All one has to recognize the fact we are in a celebrity age is to examine the coverage of Michael Jackson’s death. The so-called King of Pop received more attention than the passing of recent presidents.
In his famous book Image of America, Daniel Boorstin argued that the essence of contemporary celebrity status is “being known for knownness.” As I see it, the celebrity is manufactured, a product that emerges from marketing like toothpaste. It is instructive that in a television age and a “YouTube” addicted public almost everyone is eligible for what Andy Warhol called “15 minutes of fame.”
Of course, that means that fame can be dubious. Bernard Madoff is famous, a function of his fraudulent behavior. Paris Hilton is famous for being promiscuous. Donald Trump is famous for converting his ego into commercial enterprises.
Even genuine heroes such as Sully Sullenberger or Richard Phillips are momentary figures splashed on the news and then removed for another story. It is as if the events they participated in were covered in invisible ink — here today, gone tomorrow. The so-called “hot personalities” will appear on the late evening talk shows where even serious people are converted into blabbering fools.
I have this recurrent dream in which Shakespeare is on the David Letterman program. Letterman: “So Bill, you don’t mind if I call you Bill, why can’t this Hamlet character make up his mind?” Shakespeare: “This is complicated. You should read the play.” Letterman: “Look we have about 60 seconds before a commercial break, why don’t you give us a summary of your work.”
No one participates in these entertainment charades unscathed. Those who think they’re important are knocked from their pedestals and the truly important try to act as down-homeboys, victims of television’s humbling leveling process.
The tabloids help to promote the celebrity phenomenon because it sells. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is the tabloid priority. Hence, the more lurid, the better. To be a celebrity doesn’t mean doing something for humanity; it means doing something that attracts attention. You must get noticed. If you cannot do it for yourself, publicity flaks will do it for you.
As a consequence, rumors are important. They keep gossip mongers in business, “I heard…” is the beginning of a story line. Better yet, “I saw X and Y canoodling in a dark corner of a well-known restaurant.” The canoodle might have been a friendly kiss on the cheek, a perfectly innocent gesture, but far better to infer sexual innuendo.
Since sex sells, a celebrity can keep himself on the front page of tabloids if the story is “juicy.” “Brad Pitt leaves Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie” was at least a one month story that had legs for more than a year. Frankly I don’t care. None of those characters interest me in the slightest. But I should note that there is a large audience for this story as Star magazine’s circulation would suggest.
Similarly, the celebrity who gains weight or loses weight becomes a human interest story. Oprah, of course, has it both ways. She is a story on the way up and a story on the way down. As a human see-saw, she is the perfect celebrity persona. Why anyone would keep count of her weight is beyond me, but then again publicists know a lot more than I do.
Where is this celebrity business taking us? For one thing Americans rarely distinguish between genuine and false accomplishment. A basketball star may seem far more notable than a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. A significant portion of the American population wants to be amused from the rising to the setting sun. And the celebrity is often the focus of that amusement.
If this were innocent, it wouldn’t make a difference but I’m persuaded that the celebrities who get ink become cultural models, people to be emulated. I cannot prove this hypothesis, but I think celebrities having out-of-wedlock children fostered illegitimacy generally. Those we admire are the figures who offer cultural boundaries.
At the moment, what we observe is confusion, a phantasmagoria of faces and names, here for minutes and gone, devoured by the impatient cultural beast. If some prefer real heroes, people with solid accomplishment, they are obliged to search beyond the popular media. But where does one go in a world that changes at the speed of light and thirsts for new celebrities each day? The answer is not immediately apparent.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001) and America's Secular Challenge (Encounter Books).
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