If you asked me to name some famous people, I might offer up examples such as Bill Clinton, Meryl Streep and Sting. If I spotted any one of them at the supermarket, it would probably warrant a call to my best friend to report what brand of peanut butter they were buying.
That's because they're not quite real people, which is exactly why we love them. Or at least we used to. These days it seems that only crotchety dinosaur types like me still harbor such provincial notions of what it means to be famous.
I know what you're thinking right about now: Here's another column about the vulgarity of contemporary celebrity culture, with sentences that start with phrases like "these days." Believe me, I feel your nausea.
But I've also been feeling something else lately that goes beyond my cluelessness about who's on the cover of In Touch Weekly. Call it reverse indifference. You know how you can walk into a room that smells like garbage, initially be bowled over with disgust but eventually grow immune to the odor? That's the opposite of what's happened to my celebrity radar. Whereas I used to merely ignore news about the faux famous and their tabloid-targeted exploits, I now notice it and feel repulsed. And I'm pretty sure that's the whole idea.
Obviously, celebrity repulsion has been in the air in recent weeks. I don't need to name names, but suffice it to say that popular culture's approval rating (and, in turn, that of the media that can't get enough of it) is at an all-time low. Whether we're talking about a deceased gold-digger or an apparently deranged astronaut (and, be honest, we're still talking about both of them — all the time) it's pretty clear that it's never been a worse time to be famous. For one thing, the competition is stiff. (The Dixie Chicks, celebs with some old-school fame value, swept the Grammys, but we're still more interested in paternity claims and NASA-issue diapers.) For another thing, celebrity is just not as valuable as it used to be. By the look of things, just about anyone can get it — or at least something closely approximating it.
NOT SO LONG AGO, you had to make a pretty strenuous effort to become well enough known to register as famous. If you were an actor, you auditioned your butt off. If you were a musician, you played in clubs for no money. Part of the allure of fame was that access was limited. You pretty much had to show up regularly on network television, in studio movies or on top-40 radio. However, because that playing field was relatively small, once you got there it wasn't too hard to become a household name — if only for the allotted 15 minutes.
Now I'm not sure there's such a thing as a household name anymore. Instead of 15 minutes of fame, we get personalities who are famous in the eyes of maybe 15 people. Fame is no longer about reaching the masses but about finding a niche audience somewhere.
This can, of course, be a very good thing, since the masses have never been known for their taste or intelligence. But there's a dangerous flip side to the democratization of fame. The YouTube/ "American Idol"/MySpace regime may be providing new opportunities for genuinely talented, less conventional people, but it's providing even more opportunities for untalented, often downright annoying people. "Celebrity" now connotes a mundanity that borders on tedium, not to mention that smelly territory of reverse indifference.
Merriam Webster's 2006 word of the year was Stephen Colbert's coinage of "truthiness," which describes our inclination to believe in ideas without regard to logic or evidence. Perhaps our definition of celebrity has taken a similar path. Now that the mystique of so many celebrities is rooted less in their accomplishments than in their ability to get our attention by provoking our disgust, perhaps it's not fame they're offering but "fame-iness."
Unlike actual fame, which involves some talent and hard work, "fame-iness" requires little more than a willingness to humiliate oneself. Instead of a reward for a job well done, it's more like a punishment for cutting corners. And guess what? The audience gets punished too.
Talk about dirty work — no wonder only the unskilled seem to be applying. Now if we could only stop reading their resumes.