Thanks to Piers Fawkes and a press pass from PSFK, I attended a media event last night sponsored by Reuters called The Cult of the Celebrity – Who’s Using Whom? It was held in the Reuters building on Time Square in NYC, and it brought together the following experts:
Jessica Coen, Gawker.com
Janice Min, US Weekly
Paul Holmes, Reuters
Ken Sunshine, Ken Sunshine Consultants
Anne Thompson, The Hollywood Reporter
Michael Wolff, Vanity Fair
What a dog’s breakfast! By one reckoning, the celebrity culture has been with us since the late 19th century (Dickens in England, Hugo in France, Twain/Clemens in the US). So we’ve had roughly 135 years to think about the question. Listening to the Reuters event, you might think the topic was brand new, a nascent puzzle like Web 2.0. Not only were arguments wildly divergent, but manifestly bad ideas won enthusiastic patrons and audience assent.
Let’s start telegraphically. Janice Min was good. Jessica Coen was bad. Michael Wolff had several good moments and otherwise careened from one bad idea to another like a drunk on the A train. Ken Sunshine and Anne Thompson wandered from good points to bad points somewhat less dramatically. (Ok, so I have a hard time staying telegraphic.)
More generally, the discussion of celebrity is haunted by a couple of approaches that really get in the way. First, there is an inclination for people of words and ideas to mock the idea of celebrity, and the fact of celebrities and their adoration, the better to show that they are serious as idea wranglers, and not so witless as to have been taken captive by media hype. There were moments when Reuters seemed to be taking pains to show that they were more serious than the topic at hand. (Um, why stage the event, then?)
Another unhappy tendency for journalists (and not just journalists) is to take up the discussion of celebrity with a kind of campy, ironic, "we-all-know-what’s-going-on-here-don’t-we?". This turns out to be Jessica Coen’s posture, and it made for an embarrassing performance. At one point, Coen insisted that Gawker is dedicated to mocking journalists for taking celebrities seriously…as if it were possible to salvage dignity at a remove. Sunshine called this for the nonsense it manifestly is.
The last error is the one that says that we care about celebrities because they are commodities driven by marketing, or as Coen rather tragically put it, "they are everywhere because they are selling everything." This is a complicated issue and let’s not make it worse with fashionable arguments that obscure the difference between carts and horses. More exactly, celebrities must exist as such before they are pressed into service by the marketing system.
Min seemed, most of all, to understand the ideas and the postures that are likely to serve us as we try to understand the celebrity phenomenon. She took fans seriously, noting the intimacy of the bond between fan and star, and she suggested that we think about the star as a kind of elected official, someone who relies on the good will of the public.
The larger question (who is using whom) is clear enough. According to Min’s formula, stars must be prepared to relinquish some of their private lives in return for fan support and media attention. But surely, as Sunshine pointed out, they deserve to keep some of this privacy for themselves. This is true because privacy is an essential resource, for want of which anyone of us might very well lose our wits. (Whom the Gods would destroy, they first make famous.) Second, no one who is maximally invasive of celebrity privacy could withstand this treatment in/of their own lives. (The Golden Rule. Not just for Sunday school anymore!) Wolff booted this one badly, when he appeared to be insisted that we must doubt Ben Affleck’s motives when he goes for a Starbucks coffee.
What do you say about Michael Wolff? This is the guy who endeared himself to everyone in "new economy" circles when he invented a "long tail" argument about the future of music. (In fact, there’s an outside chance that he is the father of the long tail perspective. Wonder what Chris Anderson would say.) Wolff made a couple of brilliant points last night, including the very sensible observation that the celebrity culture supplies stories that have the virtue of being both deeply interesting and free. Celebrities off screen create a public cinema, drama without all those costly directors, screen writers or indeed their own stratsopheric salaries. Out for a cup of coffee, they finally work for free.
In short, the evening was a pretty clear demonstration that the stars outshine the ideas we have to think about them. There was one moment when something new arrived. (New to me in any case.) Anne Thompson pointed out that she preferred the early Tom Cruise, the one who preserved a trace of mystery. And this is apt. The less specified ares star, the more roles they can take up, and the more we are free to use them as vehicles of identification on the screen. The invasion of celebrity lives, the growing revelation of their personal affairs, works to diminish this. So, we have a contradiction worth watching here. And if this contradiction is actual, we might expect to see stars wear-out more quickly as they are emptied of mystery.
It is easy for the critic to play Mr. Smarty-pants and criticize others for the modesty or the error of their position. I am happy, nay, eager to reveal my own position on this debate:
We care about stars because we identify with them, and we do this variously. We identify in a wishful, wistful way with the grandeur of the stars’ private lives, we identify in straight forward way with the creatures they become on the screen, and we identify with the difficulties and embarrassments that beset them in life and the tabloids out of genuine concern, salacious fascination, and of course scheudenfreud. (We act, that is to say, from the usual bundle of post modern motives: we revere, we mock, we scorn, but most of all we participate.)
There is a deeper answer, one that no one glimpsed last night, and this might be the cause of the ambivalence and sloppiness of the occasion. (Some truths, as Nietsche told us, are better left obscure.) Several of the interior subroutines (aka cultural scripts) that inform our experience of the world and our performance of the self were minted by Hollywood filmmakers. No one wants to hear this. It interferes with our self love, our sense of our seriousness, our belief in our own authenticity. Too bad. This is the simple truth of the matter. If you want a happier picture of yourself, go see a movie. Or, if you merely wish to obscure the this truth, stage an "examination" like the one last night.