality-wise. Everyone might hate you, but you like yourself enough to not give a shit. Fuck 'em, you're going to Yale rather than community college.
Acquired Situational Narcissism, on the other hand, can be attributed to the person who got a taste for performing in front of an audience and will do anything possible to stay in the public's eye, even if it means ranting on websites, playing an instrument he or she has no business handling, or just shaking maracas or a tambourine at the side of the stage.
Robert Millman, a professor of psychiatry at Cornell Medical School, was the first to distinguish these jerks (Acquired Situational Narcissists) from other kinds of jerks (those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder). A recent New York Times article written by Stephen Sherrill was the first instance I heard of Millman and ASN, and Sherrill's flippant essay was certainly informative. In the case of ASN, you're not born with narcissism, the situation brings it on--the situation being fame.
Think about it: There's always that one person in the band who can't separate him or herself from the oneness of the members when they're not playing or practicing. Such people see the band as their family and will do anything to keep that family together. They take a band member's marriage as a personal affront, and if someone decides to quit, it's a betrayal deserving of cruel revenge. Meanwhile, the time spent by people with ASN when separated from the band is divided into several recognizable activities, such as trying to make people think they're the nicest on the planet, or "falling in love" instantly and then forsaking that "love" when someone who they think will make them look better comes along. They change their clothes and hair to match those of their idols. It's all about how they appear to others.
God forbid they fuck up publicly, because this is when they'll go into hiding. If no one sees them then they don't see themselves. Normal people get over it as publicly as they got into it, but not our situational narcissist. I had an ex-boyfriend (in as much as "boyfriendness" was possible) who literally left the country--and hasn't returned yet, a good decade later--when he was kicked out of his band because he was a goddamn horrible bass player. He grew up in Gatsby's neighborhood, bought himself some fancy cars and a cool vintage bass guitar, formed a band, and modeled himself on Martin Fry (finely tailored suits, floppy mop of blond hair--it was the '80s!), then got the boot from the band he started. Ouch, and buh-bye.
If you stop to consider it, we as the public play a big part in causing celebrities to lose their former vision of reality. We gape and gossip, and their world becomes a national observation, sometimes an obsession. Once celebrities realize that their every public move is somehow noted, some retreat in an attempt to live normally, while others, the narcissists, begin to thrive on seeing themselves the way we see them--and then comes the rage and the drugs in order to deal with the constant dog and pony show.
I suspect Courtney Love is a narcissist in the classical sense; she's always been surrounded by fame and is never going to let go of the public's reflection of her image. Eddie Van Halen, however, might be a true example of ASN, because he couldn't stand David Lee Roth getting all the attention, even stooping to putting that guy from Extreme up front (call it anything you want, Eddie, but no one will accept anything less than a full, original lineup reunion to truly be Van Halen), until cancer forced him to take a break from driving Van Halen into the ground. Ryan Adams might also have ASN--the performer has changed dramatically since his days with Whiskeytown. I hardly recognize him as the guy who stood on the Tractor's stage six years ago. Who knew that he'd become such an indulgent yet thin-skinned jackass who can't take the slightest criticism of his own rock-star-persona bullshit?
Is it possible to quit performing once you've begun? Or is it the performer's right to just go on and on and on, aping Old Blue Eyes or playing reunion tours featuring only one member of the original band, while we accept it as merely an example of someone who still enjoys what he or she does and who wants to make a little cash in the process of expression. I used to think that Sting had done his former work with the Police the most deplorable dishonor until I recently saw a commercial hawking Rod Stewart re-dressed as a modern-day Frank Sinatra, complete with dinner jacket, crooning old standards. As I watched the TV I wondered if there was ever a time when Rod was not a joke, but I realized Gasoline Alley and Every Picture Tells a Story are great albums. Now it's just too hard to believe one Rod used to be the other, even harder than separating the Police from Sting.
When I think about artists who don't have a problem with being famous I think of Doug Martsch and the members of Built to Spill. I include the Rolling Stones in this category too simply because they are so big that their satellite world is necessary, not narcissistic.
ASN is not yet a recognized psychiatric disorder, and most of my opinions in this essay are completely arguable, a one-sided debate on a subject I found interesting. If you want to read more on ASN, though, the New York Times article mentions that Millman has included a piece on it in the new edition of Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Textbook, which he co-edits. I guess he figures all roads lead to ruin when they're paved with glitter and praise.