In many ways, celebrities are the ultimate manifestation of the American dream: the idea that you can start out an ordinary person and become a Star. Fittingly, then, a burgeoning obsession with celebrity was perhaps the defining feature of 20th-century American culture. The very idea of “celebrity” didn’t really exist in 1900; by 2000, you could visit a remote Himalayan village or go and hang with the bushmen of the Kalahari and you’d still find someone who loved Michael Jordan or told you how much you looked like Brad Pitt. And today, those same villagers and bushmen are probably marveling over how Solange attacked Jay Z in an elevator.
The emergence of the concept of celebrity had a lot to do with technology: last century saw the birth of Hollywood, the advent of television, and, of course, the appearance of the Internet. These new technologies allowed news and entertainment to reach unprecedented numbers of people. And slowly, as a result, people came to expect news and entertainment. The rise of celebrity culture provided both: a constant stream of what we might today call “content,” stuff to titillate and keep the public interested when there were no wars on.
Slowly, bit by bit, these developments gradually built another layer on top of our reality — a sort of superstructure, a firmament inhabited by the chosen few. You could watch them in films or read about them in the paper, you could hear them on the radio, you could see them on screen. You’d see them advertise a product, and hey, you could buy that product and be just like them! And if you were really lucky, you might actually encounter one, cornering them for a brief conversation and an autograph before they were spirited away by some sort of unfeasibly thick-necked bodyguard. Mostly, though, they were transcendent figures, existing only in the reality of films and award ceremonies and the sort of parties you’d never be able to get into.
This untouchable quality to celebrities, in turn, produced a sort of aspirationalism: a yearning for a lifestyle that you didn’t have, but that you could see playing out right there on the screen in front of you. The thing is, though, that world wasn’t real, and isn’t real — but that hasn’t stopped it from invading and consuming the lives of people in the real world. It was a manifestation of what Guy Debord called the spectacle: “Both the result and the project of the present mode of production… not a mere supplement or decoration added to the real world, [but] the heart of this real society’s unreality.”
It was the perfect mythos for 20th-century capitalism, because it reinforced two central tenets of the way capitalism worked: the idea that the route to fulfillment was consumption, and the idea that there was always more to consume. In the case of celebrity culture, you were consuming both the celebrities themselves — on film, on record, on TV, or just by sticking their poster up on your wall — and the culture that surrounded them, the idea of this rarified dream world they inhabited, a world to which you could aspire, if only you worked hard enough and providence sprinkled a little stardust on you. It worked so well that the US exported it to the world, and it’s no accident that the spread of American culture followed the spread of its economic policy.
The problem is, you can only aspire for so long. And the “present mode of production” requires that you aspire indefinitely: keep working, keep consuming, keep accumulating the experiences and consumer goods that seem to lift you closer to the ideal. The game’s rigged for the people at the top, of course: they get their Versace dresses and Hermès bags for free, but not you — you have to work for them. And it’s tiring. You never quite get there. Credit card debt piles up. You get disillusioned. And still, there they are every night, on your TV: stars, as untouchable and indifferent as those in the sky.
Debord called it alienation; I call it resentment. And it manifests in the weird duality that’s grown up around celebrity culture: society tears down these avatars of perfection with just as much gusto as it creates them. These two apparently conflicting phenomena, though, are really really just two sides of the same coin: the public at large wants everything that celebrities have — and they hate them for having it. Who didn’t snigger just a little at Gwyneth Paltrow’s bizarre conscious-uncoupling-and-exoskeletons blog post? And how many of them wouldn’t swap lives with Gwyneth Paltrow immediately if magically given the opportunity?
Resentment manifests most dramatically in feeding frenzies like the one that erupted yesterday over the footage of Solange laying into Jay Z, because it was footage we weren’t meant to see. It doesn’t fit with the image of Jay Z and Beyoncé that they sell to the world — the self-made man who transcended a poor upbringing to become a huge success, and the flawless goddess that he got to marry. No, it was a tired-looking dude standing nonplussed as his sister-in-law tried to kick him in the balls after a night on the booze, while his wife stood and watched rather than taking sides. It was a scene that’s probably played out in a thousand elevators the world over: the doors close, one person takes the opportunity to say something that’s been brewing all night, and everything goes south very quickly.
But the people in those elevators aren’t Jay Z, or Beyoncé, or Solange. The subtext of the glee with which this incident has been reported is this: look, they’re not perfect! They might have more money than god and live in a palatial Tribeca penthouse and get to go to a swanky party at the Standard while you’re working nights to pay off your debts, but they still get drunk and do things they regret in the morning! Woohoo!
This is the worst of celebrity culture: a sort of revelry in the misfortune of others that’s as vicious as it is vicarious. Because, look, there are two points here. The first is that what you saw on that video was assault — and specifically, intrafamilial violence. No one will call it that, of course, but violence is violence, no matter who’s hitting who, or for what reason. And the second is that it was also a private incident, caught on surveillance camera and then ransomed to the press by some sort of opportunist at the Standard. (I hope whichever asshole leaked the footage has gotten themselves a fortune from TMZ, because they’ll never work in hotels again if they’re found out.)
This voracious consumption of any and all gossip, in turn, has been fed by the rise of social media and Internet culture. We have a level of access to stars today that you’d never have dreamed about in 1950 — you can tweet Miley Cyrus, and hey, maybe she’ll tweet right back at you. And maybe she’ll be drunk! This access has stripped away some of the mystique of celebrity culture: seeing the stuff famous people post on Twitter and Facebook has demonstrated that, shit, maybe a lot of them aren’t that smart after all! But it’s also reinforced the idea that anyone could be famous — we’re closer than ever to grabbing one of the bars that’s holding up that fake sky above us.
The thing is, though, that the sky is staring back. The technologies that have given us celebrities have also made our own lives subject to a level of scrutiny that someone in 1900 would never have dreamed of. Sure, stars are watched by paparazzi for any misstep, but people are watching us — private citizens — too. For every movie camera, there are hundreds more surveillance cameras. Every time you download an episode of some TV, you know in the back of your mind that somewhere, someone is watching. For every unflattering photo of a celebrity posted online, there’s hundred more of ordinary people. (There is a certain irony, I’ll concede, in the Solange incident getting caught on surveillance camera.)
As a society, we only have ourselves to blame for this — shit like TMZ buying this tape and the red-top tabloids in England hacking people’s phones wouldn’t happen if we didn’t lap up the results. And it’s the thin end of the wedge, because increasingly, it’s us on tape or caught in the glare of a flashbulb, captured by a “friend” who’s gonna share that photo of you wasted in the morning. The slow erosion of celebrities’ privacy has opened the way for the erosion of our own. And still, as the world heats up and the icecaps melt and bacteria get terrifyingly resistant to our drugs, we care what happened to Jay Z in an elevator. In doing so, we’re only proving complicit in our own oppression.