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To Cope With Postmodernism Part Two What’s So Cool About Celebrity?
By Ross Thompson
Resistance is Useless
I recently watched an edition of Stars In Their Eyes - a television program so bad that if Dante were alive today, he would no doubt devote a whole ring of Hell to it. Though the program in question is very, very bad, it makes for surprisingly compelling viewing. The pitch is so simple that media fat cats must rue the day that they turned it down or didn’t think of it themselves. Put simply, Stars In Their Eyes is a glorified version of karaoke, in which an ordinary member of the public is dolled up to the nines as their favorite pop star: hair is crimped and dyed; beards are shaved and styled; and leather trousers are donned. Once the transformation is complete, the celebrity look-a-like gets to ham it up in front of a studio audience by performing a song by their artist of choice. Bored housewives and jaded businessmen have a crack at every singer under the sun: Lionel Richie, Britney Spears, Michael Bolton or Patsy Cline. Nothing is sacred and no one is spared. The audience is invited to vote on their favorite, and half the time top marks are awarded for effort and enthusiasm, not for the person who looked and sounded most like the singer in question. Cue tears from the winning entrant, a held aloft placard calling for spontaneous applause, and the sound of deceased pop icons spinning in their graves.
You may wonder why I devote so much time to dissecting such a piece of throwaway television. I would like to think that my sensibilities, or lack thereof, would normally forbid me from watching a program like Stars In Their Eyes, but it was the grand finale after all. The program showed that one should not underestimate the lure of celebrity, as it notched up higher viewing figures than anything else on that week. Furthermore, Stars In Their Eyes is not confined to British shores, despite the best efforts of a few diligent braves to confine it to quarantine. It has spread around the world faster than the I Love You computer virus, and it has done more damage. The format has been emulated by a dozen foreign television stations. It has been translated into nearly as many languages as Shakespeare.
The truly scary thing is that our fascination with celebrity does not begin and end with Stars In Their Eyes. If only it did. If I so desired, I could trawl the Internet for pictures of David Hasselhoff’s new Hollywood mansion. I could peruse the pages of a glossy magazine to see which lucky man is married to Angelina Jolie now. I could channel surf to discover where Christina Aguilera’s dog gets its hair cut. This is the cultural equivalent of computer spam. Such kipple will clog up our lives if we let it, and it is so easy to be sucked into this brave new world of celebrity stardom. In my salad days, when I was green in judgement, or greener, I daydreamt of living the rock and roll lifestyle of a movie star. I could think of nothing finer than a house stacked to the rafters with, for the use of a better phrase, cool stuff: a Nintendo console in every room; a Coke machine on every hall corner; a supermodel draped across every flat surface.
My daydreams were the playground of product placement.
I reckon we all have been won over by this fantasy at one time or another. In moments of weakness, I suspect that we have all dreamed of hob-nobbing with the stars of the silver screen. When life has become just a little too mundane, a stint on Stars In Their Eyes does not seem too bad after all.
Unfortunately, Elvis has already been bagged.
If I am wrong about this, then I apologize, and please feel free to disconnect here. If you agree, to some extent at least, then let’s have a crack at deciphering the hypnotic appeal of celebrity. Is it really a conveyor belt of fast cars, loose women and good times? Or is it a modern tragedy play; a lot of people wearing masks and pretending to be someone else, people who are just as unreal as the ones on Stars In Their Eyes.
Help Me If You Can
Woody Allen’s black as pitch 1998 film Celebrity, an acrid critique of that very phenomenon, is topped and tailed by a haunting monochrome image. As disenchanted drifter Kenneth Branagh looks up to heaven, as if he is searching for an answer, an airplane smoke-trails the word HELP across the sky. To paraphrase English playwright Alexander Pope, the long disease of his life has become too much to bear. This predicament is a recurrent leitmotif that can be found out in the real world, too. Thirty years ago, then Beatle John Lennon sang:
Help me if you can I’m feeling downLennon was trying to convey his disturbed peace of mind, his unsettled soul, but most people missed the point, thinking that he had just written another catchy, innocuous pop song. More recently, solo performer and sex symbol Robbie Williams opened his heart and confessed that he too is uncomfortable with his life in the limelight. He too, begged people to please, please help him:
I seem to spend my lifeWilliams has hinted that he is close to the edge, and has searched for answers in every drink, drug and woman close at hand. He has said that all the success and wealth in the world is not enough to make you a whole person. Critics, cynics that they are, responded in a predictably offhand manner; just another pampered celebrity acting up again, they said.
We know that this is not true.
Or we should do, at least. We know that when a star burns, it burns brightly, so brightly that it burns itself up in the process, leaving a black hole in its place. One suspects many of today’s celebrities are trying to cover over their own personal black holes. We should know this by the long list of deaths, suicide or otherwise, that is engraved upon celebrity’s plaque: Sid Vicious, Gram Parsons, Kurt Cobain, Oliver Reid, Keith Moon, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Jeff Buckley, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin... The list goes on and on and on.
We find this dramatis personae of self-destruction hard to accept because the bubble has been burst, the untouchable have suddenly become touchable, the stars have fallen from their hooks. The superstar has suddenly become human. As Napoleon said, all celebrated people lose dignity on a close view.
The Vapor of Fame
We already know that all that glitters is not gold. Like Midas, lost souls like Robbie Williams have discovered that you can buy everything, but that everything does not come with a hundred percent guarantee of happiness - a golden world is a very lonely world indeed. I would wager that most celebrities know this, and most of them try to ignore it, locking themselves within the same daydream that I had in my careless youth; a house full of cool stuff. A common Christian aphorism tells that everyone has a God-shaped hole inside their soul. I firmly believe this to be true, and I firmly believe that this very same truth is equally applicable to those in the public eye. We are all Christ’s lambs, after all the only difference is that some of us have fancier fleeces.
The resulting problem is this: how does one fill in that black hole? The vapor of fame will surely not do the trick; and if it does, it will only work for a short while. As we know, when a star stops burning, it is soon replaced by another star, a brighter, prettier, younger one. Such is the nature of the Hollywood treadmill; eternal youth is just around the corner; whatever Mother Nature got wrong can be nipped and tucked with a little surgery.
One wonders how our celebrities will find God in such a soulless environment. Each day, we mere mortals are bombarded by slogans and subliminal messages instructing us that the way we dress will make us better, more likeable people; the way we smell will make us irresistible to the opposite sex; the drink we choose will send out trendy and intellectual vibes. By this token, imagine how those on the other side of the fence must feel. We can always turn the television or radio off; they are forced to believe this nonsense.
We should feel sorry for those in the spotlight, and we should pray for them, for they are trapped in a spiritual vacuum, a world of many demons and precious few angels. Most people in Hollywood would believe that if there is a God, then he charges by the hour. The Bible is only mentioned when a movie psycho wants to leave dim-witted detectives some clues.
But when these same stars do cry out in desperate need, as David did in Psalm 142, do we listen, or do we ignore them. They have all that the heart desires, what could they possibly have to complain about? Unfortunately, private jet planes and Oscar night gowns and snowstorms of cocaine add up to a lot of greenbacks, but they do not add up to contentment. By this I do not mean that money is the root of all evil. I shall reserve that accolade for a more deserving cause, but it carries a curse that most people are unable to cope with. As William Maxwell wrote, happiness is the light on the water, but the water is cold and dark and deep.
This phrase echoes amongst the rich and the siliconed and the buffed. The late grunge icon Kurt Cobain sang, I do not want what I have got, inverting the traditional give give give me more more more maxim of success. Like so many people before him, he had tasted the water, but it had left him thirsty. He had seen the light on the surface, but it dissipated when the spotlight was switched off. He had dived in, but sharks were swimming underneath.
The solution to this dilemma is simple. Happiness can be bought, but in the cold, dark water, happiness is just not enough. Many years ago, Euripides wrote:
Happiness is briefThis message has not changed since those days before the birth of Christ, for God still batters our sails, despite our wealth or station. Christ's message can resonate in the darkest corners of the world. In Hollywood, however, billboards advertising the latest Jennifer Lopez movie tend to get in the way.
This shall not stop us from daydreaming. I imagine that we shall still be entranced and unnerved by the harrowing but beguiling celebrity world. To paraphrase Nick Carraway, astute narrator of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, we are within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life. So, if anyone is still curious: Billy Bob Thornton is married to Angelina Jolie, but I cannot tell you about Christina’s dog, for legal reasons, you understand. On a similar tack, it was the little Scottish chap who mimicked Freddy Mercury that won the final of Stars In Their Eyes, beating off a bargain bin Celine Dion and a bottom shelf Frank Sinatra to the top spot.
He has since been interviewed on television, talking about how fame has changed his life for the better. It was strange to see the fake Freddy without the makeup and the spangly clothes; a balding, disheveled, normal human being heading for the toppermost of the poppermost, as John Lennon once said, with all the enthusiasm of someone who had been there, done that, and burnt the T-shirt.
Therein lies the paradox of celebrity; the fantasy and the reality of it clashing together. And by this I know that Fame is a great place to daydream about, but I am glad that I do not have to live there. I am thankful that I do not move among the beautiful and the damned, and fortunately - I do not have to. Stars, film or pop or otherwise, burn out one by one like faulty light-bulbs, as Vanity Fair claims more souls, but I need not worry about gray hairs and spare tires, about fluffing my lines or wearing the wrong fashions. I have never seen the sun come up across the Riviera. I have never supped martinis with the rich and famous. I have never walked a red carpet to the entrance of the Hilton Hotel. I have never thrown a television out of a hotel window. And I have never graced the cover of Vogue magazine.
But then I have never had my face airbrushed either.
Now that I am done, I may
toss aside my dictionary quotations, power down my computer and head off
to bed. I may dream of mooching with the rich and famous, but tomorrow
I shall wake, to my humdrum, normal life. And I shall be blessed.