Who are these “celebrity” people we keep hearing about? Where do they come from? What purpose do they serve? Why do they keep intruding upon our consciousness despite our best efforts to ignore them?
These questions occur to us whenever a celebrity story seeps into the mainstream of news, as during the past week of our civic-minded effort to keep abreast of politics and other important matters. First, our daily diet of right-wing talk radio rants was continually interrupted by reports on the trial of a doctor accused of killing the entertainer Michael Jackson. Then we noticed a headline on the generally useful Drudge Report informing us that someone called Whoopi Goldberg had deemed Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachman unacceptable. Next, several of the conservative news sources we frequent weighed in about a musician called Questlove on a television program called “The Jimmy Fallon Show” serenading the same Bachman’s entrance with a tune titled “Lyin’ Ass Bitch.”
None of these stories are of great significance to anyone not directly involved, of course. The late Michael Jackson was an extraordinarily talented man, with a fine castrato voice rarely heard these days, but his story is no more tragic than those of the countless other victims of incompetent medical care whose deaths go unreported. We confidently expect and fervently hope that few people out there will ever cast a vote according to the endorsements of someone called Whoopi Goldberg. The “Lyin’ A-word B-word” contretemps is further evidence of how very rude and vulgar our popular culture has become, an important story somehow overlooked by the mass media, but is unlikely to have any noticeable effect on a Bachman campaign that had peaked several months ago with an Iowa straw poll victory.
We’ve noticed, however, that the constant output of such celebrity journalism does have an unfortunate cumulative effect on the nation’s politics. In the vast high school cafeteria that is modern American society, celebrities are the popular kids, enjoying an exalted status and possessed of the awesome power to determine who will be the unpopular kids. As in an actual high school, the popular kids of the popular culture wield that power in the worst possible way.
Anyone to the right of Hollywood and Vine can expect to be the object of celebrity ridicule, while anyone conforming to liberal orthodoxy can expect gentler treatment. The now-forgotten Dan Quayle was an early victim, as was Sarah Palin in more recent years, but Joe Biden is merely joshed as a loveable goofball. The frequent verbal mishaps of George W. Bush were endlessly replayed by the celebrity-packed shows on late night television, with audiences invited to laugh heartily and feel satisfyingly superior to the chimp in the White House, but his successor’s frequent off-the-teleprompter problems are typically ignored. House Speaker John Boehner is now widely known for his tendency to get teary-eyed, while the far more egregious traits of his predecessor, a woman who invited satire as much as any public figure of recent years, were rarely mentioned. The peaceable Tea Party movement was lampooned as a violent collection of toothless hillbillies trying to greedily hold on to their $250,000 salaries, a stereotype that never made much sense to us, while the actual violence occurring at left-wing protests is assiduously overlooked by the many celebrities in attendance.
Bachman, with her perky Minna-soh-ta accent, house full of children, businesslike good looks and unabashed religious faith, was a natural target of the celebrities. Even more than the usual aversion to her unabashedly conservative politics, Bachman’s conspicuously wholesome public persona guaranteed that the celebrity culture would revile her as the antithesis of itself. Today’s celebrity strikes a rebellious pose, brandishing tattoos, “attitude,” and flamboyant self-indulgence against the stifling restraints of American culture. There doesn’t seem to be much left of American culture to rebel against, and what is still left can’t even restrain a wide receiver from doing a Busby Berkeley-style end-zone dance after every touchdown, but no matter, the celebrity will continue his iconoclastic mission until all of the old icons have been smashed.
There’s no escaping these celebrity people. We cancelled our cable subscription long ago, limit our rare over-the-air television-watching to the occasional sporting contest or la ate-late-night “Sea Hunt” re-run, and never look past the front pages of the celebrity-obsessed magazines and tabloids that beckon us from the check-out counters at our local supermarket, and still the celebrity culture somehow infiltrates our lives. We recognize such odd names as Snooky, Ludacris, 50 Cent, Lady Gaga, and now Questlove, even if we have only the vaguest idea of what they do, and we sense that they’re somehow partly responsible for the angry sense of entitlement we find among the strangely-dressed young people drawing attention to themselves in public places.
Conservatives have long sought to counter this influence with their own celebrities, but can only offer B-listers, holdovers from the more square-jawed era of Hollywood stardom, or athletes accustomed to being booed half the time, and that’s hardly a match for the hip and up-to-date star power that helped Obama win the youth vote by landslide margins in the last elections. Sometimes conservatives will make a futile effort to curry celebrity favor, which is why Mitt Romney is yukking it up with Jay Leno, and how Bachman wound up walking onto the “Jimmy Fallon Show” set with “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” blaring in the background, but we think that is also a mistake.
A better idea would be to flaunt the opprobrium of the celebrity class. The popular kids are the most hated students in every high school, after all, and by early adulthood most people can look back and see with clear hindsight that their opinions were almost always worthless. Newt Gringrich’s adversarial stance toward the press has lately been revving up Republican debate audiences, and no doubt a good many independents, and we believe that a similar rhetorical assault on the entertainment media would work just as well.
— Bud Norman