Symptoms of celebrity fatigue

Armed_and_dangerous Armed and famous debuts tonight on CBS.  Excited?  I know I am. 

At 8:00 PM, we will be treated to the spectacle of Erik Estrada, La Toya Jackson, Jason "Wee Man" Acuna, Jack Osbourne and Trish Stratus on patrol as sworn police officers.  In the words of the ABC website,

They will [be] arresting bad guys, including drug dealers, hookers and johns, wife-beaters, burglars, the drunk-and-disorderly and more.

All in a night’s work in Hollywood, California, one would think, but, no, it turns out our celebs are going to be serving in Muncie, Indiana.  (And a good thing, too.  Having lapsed celebrities arrest current ones like Hugh Grant and Mel Gibson would have been unseemly and unfair, an offense against the larger scheme of things.)

The website continues:

Funny?  Often.  Emotional?  Yes, and in surprising ways.  Serious? Always.  To these five celebrities, serving the people of Muncie is an honor that equals or surpasses anything they’ve experienced previously. 

It’s hard to believe that anyone would make programming of this kind. And still more incredible that we will watch it.  (But of course we will.  It’ll be grotesquely fascinating even when it isn’t even remotely funny, emotional or serious.) 

But you have to wonder, will the celebrity culture last forever? Could Armed and Famous (even the name is bad) be the straw that breaks the back?  Could Armed and Famous be the moment that the celebrity culture finally jumps the shark?

The celebrity culture has been with us for some time now.  Indeed it has grown steadily.  Someone must still watch the 6:00 news.  But what America really cares about apparently, are the shows that follow at 7 o’clock and 8: The Insider, Entertainment Tonight, EXTRA, Inside Edition, Access Hollywood

All the signs of over exposure are there.  Contemporary culture has a way of working things to death.  And eventually our attention wanders, and eventually we say as one, "It’s enough, already."  At the moment, of course, it is inconceivable that our passion for celebrity could fade.  But that’s just the point, isn’t it?  But there must have a time in the 1950s when it was impossible to imagine the eclipse of baseball as America’s game.  There was a time in living memory when it was hard to imagine how the land line telephone could be eclipsed.  (I remember thinking, "email?  I’m pretty sure I’ll never need that.")  The fact that we can’t imagine something is no good proof that it’s longevity is guaranteed.  This is much better evidence that the end is nigh. 

In fact, we’ve had a moment of repudiation and not so long ago.  The so-called alternative culture of the 1990s was various and changeable but on this point just about everyone agreed: celebrities were tedious bone heads, predictable, agreeable, and otherwise loathsome.  Thus were the likes of Whitney Houston eclipsed by the likes of Frank Black and the Pixies.  Thus was the 4 track studio born.  Thus did all things garage, grunge, plaid and Portland triumph over the big studios and the house-hold brand-name celebrity. 

Could an alternative moment of the 1990s come back, and go wide?  The case against this proposition is robust, if only because most of the natural competitors of the celebrity have disappeared.  There once was a time when religious leaders, politicians, professors, local heroes, all held sway.  These days, well, who really cares?

Celebrities are the perfect exemplars in a democracy like our own. They do not set themselves apart.  They do not lecture us from on high.  They do not presume to do better.  No, they suffer underwear emergencies while climbing out of limos and otherwise dismantle their grandeur, that we might identify with them more easily.  (And if that’s not enough, they marry and then divorce tragically stupid husbands who must be even now negotiating for a role on Armed and Famous.)

No, what celebrities do is conduct experiments and we get to watch. They test propositions.  Teen girls have been careful students of Britney Spears.  Suburban homemakers are interested observers of Lost Housewives. Geeky bloggers watch the the careers of John Cusack and Bill Murray with something more than ordinary curiosity.  Millions of North American males will take cues from the Daniel Craig version of Bond. Thus will millions of North American women follow the career of Drew Barrymore. Hollywood tests new definitional possibilities.  It is our laboratory. 

Plus, celebrities are superbly modular.  Things change and we swap them out.  The Spice Girls gone.  Vin Diesel gone.  Vince Vaughn won a People’s Award last night, but he could go any moment.  Hollywood stars, as they well know, are dispensable and most have career expectancies that rival a NFL lineman on his 3rd knee surgery.  But of course there are no injuries in Hollywood.  What removes them from currency is our monarchical capriciousness.  Hollywood is ruthless because we are too. It changes the celebrity mix to match contemporary culture and our inconstant taste. 

The celebrity is robust, useful and adaptive.  But the signatures of overexposure are all there.   The trick for the forecaster is to imagine and then watch for the circumstances that might represent the final straw.  I think Armed and Famous might be it. 


McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Celebrity Culture: Muddles in the Models. This Blog Sits At The Intersection of Anthropology and Economics. October 21, 2005.  here.

9 thoughts on “Symptoms of celebrity fatigue

  1. patrick

    Until just now I thought the title of the show was “Armed and Fabulous,” which I still maintain is a catchier title.

  2. Michael

    With the acception of Trish, I can’t imagine any of them are in good enough shape to become cops.

  3. Seamus McCauley

    I would be curious to know whether people who make significant use of social networks – MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, Bebo – are in the vanguard of your prophesied anti-celebrity backlash.

    The cult of celebrity seems to me very similar to the cult of current affairs a few generations ago – everyone followed the news because it was a common touchpoint, a cultural phenomenon that everyone had in common, could talk about at dinner parties and about which opinions were considered matters of social and personal significance. Now the common phenomenon is celebrity – a sort of current affairs with more accessibility and human interest and good old voyeurism than geo-politics. But like the current affairs that defined newspapers, celebrity is a function of the media technology that is available. It is possible, via TV and magazines, for an audience of millions to follow the fortunes of a few hundred famous people. Yet the web makes it possible for an audience of a few hundred people to follow the fortunes of a few hundred other people, and for every person to make their own selection of who to watch rather than accept the choice imposed by the editor of Hello, Heat or National Inquirer.

    The cult of celebrity is to a great extent a media phenomenon, and like so much of what we currently call media the atomisation that the web facilitates makes media – in terms of a collective experience – increasingly meaningless.

    Already millions of teens spend more time watching the antics of people they know, or people who are really like them (as opposed to rich, famous people who are in that sense distinctively unlike them), on MySpace than they do watching what you or I would call the news, or even the celebrity news. Celebrities are lionised and scrutinised for their frailties more than their achievements; see for example millionaire rappers continuing to claim some tenuous connection to the street culture they grew up with even after they move to gated mansions in Beverley Hills; see the ongoing, palpably false, claim that David Beckham, worth £40 million a year, is somehow “working class” hero.

    The cult of celebrity will die not merely because the culture becomes naturally fatigued but because the audience is looking for something with which to identify, and as the technology that allows us to watch our friends overtakes the technology that allows us to watch strangers made affluent by our scrutiny the cult of celebrity will be left behind.

  4. Jaynie

    I think you’re right in saying that the celebreality trend has reached its peak (or rather, nadir) with “Armed and Famous.”

    However, I’m not sure that “A&F” SPECIFICALLY is spurring this possible watershed. As we become engulfed in celebreality and are exposed more and more to their “human” side, we’re naturally growing incurious.

    As vignettes in People, celebs grow larger than life… but as they mesh into the scripting of reality TV in the same predictable way as Joe SixPack on Road Rules, they begin to lose their distance from the audience… which will start to become a huge PR blunder for many of these stars.

    The notable exception that proves the rule: Jerry Springer on Dancing with the Stars… who was in dire need of a little normal-nice-guy-ocity…

    My point: Celebs, don’t let Reality TV writers retool your mystique.

  5. Auto

    Specific celebs may wither and die from lack of public attention and interest. But we’ll just replace them with someone new.

    I rather enjoy celeb culture — celebs are a cheap thrill, especially when they crash and burn. And I know better than to take them seriously. Which is how I think most of us (teenage girls possibly excepted) feel.

    Then again, I did read in today’s WSJ that fashion insiders regard the Swiss watch industry’s focus on celeb endorsements as an outdated marketing strategy. High-fashion is said to be moving away from being identified with celebs and back to using anonymous but beautiful models in their marketing.

    So maybe celeb culture is now big enough to bifurcate. We civilians can’t get enough of Paris Hilton’s misdeeds and assorted antics while top-dollar goods and services realize that celeb culture is too tawdry for them to want to be associated with it.

    Meaning that while celeb culture is likely a permanent feature of the pop culture landscape, it is still something that marketers can choose to use or not as they see fit.

  6. Bud Caddell

    How I wish we could get enough of Paris Hilton’s antics though — we’ve progressed to the point that celebrity ‘news’ adds so much distraction and noise to actual news that may affect us. I understand the need for distraction, for fantasy, but more and more we don’t seek out these activities, we’re drowned in them. It’s also getting harder and harder to find any kind of news, even targeted news, without some piece of celebrity news sneaking in. How many hours of celebrity gossip programming must you sift through to find out the latest news in Iraq? I ditched the tv altogether a couple years ago, but I’m constantly having to shift and refine my news search algorithm (or process) to get past what Britney did or didn’t wear today.

  7. Auto

    It’s pretty easy to ignore Paris Hilton, Bud, and not have it distract you from news about more meaningful developments in the world.

    I start my day with the NYT, WaPo, WSJ and FT. Then I drill down to read more narrowly-focused news that’s work-related. In fact, I spend much of my day reading about what’s going on in the world today and what’s likely to happen tomorrow.

    And I rarely encounter anything about Paris Hilton unless I make a point to seek it out.

  8. Bud Caddell

    I’m really happy for you Auto — you’ve certainly got your process down and we could all learn a thing or two from it — but what about people who don’t have the same amount of search time as you, not everyone gets ‘much of their day’ for info seek..

    Getting back to Grant’s post, I’d be interested in measuring diversion, or the very least, debating how to measure diversion in this case. What percentage of news heard is celebrity related, vs current world events (in particular the war) and how did the war affect our desire for diversion?

  9. pnautilus

    My little brother is dating a girl who is from Muncie. We got talking about this show, and I remembered it was filmed there. Muncie, IN just seems to fit this band of misfits perfectly. So we all laugh about muncie. Then the girlfriend chimes in: “A friend of mine was at a party that was broken up by these guys. Can you imagine being arrested by Eric Estrada? My friend said it was like a bad CHIPS rerun…” Bad rerun indeed. At least Sealab was self-awarely funny. Eric Estrada we pine for you…

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