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What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity
By Tom Payne
PicadorCopyright © 2010 Tom Payne
All rights reserved.
I set out to write a history of fame. That meant finding moments in the past that told us something about the way our relationship with celebrity works now. Which was fine when I was writing about the past. Nothing I wrote about the Parthenon, or Cleopatra, or Marie-Antoinette, was going to change that much.
But then, my book appeared in Britain, and then Michael Jackson died; and even though the American edition is more up-to-speed on Barack Obama, things move fast. So the only way I can keep you up to date on how contemporary celebrity connects with history of fame is through a blog. Popcropolis is the rapid-response machine you need if we're going to make sense of this stuff.
Trust me: Googling Lindsay Lohan has never felt smarter.
Them and Us
The problem with writing about fame is that everyone knows all about it already. That's what fame means, after all. But more and more, we all know different things. We each of us have our own way of interacting with famous people, and even if our way of interacting with them is to avoid knowing much about them at all, well, that's still a response to them. I remember being surprised when, after a supper with friends I admire for their braininess, we all sat down to watch I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! Since this was the first season of the original British version, I was witnessing something that would soon become an international brand. Not that I appreciated it at the time. Back then, in 2002, I comforted myself with the fact that I could watch the finals with none of the endless reality before it. Still, I guess I learned something that night: I learned that I had a lot to learn. And already I was having my own relationship with the famous, however disinterested I claimed to be. No one puts the problem better than Catullus, the smartest poet of the Roman Republic:
Caesar, I want no more to do you right
than I am bothered if you're black or white.
Even in this dismissal, Caesar rates a name-check. The joke appears to be that Caesar was hard to miss, unless you'd spent the last decade in Parthia. All Caesar's ambition, Rubicon crossing, and attempts to organize his own deification ended up making him seem try-hard. The Romans had what they called a course of honors, a hierarchy of possible promotions, and Caesar had reached the top of it. Still, you could always rely on poets to pooh-pooh the whole process.
This cool stance might strike us as familiar, just as we look at a new intake for Dancing with the Stars and ask ourselves, Who the —? But is it so familiar? We're constantly hearing easy formulations such as, "We have become obsessed with celebrity. Children now look to celebrities as role models. Honestly, you can get to be famous for doing nothing these days. We're living with a cult of celebrity." In my book Fame, and the blog popcropolis.com, I ask the question, Is this anything new? And, ultimately, Is our obsession with fame really such a bad thing? Authors queue up to tell us that our vapid preoccupations presage the end of civilized life. But it's possible to see our fascination with even the most fleeting stars as something that bonds us, and which expresses something about how our civilization works.
There are risks in this approach. It involves a lot of flipping from one culture to another, in a search for shared human responses to history. As we dip in and out of different times and different cultures (mostly Western, admittedly, with a fairly consistent emphasis on Greece and Rome), I find things that feel similar to our own experience of fame. Sometimes they do provide equivalents for our own preoccupations; but we need to remember that sometimes they show a completely different way of dealing with famous people. For example, if we look at Stone Age burial practices, we find ourselves in a world where modern ideas of fame don't apply at all: Rather than celebrating individuals who are different and removed from us in some way, earlier societies would honor and trust members of a community whose diverse skills made them part of a coherent whole. Some of their bones might even be replaced with the equivalent bone of some other deceased dignitary.
This in itself sounds nostalgic, as though we're looking back wistfully to the fourth millennium B.C. Still, if we look at the distinctions between then and now — after all, there can be nothing but distinctions from an age as remote as that — we find that the story of fame is a story that concerns all of us. Famous people have occupied different positions in society during different ages, and I offer this as a way of looking at human history. On the face of it, the study of celebrities doesn't tell us much about what appear to be the really important things in life. Nothing about grain supply or industry; not much about irrigation and the three-field system; very little, directly, about the laws of thermodynamics. For these reasons, plenty of historians, particularly in the late twentieth century, have tried to move away from the "Great Man" theory of history — the idea that the past is usefully studied through kings and countries, or that heroes and villains have made us who we are. In shunning all this, historians have hoped to discover truths about what really matters.
My book and website says phooey to all that. We shouldn't rule out heroes and villains. Even if they don't really explain how things are today, it's still important that we made heroes and villains out of them; and that tells us so much about us. What mattered to people wasn't so much what was true in the world around them, but what they believed to be true. If we look at myths and stories or novels, these are as revealing about us as anything, because they tell later generations what seemed possible. The same has always applied to our interest in the famous. To pick a random example: Michael Jackson did not sleep in an oxygen chamber. He pretended he did, to see how fun it would be to start a rumor. The problem is, he could have come up with things much weirder than that, and we still would have nodded, mmm-hm. From this we learn, first, that Michael Jackson had absolutely no idea of how we saw him, and what we were prepared to believe of him; and second, that we have adjusted ourselves to the weirdness of his world. In a completely different time and place, and for completely different reasons, Cimon, the Athenian general and statesman, pretended he wasn't dead. Plutarch writes of the episode,
As he was dying he told his companions to conceal the fact of his death and sail back home straight away. And so they managed to get back home safely without either the enemy or the allies realising what had happened, "under Cimon's command," as Phanodemus puts it, "even though he had been dead for thirty days."
This piece of propaganda enabled him to keep his allies together and his enemies afraid. As a distinguished commander, he managed to fulfill his functions; as a private person, he was able to settle into an eternal rest. What we learn from this is that Cimon had achieved a mighty reputation, and that people wanted to be led by him. It might also suggest that without him, his forces would have been factious and ill disciplined.
So even the credence we place in flim-flam tells us something about who we are, and how (or if) we have changed. We need to know why we take all this stuff so seriously.
Now, a couple of words about the "we," the "us," and the "our" – a few of those words appear in the subtitle of my book, "What the Classics Teach Us About our Cult of Celebrity." First of all, it might seem a little rich for an author who's spent his entire life in Britain to start binding an American readership into a vision of our relationship with fame. In fact, Britain and America's two relationships with fame — our relationships with the special — will always be subtly different. It is too tempting to generalize, or to rely on some commonplace such as America's admiration of success, and Britain's culture of embarrassment. Even so, there may be something in this: Simon Cowell and Sharon Osbourne have earned much of their kudos from judging talent shows, which, translated, means sniffing in a British way about Americans who aspire to succeed. In any case, I am using "we" in a way that I hope will test what many cultures share: a sense of the difference between the ordinary and the numinous. I have come to think that it's extremely hard to separate oneself from this situation. I'm aware that not everybody reads National Enquirer, and it's understandable that sensitive readers might not want to feel bundled into the collective entity that worries about Angelina Jolie's weight loss, however alarming it is. I see it as a necessary shorthand, though, to distinguish famous people from the rest of us. After all, to be famous is to be prominent in a way that not everyone can be. If too many people were famous, then we wouldn't be able to remember who they were, or at least, they wouldn't be able to stand out so well from the rest of us. Elizabeth Hurley puts this so neatly when she talks about "civilians." The word suggests that famous people offer us service; they suffer and expose themselves for us.
My best hope for Fame and popcropolis.com is that they give you some kind of framework in which, or against which, you can form your own views on the subject of Fame, and to work out where "you," rather than "we," stand in relation to those famous people, "them."
In saying this, I don't want to preclude the possibility that you, the reader, are famous. I'd love that.
Who Had it Worse: Gary Coleman or the Castrati?
The peak of Gary Coleman's fame – and the length of his life – both seem poignantly short. Nobody can be a child star forever, even if they can avoid physically growing. We sometimes forget how important child stars have been to the history of drama: no women acted on Shakespeare's stages during his lifetime, and a voice breaking must have been a catastrophe for a company. In the past, there have been hideous ways of sustaining the careers of boys with beautiful voices. The cruelty of gelding meant that the castrati could command the best roles, high fees and the right to dump in arias of their choice in the middle of operas, regardless of their relevance.
Coleman's own problems didn't manage to sustain him in this way. He became awkward; he developed drug problems; he ended up being a parody of himself. (He tried to sue the creators of Avenue Q, a musical, because there was a character based on him in it, singing, "It sucks to be me". But clearly it did suck.) Even in the televised divorce court, his ex-wife, not long an adult herself, could describe his tantrums and make him sound like a five-year-old.
In Shakespeare's time, some theatres realised that you could do whole plays with children – they would play the men as well as the women. These ventures were so successful that they could run to internal lighting. But what was so attractive about watching boys play adults? It was kind of funny, perhaps, but they were also good; there was a bittersweet dissonance between the player and the part, just as one could never shake the feeling that Coleman was a boyish wiseass. It's what makes Ben Jonson's poem about a child actor so touching. In his epitaph for Salomon Pavey, who died in 1602, the Fates are so convinced that Pavey really is an old man that, after he has had three years of fame, they take him by mistake. (Coleman managed eight years in Diff'rent Strokes.) The poet tries to comfort us by saying that the boy will always be young in heaven; and that the Fates
have sought (to give new birth) In bathes to steep him; But, being so much too good for earth, Heaven vows to keep him.
La Triviata: The New Opera About Anna Nicole Smith
Art is long, and life is short. Always painfully true, this, and often painfully obvious, but I can't think of when it's been proved with such lurid neatness as it is by the news that the Royal Opera House in London is to stage an opera based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith. The opera will have its premiere in February, and has been planned for absolutely ages; at least, she can't have been gone long before the plan emerged.
The Royal Opera House has been quick to defend the project, as if they were expecting us to attack it. But what's to attack? This isn't ironic, gosh-look-at-me-I'm-an-opera opera, as in Jerry Springer, the Opera, which looked more like a musical fun night out with some cosmology that was entertaining for its South Park irreverence. Yes, the libretto is written by the Jerry Springer guy, Richard Thomas, but the music is by Mark-Anthony Turnage, who's a pukka concert hall composer. Not ironic at all. He's already done an opera based on Aeschylus. Alright, an opera based on Steven Berkoff's version of Aeschylus. But it's still Greek tragedy, and Turnage's musical idiom is properly uncompromising. Stand by for something serious.
And, as they go about defending the project, the Royal Opera House people draw attention to other moments when opera has mirrored life. Figaro, after all, written barely after the controversial play by Beaumarchais appeared. Those John Adams operas based on the news. And Philip Glass. And Powder Her Face, by Thomas Ades, about a notorious photograph of the Duchess of Argyle and whoever it is she's entertaining. Opera has always managed to find room for the privileged, or the scandalous, and also found ways to put them alongside people like us.
But does Anna Nicole Smith's story take us to a world that's beyond the topical? A great opera can do both. One of the many genius lines in Amadeus is when Mozart asks if anyone wouldn't want to spend more time with his hairdresser than with the gods; he goes on to point out that these gods "shit marble". And Figaro is genius for this reason. Figaro is a comic opera – admittedly, with a plangent portrait of a failing marriage at its heart – whereas Anna Nicole will surely have to be tragic. All the grim things that could happen in it have happened in opera. Pole dancing? Richard Strauss already wrote the music for this in Salome. Going mad like some kind of lab rat? See Alban Berg, Woyzeck. Having a reality show made so that you can reclaim your celebrity lifestyle? I'm not sure about this, but there must be some kind of rough equivalent somewhere.
The easy way of pleading that there should be an opera about Anna Nicole Smith is to say that opera's often striven for reality. In 19th-century Italy, the verismo movement tried to make opera true to life; it's how come we have pieces such as Verdi's La Traviata or La Boheme. Bizet's Carmen is set in a cigar factory, after all. Opera isn't always about birdcatchers, queens of the night, shooting competitions with the devil or Rhinemaidens. Still, you can see Smith as a comely Brunnhilde; and to hear her drugged-out drawl in the reality show is to hear something that is sort of speech, and sort of detached from speech rhythms – an eerie kind of sprechtgesang, halfway between speech and song. As WH Auden pointed out, opera plots don't have to make sense, because no one in a sensible situation would suddenly want to start singing. And Anna Nicole Smith was never in a sensible situation.
The situations were uniquely hers, and are well worth representing; but her story really does have a timeless structure to it, too. In the need to escape, in the chance of meeting an oil tycoon, in the mix of desire and enmity she met through her fame, and in the pitiful death, she did everything a famous person should – came from nowhere, lived our dreams, lost everything. The question is, why does that satisfy us?
Perish the Name of Justin Beiber
How winsome it was to hear about the computer program, Shaved Bieber, which means that you need never fear downloading anything to do with Justin Bieber. Greg Leuchs, a software pioneer based in Toronto, has created a plug-in that rejects any news to do with Bieber, and is planning to do the same for Lady Gaga. I say: It's for their own good, of course. Even so, it has the echo of what the Romans did. The worst punishment they could devise for the emperors they hated, or the worst punishment emperors themselves could devise for their enemies, was the damnatio memoriae – the punishment of losing your fame. Any coins with your image would be melted; busts of you would be struck down; inscriptions scratched away. We don't know how successful this was, because if it were really successful, then we'd never know. When Herostratus burned down the temple of Diana at Ephesus, he did it just so that he could get into the history books. On Ephesus, they decided they'd never speak of him again, but there was a leak.
Excerpted from Fame by Tom Payne. Copyright © 2010 Tom Payne. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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