Conventional wisdom puts the beginning of modern conspiracy-theory culture at the JFK assassination. But it probably makes more sense to think of it evolving in its aftermath, in the years following the shooting, once the shock wore off. In the late 1960s, that is, which just so happen to be the years when the country radically polarized along the political lines we now know so oppressively well. The assassination wasn’t just a chaotic, spectacular, improbable event that Americans desperately wanted explained, even if the explanations were terrifying (conspiracy-theory culture being essentially willed into being by those for whom nothing was more terrifying than randomness and meaninglessness). It was also the locus of an ideological battlefield over who were the heroes and who the real villains in American life: pro-Castro and anti-Castro leftists; Russian operatives; the CIA; LBJ; the Mafia; the Camelot Kennedys — the list goes on. We floated conspiracy theories, in other words, as a way of projecting politics.
While there were both political and pop-culture conspiracy theories in the 1960s and 1970s — Elvis is still alive, you may have heard — conspiracism as a phenomenon didn’t come into full flower until the 1990s. That was thanks to the internet. Message boards and chat rooms of that era gave us the golden age of political conspiracy theory, which we are still living in. They were also the birthplace of pop-culture paranoia — when doubts about the real identities of singers and actors, whether they had actually died or truly written that particular song, gave rise to real debate and “forensic” scrutiny. (Is Stevie Wonder really blind? We’ll have to consider the relevant video … ) These days, pop-culture obsessives are quick to cook up conspiracies anytime a celebrity dies, changes her appearance, or even stands next to a triangle, and ideas can now be passed from the edges of sanity to your Facebook feed in a matter of minutes, converting more of the easily influenced into paranoid believers. Not to say that pop-culture conspiracies live only in the present — they are often most delicious when they reach back in time, even way back in time, to propose we consider, say, whether it was George Lucas who actually directed Return of the Jedi (which was, you have to admit, worse than Empire) or whether it was actually Emily Brontë’s brother who wrote Wuthering Heights (exhibit A: fucking Heathcliff!).
Vulture has spent the past few months undertaking an exhaustive cataloguing of these conspiracy theories of pop culture. Music, film, literature, TV, and anything else a celebrity might touch are organized by “genre” (do you like reading about zombie pop stars or Illuminati Svengalis or secret authors of famous books?) and presented pure — that is, not as investigative claims but conspiracy theories. And as a sort of “review of the literature,” the “data” below do contain some lessons and insights. We did, in other words, learn some things!
First, that when viewed from a certain perspective, pop-culture conspiracy theory is the phenomenon in its purest form — paranoia without ideology, or anyway without partisanship. And what you get when you peel back the partisanship, it turns out, are pure theories of power. Why would Beyoncé and Jay Z lie about the birth of Blue Ivy? It’s hard to come up with a motive better than “Because they could.” The most common theory amounts to the same thing — that it has something to do with their being Illuminati and the presumably paranoid logic of any self-perpetuating elite.
Second, pop conspiracies have changed over time. It used to be, at least in the pre-internet era, that people were most suspicious about post-facto cover-ups. Who really killed Natalie Wood, or Bob Marley, or Albert Camus? Especially delectable were those theories about people who hadn’t, as far as the public knew, actually died, but whom the paranoid suspected had in fact died, probably quite suddenly, only to be haphazardly “replaced” by the people around him or her who didn’t want to lose their cash-flow source. (Consider, for instance, “Paul is dead.”) This subcategory of conspiracy theory suggested a particular worldview: Stars were special people with special skills who had won special attention from the public that could nevertheless be maintained by special post-death stagecraft.
In the boy-band and corporate-Hollywood 1990s, though, the famous started to seem a lot less special, and contemporary conspiracy theory followed suit. This is the era of the Illuminati worldview — that everyone who is famous, or close to everyone, owes that fame to the power of a secret cabal. It is also when the theory arose that gangster rap was concocted by the private prison industry. Later, we’d “learn” that Britney Spears was a tool of the Bush administration, Katy Perry was really grown-up JonBenét Ramsey, and J.K. Rowling was just an actress impersonating an author. The meta-level lesson of all these theories is that the whole system of celebrity, which may confuse or madden you as a consumer of culture, makes sense — that the arbitrariness of, say, Miley Cyrus’s rise to fame could be explained by the influence of secret power brokers (rather than talent or popular taste). In fact, when you add the Illuminati, the arbitrariness of somebody’s success becomes a kind of circular-logic explanation for it (how else could Andrew W.K. have made it?).
And then there is perhaps the most interesting new-model conspiracy — most interesting because the category often includes the most plausible claims. These are about authorship, and credit — that Bob Dylan stole “Blowin’ in the Wind” from a New Jersey high-school student, say, or that Paul Thomas Anderson actually directed A Prairie Home Companion. These may seem, at first, old news and old-fashioned conspiracy theorizing. And in ways they are — people have been arguing about who wrote Shakespeare’s plays literally for centuries, of course. But those arguments about secret authorship are also artifacts of the present and recent past, since until quite recently (and excepting real outlier cases like Shakespeare), it simply wasn’t the case that debates about artistic credit became matters of genuine paranoia (as opposed to just, well, debates about credit). You don’t argue about who “really” wrote the classic songs of the Delta blues, for instance, and probably wouldn’t argue about whether someone other than Francis Ford Coppola was behind the movies he directed in the auteur era of 1970s Hollywood. But pop culture is confused these days about authorship, wanting to elevate “geniuses” but also litigate credit (which often amounts to royalty payments) and apportion responsibility between, say, the eight or ten producers who worked on a particular pop song, or the six screenwriters who labored over versions of a script, or between the showrunners whose names appear below television shows almost like bylines and the writers’ rooms responsible for the words their characters actually speak. In that kind of environment, second-guessing official stories isn’t just natural, it’s inevitable. Which means, we think, you should be able to argue about everything on this list — from whether Nicki Minaj is just sped-up Jay Z (you’ll notice a gendered component to a lot of these theories) to whether Avril Lavigne actually died in 2003.
Before you start, though, one last note on methodology: We considered something a conspiracy theory if it alleges the covering up of an official story. Unlike political conspiracies, the motives here aren’t necessarily devious, although there’s plenty of that. Choosing what made the cut was not a scientific process. We looked for theories that have a following of more than one and those that have been offered in earnest. That is to say, someone somewhere believes each of these. You might be one of them. And you might be right.