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.