I am often fascinated and sometimes troubled by America’s obsession with celebrity. There is something irrational about the intense, engrossing concern that so many people have for others who are extremely well known. Those who have achieved fame in professional sports or in the entertainment industry through music, films, or television seem to be at the top of the list of those whom the public idolizes. Though the talents of a sports star or actor can sometimes astonish us, we tend to lionize them as being somewhere between super-human and god-like.
The source of this deification is what interests me, though I’m not sure of its source. Does the value of worshiping celebrities (assuming there is any value at all) come from our need to daydream sometimes about being in the limelight ourselves? Is there perhaps in most or all of us a secret desire to be lauded on a grand scale, to be a Michael Jordan, Taylor Swift, Tiger Woods, or Mariah Carey? Though the lives of admirers rarely cross the lives of the mega-famous on even the remotest levels, the mystique survives, maybe the same mystique that perpetuates such keen public interest in royalty, especially that of Great Britain, the lives of royalty being so vastly unlike those of the rest of us, as though we are from two completely separate planets.
Of course publicity is often used to further enhance the stature of celebrities so that, at last, they can become media creations like the ones from the old movie studios, like MGM and Paramount. The same adulation is rarely, if ever, offered to Nobel laureates, those who make medical or social breakthroughs that actually change the world. The greatest school teachers have never received accolades even approaching those received by professional quarterbacks. I wonder sometimes about what we really value and if, finally, entertainment doesn’t generally trump everything else. Our children being unable to name the people in history who changed the world most but able to name long lists of rap singers, pop stars, and movie idols isn’t as much the fault of public education as it is of human nature itself.
When fame and entertainment are joined, they become a powerful force to engage our attention and interest. The popularity of scandal sheets (disguised as newspapers) is another testimony to our fascination with the famous, whether for good deeds or bad. There is a kind of Jerry Springer appeal to the worst in us, the part that takes perverse pleasure in seeing those we envy brought down. Facebook, Twitter, the internet, cellphones, texting, and other media have rendered fame an instant commodity in our time, usually fleeting but potent nonetheless, for the time its presence is known. Driving a car through a store window can bring more renown than a brilliantly written book, and a dirty tidbit splattered across a tabloid cover about a United States senator can summon more attention faster than a military victory.
However remote fame is for most of us, we continue to watch from behind the curtain as distinction and eminence shimmer like gold dust upon those few among us whose names we know from a distance, not as much because they are very different from us as that they are “famous,” however else they may be just like us. JB