Saturday, March 19, 2011

On the American Celebrity

I'm excited to read a book that just came out -- Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Social Mobility -- by Karen Sternheimer.

I'd been trying to formulate some thoughts on the relationship between celebrity and class, because it's such a revealing aspect of American culture. And Sternheimer's book looks like it addresses exactly this topic.

Celebrities are kind of like royalty. Fans who meet them are often overwhelmed emotionally, a lot like people feel when they met princes, queens and kings. Indeed, the fantasies people talk about with meeting, romancing, and maybe marrying a star compares favourably with the same fantasies people had about marrying into royalty in eras past.

But there's a distinctly American aspect to the whole "star" thing. Stars are supposed to be made, not born. Celebs are people who were like us, but climbed somehow to dizzying heights. Fame and fortune, for the movie star, singer, or TV personality, is the reward for talent, perseverance, luck, or some combination of these. They embody the American Dream because they show dramatically how changeable class is in America. Rags to riches.

Of course, celebrities also aren't like us. They don't have the privacy and anonymity most of us take for granted. Their wealth and lifestyles are anything but ordinary. Whatever the exceptions, they do become a class of sorts, living in similar enclaves, dating and marrying within their class, consuming expensive clothes and gaudy accessories appropriate to their station. Celebrity is also at least somewhat inheritable -- children of celebrities often follow in their famous parents' footsteps, using name recognition and connections, just as any other kind of wealthy family would.

For me, celebrity culture is compelling to observe at least partly because it can so weirdly, awkwardly blend upper-class licence with otherwise "unclassy" behaviour. There are plenty of examples in pop music where lifestyles marked by debauchery, indulgence, and immodest behaviour is at once "trashy" and "decadent."

In rock, this mix is well illustrated by a career (replete with exaggeration and innuendo) like Motley Crue's. In a Creem interview from 1984, they describe their sex and drugs lifestyle as that of a bunch dead-end blue-collar teens, but that rock stardom allows them to continue that lifestyle with "better drugs" and more frequent sex.

It also comes though in interesting ways with recent pop divas, where the power of celebrity allows them to exploit and exaggerate their own sexuality in ways that are pretty much unaccessible to average girls. Divas may provide fantasies about glamour, sex appeal, etc., to that audience, but fame and money allows them the licence (that most others don't have) to wear the clothing, act out the moves, and sing the words.

Of course, celebrity licence isn't unlimited, as lifestyle trainwrecks from Britney to Charlie suggest, although people watch these things unfold partly because they wonder (as Sheen even has out loud) -- how much can they get away with?

American historian Peter Stearns wrote about something like this in American Cool: Constructing a 20th Century Emotional Style, where he noted that the big difference between rich people and the middle class, in terms of emotional life and style, is that the rich have licence to be outrageous. They can go ballistic, be unrestrained emotionally, pull outrageous stunts, and so on, because their wealth frees them from consequences. Middle class people need to be more restrained because their jobs and lifestyles require it. They need to avoid offending people, or appearing unbalanced or ineffective, if they want to keep their jobs and prosper. Is that one reason why we find celebrities' lives so fascinating?

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