VIP – Judith Jamison

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Dancer VIP: Judith Jamison – Alvin Ailey former Artistic Director

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Home » 5 - Fall 07, Featured, NEWS, POP CULTURE

GOT FAME? – Everyone Is Famous, Where Are The Stars ?

Submitted by on 21 Feb 2008 – 9:54 AM Comments

The disease of instant celebrity in the post-pop era.

Text by D. Michael Taylor – Illustration by Laz Marquez.

Got Fame? The scene: A starlet, recently freed from a grueling 72-hour ordeal, careens out of a correctional facility parking lot and dials the first coke dealer she can find in her iPhone. Nothing can slow her down now. She is pissed but giddy over the press she has received. Stupid paparazzi. And the studio keeps calling leaving threatening messages with her manager. Can’ they see she’s having a crisis? No one understands how hard it is to be in the spotlight constantly, she thinks. Of course she parties a little, everyone does. She chuck s a fast food shake out the window, hitting an oncoming car. Fucking idiots. No one understands what she is going through.The unmistakable stench of rot and decay lingers over popular culture right now. Celebrity, once the domain of an elite (and elitist) class of hand-picked talent and well crafted studio production, is now mass-produced. How did we get here? When did fame become an end unto itself? The promise of unlimited access to the means of media distribution was supposed to even the playing field, allowing the cream to rise to the top. Everyone can play; everyone can hit the jackpot; everyone can be famous. Yet the very nature of fame is corrupted by its ubiquity. It is meaningless unless there are those less famous looking up to you. You can have 6,234 friends on MySpace and never meet more than ten of them. Fame is now the crack cocaine of success cheaper, readily available, self-destructive, and quicker to fade.

Illustration by Laz Marquez

Illustration by Laz Marquez

In the 1950′s, as modern culture began its hurtle into the second half of the Twentieth Century, the idea of universal recognition took on a life its own. Advertising reached its artistic peak as grizzled Madison Avenue giants staked their reputations on buzz words and iconic images, creating the cave paintings of modern civilization. Everyday items like soap and cigarettes became more than mere daily necessities picked up at the corner store. They became brands. Loyalty to a particular product was demanded and won by catchy jingles, flashy images, and big ideas. Branding is now the de facto language of consumer culture we take it for granted but it had a mystique all its own when the Marlboro Man was born, or the Avon lady came calling.

Technology served as the driver of seismic shifts in the pop cultural landscape, first through radio transmissions, then through the cathode tubes of a television set. Television quickly became the dominant medium for popular culture, only recently challenged by the Internet, which is rapidly becoming our primary source for information and entertainment. The evolutionary leaps made by these communication tools altered the way that we interact with one another and the world at large. Radio connected us with sound, television brought visual life to those sounds, and the Internet broke through the barriers that prevented us from participating in the conversation. Communication is now a truly multi-media experience, and it is both empowering and chaotic. Information, as the cyberpunks of the 80s always said, wants to be free. But a beast like this one, caged for so long in the boardrooms of corporate conglomerates, is unpredictable and seemingly impossible to tame.

As ideas and brands became more and more universal, no one embodied the coalescing celebrity complex more vividly than Andy Warhol and his merry band of New York misfits. Love him or hate him, it’s impossible to chart the trajectory of celebrity culture without acknowledging his role as its poster boy. Even before the Internet gave everyone their own show on YouTube, this eclectic visionary saw that the future would be built on recognition and fame. Was he lazy and attention-starved? Was he a modern prophet, subverting the idea of fame even as he glorified it? That is for history to parse, but it is undeniable that he tapped into the coming zeitgeist in a way that will haunt us for a long time to come.

The irreverence and wit of his perversely repetitive silk-screens still has the power to haunt artists who work much harder than he did to perfect their techniques, while his estate continues to garner millions of dollars per piece. His commercial art background helped him understand the power of iconic simplicity and reproduction. His insistence on dwelling within a pervasively superficial world still confounds the very idea of art itself. With a dry, wicked sense of humor he foretold the age of tabloid journalism, teenage celebutards, and the nature of the Web itself. Everyone is now doomed to be famous for 15 minutes, even if it is only to 15 people, as the bloggy adage updates it. To be famous was not even a goal worth considering for the average citizen not so long ago. To be renowned within one’s specific area of expertise was rewarded handsomely for a select few, but the transformation of fame into a career in and of itself, commanding the attention of millions of people at a time for no particular reason, changed our world forever.

It is useful at this point to emphasize that these trends, by and large, are by-products of a much larger shift. The power granted to individuals by technology is changing how we interact with one another and may be a force for great good as well as great distraction and confusion. There is no period in history when individual citizens have had so much control over their environment. It is only human to initially fritter away most of that power mimicking one another. We are creatures of habit by necessity; societies would crumble and fail if everyone went in a different direction all at once.

Art and high culture tend to aggregate among an elite few, precisely because of the disruptive nature of self-examination. The creative life is often a lonely one, and the benefits to the rest of mankind sometimes go unappreciated until after the artist has died. So the revolution will be televised, printed, and posted online but not everyone is fit for battle. Now more than ever, those who have the talent to see and express what lies over the horizon also have the means to broadcast themselves to a global audience if they can find a way to be heard above the clatter and noise of everyone else. It is that pervasive noise, the incessant hum of fame-seeking, that presents us with one of our greatest challenges right now. The excesses of celebrity culture have reached an absurd plateau; vanity and self-worship threaten to undermine the ability of anyone to rise above the fray and share the beauty of true creative talent with the world. With radical freedom comes a new kind of radical responsibility, and we are clearly not out of the woods yet. Glimpses of originality and greatness, while not impossible to find, are too often drowned in a maelstrom of flashbulbs. We have an idiotic obsession with the daily minutiae of people propped up precisely so that we can watch them fall. Anyone can find a spotlight, but no one is allowed to enjoy it for very long. There is a bloodlust to tabloid culture, and we are both witness and actor in a sprawling melodrama of meaningless people doing meaningless things. We covet their lives while rooting for their downfall; no one is allowed to have the pedestal for longer than their allotted fifteen minutes. The true media revolution and its artistic potential is still possible. But we are in the primal phase of a new pop culture paradigm, and it’s spitting directly into our cameras.