The race for the US presidency – which has started way too early this season – is taking on all the hype of a celebrity-driven project, rather than a political contest.
Last week, we were reminded of the power of celebrity in our popular consciousness, with the ongoing arguments over Anna Nicole Smith’s body and baby, and the sad behaviour of Britney Spears.
This week, we have a spat between the supporters of presidential hopefuls Senator Clinton and Senator Obama. They’re both from the same party and are the front-runners for the Democratic nomination.
What was their tiff about; some important domestic issue, or some idea vital to America’s foreign policy? No, nothing so grand.
It all started with a quote from a Hollywood money-man, David Geffen, about Bill and Hillary Clinton. In an interview, he said, 'Everybody in politics lies; but they do it with such ease it's frightening.'.
Geffen, a former supporter of the Clintons, has now switched his allegiances to Mr. Obama.
The Clinton camp is scared that this might trigger an exodus of Hollywood support to their opponent.
The story is not as trivial as it sounds. It demonstrates the growing influence in mainstream life of the culture of celebrity and those who shape it. Now, even supposedly lofty community leaders are dancing to its tune.
Of course, politicos – especially of the American variety – have long tried to romance high-profile ‘talents’ from the worlds of movies and music. But this is becoming something more. Instead of politics being the story, with support from celebrities, the focus has shifted slightly to celebrity-dom itself.
In the end, do we, or should we really care what a Hollywood producer thinks? Hollywood moguls are not normally known for the depth of their political analysis, are they? When did you last read a book by anyone associated with Hollywood that was about substantial issues, like matters of state?
As one pundit put it on a FOX News programme, ‘Most of these [Hollywood] people can say nothing without a script. People forget how air headed they really are.’
For the first time, perhaps, US election politics is being driven by the power of celebrity. In the process, the race for prominence is echoing the world of reality TV. Even at the highest level of world politics, it seems, life is now starting to imitate art (if reality TV can be called art).
Of course, it could be argued that more people in the US vote for reality TV contestants than do for the presidency, so why shouldn’t politics follow the lead of pop-media culture?
Perhaps it won’t be long before we have a Simon Cowell-type judge telling some presidential hopeful that, ‘You really shouldn’t give up your day job. You have absolutely no talent for this at all!’
I’ve written about this a number of times and spoken about it even more: the culture of celebrity is not just pitiful, it is dangerous. It is right and appropriate that we honour people who deserve honour. Heroism and selfless service are worthy of our respect. Exceptional talent is also worth celebrating.
Sadly, though, celebrity as we now know it has little to do with any of these traits: it is only about image and packaging. It is built on hypocrisy: the hiding of what is real behind a mask.
Some people are at the top simply because marketers have found packaged them in the right way. When you think of the individual, you think of the image and vice versa. It’s not about intellect, service, sacrifice or even talent: it’s about clever marketing.
In a LIFE Magazine feature story a few years ago, the writer traced the descent of Elvis Presley into depression and drug addiction. His investigations of the events surrounding Elvis’ last years suggested to him and others that the star’s death might not have been accidental. ‘In the end,’ concluded the writer, ‘not even Elvis could be Elvis any more.’
When Kurt Cobain of Nirvana fame committed suicide, much of the secular music media could not quite take it in. A grunge rock ‘god’ who had everything to live for left behind a simple suicide note that spoke of a sense of disenchantment with the rock scene, of personal despair and an inability to keep up an image which had never reflected reality.
In the end, a young artist could not face up to his very real personal problems largely because of the expectations placed on him by image and celebrity.
It’s time to ditch our blind preoccupation with celebrities and what they say, think or do, or how they ‘suffer’ for being famous. It’s time to celebrate people in our communities who deserve our applause, or at least our appreciation.
It’s time to give our children heroes they can touch, and safely emulate.