If we bracket for a moment the Kanyes of the world, celebrity social media accounts tend to fall into a few categories: there are beloved celebs whose posts simply confirm their delightfulness (Leslie Jones, the magic that is Tom Hanks' stray gloves, signed with “Hanx”). There are people we might have otherwise assumed were pretty but boring who turn out to be actually very clever, funny and pretty (Chrissy Teigen, Ryan Reynolds). And there are people to whom we might have never given a second thought—people who, upon the public assessing their public-facing content, turn out to be undeniable racists or homophobes (for the latter: hi, Kevin Hart).
But actual impact on a person’s stock aside, the purpose of most social media accounts is self-promotion. This is true for the famous and the non-famous. It is true whether you’re hawking a bullshit detox tea or posting pics of the show you played last night or self-deprecating jokes about being an old lady for staying home on a Saturday or finding the best angle for your engagement ring or car.
And then there’s Patti Smith.
Patti Smith doesn’t need to tell you how great she is, and hopefully, you don’t need me to tell you either. The Godmother of Punk’s music, poetry and visual art have shaped the American landscape for a solid half-century now; people like Madonna, Morrissey, and Michael Stipe all point to her and her seminal record Horses as a starting spark for their careers. Courtney Love once told VH1 that she first heard Smith’s music while Love was a teenager, in juvenile hall, and "realized that you could do something that was completely subversive that didn't involve violence [or] felonies. I stopped making trouble.”
Smith’s 2010 memoir Just Kids won the National Book Award. She’s an elder stateswoman, to be sure—but she also really liked Aqua Teen Hunger Force, as evidenced by her elegy for the show upon its series finale in 2015. (Show of hands for who else can think of no better dream date than an evening of getting stoned with Patti Smith and watching ATHF? I thought so.)
Simply put: at 72, the woman’s far from ready to be treated like a museum piece. Those who have never seen her live and have $50 lying around should absolutely see for themselves this coming weekend, when she plays back-to-back nights at The Fillmore Jan. 11 and 12. (There's also a collection of her photographs on display Jan. 14-19 at the San Francisco Art Institute, work that explores her connection to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.)
For everyone else, there’s her Instagram.
I don’t recall exactly when I first became aware of the oddly soothing, terrifically weird, refreshingly intimate yet thoroughly non-promotional photograph collection that is Patti Smith’s Instagram account. But I do know that it’s improved my life in a more tangible way than just about anything else on social media. There she is, hair loose, strolling an elegant hallway next to her pal Michael Stipe. There she is with famed film director Bernardo Bertolucci, cool as always in black and white. Her children feature prominently, as do notebooks and desks and hotel rooms.
But the best Patti Smith Instagrams are the everyday objects. A recent favorite, accompanying a photo of a leaf, above, that has apparently been run over by something with a wheel:
a leaf, that experienced much in
its brief life.It felt the propulsion
of its entrance into the world
from a budding branch. It felt
the sun’s warmth as it drew its
nutrients. It heard an admiring
word from a passerby. It was
illuminated by the full moon,
and rained upon. It felt the
wind and a tearing away and
the strange motion of falling.
It felt the trampling of small
feet and heavy boots. It felt
its colors drain away as it
succumbed, becoming one
with the dust and gravel,
beneath a welcoming sky.
I love so many things here. I love that her captions always start with “This is.” I love that she has the patience of Job when it comes to wishing people a happy birthday—literally, every single one of her photos contains at least one commenter announcing that it’s their birthday (or their neighbor’s mom’s cat’s birthday) and Smith, with nary a sign of exasperation, responds in kind.
But most of all, I love the window into the mind of a person who’s such a legend, such a poet, so seemingly untouchable—until she isn’t. Whose creativity seems innate, whose artistry seems baked in, whose work seems to have arrived fully formed—until we see her rough drafts, and it clearly didn’t.
It’s a bit played out at this point—and by played out I of course mean beaten to death on social media—to discuss the “energy” one is bringing into 2019. But like many internet-addicted people I know, one goal I have is to spend less time on any platform that makes me feel like I have to perform. Call it the new Millennial American Dream: get off the requisite hamster wheel of self-promotion. Most days I’m more than ready to throw the whole damn internet away if it’ll help.
But other days, Patti Smith posts a photo of her coffee and says she got some work done. And that the morning is now turning into afternoon, and that she just wanted to appreciate the moment.
And I think, if Patti Smith can do that—and still find the time to wish everyone a happy birthday—maybe I can too.
Patti Smith and Her Band perform at The Fillmore in San Francisco at 8 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 11 and Saturday, Jan. 12. Details here.
Patti Smith also exhibits a collection of her photographs Jan. 14-19 at the San Francisco Art Institute. Details here.