Tag Archives: celebrities

The rise of a celebrity culture

These images are from the Pantheon database at the Macro Connections group at Media Lab at MIT. They map what the Media Lab calls “historical cultural production” and the relative proportion of famous people by time, place and category.

I asked the database to report on fame in the US for three periods:
1900 – 1910
1900 – 1950
1900 – 2010

The most striking results:

Mattering more:


singers and musicians


Mattering less:


natural scientists and other academics

US in the period 1900 – 1910


Pantheon -  1900-1910.png

US in the period 1900 – 1950

Pantheon - Visualizations 1900 -1950.png

US in the period 1900 – 2010

Pantheon - Visualizations.png

The glib thing to say is that the sky is falling, that we are a culture that cares more about celebrities than “serious people” and this must be taken as a measure of our essential triviality and an indication that the end is nigh.

Intellectuals especially like to recite the line from Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, the one that says that too many of our celebrities are “famous for being famous.” And it feels nice to stand on our high horse and scorn contemporary culture, but it’s not very instructive or intelligent. It just makes us feel good.

In point of fact, no one is famous for being famous. At a minimum they speak to and for something in our culture, and only thus do they climb from the obscurity that otherwise holds the rest of us captive (and especially and increasingly scornful academics). (Boorstin was a fine and incredibly useful historian but this his most memorable phrase was not his best moment. I believe it stands as a Kuhnian confession of the limits of his paradigm, as if to say, “I can’t understand celebrity so I am going to say it isn’t anything.” Historian, heal thyself.)

An anthropological point of view obliges us to take a culture at its face and reckon with what it is, not what we think it should or shouldn’t be. This work has yet to be undertaken, but a few notes:

  1. Celebrities serve at our collective pleasure in a way that other elites do not. When we are done with a celebrity we are so very done with them. Now we scorn them as “has beens.”
  2. Celebrities are superbly adaptable. We need a different model of selfhood, a new version of maleness, a transformed model of what is “funny,” “charming” or “tragic,” there is an actor out there somewhere who is prepared to serve. This makes celebrity culture a useful “complex adaptive system” in the language of complexity theory. We can swap in the new, and swap out the old, easily and without any real cost (to us). (The cost to celebrities of our capriciousness is cruel. Do we care? We don’t care. We make French monarchs look like models of compassion.)
  3. Individual celebrities are sometimes highly experimental and we should signify this as the US Air Force does with an “X.” When an airplane is called the X15 the Air Force is warning us that it is experimental and not to be completely surprised if it falls from the sky. Why not call him XRussellCrowe (and watch for flying telephones).


Source: Yu, A. Z., et al. (2016). Pantheon 1.0, a manually verified dataset of globally famous biographies. Scientific Data 2:150075. doi: 10.1038/sdata.2015.75

Thanks to the Macro Connections group at MIT.

Give the database a spin here.

Thanks to Thomas Ball for the find and the head’s up. Hat’s off to Cesar Hidalgo and the Media Lab. We have too little data on culture in motion and America is nothing if not a culture in motion.

Pharrell, Happy and how to make contemporary culture

This video has been seen 145 million times on YouTube.

It’s not uncommon to use “real people” in videos.  Sara Bareilles did it recently in Brave.

I don’t know about you, but often this exercise makes me uncomfortable.  These days, I know I am supposed to distinguish piously between “real people” and “celebrities.”  I know we believe “real people =  authentic” and “celebrities = fake.”

I try, I really do. But finally I end up feeling that real people (i.e., you and me) are being patronized.  Clearly, someone in the band stayed up too late talking about crowd-sourcing, fan bases, and the importance of fostering the people.  So the next video just had to have real people in it.

But there are two problems.  First, real people aren’t always very interesting.  Second, they aren’t very real.  The process of shooting  video sometimes provokes what we might call the Karaoke effect.  We are not recruiting real people for the video.  We are recruiting people who have spend a lot of time pretending to be famous people.  So what we really get for the video are people who have pretended to be celebrities now being asked to pretend to be real people.

A different proposition, surely.  In our Karaoke culture, a camera is a dangerous ontological weapon.  It transforms real people into fake celebrities.  And we’re now trapped.  We tire of celebrity culture and wish to escape it.  But here at least  we can’t.  Everyone has felt the vampiric bite of fame.  We may not be celebrities but we can’t ever go back to being “real.”  (Whatever that was, and most anthropologist would insist that “real” is constructed just as much as “phony” is.)

[By the way, this is what it is to live in a media saturated society.  A police detective told me once that he has a hard time interviewing suspects.  They have seen so many Law and Order interrogations, they believe they know exactly how the interview is supposed to go and start answering questions he has not asked.]

BUT MY POINT IS SIMPLE (and I am sorry to have taken 7 paragraphs to get there):  The Happy video from Pharrell does not make me feel this way.  I like watching these people dance and sometimes sing.  Evidently others do too.  That’s the only way Happy could score 145 million views.

The question is why.  What does Happy do differently?  How do these “real people” differ from the real people who feature so prominently in music, marketing and advertising?

Part of the answer is that this video comes from started as a 24 Hour project.  So the producers could choose the best frame out of every 360 frames, as it were.  They had a lot to work with.

Second, most of the people in the Pharrell video are auditioned.  So they are not that real after all.  It looks like the video is an act of perfect spontaneity, that they just took the camera out into the streets of LA, but no. Some of these actors are so good, they accomplished sprezzatura: they concealed their art with art.

But there is some ineluctable mystery here.   These performances are dazzling.  It feels like these people “own” their performances.  And it’s important for us to know why.  Every cultural artifact has something to learn here.  Pharrell and We Are From LA have solved an essential problem.  It’s important to now how

Here are some of my favorite performances.  I hope Pharrell and creators We Are From LA will forgive me this use of these materials.  (Before they object, I would ask that they keep in mind that Nardwaur sent me.)  Also, if the people pictured happen to see this post, I hope they get in touch so that I can name them.

Look for these designations: Eeriest imitation, best dancing, most beautiful woman, scariest handbag, etc.  Slide 18 is for me the  splendid moment.  Two girls swaying in a car.  Perfect.

Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember Ember

























































I think why this video works so well is that it reverses the polarity of popular culture and the present craze for “real people.”  Too often, the real people are forced-marched into the video, there to Karaoke as best they can.  But in the Happy case, the song goes to them.   These real people are not conscripted.  The “press” runs the other way.

One measure of success: there are celebrities in this video (Jamie Foxx, Steve Carrell, Kelly Osbourne) but they do not matter to the video very much, and almost feel a little additional, as if horning in.  As in, “who invited you?”  Kelly Osbourne is perhaps the exception.  I’ve always thought of her as someone who was merely famous for being famous, but with that weird “air square” she does something somehow sublime and redeems herself.  Less a celebrity and now interesting.  This video has something that is capable of rescuing celebrities from their celebrity.  And that’s saying something.

There were ideas at work here.  Here’s a passage from a wonderful piece in FastCo by Mary Kaye Shilling.

Those chosen by audition had the advantage of getting the song in advance, allowing them to rehearse their moves. But on the day itself, everyone got just one take, including Pharrell. “That’s what accounts for the charm,” says [iamOther VP Mimi] Valdes. “Everyone knew they had one shot–this was their moment to go all out, and we love that.”

“The video’s imperfections, the funny bloopers and mess-ups, are what give it character,” says Pharrell, whose own performances alternated between what he calls “semi-choreographed” (see the bowling alley at 11:00 p.m.) and improvisation. “I’m not interested in perfection. It’s boring. Some of my favorite moments are accidental.”

Lots of meaning makers in the present day continue to have what we might call a “sound stage” mentality.  They manhandle reality for our larger cultural purposes.  But I think this Happy video makes it clear that the more sensible, indeed, the necessary strategy is to let the brand out into the world, there to take on the content, color, and sheer propulsive force of what happens there.

Hat’s off to the following creatives:

Jett Steiger, Jon Beattie, Alexis Zabe, Mimi Valdez, Clement Durou, Pierre Dupaquier, Pharrell, WAFLA, Iconoclast, and iamOther

Build your own Culturematic. (I did.)

Imagine hitting “generate” and getting:

Mos Def and Tina Fey

This is your output from a Culturematic machine.  

The machine does something really simple. It selects two names from a list at random.

The point of the exercise?  Practically, this Culturematic machine could be used for making culture, specifically, casting movies and TV shows. Formally, it can be used for exploring our culture.  

I have run my Culturematic many times now, and some of the outputs are not interesting.  

Bill Clinton and Barbara Walters

This isn’t especially interesting because we can so easily imagine one interviewing the other. 

Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh

This is not interesting, because, well, you know.  They come from the same part of the world.

Madonna and Lady Gaga.


It’s when the Culturematic brings together far-flung worlds that our interest is piqued.  (At least mine is.  I realize that I am working off my own idiosyncratic reactions here.)

Mos Def and Tina Fey

This is interesting.  I can think about Mos Def.  And I can think about Tina Fey.  Thinking about them at the same time is difficult…and therefore interesting.  

It is precisely because they are far flung creatures that we would not normally think to bring them together.  

That’s what the Culturematic is for.  Because it’s a machine, it doesn’t know from culture. It’s happy to make combinations we wouldn’t think of.   And that’s what makes it valuable: for casting and for exploration.  (“Date Night” starring Tina Fey and Steve Carell was interesting. Replace Steve Carell with Mos Def and interesting becomes interestinger.)

Version 2

In this version, the Culturematic takes two names and combines them with a phrase.  Here are some of the outputs I have got from my Culturematic:

Lady Gaga and Glenn Beck struggle to establish a parent-child dynamic.

Pink and Richard Branson, working on new concepts of civil society.

Christopher Hitchens and Graydon Carter, looking for triumph in all the wrong places.

This is interesting for another reason.  It forces us to take our cultural knowledge (celebrities are particularly useful cultural knowledge: shared, vivid, and well distributed) and use it in new ways.  We struggle to think about how Lady Gaga and Glenn Beck could have any relationship, let alone a parent-child one.  

Ok, I have run out of time.  Tomorrow, I will give you the logic and the code for my Culturematic.  (Wait till you see how I wired it together.  It’s a real mess.)  I’m hoping you will want to build one too.  (Because I know that you can do a better job.)  


Thanks for the University of Chicago writing laboratory for their precedent.  Full details tomorrow. 

Charlie Sheen and why some celebrities act all crazy and everything

Ain’t no going back.  You can’t get unfamous.  You can get infamous.  But you can’t get unfamous.  Dave Chappelle

I was reading the Entertainment Weekly coverage of Charlie Sheen, and thinking about how many stars flame out.  The head shaving, the shop lifting, the outbursts, the throwing things, the ranting and raving.

There must be as many reasons for this behavior as there are celebrities.  But what if there’s a secret motive?

Maybe some of these people want to stop being famous.  

It’s hard for the non-famous to imagine this. Wealth, glamor, adulation, media coverage. What’s not to like?  

But of course the costs are high.  You give up your privacy.  You give up amiable for adulation. You take on a team that must be fed, a lifestyle that must be maintained.  But the real cost might be: you can’t leave.  Fate has claimed you.  You have lost your mobility.  You can’t go home again.  Actually, you can’t even leave the house.  

This would explain how strange these outbursts are.  Celebrities believe themselves to be as gods.  So when they tire of celebrity, I expect they believe they can just up and go.  And it’s here that they begin to glimpse the truth of Dave Chappelle’s comment above.  They are struck.

This is why it goes steadily from bad to worse.  They begin with small acts of rebellion. Attempts to scale the wall.  And those don’t work.  They try a little more bad behavior and this too leaves the door closed.  It’s not very long before they are using their talent for drama and very considerable ingenuity to see if they can just get the f*ck out of here.  

This would explain why the crisises are so public.   I mean, celebs have the money and the staff to contain or conceal their moments of difficulty.  Things find there way into Entertainment Weekly precisely because eventually that’s the very point of the exercise: is to evade the controlling power of this money and this staff.  Celebs are looking for anything that works.  

The Chappellian revelation must be a moment of pure terror.  This beautiful garment is actually a trap.  It went on so easily.  It looks so stunning.  It became you until you became it. Now it won’t come off. Now it’s time to panic. All that wealth, profile and adulation you worked so hard to get…

In their heart of heart, celebrities continue to believe in their talent and their ingenuity. Surely, they just have to work a little harder.  There has to be some way out of here.  What if I steal this piece of costume jewelry.  That should do it.  No?  What if I go on top of a building with a megaphone.  No?  Ok, what if I …   

By the time we get the news, the celeb is deep into the Chappellian cycle.  They’ve tried A and B and are now working their way to M and N.  It looks to us like they have boarded the crazy train, but in fact this is merely the last stages of a rational undertaking.  Celebrities are producing crazy behaviors only because the rational ones will not pan out.  And they are trapped.

In an interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio.  Rebroadcast on Bravo, December 18, 2006.

Celebrities invade the corporation

Please come have a look at my post at the Harvard Business Review Blog on the good and bad aspects of the corporation using celebrity as a “creative director.”  

Please come comment!  Thanks.  

At the moment, I am in Schaumberg, Illinois.  I spend yesterday working with people in the Convenience store industry.  Very interesting.  

The image to the right is the work of Ruby Karelia, a Vancouver blogger and artist.  It is used by permission. See Ruby’s blog here.

As Ruby likes to put it, she uses her blog “to report from her childhood.”  

Girls at Yale in the 1960s

I recently met a spell binding story teller.  An entire table, fell under his spell, like children at story time.  

One of his stories was about women at Yale when he was an undergraduate there in the 1960s or the 70s.

Many of these women, he said, knew the character they resembled from high fiction or art.  What’s more, they did everything they could to heighten the similarity.

If you looked like someone out of Austen or Bronte, at Yale, you walked it, talked it and coiffed it.

If you looked like someone painted by the pre-raphaelite brotherhood, this too was a similarity to be heightened, an advantage to be taken advantage of.

Forty years later, it’s hard to imagine that this still happens on university campuses.  These days inspiration is more likely to come from Kanye West lyrics (surely the only place where "blond dyke" and "Klondike" are made to rhyme.)

These days, if we are lucky enough to resemble a Hollywood celebrity, well, this is a piece of good fortune too considerable to pass up.   I remember seeing Toronto fill with David Bowie lookalikes when he was in town for a concert.  I couldn’t tell whether these people always sought to show the resemblance or were doing so just for the evening.  Pretty remarkable, either way.  In our culture, we are jealous of our uniqueness.  Only extraordinary admiration (or advantage) can move us to imitation.

But this is only sometimes slavish imitation or an act of deference.  It’s fun to quote celebrities with fleeting moments of comparison, as when we say "bag" the way Kristen Wiig does in her SNL "checkout lady" skit.  My wife does an excellent imitation of Jennifer Coolidge.  ("Thank goodness for the model trains.  It’s where they got the idea for the big trains!")

So what’s the difference between imitating a Jane Austen character or Kanye West?  I think imitating pop culture celebrity is actually more fun and more interesting.  More is left to our creative endeavor.  I mean, we arewearing a Jane Austin or Emily Bronte character.  And we are obliged to wear it all the time.  It is fully formed and we are punished, not rewarded, for departure.  We are it.  It is never us.  There is no cocreation here.

Quoting celebrities is playful, various, optional.  And we can draw on any number of celebrities over the course of the day. Actually, we are not looking for similarity (and certainly not for identity).  We are looking dramatic, transformational resources we can use for our own purposes.

Boldly stated, this is the difference I think between high culture and low culture, and it’s the reason we have moved so relentlessly from one and the other.

And that’s the challenge for social critics.  The traditional approach in an essay of this kind is to shake our heads in disapproval.  What a good thing it must have been to see all those Austen and Bronte girls at Yale!  And surely it’s a very bad thing indeed that we are moving from high fiction to the vulgar, democratic arts of Hollywood and popular music.

But this gets it, I believe, precisely wrong.  Low culture, as some insisted on calling it, is more flexible, accommodating, and creative.  It gives us a grammar instead of a language.  It gives us form that gives freedom, not a form we must con-form to.

Post script

This post filed at 31,000 feet, courtesy of Gogo and Virgin America.  The latter has been a really charming experience. The music doesn’t suck.  There are two celebrities on board. The movies leave something to be desired but hey I’m blogging.  And I have internet access. The post was written over Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.


McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Transformations: identity construction in contemporary culture. Bloomington : Indiana University Press.

Note: This post originally lost in the Network Solutions debacle of the 2009.  It was reposted December 25, 2010.