The force (and furies) of celebrity

REX MURPHY

There is something Pavlovian about the modern mass media when they deal with any of the various extreme moments of a hyper-celebrity's life.

Wolf Blitzer, the CNN anchor and former foreign correspondent, takes the name of his daily program from the White House meeting room in which absolute crises are handled or managed. Well, on Wolf's Situation Room (for as long as I could watch), it was Michael Jackson and more Michael Jackson.

Over at Fox News, another anchor was playing clips of the singer and running repetitive interviews with people who didn't know much or anything more than that he had died. At some point, Geraldo Rivera, a tabloid in a suit, starts the inevitable speculation on likely causes. This is the same sleuth who once had the cameras of the world waiting while he opened AI Capone's empty safe.

There is something Pavlovian about the modern mass media when they deal with any of the various extreme moments of a hyper-celebrity's life. The bell rings and report -- at length -- they must. The great and mixed technology of modern communications goes into full gear feeding continuously on the barest fact. The news or entertainment shows haven't anything new to offer on the instant.

Obviously, in most cases, they simply cannot. Often only one "fact" is all that is known. The wretched O. J. Simpson's white Bronco is on the Los Angeles freeway, the video must run, the inane chatter of the anchors must fill the empty air with more empty air.

The reportage, so called, is simply an immense static flowing out of the celebrity event. Its purpose is not to supply information but to indicate, by its sheer volume and continuousness, the rank of the celebrity concerned. Michael Jackson, of course, was a true supernova and, what is more, beneath or beyond the hype and hysteria that followed him from the first moment of his emergence as a high celebrity, had a core of real talent and real achievement to justify at least a part of the fascination.

He was not a confection of the dreadful reality TV epidemic, or a "child" of Simon Cowell's celebrity manufacturing machine. Nor was his a flash celebrity -- the "famous for being famous" category that now claims Megan Fox as it once claimed Farrah Fawcett.

Ms. Fawcett's passing on the same day will be overwhelmed by Mr. Jackson's. The tabloids and their kin will be overwhelmed by Mr. Jackson's. The tabloids and their kin will gravitate en masse to the larger persona. The magazine racks of a thousand supermarket checkouts will show her merely as a cameo insert high over the full cover photos of the departed King of Pop. The tabloids giveth and the tabloids taketh away. Sic transit gloria Entertainment Tonight.

Celebrity is a force in the West, a diffuse but real power. The smarter politicians have long since recognized this. Pierre Trudeau knew he was a celebrity, a bona fide camera magnet in his own right, by force of his own personality -- outside of his formal status as prime minister. He knew by virtue of his celebrity power that he had leverage the standard-issue politician could never have.

About the celebrity machine, Mr. Obama should mark this: It is powered only by the need to feed itself. And it will be equally content and very likely more gleeful, should his fortunes turn, in excoriating what and whom it once exalted.

Bill Clinton, more studious of this phenomenon that Mr. Trudeau would ever deign to be, learned to use its arts, and played a kind of jujitsu with his mixed celebrity/president status. When the Monica Lewinsky firestorm broke, he got -- in part -- to apply "rock star rules" to a president's conduct. He knew that the scandal hurt him, but he also knew -- deep in the cunning of that fathomless soul -- that celebrities are "supposed" to have scandals and, therefore, that his mischiefs "fit" a predetermined pattern and were "forgivable."

Barack Obama is the pure article itself. He strikes me as even more self-conscious of the various roles he plays than even Mr. Clinton. He has all the qualities most people assign him: cool, charm, an easy wit, a gifted speaker. But he carries into politics the energy of pure celebrity, the capacity to energize response by mere presence to a degree unmatched by Mr. Clinton or any other modern-day national figure.

Perhaps the top question of this fascinating presidency will turn out to be whether Mr. Obama is just a celebrity figure. He sits down with Jay Leno and he's as natural on the couch of fame as Brad Pitt. He knows the workhorses of politics, the staid senators and party-line governors, cannot enter this atmosphere. They know it, too.

But Mr. Obama may usefully contemplate that celebrity has its furies. To the degree that Michael Jackson was inflated to the outer orbits of stardom by the machinery of celebrity, he was also savaged and tormented by the same machinery. (He made his own contribution to those torments, but that's for another day.) About the celebrity machine, Mr. Obama should mark this: It is powered only by the need to feed itself. And it will be equally content and very likely more gleeful, should his fortunes turn, in excoriating what and whom it once exalted.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Rex Murphy. "The force (and furies) of celebrity." Globe & Mail (July 4, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of Rex Murphy.

THE AUTHOR

Rex Murphy is host of CBC Radio One's Cross-Country Checkup and contributes weekly TV essays on diverse topics to CBC TV's The National. (See Rex's TV commentaries). In addition, he writes book reviews, commentaries, and a weekly column, Japes of Wrath, for the Globe & Mail.

Rex Murphy was born near St. John's, Newfoundland, where he graduated from Memorial University. In l968, he went to Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. His primary interest is in language and English literature, but he also has a strong link with politics. His first book, Points of View, is described on Amazon: "With TV commentator and journalist Rex Murphy, it's easy to put a twist on the old parable: when he is good he is very very good, and when he's angry, he's awesome. Uncommonly dignified, relentlessly honest, unencumbered by de rigueur political correctness, and solidly grounded by his Newfoundland roots, Murphy is that rarest of TV types. He's an everyman who happens to be a Rhodes Scholar, and a personality treasured for his brain, not his looks...A cranky intellect, maybe, but an intellect just the same. It's Murphy's almost reluctant cynicism -- delivered in language as sharp as shattered glass and aimed squarely at those in ivory towers -- that makes Points of View a must-read."

Copyright © 2009 Rex Murphy




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