As Renee Zellweger's acquitted killer tries out for a performing slot in a nightclub toward the end of the movie "Chicago," one of the men holding the audition leans toward the other and asks something along the line of: "Didn't she kill somebody a while back?" "Maybe, but I can't keep them straight," the second man answers.
It's a nutshell description of American pop culture, which has become an endless and ever-faster barrage of media hype that nurtures delusions of grandeur. The prurient rise of reality TV has prompted unknowns to gamble their proverbial 15 minutes on the notion that a spot on "The Real World" or "Survivor" or "American Idol" is the first step toward show-business success.
In "Chicago," newspaper headlines and courtroom drama provide the hype. While awaiting trial for a murder she definitely committed, Zellweger's Roxie Hart plots how to parlay the "trial of the century" publicity surrounding her case into her dream career on the stage. She is mystified when she finds, in the moments after her acquittal, that the press has already forgotten her in favor of the Next Big Thing -- a woman who has just shot her husband on the steps of the courthouse.
The same basic blueprint guides the life cycle of practically every pop-culture phenomenon: It's big until something fresher comes along.
And yet some people in the cast of every so-called reality TV show and in every of-the-moment pop group are convinced -- just like Roxie -- that they have some unique quality that will allow them to outlast, even transcend, the hype. They are inevitably wrong.
None of them has built even the beginnings of a lasting career in the entertainment industry, and even the quasi-success stories -- Eric Nies from the first season of "The Real World," who modeled underwear and had a cameo on "Days of Our Lives," or Darva Conger from "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire," who posed in Playboy -- are sought not on their merits as actors or models but for their cachet as celebrities of reality TV.
It would be the entertainment industry's dirty little secret, if it weren't so glaringly obvious: Hype is unsustainable. Without substance, the names and the faces don't matter.
Hype is no less pernicious in the music business, with largely the same result. Two years from now, no one will remember the difference between Good Charlotte and the Juliana Theory, or Trapt and the Used.
In interviews, hopeful nu-metal upstarts always talk about how the musicians' diverse influences make their band different from the others, man.
"Because we go from one end to the other style-wise, it kind of benefits us because we can't get stuck in just one category," Chris Volz of the band Flaw said in September.
As if reading from the same script, Incubus drummer Jose Pasillas sounded optimistic about his band's chances for longevity: "We kind of encompass a lot of different styles."
The truth is that Flaw, Incubus and the rest represent nothing more than the potential of a quick payoff for record companies that have no interest in the investment-minded concept of artist development.
"This is a business. No executive really has concern for anyone's well-being," Ahmir "?uest- love" Thompson, drummer for the Roots, said backstage at the recent Grammy Awards in New York. "I'd rather take the slow road to glory than the just-add-water" approach.
The slow road has certainly benefited Norah Jones, whose music won eight Grammys, including album of the year for "Come Away With Me." Jones' debut has sold more than 4 million copies without the publicity blitz that accompanied records by her Grammy competitors, including Avril Lavigne, Bruce Springsteen and Eminem.
"It keeps on going," producer Arif Mardin said backstage after winning producer of the year for "Come Away With Me." "Word of mouth started it; success brings success. All of a sudden, when she was more successful, VH1 was added; radio stations started playing it."
Jones' triumph is persuasive evidence that substance can exceed the limitations of hype -- people bought "Come Away With Me" because they liked it, not because an ad campaign touted it as the cool album to have. By contrast, Lavigne's record company promoted her as the anti-Britney and hyped her faux-punk music with a video weeks before the release of her album. Jones and Lavigne were each nominated for five Grammys; Lavigne left empty-handed.
Alas, Jones' slow-road Grammy sweep will inspire a throng of just-add-water imitators eager to capitalize on her success -- and the hype machine will rumble back to life as record companies promote their new artists as the next Norah instead of scouting for musicians who are doing something fresh.
And pop culture will continue to devour itself until some rogue artistic wave sweeps away the stale formulas and redefines notions of entertainment -- much as bands like the Clash did in repudiating the pretensions of corporate '70s rock.