October 16th, 2007
I was a free man in Paris, I felt unfettered and alive. Nobody was calling me up for favors, no ones future to decide. You know I’d go back there tomorrow, but for the work I’ve taken on, stoking the star maker machinery behind the popular song. - Joni Mitchell, “Free Man in Paris”.
I. The Machinery
Fame and fortune is not a purely natural, and sometimes not even a logical, consequence of talent. It’s a function of the star-making machinery. A very limited group of business people are responsible for choosing what they believe the public will buy. Sometimes rare talent or genius is involved, but more often other factors come into play: charisma, beauty, outrageousness, uniqueness (or the ability to mimic another hot commodity) . . . .nepotism, marketability, timeliness.
The fame game is fickle, precarious, and often unreasonable. It will occasionally pour resources into bringing a William Hung or Ann Coulter to the public, at the expense of genuine talent, but when people complain, the star-makers will say it’s the public’s fault – that it is us, sitting in our living rooms, blind to everything but the tiny fraction they show us – that creates the demand for bad singers or brainless pundits.
Paris Hilton is not a celebrity because of talent, but because she’s an attractive heiress and a paparazzi’s wet dream. She poses, takes spills without her panties on, makes sex tapes, and gets in barroom brawls. If her celebrity ended tomorrow, it’s doubtful that many in the public would miss her, but it won’t end. Paris has become easy material. The perfect filler between cellulite shots and rehab stories.
If the Beatle’s came on the scene today their music probably would not sell, as Eminem would not have sold records in the 70’s. The criteria for what is considered lyrical talent changes, not just with time, but with culture. The messages that appeal to one generation don’t always appeal to another. In the acting world, neither Pamela Anderson or Suzanne Sommers could be called especially talented, but as bare-legged, big-chested blondes they appealed to droves of American men.
If Madonna and Jay Leno were not already marketable names, the chances are good that neither would have seen their children’s books published – it is an exceptionally competitive and difficult market to break into, and fickle. In the nineties, numerous children’s publishers told writers that they wanted “realistic” books for children, not fantasy, but since the advent of Harry Potter, fantasy books have been all the rage.
In the adult market, when Laura Esquival’s Like Water for Chocolate became a success, scores of books using recipes and food as a central element were published. Publishing, by and large, has become a copycat industry, growing less innovative, taking fewer risks, and over-relying on the formula of one bestseller to generate interest in others of the same genre.
A young and not yet famous Ayn Rand once wrote a short story in which a celebrated actress was challenged to come back as a nobody; to reinvent herself and her stellar climb to fame. Despite being the same person, with the same level of skill, the actress failed. It was a new time, with new people. The circumstances had changed.
The machine can bring us the great talent of Yo-Yo Ma or the irrelevance of Cato Kaelin. It can invite us into the lyrical depths of artists like Tori Amos or Amy Lee, or mass-market the crudeness of a song like “My Humps“. The machine is erratic, fluid, volatile. It pumps up and grinds down. The public tends to follow along.
II. Luck, Resentment & Celebrity
A few weeks ago, I visited a popular online gossip site where I was shocked by the public ridicule of babies born to the famous. This, combined with the communal evisceration of many celebrities on websites, and in television and gossip rags, left me questioning the public’s duality. The same people who loudly and colorfully claim an aversion to one or more of the rich and famous will also read every story they can find about them. They will visit the gossip sites, watch ET or The Insider, buy the gossip rags, and visit the forums, eager to share their mean-spirited views. They will even visit the celebrities own blogs, delighting in any perceived negatives they can find, from a speculative lack of gratitude to misspelled words and messy hair.
Perhaps because luck does play a role in celebrity and success – because becoming rich and famous in America is something like winning the star-making lottery – people tend to resent celebrities almost as much as they enjoy the entertainment they provide.
That resentment is clear in letters to editors, on internet sites, and in radio call-in shows. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read or heard the public rail against celebrities for the privileges they have.
She says it’s tough to raise kids alone. Try doing it without nannies and on my budget!
Must be nice to buy a $2000 dress, some people can’t even shoes. . .
Oh boo-hoo, she had a bad childhood. I’d trade places with her in an instant. . .
The message is clear. If you’ve won the lottery, you can’t be “one of us”. You can’t be a real human being, feel the same way we do, or have had similar experiences. Money should prevent you from making mistakes, from breaking down, expressing frustration, getting addicted, being young and lost, or being exhausted. And fame should always carry an apology with it – comments should be qualified by an acknowledgment of luck, good fortune and gratitude. An aw shucks, shoulder-hunching humility. (Unless, of course, the thing that sold you to the public was shallowness or arrogance. Then you can be a nasty-as-you-please Donald Trump, a Queen of Mean Leona Helmsely, or someone who’s simply “famous for being famous.”).
People tend to forget that luck aside, many of the celebrities they have a love-hate relationship with spent years training and “paying their dues”. They didn’t come out of the womb professionally polished. Britney Spears, for example, started performing when she was only eight years old. She held her first television job at 11, released her debut album at 17, and went on to sell 75 million records worldwide – all before she was 24. She spent one hellish year in public high school – a stab at teenage normalcy that was largely resented by her classmates.
Hers is a life that is dissimilar to most, a life that few people could truly understand, and one that many wish not to. It is easier for the public to judge her not by her own experiences, but by theirs. They don’t see the years of hard work; they see only the luck. They don’t see the lost childhood, the confusion, the pain, the opportunities and experiences not had, and they don’t see any possible reasons for Britney’s struggle. They see, instead, ingratitude – a squandering of fame and fortune – because that’s the way the tabloids are selling the story. And the public, on that basis, seeks to continue making a mockery of her – a warning-filled joke to celebrities who might fall off their precarious pedestals, showing their feet of clay, and their all-too human tendency to occasionally fall from grace.
To legions of people, celebrities seem to carry an ethereal glow, burning as hot or as cold as the star-makers and star-breakers would have them. In that extraordinary other-world of fame and fortune, celebrities become plasticized images, to be divided, drawn over, crossed out or rearranged to suit the machine’s bottom line — and consequentially, the created “public demand”.
Pummeled and promoted, loved and hated, the public expects their stars to be elevated. Separated from the crowd of humanity and thankful for the separateness whether it’s a distance filled with accolades or bricks, adoration or senseless resentment.
When it comes to star-breaking, the public seems to take a perverse glee in smashing imaginary pedestals and treating with contempt those who have tumbled back into the merely mortal sphere. A sphere that was never really left in the first place, but where many celebrities find themselves largely unwelcomed.