Saturated by Celebrity

I first noticed the effects this morning. As any of my regular readers know, I’m a news junkie of the highest order. I like to know what’s going on in the world at any given time. That usually involves several sources for my curiosity to be satisfied, even after I’ve downsized my intake in recent months. This morning, I scanned some headlines, and stopped. No streaming CNN or BBC. A quick browse of the New York Times and I was finished, and I knew it was for one reason.

The only thing that anyone was going to cover was Michael Jackson’s death.

I know this because I was watching CNN when the news broke on Thursday that Jackson had been transported to the hospital. I first learned of his death from Twitter later that night. The next morning, that’s all that anyone seemed to cover. Everything else going on in the world, economy and environmental bills in the works, Middle East sabre-rattling, and everyone seemed primarily interested in Jackson.

I have to say that I just don’t get it. As an artist, Jackson certainly had a prolific career, and I enjoyed listening to clips of his songs Friday morning and remembering the times (no pun intended) from childhood and college that were connected to various songs. I respect that three generations of people can connect with his music; certainly, staying power can be a measure of an artist’s success. Jackson did his share of sketchy things, as well, however, things that seem more distant from the public memory. I understand remembering the life of an artist that was influential to our culture, though, and even dwelling on the positive instead of the negative. What I don’t understand are lines of people waiting to place flowers on his star in Hollywood, or people grieving and crying upon learning of his death. Why? It’s not like they knew him or anything.

I suppose that connecting with someone’s art leaves you with the feeling that you know them. Certainly, I remember the surreal experience of first seeing a music star on stage, and the first time I met a star for an autograph. The fact that they were actually human was almost a surprise. I also suppose that this is less the case in the age of social networks…a year or so ago, I sent a Facebook message to the author of a book I found to be an exceptionally good read. The author messaged me back. I still have the message…because, still, there’s something surreal about her dialoguing with me.

That being said, the phenomenon of celebrity worship seems to have taken Western culture by storm in such a way as to cause concern. An oft-quoted HealthDay article that has circulated since Jackson’s death attributes a history of celebrity worship dating back to Chopin and Liszt, stating that we identify our hidden desires with celebrities, and that it is a healthy experience to do so, especially in the consideration of “faltering” religion. While I’m all for some healthy catharsis, I disagree with the article on more than one front. Firstly, religion is not faltering, and secondly, worshipping an artist in the public spotlight is a very poor substitute, even if it were.

Still, celebrity worship is a phenomenon to be reckoned with, even earning the infamous distinction of being coined as a syndrome in some circles (although I’m not aware of any actual diagnosis for such a pathology). I tend to fall more in the camp of Richard Marcus’ 2006 BlogCritics post that celebrity worship is a mark of an intellectually declining culture.

Historically, difficult economic times and war times lend themselves to a public increasingly seeking entertainment as a distraction, as something to take their minds off of the problems that beset them in their current daily lives. I’m not going to take a highbrow approach and say that the art that results from the profit-seeking push to satisfy this impulse is poor (although in some cases it speaks for itself), but I will say that, in the absence of the glamorous life that many of us seem to wish for at some point, it is normal to attach ourselves to a celebrity’s life and work. I had a crush on a music star or two in my adolescence, just like everyone else. The difference is that I grew out of it…many don’t seem to do that, and I think that not doing so is developmentally an issue.

When this happens, the “entertainment industry” (the fact that there is one is an issue of its own right, but one for a different post) pushes to satisfy the public’s desire for more of a star, or a type of star. That, after all, is how they make their profit, and that profit is far more important to them than artistic substance. Thus, not only is an enormous amount of attention focused on an artist, but artists are created by the media, and ones with what Marcus describes as having “dubious talent” at that (at the risk of insulting anyone here, I’ll simply point you to his apt examples on page 3 of his post). With this, mediocrity reigns supreme, and artistic substance declines as a culture becomes much more interested in vicariously living lives of caviar dreams than of appreciating quality, to say nothing of engaging in reality.

My intention is not to debate whether or not Jackson’s work falls into a definition of substance or quality, or even to offer a definition for either within this limited space. I simply wonder if, in our media saturated age, we aren’t failing to outgrow that emotionally developmental period in which we feel the need to follow, and even duplicate, every aspect of an artist’s life. I’ve expressed here before that, when this occurs, we feel as though we own that artist, that he or she owes us something, leading to their publishers or studios to see potential profits and take control of what that artist is producing. This leads to a universal loss of artistic quality in the name of money.

This also leads to individuals being grief-stricken over the passing of one whom they did not actually know, to a point that their own lives with those that they do actually know are affected.

Catharsis and dreams aside, folks…this just isn’t healthy.

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