Tag Archives: celebrity culture

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.

The Grinder and the perils of celebrity culture

THE GRINDER | Official Trailer | FOX BROADCASTING - YouTube 2The Grinder is a show from FOX about a TV actor (Rob Lowe as “Dean”) who leaves his hit series, a courtroom drama, to spend some time in the “slow lane.” He wants to make contact with “real life,” to break away from the insincerities of Hollywood and the falsehoods of a celebrity culture.

His plan is to help himself to the small town existence of his brother (Fred Savage as “Stewart”). The star just moves in…to Stewart’s home, his strip-mall law firm, and his life.

In effect, Dean hijacks his brother’s life. Because celebrities are our gods and they can do anything they want…within reason.  Forget reason. Really, the world belongs to them.

One of the pleasures of The Grinder is that it holds celebrity culture up for scrutiny. We see ourselves, witless with admiration. And we see what happens to the celebrities when treated to this constant flow of astonished gratitude. They turn into very handsome monsters.

The best moments in The Grinder come when the Rob Lowe character demonstrates that he really can’t tell the difference between his celebrity and the rest of his world. Much of the time he believes that he is a lawyer and that the world is his TV courtroom.

This leads to pronouncements that sound ok on TV but when uttered in the real world of a small strip-mall law firm in the middle of nowhere are just gloriously, magnificently delusional.

THE GRINDER | Official Trailer | FOX BROADCASTING - YouTube

And this calls for wonderful moments when the listeners are called upon to witness the delusion. Clearly, they are torn. Part of them wants to go along. After all, celebrities make our collective reality, why not defer to them when they presume to make our personal reality?

But reason prevails. And the listener, often Fred Savage, responds with that wonderful facial expression that says, “does he really not know how delusional that sounds?” Fred Savage is a master of this expression. So is Mary Elizabeth Ellis, his wife on the show.

I couldn’t find a perfect image to capture it. The one at the top of the post comes closest. I think this is the way you make it: turn your head a little to the side, let the smile of approval freeze into the beginning of a grimace, widen the eyes with a look of concern edging on alarm.

It’s worth getting this right. With Washington shaping up the way it is, we’re going to need it.


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?

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.

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.”  

Something out of nothing (cultural alchemy in a celebrity culture)

We can imagine the moment of creation.  (And I am only imagining it.)   Eugene Pack and Dayle Reyfel are out for a stroll one Sunday afternoon.  They drop into the Barnes and Noble on Santa Monica boulevard. 

Pack wanders past a stack of remaindered titles.  All of them, he notices, are celebrity autobiographies.  Now on sale for a couple of bucks. He picks one up and reads

“my gift is simply this: to be here with you as fully as the gods will allow, and just let you love me.” 

“Wow!” he thinks, “Funny!  Who wrote this?”  He turns the book over.  Kenny Loggins. 

Pack and Reyfel start digging through the stack.  It gets better and better. Here Suzanne Somers reads her poetry. Here Loni Anderson and Burt Reynolds declare their love for one another.  Celebrities wearing their hearts on their sleeves.  So childlike and trusting, so naïve, so spectacularly vain. 

Once they stop chuckling, Pack and Reyfel think, “Hm, there’s something here.”  It takes awhile but eventually they develop a stage show called Celebrity Autobiography and eventually a Bravo TV special.  Coverage and awards pour in.  Pack and Reyfel are covered by NPR and Sunday Morning.  Relatively speaking, they have made themselves famous and wealthy.

Mark you.  The show consists only in this: passages from books from a remainder table. That’s it.  Not a word is invented.  Nothing is added.

There is one additional piece of cunning.  Pack and Reyfel conscript other stars to do the reading.  They have Florence Henderson read Pamela Anderson.  Brook Shields reads Elizabeth Taylor.  Ryan Reynolds reads Burt Reynolds. 

Sure, there are cultural questions here.  What makes this interesting?  Why are we prepared to ridicule stars we once revered.  (Perhaps this show acts like a forest fire removing some celebrities that others may flourish.)  Isn’t there something contradictory about using one star to make fun of another?  Surely, Brook Shields or Ryan Reynolds has done an interview that sounds very nearly as bad as “my gift is simply this…” 

Personally, I think we should resist the temptation to roll out a postmodernist cliché and insist that this is merely another case of a culture in which signs have been emptied of meaning and now pursue one another in endless circulation.  Baudrilliard’s argument, that is to say. In fact, there is something culturally rich, complicated and mechanically rich going on here.  These signs are not empty and they are not in flight.  If you don’t believe me, try reading just anything from popular culture on a Broadway stage, and see how much coverage you get from NPR or Sunday morning.Likewise, this is something more interesting than mere pastiche, intertextuality, or bricolage. (Thus did postmodernism beggar the social sciences, by rolling everything that happens in our culture into one simple minded notion.)  

But I am more interested in the economic question.  Pack and Reyfel found a way to invent culture out of culture, to extract value rich from value poor.  With no investment beyond their own ingenuity, they have augmented their place in the world. Forget all the cant about popular culture (talk about empty signs circulating constantly), this is astonishing: a material difference that issues from the most immaterial of differences.  Wow. Funny.  


The quote from Kenny Loggins appears in Rocca, Mo.  2010.  Celebrities in their own words, others’ voices.  A transcript of CBS Sunday Morning Show, May 16th on the CBS Sunday Morning Show website here.

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.