Forbes Magazine, the once dour and sober organ of business, has released what it calls its Celebrity 100 Power List. The rankings are judged not only upon money, earning power, and potential, but also on the person's ability to generate "buzz."
For the second time in his totally unremarkable career as an actor, but highly successful career as a "star," Tom Cruise has topped the list. While his measly $67 million in earnings put him at almost poverty level when compared to folk like Oprah and Steven Spielberg (Numbers three and six on the list, respectively) his off-screen antics of jumping up and down on Katie Holmes, impregnating a couch (did I get that backwards?), talking out his ass about mental illness, slandering fellow celebrities, and preaching from the bible of L. Ron Hubbard have made him the most bankable star in the land.
That could explain his behaviour over the past year. Here we thought he was slipping the rails, but it was all a carefully planned strategy to keep him in the public eye. Goodness, he hasn't been number one at Forbes since 2001; what's a body going to do? Apparently, anything possible that will make people talk about him.
There is a wonderful moment in one of the Harry Potter books, The Chamber of Secrets, where one of the characters lectures Harry on the travails of being a celebrity. "It's a lot of hard slogging," he says, "not just books signings and photo shoots. You've got to be prepared to do the hard work" In his case, that meant tracking down and taking credit for the exploits of other witches and wizards so he could write a series of best-selling books that would catapult him to fame. It's interesting that Rowlings wrote this book long before she was famous, and does very little if anything in the way of celebrity "work," letting her work speak for itself. That's the whole problem with this celebrity stuff right there in a nutshell.
It is to the point now that we no longer know why someone is a celebrity. Do we celebrate Tom Cruise for his amazing ability to bring a wide range of characters to life on screen? Or do we celebrate him for his remarkable ability to play Tom Cruise all the time?
Who or what is Paris Hilton besides the daughter of very rich people who has enough money to buy her way into anything she wants? The only reason we care about her is that she wants us to and she spends her parents' money to ensure that happens. If, heaven forbid, I were a cynical person, I would say that she has mapped out her "career" from the beginning.
First she was the enfant terrible of the jet set crowd: that caught the eye of the gossip columnists. After playing that role for all it was worth, she started to shed her "party girl" image to take on more serious tasks like her roles in The Simple Life and House of Wax (or whatever that movie she just made was called, it doesn't really matter; she can now add actress to her resume). Now she's a recording star, or about to be one, and hitting the talk show circuit to let everyone know.
But it's all really about selling Paris Hilton and maintaining her place in the sun for as long as she can. Pretty soon her debutante looks will start to wilt, melt, or there won't be any places left to tuck the extra skin left when it all starts to sag, and she'll have to retire quietly on the arm of some worthy wealthy type who will keep her in what luxuries are required by a Hilton spawn.
The last time we were so obsessed with celebrities was in the pre-war depression era. It was the golden age of the studio system in Hollywood; actors were owned by the various movie studios and people like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons were the conduits that fed the public the latest information. But it was all carefully orchestrated and the public never knew anything that they weren't supposed to.
Those days seem positively innocent compared to what happens today. Instead of just two ladies with gossip columns, we have whole cable channels devoted to the doings of the celebrity crowd. Star leads the pack, but even stations that used to have pretensions to seriousness, like A & E (The Arts and Entertainment Network), have succumbed to being ratings whores. They now show scintillating documentaries like Child Stars 2: Growing Up In Hollywood and Biography Home Videos where "stars" such as Danny Bonaduce (Danny Partridge of the old Partridge Family) show home videos of their current life and work.
Admittedly that’s the low ebb of the tide, but still the wave doesn't crest much higher with the higher end shows. From all the variations on Entertainment Tonight to the plethora of glossy magazines to ink space given over in newspapers and bandwidth on the Internet, it is possible to spend an entire 24 hours completely immersed in the un-real world of celebrity.
This article itself is no less a part of that world in spite of its critical tone. The phenomenon of celebrity worship makes for great copy no matter what your attitude. Just as much as anyone else, I'm taking part in the feeding frenzy. If I were as truly disdainful of the whole thing as I said I was, I wouldn't even deem it worth of comment, would I?
The thing is, it can't be ignored. Not because of all the press and flashing lights that drag your eye to it, but because so many eyes are dragged to it. Is there anything wrong with it aside from the obvious that people of dubious talent and abilities are being foisted on us and passed off as gifted? Oops, I think I just stumbled on something there without even noticing.
"People of dubious talent and abilities are being foisted on us and passed off as gifted." Yeah I know you can read, and I just quoted myself, which is probably unforgivable, but it's an important point. What is this doing to our standards or our abilities to make judgments on aesthetic matters? If you keep thinking of Tom Cruise, Paris Hilton, Brittany Spears, Brad Pitt, and the rest of that ilk as the epitome of creative endeavours, how does that skew your abilities to make judgments on what is good and bad?
For culture to progress or evolve, new ideas have to be generated that challenge and stimulate the audience. Risks have to be taken on the part of the artist and the audience to go places they haven't been before or a culture will stagnate by simply replicating the same product over and over again.
Pop culture is a phenomenon of the past century and as it has flourished, people have drawn dividing lines on all sides of the argument over what constitutes art and what doesn't. While it may seem elitist to some people to distinguish between different types of music or art, there is a distinction between what it takes to create something original and what it takes to perpetuate a formulae for success.
Where is there room for the new ideas that develop a cultural identity beyond the transient world of pop culture in all of this? I'm not talking about going to see productions of 200-year-old operas at the Met either, because in some ways, that's just the pop culture of the elite, educated, and moneyed class, and it's not the culture of North America, either.
If we only measure success by the ability to make money and generate buzz and that those who are successful at doing this are the ones with talent, nothing will change. Unless we start learning to judge things on their merits, we will continue to encourage the current trend towards striving for mediocrity. Nothing risky, nothing that will make people think, and nothing that, heaven forbid, causes them to feel.
If celebrity worship was the innocuous thing it was of the past, it could be dismissed as harmless. But now that it has become such an all-pervasive monster that it is an industry all unto itself, there is no escape from it. It so dominates the way we think and the way we judge that its full impact may not be realized for another generation. By then, I really doubt it will be possible to reverse the process and critical thinking will have gone the way of the Dodo.