I found out about Michael Jackson’s cardiac arrest just after coming home from work at the Thomasville Times (which has a new Web site). Soon after, I heard that the artist had died. The frenzy that followed in the coming days and even weeks made me think of a question asked by kram on my first post – Why do people care about celebrity gossip? Why do we obsess over those who are famous? Once again, it’s been a long time, but I decided to try to keep this blog alive and post about this.
Human history is full of tales of larger-than-life figures. In Greek mythology, the word “hero” often refers to a half-god, half-human, someone whose very nature places them above other people. Ancient heroes typically were known for their grand conquests or incredible feats. According to “Media and the Rise of Celebrity Culture,” published in the OAH Magazine of History, early American heroes were first exemplary “gentlemen, scholars, and patriots,” followed by those that dared to challenge these outdated figures and move society into a new era. As much as I don’t like blaming the mass media, though, it was this industry’s growth that created today’s concept of celebrity as entertainment.
[I]n the years from 1901-1914, 74 percent of the subjects came from traditional fields such as politics, business, and the professions. But after 1922 over half came from the world of entertainment: sports figures like Joe Louis and Babe Ruth, and movie stars such as Gloria Swanson and Charlie Chaplin. The machinery providing mass information—the new broker network and the flourishing print, broadcasting, recording, and film industries—created a ravenous market for celebrity culture. Media-generated fame became a raging popular vogue.
How many of us feel such a connection with someone famous that we think that if only we met them, they would want to be our friend? Before meeting George Clooney last year, I spent hours trying to think of the right words to say in that brief moment that would make him remember and like me. When he finally walked past the crowd, all I managed to do was say “thank you” when he signed my poster and ask for a picture that he declined. I was disappointed, but why? I know plenty of admirable people who I could pose for photographs and have long conversations with, but Clooney just seemed to have a certain glow that I wanted to share in, if only for a moment. To help us feel that connection, celebrity magazines love to show us how the stars shop for groceries, play with their kids and walk their dogs – “just like us!” Reality shows recently have given us another level of voyeurism – a way to feel like we know celebrities personally because we witness intimate details of their lives.
For as long as humanity has been fascinated with heroes, it also has been drawn in by the lure of juicy gossip. We prop up celebrities as shining examples of everything we lack – flawless looks, poise, charisma and talent. It’s fun to admire these figures, but they’re really just cardboard cutouts of the real, flesh-and-blood humans they represent. When the cutouts are toppled over, we delight in it, because it makes us feel better about ourselves. I might envy Lindsay Lohan’s beauty or even her acting talent, but I can tell myself that at least I don’t do drugs or drink and drive. O.J. Simpson’s athletic ability may be admirable, but many of his other actions decidedly are not. We gossip about celebrities for the same reason we gossip about our neighbors, only intensified – not only does it make for a good story, but we can think to ourselves, “he’s not so great after all” or “at least I’m not like her.”
All of these forces were at work in the life and death of Michael Jackson. He was a larger-than-life personality whose talent and innovation were seen by many as unmatched, and people desperately wanted to witness the magic he seemed to perform. As his life began to unravel, Americans watched with increasingly critical eyes, taking in the dramatic story of his troubled childhood and watching his inappropriate and disturbing behavior as an adult. Unconfirmed accusations of child molestation would be readily accepted by some as proof of his depravity, and wholly rejected by others who refused to believe the worst of their hero.
Jackson was a polarizing, fascinating figure, and the excess of media coverage surrounding his death forced our society to examine itself and its obsession with fame. It was way too much, said nearly 2/3 of Americans in a Pew Research Center poll, to focus on one deeply flawed man when there were so many important events going on in the world. This brief glance in the mirror probably won’t permanently change our celebrity culture, but it at least has made us stop and think about where our priorities really lie.
Why do you think people obsess over famous people and care about celebrity gossip? Are there ways that this aspect of our culture can be a positive one? What do you think about the media coverage of Michael Jackson’s death?