November 28, 2007

The Pros and Cons of the Celebrity Culture

RECENTLY, IN AN INTERVIEW with Time magazine, the writer Stephen King heaped much scorn and ridicule upon what Mr King termed America's "celebrity culture." It was a rather fascinating interview, and during it, Mr King said:

I think there ought to be some serious discussion by smart people, really smart people, about whether or not proliferation of things like The Smoking Gun and TMZ and YouTube and the whole celebrity culture is healthy. We've switched from a culture that was interested in manufacturing, economics, politics — trying to play a serious part in the world — to a culture that's really entertainment-based. I mean, I know people who can tell you who won the last four seasons on American Idol and they don't know who their fucking representatives are.

OK, Mr King, here ya go.

Of course it's not healthy -- but not for the reasons one might think.

We can start off the discussion looking at the celebrity culture of which Mr King speaks. The people, Mr King laments, pay an inordinate amount of attention to the zany antics of movie actors, pop singers and -- to a lesser extent -- sports figures. The news media and other media outlets, who have figured out that people will pay for information about these zany antics, thus focus an inordinate amount of attention on these shenanigans. The movie actors, pop singers and sports figures, who have figured out the news media and other media outlets are quite interested in them, thus indulge in more zany antics. This gives them free publicity, which translates into paid subscriptions and bunches of advertising for the media, which allows them to try to satisfy the people's insatiable lust for information about their heroes. Rinse. Repeat. Rinse. Repeat.

Meanwhile, as the people argue incessantly about whether Britney Spears is a horrible mother, the Important Issues of the Day go unnoticed. The weak dollar and the federal deficit and efforts to reconcile the AMT and disputes over resource extraction -- to say nothing of things happening outside America's borders -- are brushed aside with the argument that only the elites care about such things, and if they are really interested in them they can buy the goddam New York Times. Meanwhile, boatloads of ink are spent disseminating the latest news about Paris Hilton, who is a celebrity yet no one can understand why.

Given this, one could argue that Americans are thus devolving into two separate camps: a technocratic elite that cares deeply about things like Federal Reserve policy and the environmental concerns surrounding extracting oil from the Rocky Mountains, and the easily-distracted commons, who care deeply about things like whether they can find naughty pictures of movie starlets on the Internet.

But I would argue this is not the case. After all, even "smart people" need a bit of brain candy once in a while, while "average Joes" often care about matters like the environment and trade issues, even if they do not take part in the political process or hold just rank-and-file jobs in the economy. There is no reason why one cannot be interested in both subjects, even if the interest in one or the other may seem mystifying to an observer. Furthermore, American culture has long been interested in celebrities -- arguably, ever since the Roaring Twenties, when the entertainment industry and an increasingly well-off public really discovered each other. And even before that, most people were not interested in the weighty subjects of the day, as H.L Mencken observed so wittily.

So why are things different now? I would argue the inordinate focus on celebrities we see today is the direct result of alienation among the American people -- alienation that exists among all economic classes and people of all social backgrounds. To borrow from Kissinger, it is much easier to focus on trivial matters because the stakes are so small. After all, one's life is not going to change tomorrow if one's favorite actress dyes her hair green, or one's favorite quarterback gets caught fighting dogs. Thus it is much easier to be interested in such things.

It is also worth noting this inordinate focus comes as people move away from the traditional support structures this society has offered its people -- the Church, the family, the Government. When people turn away from those support structures, they inevitably look for something to fill the void and the celebrity culture fits the bill. We can see how the celebrity culture has risen even as religiosity, family bonds and trust in Government have waned.

This trend is also apparent in certain aspects of our celebrity culture, which is much different than the culture extant in the pre-war and post-war periods in terms of the aspirations people have.

Back in the Fifties and early Sixties, as various scholars have noted, people aspired to act like the rich, who were well-regarded in society. Thus, people read literature and took an interest in classical music and generally worked to get on board with what society deemed proper. Today, on the other hand, popular culture is very much a reflection of the various troubles affecting the poor: glorification of the street life, glorification of violence and criminality, glorification of consumption and petty decadence. Back in the day, stars were rich and they acted like it. Today, stars are rich, but you'd be hard-pressed to find one who knew the meaning of, or would even flinch at, the age-old insult of parvenu. Thus the only aspiration for regular folks is economic -- they want a bathroom they can play baseball in, as the popular song puts it, and hang everything else.

That, I think, also ties in directly with the economic uncertainty many Americans face: something I would argue reaches well into the upper-middle class. After all, how many people out there actually feel secure in this day and age? I certainly do not, and I daresay I am in a much better position than most (the whole bachelor/no kids thing helps). This, I would submit, is a further level of alienation that separates people from their society. They don't trust the Government, they worry about their jobs and their employment, and their financial situation is -- if not precarious -- at least not where they want it to be.

So if people don't have faith in their own situation, don't have faith in themselves, don't have faith in God, don't have faith in their jobs, and don't have faith in the Government, they turn to the one place where they can have faith, or something that does a fair enough job of approximating it: their favorite stars. They feel they can depend on them because they have nothing else on which to depend. I would also argue people with an inordinate interest in celebrities also probably are lacking in conviction about themselves.

And this is a tragedy. It really is. As such, I find it tough to blame the "celebrity culture" for our problems when its ascendancy is a direct result of society's other institutions dropping the ball.

The way I see it, any solution to this problem -- if one considers it a problem -- must be two-fold. The first, and more important part, must involve Americans getting themselves on a better footing. If Americans rediscovered the values of living frugally, and religiosity, and a strong family, I think people would generally be better off -- or at least have a lot less to worry about. The second part involves society's institutions doing a better job at reaching out to a populace that clearly is in a lot of need. Religious groups need to be more effective, Government needs to be more competent, and businesses need to be more in tune with the communities in which they do business.

OK, thus endeth today's lesson. Which is good, because now I'm depressed. To cheer myself up, I'm going to get work started on another search-engine query post. Yeah.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at November 28, 2007 09:49 PM | TrackBack
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