When did celebrities become so powerful?

When did celebrities become so powerful? August 31, 2015
GabboT/The Ascension, by Dosso Dossi/Wikimedia Commons. Alterations by JFeinauer


There’s nothing terribly new to the idea that maybe we give celebrities far too much credit for being whatever it is they are. After all, being overhyped is basically the job of any good pop culture icon. But last night, as I was plunking around on the Internet, I was painstakingly reminded that celebrities have somehow grown to be seen as primary indicators of the health of our society. I’m talking, of course, about the MTV Video Music Awards and the hubbub that surrounds them, but that’s not the only example. It’s only the most recent.

To preface my comments, I think it’s important to note that I didn’t actually watch the VMAs last night. I was having a calm, wonderful Sunday afternoon dinner with family. The publicity surrounding the VMAs just acted as a reminder to something I’ve been thinking about for a while. Namely that I think the Internet age (or social media age, or whatever you want to call it) is conditioning people to care deeply about things that don’t matter, particularly things like celebrity feuds and offhanded comments. Really, I’m talking about tweets here.

I say that knowing that my primary source for this kind of thinking is myself. When I was working as a web journalist (a profession that required me to trudge through the various canals of the Internet, constantly looking for material to write about), I frequently found myself caught up in BS that didn’t matter. I do not care about Nicki Minaj. I really don’t. The only thing I care less about than Nicki Minaj is who she is feuding with. The same can be said for Taylor Swift, Macklemore, Iggy Azalea, Drake, Eminem. Whatever. (I do, however, care deeply about Kanye West. Something I might explain at a later time).

But it really doesn’t matter if I care about these people. I will hear about them anyway. Incessantly. The trick is, I have a lot of guilt. One might even go so far as to call it Straight White Male Guilt, and so when I start seeing headlines about how the Nicki Minaj/Taylor Swift (or it’s most recent incarnation, the Nicki Minaj/Miley Cyrus feud) is really a microcosm of the racial divide in America, I click on it and I read it, hoping that maybe I’ll learn something.

But I don’t.

It’s completely inescapable. If you’ve liked The Atlantic, Vox, The Daily Beast (especially The Daily Beast), or even The New York Times and The Washington Post, on Facebook, you will see BS that explains how something stupid a celebrity said or did represents the most important thing in the world right now. And that’s where the annoyance sets in. As far as I can tell, it is virtually impossible to be a dedicated news consumer without being constantly assaulted with bizarre pontifications on mundane celebrity happenings.

There’s a very good reason for all of this, and it gets to the root of why I’m so worried about it. That very good reason is that publishing content about celebrities ad-nauseam makes very good business sense. People like celebrities, and they really like to look at pictures of them. So if a news organization really wants something that will blow up on social media, celebrity gossip made up to look like legitimate news is the way to go. It’s not new idea, but it certainly seems more refined.

Now as I mentioned earlier, I don’t think this is news to anyone. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most people hate-read that kind of stuff or do it knowing full well that it’s a waste of time, but brief diversions aren’t all that bad. The real issue I see creeping up is that with every article explaining why all of sexism can be boiled down to a single quote by  Kylie Jenner, we pass on more and more power to celebrities who don’t freaking deserve it. Celebrities do not comment, or explain. They “DESTROY” and “EXPOSE.” Pop culture icons seem to be morphing into Guardians of Righteousness. Something they don’t seem terribly well-suited for.

Now, I do understand that in some ways I’m over stating this. I’m also overlooking the fact that there are plenty of people who are famous that do truly wonderful things that deserve attention. I’m also overlooking the fact that pop culture has an undeniable effect on society at large, and it’s certainly better to have positive influences in pop culture than negative ones. I’m also kind of glossing over the fact that it’s only natural to listen to people that have very large platforms and very loud microphones.

But what I wonder is where the cynicism has gone. Maybe it was never there in the first place, or maybe it’s still here in full and I’m just missing it. But it does seem as though the fact that pretty much every celebrity makes decisions based on counsel from image managers has escaped from the narrative. It’s no coincidence that Beyonce appeared in front of a giant sign that read “FEMINIST” in the wake of many questioning her feminist credentials. While I agree that Beyonce performing in front of the word “Feminist” is certainly a positive thing, it still seems odd to me that with that one simple gesture she went from a normal celebrity who’s disconnected from the realities of women all over the world, to someone who, for a brief moment in time it seemed, ended sexism.

I think one of the most interesting explanations for all this, which consequently comes from a writeup about last night’s VMAs specifically, is that the world is changing pretty fast, and pop culture icons have taken on the task of representing that change. They are culture warriors, and in a lot of ways pop culture people have done a lot to spread awareness and champion causes. So in some ways, we give them power because they use it well.

In his writeup on the VMAs for IJ Review, Hunter Schwarz (who I primarily recognize from his time at Buzzfeed and The Washington Post and didn’t know he had a gig with IJR?!?) points out that there was something legitimately special about this year’s award ceremony.

Some years, the award show incites a week’s worth of FEC complaints and angry posts on mommy blogs about the downfall of American culture, but the 2015 show hasn’t yet received the same reaction, like an implicit acknowledgement that many of the culture wars battles are lost. Same-sex marriage is legal, legal pot is on its way, and the toy aisle at Target is becoming gender neutral.

But as Vulture’s Lindsay Zoladz also pointed out (I’m trusting her analysis, but again, I didn’t watch) it’s very difficult to watch events like this without noticing how they act as a “gross feedback loop of manufacturing controversy, stoking the outrage, and then inviting everybody back next year to reminisce about the manufactured controversies of years past.”

In short, I’m skeptical that celebrities — as personalities, not as creators — are worth the attention we give them. Personally, I’m a huge fan of what they produce. I mentioned earlier that I don’t care about Nicki Minaj, and that’s true. But if she’s creating great music, I definitely care about that, because I love music. What I don’t love is feeling like there’s a developing partisan line over the Tweets of people I don’t understand, or know in any legitimate way. I’m just not willing to cede that kind of power to people whose relevancy relies on nothing more than my short attention span.

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