Posts Tagged ‘Celebrity’

By Peter Stern, Philosophy Faculty

A perhaps well known line–my dear dear Turtlettes–and more importantly, a favorite (of mine) Beatles song line about getting famous. Baby you can drive my car, yes you’re goin’ be a star, baby you can drive my car–and baby I love you. Well forget the last phrase about the love thing. It’s really all about fame, or what used to be called fame, or being famous, and thus in case you don’t quite make it, almost being famous.



But I mention fame and even the Beatles because the question I’d like to explore and briefly digress upon (after all brevity is the soul of wit) is whether our society today is significantly different from past societies with respect to the way it accords respect, or recognition or old fashioned fame. Thus I propose we meditate for a few moments on the term most frequently used in today’s world for well know people who gain recognition namely, star, super star, or celebrity.

To my way of thinking, we live in a celebrity besotted society. Our public life or our concerns about what gets most public attention centers around celebritydom or the weather. I’m going to push the weather to the back burner and simply concentrate on celebritydomitis.

Let’s start by defining our terms and the first term to define is celebrity. How should we define it? Well let’s say a celebrity is a very well known person who has achieved notoriety by doing something unusual. Usually the special achievement is related to the world of sports or entertainment but it can also come about by creating a breakthrough achievement in the fields of business or technology or even politics. Thus names like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are reasonably well known even in worlds outside their own area of expertise. Politicians such as Bill and Hillary Clinton are also easily identified and probably known by more people than Mr. Gates or Mr. Jobs. Obviously this holds for President Obama as well.

Celebrityhood however isn’t simply a function of achievement though achievement of a distinctive kind is often a key element in achieving celebrity status. Along with achievement, the term implies a mysterious element of glamour that fascinates the mind and leads people into the world of fantasy where they can wonder and indeed fantasize about their favorite celebrity’s life. Celebritydom requires the full investment of a person’s id, ego, and superego and celebrity status almost implies a kind of obsessional interest. Not that one must constantly obsess about the celebrity, but rather that the celebrity is capable of eliciting this kind of response.

Now as a human being, but more importantly, as a political observer and student of politics, what I find most remarkable about the development of celebrityhood is that it emerges in probably the most egalitarian society the world has ever seen. And also the most upwardly mobile. I’m reminded of the famous distinction first coined by Ferdinand Tonnies, a well known German sociologist writing at the beginning of the 20th century. He claimed history showed the development of two kinds of societies: the first he called gemeinschaft meaning that a person’s status was primarily determined by family or birth and society was organized hierarchically; he called the second gesellschaft which defined people on the basis of their individual achievement which created a far more egalitarian structured society. In the first type of society, upward mobility was relatively infrequent, while in the second type, upward mobility was built into the system and occurred routinely.

Our egalitarian, and we should add, very democratically based society clearly falls under the heading of a gesellschaft type of social system. Here, everyone is assumed to be created equal though since people’s levels of achievement could differ they could enjoy unequal degrees of social status. But again, the key point is that the justification for difference was tied to individual achievement. Thus in a radically egalitarian society difference can gain recognition, but the principle upon which it’s based on is equality. You earn it or you don’t deserve it. The theoretical default position remains egalitarian. Society’s bedrock principle is the acknowledgement that we’re all created equal whether we’re president of the United States or living in a homeless shelter.

To me, the phenomenon of the celebrity takes on a special status today because in a radically egalitarian society like the one we now live in it suggests that the principle of equality isn’t sufficiently strong to hold society together. Equality may be politically correct, but from psychological standpoint, it can’t work. Why not? Because it’s too boring. It hath no relish of salvation in it. A standard uniformity leaves the average individual exhausted and flat and dispirited. The soul needs some excitement, and adventure. Even feeding it some mindless entertainment such as we see on reality TV beats a state of simple equality. Or to borrow a thought from Mr. Dostoevsky, an old fashioned Russian traditional modernist who wrote among a great many other works, Notes from the Underground, for people to be happy, they need magic, miracles, and authority.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

On Monday, I made the short trip from Chicago to Milwaukee to see one of my favorite musicians, Frank Turner. As with many of my favorite singers/bands, he was playing a mid-sized venue (this one being the conveniently named Turner Hall) packed with several hundred devoted fans.

I arrived a few hours early so I could eat before the show. As I left the parking garage next to the venue,  I saw Frank walking back to his tour bus from the next block over and then hanging out with a handful of people, either crew or band mates.

I did a double take, but mostly this didn’t strike me as unusual. As a fan of several lesser known artists, I’ve had countless sightings like this one, because these artists don’t need to hide backstage from rabid, adoring legions. Rather, I’ve seen them by their tour busses, or watching the opening acts with the crowd, or having a drink at a nearby bar after the show.

And I have a policy to not approach them.

Frank Turner

My point-of-view at Frank Turner’s show.

I was heading in the direction Frank had just come back from, but I walked past with no fanfare and no acknowledgement. A few hours later, I would be right near the stage being a fan: singing, dancing, taking pictures. But for now, I treated him like any other stranger on the streets of Milwaukee.

I almost always make this decision about celebrity close encounters, but I’ve never thought out why I act this way.

Until now.

1. Remember – celebrities eat lunch, too: As a teacher, I can empathize with celebrities in one small way: some people in our audience (the students) forget that teachers still exist when not “on stage” in class. We aren’t chained to the lectern; we eat lunch, we have friends and family, we need sleep. Likewise, maybe Frank was relaxing pre-show or coming back from lunch on the same street I was heading toward. He didn’t need me bugging him. Our time for interaction is during the show.

2. Respect, but don’t idolize: A decade ago, I saw comedian Lewis Black at the small Zanies Comedy Club in Vernon Hills before he got famous and started headlining theaters. Afterward, he was at folding table in the back selling his CD. No one was approaching. As I exited past him, I paused to shake his hand and said, “Great show.” He smiled and said thanks. I didn’t orchestrate some attempt to go talk to him, and I wasn’t being a fanboy looking to repeat my favorite punchlines back to him. I didn’t want pictures or autographs. We were in proximity and I quickly acknowledged that I enjoy and respect his work. End of transaction.

3. Do I honestly have anything to say?: One of my favorite authors, David Sedaris, packs theaters for hilarious readings of his works. Before and after his shows, he signs books and meet fans. Oftentimes the line is hundreds deep. The one time I saw him at the Paramount Theater in Aurora, IL, he was sitting alone at a table by the front entrance when I arrived. I could have walked directly up to him, but I didn’t. This is a man whose work I adore, whose writing I try to emulate, whose literature I teach in my classes – yet still, I had no pressing questions or statements for him. So, what was I going to say? “Hey, I love your writing.” No kidding – I’m at the theater, aren’t I? Likewise with Frank or any other artist, do I honestly have anything of value to say to them that they don’t hear from hundreds of other fans at every stop on tour?

4. What if they suck?: Normally, I separate my feelings about an artist from my feelings about their work. But with my absolute favorites, I am nervous. What if they are mean or rude or dismissive? What if they say something stupid that I disagree with? What if they are generally unlikable? I fear that would ruin, or at least severely harm, my ability to enjoy their work in the future.

So, after a truly Wisconsin meal of a bratwurst, cheese curds, and some brews, I headed back to the venue and took my position at the foot of the stage. When I saw Frank this next time, it was a far more fitting situation for our interaction.