Friday, November 28, 2008

wanted: celebrity whistle-blowers

One thing that occurs to me, when we talk about celebrity obsession and the damage it causes to our collective psyche, is the fact that there is essentially no one in a position to challenge that obsession. People with the kind of broad access to the public necessary to really force us to reconsider our attitudes toward celebrity are usually celebrities themselves. Those who aren't celebrities who question our attitude towards fame are always susceptible to the "you're just jealous" argument. It's a pretty sad statement about our ideas of worthiness that the people with the necessary "legitimacy" to critique celebrity culture are people who have already achieved the mantle of fame themselves. Our ideas about who is worthy of listening to and focusing our attention on is so screwed up that the people who most benefit from those ideas are the only ones we give the cachet to critique them. It's perverse.

Celebrities, meanwhile, have to be incredibly careful about how they comment on celebrity, or risk committing the greatest crime a celebrity can commit: appearing ungrateful for their fame. You can beat your wife, drive drunk, get arrested for assault, do as many drugs as you want, even make a sex tape of yourself and a minor, and all can be forgiven-- but don't appear ungrateful for your fame. That is a crime, apparently, that cannot be forgiven.

Remember this?

You can make the case that this speech destroyed Fiona Apple's career. It's true, she may have been a garden-variety musical act who was briefly popular and then became much more obscure. But there's little doubt that she was mercilessly mocked for this speech, and not just for being inarticulate. If being a little disheveled and inarticulate at the MTV music awards was an unpardonable crime, well, we'd have far fewer musical acts around today. Indeed, you can make your speech blatantly wasted. Just don't say something that might be construed as ungrateful. If you do, like Apple, you'll be attacked with extraordinarily ugly rhetoric. (Here's a little such piece from that era.) That's why she was the brunt of so many attacks, not because what she said was too self-serious or a little full of it (and it was), but because she dared to suggest that celebrity and fame aren't, in fact, the end-all be-all of human civilization. In suggesting that achieving fame isn't actually the greatest goal of human life, and further saying that "regular people" shouldn't act as though celebrities are sages and geniuses who should inform how we live our life, Fiona Apple upset the grand bargain: we'll give you fame and fortune, as long as you don't question the game. You can do anything, anything at all, but don't criticize the celebrity system.

Of course, the way a lot of these critiques work is to suggest that Apple, or anyone else who questions the celebrity status quo, is being ungrateful about the material and financial gains that celebrity life brings; why, you're being ungrateful about your success, when so many have nothing! That's bogus. Apple doesn't ask for sympathy for being a celebrity, she merely points out (correctly) that the celebrity world is bullshit, and that it's filled with unreal situations, fake relationships and a general lack of human dignity and grace. No one is saying that we should feel sorry for celebrities. I'm saying we should feel sorry for our culture for being so deeply ensconced in celebrity culture, and for the damage that culture has done to our aspirational longings and desires. I believe strongly that we need to dramatically change our views on fame and success, because they hurt our national notions of worthiness and what is to be valued and pursued. But it's very hard to create that change, when people on the inside like Fiona Apple are punished so thoroughly for calling out the system they're a part of.

Link to Jennifer Gibson's piece via Andrew.


individualfrog said...

I totally agree with you, but I just felt like adding that she's especially not allowed because she's a girl. Kurt Cobain said stuff like this and while there was plenty of "what a pretentious ungrateful bastard", there was more "what integrity!" But if you're a girl you don't get to question anything.

Anonymous said...

Bears are lookin' good... -K.