I’m sure you heard about the death of Prince. You may even have found yourself, in memoriam, rewatching the celebrity movie Purple Rain.
Prince was one of the greats, an extraordinarily talented musician and songwriter, a great performer, a man gifted with maybe the greatest voice in popular music. His passing came hard on the heels of the deaths of two other deaths, David Bowie and Merle Haggard. I was deeply saddened by each of these deaths, three musicians whose work I greatly admire and who have influenced me considerably over the years. But I was also struck by the media overload. I received not just links to seemingly endless editorials and analyses, but to petitions on Prince’s behalf.
Don’t get me wrong: I will miss Prince. But in the massive publicity of grieving I found something troubling. In exploring this, I have found myself reflecting on the troubles of a culture of celebrity, of how we create monsters, and of the societal harm this causes. In this article I explore his and offer up some thoughts on how we can address it.
Celebrity Murder and Terrorism
Thoughts of celebrity reminded me of an article last August, The Problem With Giving 15 Minutes Of Fame For Murder-Suicides, http://garethjyoung.com/the-problem-with-giving-15-minutes-of-fame-for-murder-suicides/ , in which I discussed the live television murders of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward in Virginia. (You recall a man walked into a TV studio, while it was on air, where he shot and killed Ms. Parker and Mr. Ward?) There was, of course, great shock, and then the distraction down the familiar path of gun control discussion. But there was also the fame granted to the murderer, both in name and through his abominable act. This is reminiscent of the fame granted to the mass murderer, Charles Manson. And it also brings to mind beheadings by ISIS.
Pause for a minute and look at your reaction to these acts. If you’re anything like me, you are not just appalled, but you find something compelling about them, something that sucks you in. If you’re old enough to remember, it’s almost like the 24-hour CNN coverage of the Gulf War. The impact of the horror goes beyond the violence and brutality of the act; it rests on the implicit recognition of you, the viewer, that the person beheaded – an innocent who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – could be your neighbor, your friend, your son or daughter. And perhaps there is some primordial draw to the macabre.
The technology of television and the internet, coupled with our insatiable appetite for the dramatic, the novel, the immediate, the urgent, has given the terrorist a new platform and enormous power…in an important sense, the power of Celebrity. The terrorist’s behavior is morally repugnant and grotesque, but from a PR and marketing standpoint it is brilliant, and generates massive publicity and celebrity for their cause.
Fifteen Minutes of Fame and the Cult of the Celebrity
In the program for a 1968 exhibition of his work at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden, Andy Warhol wrote, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”. In doing so he gave birth to the popular motif, not just that everyone has the opportunity for short-lived media publicity or celebrity, but that this is a good thing that everyone deserves.
And with our advancing technology this has played out. In the 1980’s the internet gave birth to what was called “The Long Tail”, a phenomenon to do with the economics of producing and warehousing product of diminishingly small sales. (For example in the 1970’s once the sales of a record or CD fell below a certain level, production ceased and it was no longer available; with the rising of Amazon and iTunes, the cost of warehousing an mp3 or an ebook fell to free, so it held for sale forever, available even for annual sales of just one unit.) Everyone can be a star. Celebrity can be democritized.
But the same phenomenon also gave rise to a spiking at the other end. If, for example, there were a thousand authors making a good living (say $100,000+) in 1970, the concentration of internet marketing caused this to fall dramatically, maybe to 100…and it led to a massive growth in the income and fame of the few. For example Harry Potter became a cultural phenomenon. In my youth this would probably have been a great success, particularly in J.K. Rowling’s native UK and maybe in the US Northeast, but I doubt if Rowling would ever have really taken off in the North of England, of in the Southern or midWestern USA. In our modern age, though, there is much less room for a local or regional star. In the visual arts world, too, this is manifested by galleries paying large sums of money for the work of a relatively small number of national or global “stars” and being less interested in paying for local and regional work. At the same time that technology advanced to allow everyone 15 minutes of fame, the threshold of that fame was elevated to international super-stardom!
A recent guest on #NewBusinessMindset, singer-songwriter Juliana Finch, talked about this too: in “Taking The Myth Out of Competition“, she describes accompanying a friend to the auditions for American Idol and being shocked at the whole phenomenon. She saw talented, even gifted performers lining up to seek permission to perform, people of great ability believing that without the stamp of approval, without pre-existing fame, they should not go on stage.
It’s always hard to see one’s self from the inside, but our American cult of celebrity is somewhat special in global terms. It manifests most obviously in the worship of musicians, Hollywood stars, and sports stars, but this is just the tip of the ice-berg. It shows up in the business world in the staggering compensation – unrivaled elsewhere in the world – of the compensation paid to hired senior management (as distinct from business owners such as Gates, Ellison, etc.) and in the celebrity status granted to such specialists as Red Adair, the man singled out in 1991 to extinguish the oil-well fires in Kuwait. And it shows up in our personal lives in our desire to find, “the best physician”, “the best litigator”, “the best [fill in the blank!]” to serve us in our time of need. We seem to always be singling out the special, the best, the most famous….and the corollary is that we are culturally shaped to seek celebrity and fame for ourselves, as well as for those closest to us.
Beth and I recently watched Joseph Campbell’s wonderful lectures, The Power of Myth and I was reminded of just how much there is in the ancient stories. An ancient Greek story is particularly relevant here: the myth of Gyges (I believe it appears in Plato’s Republic and Herodotus’ Histories among others). Gyges finds a ring which, when worn, makes him invisible. When he next visits the king he puts on the ring, seduces the queen, kills the king and takes control of the palace. There is a very obvious parallel to the Rings of Power of J.R.R. Tolkein, and to the fall of the various “owners” of the One Ring over the millenia. In an important sense, these individuals, like Gyges, did not own the ring; rather the ring owned them and distorted their behavior.
In a similar way, when one is granted societal power through fame, this is something that can be used for great good or for great evil, and the temptation is always there to fall to it and use it for evil…or to be used by it. Look, for example, at the stories of some of our child stars, Brittany Spears and Lindsey Lohan for example. Put on pedestals in their youth and not allowed to mature naturally, their fall seems inevitable. Imagine if this had been you, taken out of your childhood and thrust into national fame: how do you think you would have grown up? How would you have responded when a generation of fans followed you as both you and they went through the traumas of puberty? How would you respond if, like Gyges or Bilbo Baggins, you stumbled on a ring that granted you the power of invisibility?
Yes, there are celebrities who do great good, but there has always been an excess of horrible behavior associated with power. It was for this reason that Plato, the US Founding Fathers, and Churchill all favored democracy over other forms of government: none seemed to feel it is inherently a good thing in and of itself, but rather felt it put a check on the power of individuals.
Rock stars from medieval troubadours through Paganini to Led Zepellin (have you ever read “Hammer of the Gods“?)have always been granted great powers by their fans and groupies. In particular they have been held in a place of sexual idolatory, constantly hearing stories of their own prowess: can we really be surprised if they eventually start believing and acting out those stories?
When I was young my heroes included exceptional athletes, mostly soccer or cricket players (yup, I’m British), but occasionally an Olympic athlete. I admired them as extraordinary people who had succeeded in perhaps the only meritocracy – sports – that I could see in an otherwise political and corrupt adult world, and the extraordinary things they did bespoke of amazing god-given talents. I hung their pictures on my wall, scanned the press avariciously for tales of their exploits, and sought them out on TV. I’m sure the youth of today is no different.
None of my heroes was ever torn down and destroyed for “using banned substances,” but had this happened it would have been devastating. In today’s world, though, the level of competition is so great and the use of drugs so pervasive that to succeed without them is pretty tough. And it’s just a matter of time before a sports star crosses the line and has an illegal dose or uses a trace of a banned substance. In this world, with a predatory press that prays not just on the stars but on the ironic fascination with the failure of the famous, we take heroes down again and again and again. Baseball’s steroid scandal of performance enhancing drugs, named by Sports Illustrated as the number one sports story of the decade of the 2000’s, and the demise and lionization of the once great Lance Armstrong are two of the most prominent stories, but there is a long list.
Have you ever had one of your childhood heroes destroyed as a liar and cheat? Worse, have you had a whole series destroyed? If so, reflect on how it affected you, and if not, try to look at this vicariously through the eyes of one who did experience this. Surely this would undermine your ability to believe; your ability to admire; your ability to hope. And it would also teach you that while a minority of adults were liars and cheats on the field, the vast majority were spitefully intent on destroying all that I held dear, on shattering my hopes and dreams.
What Can We Do?
To counter the toxic consequences of the cult of celebrity, I believe we must do two things that are counter-cultural in today’s age, and both revolve around turning off the TV, switching off Twitter, and not pay attention to this kind of news.
- We should resist the draw of the celebrity. In all fields of endeavor there are remarkably talented and deserving individuals who will never be one of the national greats, but who gave offer us much. This could be a regional visual artist, a local band, or a minor league sports team. Treat yourself to concert in a smaller venue and visit an art opening or artist talk in a local gallery where you can meet and talk to the artist and to other talented locals. Reach out to Juliana Finch or others like her and engage in an ongoing personal conversation with someone whose work you admire.
- We should especially resist looking in blame and horror at the fall of celebrities. Their failures are our failures, for the way we treated them is the seed of their errant behavior. They should certainly experience adverse consequences for their behavior, but we should not revel in this; rather we should turn the focus back to how we enabled and even created this monster. I am not a believer in legislation to address this, but rather think it important we personally learn the lessons and shift our individual mindset away from the idolatory of individuals. We should watch with sympathy and accept our own responsibility in this sad, perhaps even tragic, turn of events.
This is a very tough course of action to take, both because it flies in the face of everything that the American TV-and-internet-consumption culture has become, but I think it crucially important to our happiness and wellbeing, and even, in the context of terrorism, to our safety. We need to accept responsibility for our own lives, and live them personally and not vicariously through others.