Tag Archives: celebrity

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.

Who is the next Frank Sinatra?

I spent the last couple of days in Palm Springs. (I was giving a talk to NBC.)

I gave myself a day to wander around.

Palm Springs does not have superb powers of historical evocation. (For some reason I thought it would.) But you can catch a glimpse of a world built for and by several generations of celebrity, including Frank Sinatra.

At a distance of several decades and several generations, Frank is looking odder and odder. The total self confidence. The overweening self importance. All that “chairman of the board” stuff. The booze. The “dames.” The “rat pack.”

But if you talk to someone of Frank’s generation, it’s clear the guy was a god, a personification of the qualities people found spell binding.

Who, I wondered, is Frank Sinatra now? Who is the person who exhibits this perfect connection with the cultural moment. There are lots of options. Jon Stewart has a shot at the “crown.” Jay-Z does too. [Suggestions, please.] And, sure, it’s tougher to say now that we are so fragmented.

There’s a chance it’s Bill Murray. Not least because he helped unseat the lounge singer with his SNL work. But also because he has reinvented himself several times over a series of movies. Young film makers found him and found him useful.

The real reason he is the new Frank is that he is the anti-Frank. He appears to have no interest in creating that huge personality that dominates the public stage. To be sure, there is a distinct personality, one that sits on the surface of all the film work. And this personality is all about a perfect self mastery, that’s quite Frankish, even as it is an exercise in irony that scorns everything Frankish.

What do you say? Who is the new Frank Sinatra?

Secrets of digital celebrity: how to get famous the easy way

When Guy Kawasaki was asked how to get internet famous, he had discouraging news. There is no easy answer, he seemed to say.  You have to follow thousands of people. You have to reply to all your email and Twitter traffic.  Yes, he said, I’m “internet famous” but it took me 25 years to get here.

But some people came up easily. The 1990s was the internet’s Cambrian era, so there was an immense amount of noise and commotion. Now that everyone was in the game, it was hard for anyone to rise. But a few did. And some of those few did not appear to be working hard at all.  They were not scrupulous about their twitter traffic and email.  They got digital celebrity the easy way.

So what’s the easy way?  Let’s take three case studies. There are several more. But these are three that impressed me most. 

As the TV show Mad Men as a center piece, Bud began to tweet in the voice of Bud Melman (pictured) as if from the mailroom of Sterling Cooper.  He gave us an insider’s view of the agency.  The Melman character went from a slender proposition to deep plausibility in the 5 seconds it took us to figure out what the proposition was.  Bud (both of them) had insinuated himself into the storyline. He made himself necessary reading for fans of the show. This was fan fic that actually commandeered the original. It was transmedia that was in some ways more interesting and imaginative than the show.  (AMC thought so. They came at Caddell with lawyers blazing.)  Most of all, Bud showed what digital technology could do.  What, in effect, it was for.  For the price of a Twitter account (then as now $0), he was famous.

With “Bud,” Bud found had found a way to hack old media with new media. The message was clear.  Old media might continue to control a big piece of contemporary culture and it would always have more money, more institutional heft, and perhaps more eyeballs, but with tiny investments some people could help themselves to some of the proceeds. It felt like something out of Prohibition, when small bandits managed to liberate one truck from the 100 trucks big bandits were sending from Canada to NYC.  

Talk about ROI.  Bud won fame for the price of a good idea and a really cheap delivery device.  

Jonah Peretti won fame a different way.  He asked Nike to customize his shoes with the word “sweatshop.” Nike refused.  An exchange of emails ensued in which Nike insisted that “sweatshop” was slang and therefore forbidden.  Peretti replied it was standard English. And then he published the emails. And won himself a piece of immortality.  This is one of the characteristics of this fame, that it uses resources that don’t look like resources at all. An exchange of emails as the path to stardom. This was new.  And cheap.  And forget answering all your email.  Just publish the interesting ones.  

This begins with an act of brilliance. Peretti saw that he could use Nike’s customization for his own purposes, against Nike, and as a way to draw attention to a big issue and indeed a guilty secret that lay at the heart of the Nike proposition. It’s an opportunity right there in front of everyone. Most of us are incapable of anything more imaginative that “Grant’s sneakers” or “Left” and “Right.”  Peretti saw a way to hack the customization that Nike felt made them just so very you know current, “with it,” and “on the ball.” The conceit exposed them. Peretti made them pay.

Kevin Slavin won his stardom with a gaming idea. I never saw any of the games that came out of his company Area/Code. It was enough to hear him talk about his proposition at a PSFK conference. He talked about kids running through the streets of NYC pursued by monsters that were imaginary in one sense but entirely real in another. He called these “invisible characters moving through real-world spaces.”  

There is something so clever about these cases you instantaneously go, “Oh.”  Your heart and your head is glad.  Previous generations found fame in other ways, writing books, starting companies, distinguishing themselves in some arena or other.  (Think of Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog.) But all of these were effortful compared to what is happening here. What brought them Caddell, Peretti and Slavin fame was virtually all concept, not much more than a really brilliant idea stretched over a balsa wood frame. It was, and is, path to stardom because this was all it took to demonstrate that you were someone who grasped “it” (the intangible kinds of value and engagement now possible in the digital space) while the rest of us were struggling to get our blogging software to work.

Anthropologist like this sort of thing for the same reason that linguistic like puns.  We can see the cultural (linguistic) mechanics at work. But I think it’s clear that virtually everyone saw these events, these hacks, as clever as anything and they rewarded the creators with admiration that rose to the level of stardom. And remember how hard this was in the 1990s.  Now that everyone was more active and visible, it was hard to see anyone. We want to avoid a post hoc “oh, but that was obvious.”  There was nothing obvious about climbing out of the blizzard of invention going on in that cultural moment. Or this one.

Some will say, “Oh, but this really isn’t celebrity of anything like the kind we care about.  I mean these guys are not film star famous.” True enough.  I would argue this is a higher grade of celebrity.  If you want to be film star famous, you have to trade away your privacy. You will be followed around by the paparazzi.  People will make their living inventing falsehoods about you. This celebrity is costless.  Highly profitable but almost entirely costless. 

We can think of these as “ingenuity bombs” in the manner of a seed bomb.  You take a really great idea.  Coat it in just enough materials to get it started.  And then hurl it into the world.  And stand clear.  Actually, stand close.  You are about to be covered in glory.  

For more on this idea see my book Culturematic.

post script: apologies for the precious version of this post. I am working from Mexico City and my internet resources are constrained.

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

Lance Armstrong, through the lens of Anthropology

Please come have a look at my post at Wired.  Click here.

Wired did a great job editing as they always do.  But some small differences emerge in the process.  I append my original wording below.  As you will see, the Wired version is better, much better. (Still learning after all this blogging.)

Why ritual rehabilitation will not work for Lance Armstrong
Grant McCracken

Celebrities serve at our pleasure. We make them. We break them. We lift them up again.

We are prepared to endow the celebrity with riches, fame and glory beyond the hope of any ordinary mortal. But the moment we are done with them, we are done with them. (If it pleases the court: Andrew Shue, Peter Fonda, Josh Harnett, Loretta Swit, Judd Nelson, Karyn Parsons, Lea Thompson.)

Some celebrities remove themselves from grace by their own hand: shop lifting, drug abuse, domestic violence, endless court appearances, bad behavior of one kind or another.

But, noblesse oblige, we are prepared to be generous. Under the correct ritual circumstances, we will restore the celebrity to glory.

First, the celebrity must flame out and fall low. 

Second, we insist on self abasement. The celebrity can’t just look humiliated. They have to say they are humiliated. In the ritual of rehabilitation, there can be no doubt that the celebrity understands 1. how far they have fallen and 2. how much they need us.

We won’t return the celebrity to favor unless our status as favor-maker is itself renewed. In a vulgar turn of phrase, before we return these people to the status of a God, we like to make it absolutely clear that we are in fact the boss. These gods, they depend on us.

In the case of Lance Armstrong, the ritual of rehabilitation is tested to its limit. He misbehaved so profoundly. He lied so often. He corrupted team mates and a sport. He fell so swiftly and so far that his might be the limiting case, proof that there are some falls from which people just don’t come back.

He performed credibly last night on Oprah. He rolled out the sincerity. He looked Oprah and the nation in the eye. He abased himself with something like artistry. No special pleading. No presumption that we would forgive him. The important thing: he made it perfectly clear that he serves at our pleasure, that he is nothing without us.

Every talk show can serve as a theater for ritual rehabilitation. Dr. Phil, Dr. Drew, Anderson Cooper, Ellen, Wendy Williams, Kathy Griffin. But there is no ritual officer quite as powerful as Oprah. No ritual platform quite as potent as her show. If anyone can raise Lance Armstrong from ignominy, it is she. Indeed without this interview, Armstrong could have spend years in the wilderness, unable to state the case, to perform the ritual.

And last night Oprah worked her magic. She listened with her special brand of intelligence and feeling. She gave him a hearing. She gave him a chance to confess and repent. She created an opportunity for contrition. My wife was unpersuaded, but I for one believed that he fully understood his predicament. Not so much the fall from fame and glory, but the terrifying movement from a world where he had absolutely control to one in which he doesn’t have very much at all. What can that be like? I think he gave us a glimpse of the terror. Just a flicker. But yikes!

For all this, there is no real hope of rehabilitation. It showed most clearly on an ESPN show called Mike and Mike In the Morning. Without making a big deal of it, Mike Greenberg recited the instances of deceit, bullying, and villainy. He played the Nike ad in which Armstrong asks, “What am I on? I’m on my bike.” He told the story of people driven from the sport and the country by this man’s power and arrogance.

I think this is a little like lying to Federal prosecutors. You don’t want to do it. Ever. Because they are professionally, and perhaps personally, obliged to make you pay. Armstrong used journalist for his own aggrandizement. In the process, he stripped them of their professionalism. He turned them into shills. And they will make him pay. They will do this as Greenberg did it, by quietly insisting that we not forget how corrupt and corrupting this guy was.

But there is a second injured party. The rest of us. Anyone who has suffered at the hands of a bully had to look at Armstrong on Oprah last night and see, if only for a moment, the face of their tormentor. All of us can remember being made the victim of arbitrary power.

The ritual of rehabilitation depends on a collective amnesia. We all agree to forget and forgive. But it won’t happen in this case. There will be no rehabilitation. Journalist will not forgive the man who diminished them. We will not forgive the man who stands for the people who diminished us. Done and done. You had your moment on Oprah, and if she can’t repair you, no one can.

Grant McCracken is an anthropologist. He has appeared on the Oprah show. He was not there for ritual rehabilitation.

Donald Trump and the fame economy

Please come have a look at my new post at the Harvard Business Review.

I ask whether Donald Trump might now be rethinking his presidential bid and whether indeed the celebrity culture may decide to rethink fame.

And please leave comments there…or here…you decide.  

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.