You can ignore the royal wedding, but not the overwhelming presence of celebrity culture

It all seems so trivial, the growing focus of our mass culture on the upcoming wedding of a young man of fairly middling accomplishments who represents one of the most odious ideas ever invented by humans-that some people are inherently better than others.  Yet so far, it’s been relatively easy to ignore the royal hubbub.   

Yes, there are a large number of TV new programs and entertainments dedicated to the royal wedding.  Yes, even the New York Times is increasing its coverage of the upcoming nuptials.  But we easily can skip over those articles, flip away when the nightly news starts to gush over Kate’s dress and bridesmaids, and completely ignore the specials.

But what is increasingly impossible to do is ignore celebrity culture, which seeps into every crack and corner of mass communications nowadays. 

My on-the-fly definition of celebrity culture is the preoccupation with the lives and activities of actors, popular singers, other entertainers, very rich people and those who happen to gain notoriety on TV or the Internet.  Reporting on celebrity culture drives out other news.  Charitable causes and social trends are advanced or retarded based on their relationship to celebrities; e.g., when Angelina Jolie gets involved in a cause, that cause suddenly becomes news.   And when a wide range of publications, including Parade, Cosmopolitan, AARP, People and even The Times and The Wall Street Journal cover a trend, cause or nonprofit organization, they often do so through the eyes of the celebrities who have become involved.

Key to understanding the pernicious influence of celebrity culture is to examine that part of celebrity lives that mass culture covers: the stories primarily show these people living the “jet set” life of what Thorsten Veblen once called conspicuous consumption.  We are not only are told to value the celebrity over the person who has actually accomplished something of worth, we are directed to what is most admirable about the celebrity-the fact that he or she is able and ready to spend so much more than we can on goods and services.

Perhaps one of the worst effects of celebrity culture is that it establishes celebrities—again, primarily entertainers, rich folk and lucky do-nothings such as characters on “Jersey Shore”—as the aspirational heroes and heroines of the culture, the people that we are teaching both our children and our adults to admire most, respect most and most want to emulate.  I don’t think I have to spend any time demonstrating that it’s bad for society when everyone wants to grow up to be Kim Kardashian or Charlie Sheen instead of the paleontologist Tim Flannery or Hikaru Nakamura, a 23-year-old who is currently the best U.S. chess player.

Today I want to explore one little cog in the celebrity culture machine—the list of birthdays that appear in the daily newspapers and elsewhere, and which a number of other periodicals use as filler at the front or back of publications or as regular features on websites.

Let’s start with AARP, the slick bi-monthly publication of the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons), which gives financial, relationship, legal and other advice to those who belong to the organization, all 40 million or so of whom are 50 years of age or older.

AARP has a feature on its last page called “The Big 5-Oh,” which displays a large photo of a famous person turning 50 in the next two months and some short comments that take up the top two-thirds of the page.  In the bottom third are 6 more photos with short blurbs or people turning 50, 60, 70, 80 and sometimes even 90.

Here is a list of the 21 people featured in the first three issues of AARP in 2011 in alphabetical order.  I have put in bold, italics and underlining to indicate all the non-celebrities.  In the non-celebrity group I include athletes (not because I think we should focus more on them, but because very few of them ever become part of “celebrity culture,” that is, followed not for their accomplishments but because of their celebrity):

Alley, Kirstie (60)

Ann-Margret (70)

Boyle, Susan (50)

Channing, Carol (90)

Clooney, George (50)

Etheridge, Melissa (50)

Gretsky, Wayne (50)

Jones, James Earl (80)

Lopez, George (50)

Louis-Dreyfus, Julia (50)

Mays, Willie (80)

Murphy, Eddie (50)

Nimoy, Leonard (80)

Nolte, Nick (70)

O’Neal, Ryan (70)

Reed, Ralph (50)

Ride, Sally (60)

Russell, Kurt (60)

Sullenberger, Chelsey (6)

Thomas, Richard (60)

Will, George (70)

Only 6 out of 21 (or about 29%) are not actors or entertainers, and of those 6, two are athletes.  Of the remaining four, two are modern heroes: a former astronaut and the pilot who belly-landed a plane on the Hudson River.  BTW, the two political figures,  Ralph Reed and George Will, are of the extreme right, which may suggest that AARP, long a proponent of a humanitarian social net for senior and others and a big backer of health care reform, may be tacking rightward.

Note that there are no scientists, no historians, no chess players, no film directors (who after all create the films in which actors merely play a role), no Directors of the Centers for Disease Control or the National Labor Relations Board, no governors, no literary authors.

The daily newspaper is no better.  For decades, most dailies have had lists of birthdays of the day, which is typically supplied by the Associated Press wire service. 

Here’s who is on the AP birthday list today: “Movie director-writer Paul Mazursky is 81. Songwriter Jerry Leiber (LEE’-buhr) is 78. Actor Al Pacino is 71. Rock musician Stu Cook (Creedence Clearwater Revival) is 66. Singer Bjorn Ulvaeus (ABBA) is 66. Actress Talia Shire is 65. Actor Jeffrey DeMunn is 64. Rock musician Michael Brown (The Left Banke) is 62. Rock musician Steve Ferrone (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers) is 61. Country singer-songwriter Rob Crosby is 57. Actor Hank Azaria is 47. Rock singer Andy Bell (Erasure) is 47. Rock musician Eric Avery (Jane’s Addiction) is 46. Country musician Rory Feek (Joey + Rory) is 46. TV personality Jane Clayson is 44. Actress Renee Zellweger is 42. Actress Gina Torres is 42. Actor Jason Lee is 41. Actor Jason Wiles is 41. Actress Emily Bergl is 36. Actress Marguerite Moreau is 34. Singer Jacob Underwood is 31. Actress Sara Paxton is 23. Actress Allisyn Ashley Arm is 15.”

(I do admit that I got a little nostalgic twinge reading that it was the birthday of someone involved with the making of the 1966 pop hit, “Walk Away, Renee.”  After all, it is one of the dozen 45 RPM vinyl records that I still own.)

Of the 25 people on the list, the only non-actor, non-entertainer is the film director Paul Mazursky.  Among those left off AP’s list of April 25 birthdays were two other film directors, the former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl , the horribly right-wing yet significant propagandist Dinesh D’Souza and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn. 

This active crowding out of those who have real accomplishments is a small part of the larger imperatives of mass culture, which tell us to organize our emotional lives around commercial transactions, and not around achievement and service to others, and establishes as our role models those who are famous because they either represent or are extreme participants in mindless consumption.

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