In case you hadn’t heard, Michael Jackson, aka the “King of Pop,” passed away earlier this year. Even though no one had really heard anything from him in a while and the last time he was in the media it was something to do with allegedly inappropriate relationships with kids, his death was kind of a big deal. In fact, it was one of those events for which newsroom directors the world over fall to their knees and thank the media gods. If you were anywhere near a television or computer or people talking, there was no escaping the momentous news of his unexpected passing. For that entire weekend, it seemed as if nothing else of note had taken place anywhere in the world.
It exemplified the extent to which our culture has become irrationally obsessed with celebrity. At the time, I couldn’t resist joking about how Michael Jackson’s death had brought world peace, simply because it created a media blackout of everything else. Many people were disturbed by the level of attention Jackson received, especially when the Iranian government was violently repressing election protestors, over 70 people had just been killed in another bombing in Baghdad, the US government had just sent arms to aid the Somali government’s fight against Islamists, and, of course, the governor of South Carolina had just admitted to having an affair. But in a way, it made sense to focus on the sudden permanent loss of a person whose fame will most likely never be equaled, a person whose death actually does signal the end of an era.
Unless you happen to be a member of one of those South American tribes who have managed to exist completely isolated from the modern world, you knew who Michael Jackson was. That’s only slight hyperbole. I remember, as a kid, seeing video footage of his concerts in Europe and Asia, even in Russia during the Cold War. He had fans in Iran during the Revolution. My own father, who deliberately ignores almost everything that could be considered pop culture, has fond memories of listening to the Jackson 5 in his younger days. For the entire decade of the 1980s, Michael Jackson was probably the most famous non-politician on the planet. He’d worked for it, and he’d earned it. There is something to be said for that.
Only a handful of artists have truly made an enduring mark on popular culture in the past century; Charlie Chaplin, Elvis Presley, Audrey Hepburn, the Beatles, Madonna, Michael Jackson, to name a few. These are people whose images and work are recognized almost everywhere. They displayed talent, hard work and dedication, and what they created inspired people all over the world. They also gained their fame and popularity long before the age of “new media.” Perhaps it’s not coincidence then, that of all the faces featured in current celebrity-focused magazines and websites, none stands out as potential Beatles or Madonnas. I’m convinced none ever will because with the rise of 24-hour news, internet tabloids and social networking sites, our concept of fame and our ability to recognize and bestow it has been utterly altered.
We live in the Age of Information. The internet is the great democratizer. Anyone with a mobile phone can broadcast their thoughts and observations to any number of people at any time via Facebook or Twitter. Anyone with a video camera can subject the general public to their pets’ quirks, their friends’ idiocy or anything else via Youtube. This is all well and good, but it has had a few consequences. One is that everyone wants to be famous and believes not only that they should be, but also that they deserve to be. Another is that fame itself has been completely diluted.
Thanks to the prevalence of reality TV and voracious internet tabloids, there are so many famous people in this country, that I gave up trying to keep track years ago. Names I have never seen or heard of before pop up in the latest celebrity gossip headlines everyday. They’re always treated as though everyone naturally knows who they are. Most of the time, not only do I not know who they are, I can’t even discern what they might have done to warrant their apparent fame. As it turns out, most of them haven’t done anything beyond mug for the cameras on some random cable network reality show or date someone with a well-connected PR person. This generation of celebrities has earned their fame by being the bitchiest, sluttiest, craziest, crudest, most racist or sexist person in the cast of whichever reality show they appeared on. They don’t seem concerned with displaying any real talent or holding any responsibility, only with their own notoriety. Media outlets like Us Weekly and TMZ highlight every scandal, every bar brawl, every traffic ticket and botched Botox job that these personalities can conjure. And the public consumes it like a drug. No one seems particularly concerned with the fact that fame of this kind is especially fleeting in this age of instant gratification. With so many outlets, so many sources, so many contenders, the public consciousness can only process each one for so long. Like bubbles on a playground, these celebrities rise and burst in an instant. Occasionally, they snap, like the contestant from a VH1 show who apparently murdered his ex-wife and became a fugitive only to commit suicide himself. Or the DJ who was known among Hollywood celebrities, but who I heard of only because he’d died of a drug overdose. Or the unfortunate Jon and Kate whose marriage disintegrated in the glare of the spotlight, which boosted their show’s ratings but at what cost to their eight kids?
Of course there have always been one-hit wonders, flash-in-the-pan starlets, and child stars who disappeared after they hit puberty. But most of them made some kind of positive contribution to the entertainment world while they had their moments, whether it was a fun, catchy song or a movie that made people happy. Many were part of a larger pop culture trend (80s hair metal bands, for example) that had its day and faded. I can only hope that the current obsession with superficiality in celebrity is one of those. As it stands, it is beyond me how people who become famous for shooting each other with staple guns on cable TV (does anyone even remember those guys?) can possibly be making a positive contribution let alone a lasting impact that inspires anything good in anyone. And I find it a bit sad that, given the viewing public’s devotion to a show like American Idol, even the competitors who show real talent and stage presence usually last barely long enough to release an album before that same public has lost interest. Some don’t even last that long.
Ancient heroes sought glory, fame and fortune in quests and on the battlefield. In the early days of Hollywood and in the old Broadway musicals, a small town kid was always trying to break into show business to become a famous actress, singer or dancer. For all his inexplicable eccentricities, Michael Jackson was an extremely talented musician and performer. People gained fame because they had unusual talent, determination, charm, intelligence, or at least savvy. Even people who sought fame for its own sake, had to do something to earn it. Madonna, for example, could never really sing, but she’s an intensely ambitious self-promoter, and she worked her ass off, quite literally, to become a world-class entertainer. With the rise of new media, our admiration of talent and dedication is fading along with our capacity to appreciate a well-crafted coupling of gifted performance and marketable personality. Now we just pay attention to whomever makes the most noise until they are drowned out by someone else. Mass media truly does represent the masses now that just about everyone has a digital camera and internet access, but there are very few filters and even fewer incentives to create anything of quality. As Andy Warhol predicted, people who have done nothing more than lipsync in front of a webcam seem to feel entitled to their fifteen minutes. Fame has always been something to aspire to and admire, but very rarely to achieve. The whole point was that not everyone could do it. It meant more than having your picture taken on a red carpet and posted on Perez Hilton’s website with graffiti over it. It took more than sitting around gossiping with your friends in front of a video camera. And yet, it seems that this is what fame means now. But, in this world, where anyone can become famous for the slightest or most random act, how can fame mean anything at all?