Celebrity In America, Sojourns Into Meaninglessness

Time for a old man rant.  I haven’t had one in a while and I’m feeling one bubbling just beneath the surface.

I grew up in a time when the term “Celebrity” meant much more than it does today.  The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines celebrity as “a famous or celebrated person“, but in my mind, bestowing the mantle of celebrity status on an individual also requires that they have achieved a high level of notoriety due to the significant individual accomplishments and contributions which are associated with them.
JohnWayne
When I was just a pup, celebrities included people like John Wayne, undoubtably an American icon; Frank Sinatra, with a career spanning several decades; Ernest Hemingway, Edmund Hillary, Pablo Picasso, Jesse Owens, Winston Churchill, Jackie Robinson, and the list goes on and on.

Perhaps driven by Andy Warhol’s famous statement, “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” our culture, aided and abetted by media talking heads who are desperate to achieve their own notoriety, now grants celebrity status to the undeserving as fast as McDonald’s churns out Big Macs.

By the way, based on little more than that quote, a collection of really horrendous wigs, and a can Campbell’s soup, Warhol managed to achieve his own level of transient renown.
Snooki
A quick review of a list of current “celebrities” including such notables as, Kim Kardashian, Michael Sorrentino (who?), Lindsay Lohan, Daniel Tosh, Snooki, Heidi Montag, Clay Aiken, and Pitbull; clearly demonstrates that the criteria for achieving celebrity status today requires little more than a willingness to engage in outrageous behavior, to embed large quantities of silicone in one’s body, to practice narcissism as if it were an art form, and/or to have “starred” on one of the innumerable reality television shows which plague our cable channels.

Pardon me, but I have to ask, is there anyone who has done less to achieve the designation of celebrity than Pitbull?  Appearing on Budweiser beer commercials while rhythmically thrusting one’s right arm into the air doesn’t seem like much of a resume’ to me.  But I digress.

No doubt, many of this generation of celebrities will soon be appearing on the Biography Channel’s “Celebrity Ghost Stories” series.  Why wraiths, specters, and poltergeists would choose to initiate contact with so many once notable personages just as their careers seem to be coming to an end is an interesting phenomena.  Perhaps it’s closer to the truth to suspect that the series provides an opportunity for these latter day Norma Desmond’s to see themselves on the tube one last time?
norma
You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.

I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.

Yeah, right.

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Someone Remind Me Why This Is Important

A recurring theme that drifts in and out of my thoughts over time is the question of why anyone pays even the slightest attention to the opinions expressed by those individuals who have inexplicably been blessed with the cultural designation: Celebrities.

Hardly a day goes by in which one television or movie “star” (I use that term loosely and with a lower case s) or another isn’t pontificating on some pet cause, social controversy, or political issue.

Their points of view are then splashed across the internet, the covers of pulp magazines, and the 24/7 news channels as if we more commonplace folk should stop what we’re doing, sit up, and take notice.

It occurred to me that if I truly understood what a celebrity is, I might be able understand why their thoughts and viewpoints should be of such great importance to me.

So I looked up the word and found this definition:

Ce·leb·ri·ty n. pl.
1. A famous person
2. Renown; fame

That’s it! As the saying goes, there ain’t no more!

I couldn’t find a single definition which established any level of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, educational achievement, or intellectualism as a criteria for being recognized as a celebrity.

There’s nothing associated with celebrity status that would deem any celebrity’s opinions to be of any greater value than my own or of those held by the guy down the street who’s using his gas blower to chase his leaves into his neighbor’s backyard.

During my search for answers, I did find this explanation of celebrity offered by the writer, historian, and attorney Daniel Boorstin:

The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness.

Bingo! That pretty well sums it up for me.

If I had to take a stab at providing an answer to my own question, I’d have to say that the value given to the opinions of celebrities is based in part on two cultural trends.

1) All forms of media, driven by 24 hour cable television news cycles, are desperate to find anything even remotely news-worthy to fill their pages, web sites, and airtime.

2) Intellectual laziness. Our desire for instantaneous gratification has led us to look for quick and easy solutions, rather than taking the time to think too deeply or for ourselves.

I wonder what Oprah would have to say about this?