Sunday, February 11, 2007

Why do people care about this?

Upon learning of the death this week of Anna Nicole Smith, after the news settled in, I found myself thinking of how the news must have reverberated around the halls of a place like, say, the offices at People magazine. I imagine it was something similar to The New York Times after JFK was shot. You know, “drop everything you’re working on and get on this story, stat!”

Smith was not unique in today’s culture of celebrity. By any stretch of the imagination, she didn’t have any particular talent. She was simply a small town girl who was “discovered” in a Wal-Mart or a strip club or some such place. Being physically well endowed, she was able to parlay that into a Playboy layout, etc. From that point on, her life took turns even the most desperate Hollywood screenwriter would find too strange for words. The marriage to the old geezer, the weight gain, the slurred speech laden public appearances, the pregnancy, the death of her son, etc. - all would be dismissed out of hand if pitched by a fledgling young writer. It would simply not be plausible.

Still, despite being a tabloid mainstay, the fact remains that she was not “talented”. She was a “celebrity”, which is a huge distinction. Deeper questions began to rattle around in my head, such as “Why did anyone care what went on in this person’s life?”

Why, indeed?

This culture of celebrity is relatively new, as far as I can tell. I can’t imagine people clamoring to know what Picasso did in his spare time, or writing about who Michelangelo was taking to the orgy. What is it that makes ordinary people care what famous people do when not performing? Is it the fact that you can’t go two steps without hearing or seeing infotainment? In the supermarket while checking out one is bombarded by several publications devoted entirely to the comings and goings of celebs. I’m embarrassed to say that when I’m stuck there I read them too. It’s either that or scan the candy selection and make an unnecessary purchase. If you’re able to avoid that mass of info, you go home, and thwack on the TV. Hmm...not safe here either, as entire channels (E!) are setup to report on this stuff like it’s real news. Dumbed down faux News programs like Inside Edition and Access Hollywood treat any red carpet as if it were a meeting amongst world leaders. What was Jennifer Lopez wearing? Tune in and see!

You keep changing channels, settling on your local news. Ah, some information about stuff and places that are actually relevant to you, right? Wrong – depending on with network which the channel is affiliated, you can expect some promos for an upcoming show, disguised as “news”. There was inevitably be a feature, usually called “people in the News” or something, which goes over the latest celeb stuff. Your favorite newspaper is not immune either, also sporting a section devoted to this information.

The way the word “people” is used sheds some light on this whole phenomenon, doesn’t it? When the magazine started, it purported to be about some ordinary folks like you and me, with celebrity stuff thrown in as well. It has come to mean something more along the lines of People…..who are nothing like you, make more money, live more lavishly, and are just more important and interesting that you could ever hope to be.

I’m not trying to sound like some elitist, really. I admit a casual passing interest in some of this “news”, but I don’t ever find myself seeking it out. There really is no need, as documented above – the “news” finds you (there is a Yakov Smirnoff joke in there somewhere). What I can’t understand is why people see the need to do that. Some theories, straight from the armchair psychologist, are below:

Okay, this one might make a little sense. Our lives are full of everyday drudgery and aren’t really that exciting, so why not look in and see what the so anointed celebrities are up to? Their big houses and party lifestyles are something we don’t necessarily aspire to, but love to hear about nonetheless. Still, when taking to the degree we see today, it's just ugly.

We feel like we know these people, even though we don’t. They come into our homes, ipods, etc. whenever we want. We want to find out as much about them as possible, like we would an actual friend. This starts to border on the creepy if you ask me – I loved Goodfellas, but I don't think Joe Pesci cares what I thought, nor do I feel like I know him. We only know what these people and their handlers want us to know (see, George Clooney was at the Save The Whales benefit – isn’t he a great guy?). When the story inevitably comes out about misdeeds we are shocked, shocked to find that these people aren’t who we thought they were! (O.J., many, many others) The really disturbing aspect is when a person with no discernible talent, like the aforementioned Anna Nicole, as well as Paris Hilton, become people of interest. Their talent is being famous, and it’s a chicken/egg thing after that.

Not sure if that is the right word or not, but….when the 24/7/365 celeb “news” culture reveals every little detail about someone’s personal life, it lends itself to humanizing the celebrity. When the bored housewife stuck in a bad marriage sees that even someone as beautiful, rich and famous as Jennifer Aniston can have martial problems with a beautiful, rich and famous husband like Brad Pitt, well, then she can feel that she and Jennifer aren’t really that different, are they? See, Jessica Simpson struggled with acne and a seemingly storybook marriage gone wrong, just like you! Poor Nick Lachey, he gave her his heart and got dumped!

Whatever the reason, it’s all a crock. The only time in my life where the whole celebrity worship machine seemed to grind to a halt was right after 9/11, which turned the focus back on real heroes, and the spirit of people helping each other. Celebs got involved, but downplayed the whole angle and actually used their notoriety in a positive way, to help raise money for relief. It didn’t take very long for things to return to normal. Caring about nothing important became one of the things mentioned that helped get America back to normal. Sigh.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go check out E!, they’re about to run a new special, 100 Biggest Fashion Faux pas on the Red Carpet, or something like that. I have some ideas about what will be #1, but I’ll probably kill myself before we get that far.
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