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March 8, 2012

Let Us Now Praise Famous Louts

CUNY professor and Bruce Springsteen biographer Marc Dolan traces the evolution of the American celebrity.

Max Lakin

Stars! They’re just like us. They attend Oscar parties in bespoke couture, and we watch them on television wearing ill-fitting sweats and running TurboTax in the background. Sure, we may not be traipsing off to Gstaad this weekend, but on Monday we can read about who did, immersing our pulpy brains into a warm lather of good feeling. Your sister passed the bar? Fine. Snooki, maybe, is eating for two—she’s been seen in loose clothing, you know? Great god of progress, fire up the Twitter clients.

Asking why we care about the comings-and-goings (and comings) of overexposed personalities we won’t meet and who will never know us returns you the full complement of psychoanalytic troubleshooting: vicarious escape from our own pained existence (living is hard, why not watch Charlie Sheen do it for you?); evolutionary note-taking (observe how the famous and desirable achieve fame and court desire, adjust buying habits accordingly); parasocial relationships (boy, I hope Lindsay comes out of today’s court appearance OK); and, of course, schadenfreude (living is hard, why not watch Charlie Sheen fail at it for you?).

Marc Dolan
"We don't look up to our celebrities; we wait to see them publicly humiliated. Aggregate sadism is always unhealthy."

Marc Dolan

But why have the famous become a cultural crutch? Gelf exchanged a few thoughts with CUNY professor Marc Dolan to find out. Dolan, an associate professor of English, American studies, and film studies at John Jay College, will publish his own celebrity chronicle in June with the release of Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock ‘n’ Roll. (He is also the author of 1996’s Modern Lives: A Cultural Re-Reading of “the Lost Generation".) In the following interview, which has been conducted by email and edited for clarity, Dolan weighs in on the enterprise of celebrity adoration, our unslakable thirst for the minutiae of private lives, and why we thrill to bad behavior

Gelf Magazine: What would you say the role of celebrity is in our culture, and is it skewing unhealthy?

Marc Dolan: If a "celebrity" is someone who appears on the covers of Us or the Enquirer on the assumption that their picture will make you buy the magazine, then our current celebrity culture seems bankrupt. 90% of the people on the covers of the checkout mags are current or former reality show stars, from The Bachelor, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Jersey Shore, Teen Mom, even the occasional ghost of The Hills past. As far as non-reality show stars, it's mostly permutations of the Jennifer/Brad/Angelina triangle from a decade ago. If anyone can be a celebrity, then nobody is a star. We don't look up to our celebrities; we wait to see them publicly humiliated.
Is that unhealthy? Well, aggregate sadism is always unhealthy. If you move beyond those magazines, though, I do think it is an interesting time for the old-style stars: recording artists, actors—people who actually make things. Someone like [Bruce] Springsteen, for example, who has always been very protective of his work getting out when he didn't want it out, has now resigned himself to the fact that [his] performance will be up on the Internet before the audience finishes applauding. I think that brings him down to a more life-size scale for his fans than he may have enjoyed 25 years ago.

Gelf Magazine: Theories on the persistence of celebrity fascination and resonance abound—one holds that the delight we share in savaging our celebrities once we’ve ascribed them value has become its own cottage industry . Which do you put stock in, and has it always been like this?

Marc Dolan: Kicking them when they're down is mostly a new phenomenon. If you look back at the profiles of actors in the old studio system (people like Joan Crawford), publicists and journalists went to a great deal of trouble to make those people look normal. "They're famous, but they're just like you and me" was the message. Even in the 1970s, when Brian Wilson had a mental breakdown or Dion DiMucci became a drug addict, no one let out a Nelson Muntz laugh of triumph over it. They were just delighted when those artists came out with great comeback albums. Once the 1980s hit, however, and shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous rubbed it in the audience's faces how large celebrities lived, then the audience wanted to see those celebrities fall. MC Hammer was probably the first big victim of this phenomenon—a near-instant punchline—and the old VH1 Behind the Music series institutionalized a certain four-part plot line: rise, excess, fall, and redemption.

Gelf Magazine: Between the constant hum of celebrity gossip (I’m including online outlets, tabloids in print and on TV), and the many—we’ll call them "Kardashian sisters"—happy to broadcast their waking hours on Reality TV, where does the celebrity biography/memoir fit into the spectrum?

Marc Dolan: Not to kick it too academic, but the celebrity memoir is a collected narrativization of a celebrity's life while celebrity journalism/reality tv is an ongoing narrativization of her life. In the first case, the end is built into the story from the beginning; in the second, we're trying to fit the stream of events into a handy narrative container, but sometimes it frustrates our generic expectations. The celebrity memoir is actually much older than celebrity journalism, stretching back to Benevenuto Cellini and Benjamin Franklin at the absolute latest. To this day, Cellini and Franklin provide two of the most popular models for subsequent celebrity memoir: the stream of gossipy anecdotes that barely hold a story together, and the personal story held out as a model for readers.

Gelf Magazine: We’ve seen some high-test long-form celebrity profiles recently: Jodi Kantor’s book about Michelle and Barack Obama; Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs; Kitty Kelley’s Oprah character attack, all American in scope. Can you speak to differences between American interest in celebrity against that of other cultures?

Marc Dolan: The U.S. generates more celebrities because the individual looms so large in our society. Socialism does not breed celebrity culture, not even in samizdat form. In a quasi-aristocratic society like Great Britain, the royals are the preeminent celebrities. The object case here would be Russia, which does now have its own homegrown celebrity culture, much of it spinning out of the rise of the oligarchs. That much, Putin appears to have learned from the post-Soviet world.
But once again, how do we define "celebrity"? In a lot of cases, it may not be the writer's subject but rather his approach to the subject that makes a book a celebrity profile. On that basis, Jodi Kantor's book on the Obamas might qualify, but David Remnick's life of President Obama a few years back would not. (I would also not classify Isaacson’s as celebrity profile—it's that murkier thing called "authorized biography"). I've actually faced the same question myself. There is another writer who has a life of Springsteen coming out this fall, and he has taken the opposite tack from me, interviewing a great many people who have known Springsteen, including his barber and members of his Little League team. That's a direction I purposefully avoided —I'm writing about the work more than the man—so I guess you could say that I've written a cultural biography rather than a celebrity biography.
Good celebrity biographies do serve a valuable function, though. I know people who have written about Frank Sinatra, for example, who have found Kitty Kelley's biography of him an invaluable resource for information about the man, even if they think Kelley didn't properly understand what to do with all that information once she assembled it.

Gelf Magazine: Springsteen inspires a lot of devotion, perhaps not as manic as other acts. What did you glean about cultural attachment in writing the book?

Marc Dolan: Springsteen's audience pays attention to him because he pays attention to his audience. He frequently speaks of his career as a "conversation" that he has been having with his fans for decades. At times, particularly during the 1990s and 2000s, that conversation has gotten pretty heated, on both sides, but it is still far more interactive than the parallel careers of such contemporaries as Elvis Costello or Sting. Even at the age of 62, he will change a quarter of his planned set list onstage in response to the crowd's reaction, sometimes calling for songs that his band hasn't rehearsed in several decades. That's not to give a specific audience what they want, but rather to give them what they need. In many ways, it's that live interaction on which his fans' devotion is based, and it's less easy to prepackage that than most of the branding we customarily associate with celebrity iconography. It is happening as we watch it.

Gelf Magazine: If we're to understand celebrity fascination as a narrative form, why does it so often burn hot and fast and dissipate without that neat resolution? Is it just a function of competitive noise, or are we all subconsciously steeling ourselves for the Charlie Sheen redemption tour?

Marc Dolan: The "we" matters immensely here. There is a real generational shift in the 1980s, bringing the "I loathe pop culture"/"I am obsessed with pop culture" cycle that Douglas Coupland identified so early and so perfectly in his novel Generation X. In the 1950s when Dwight MacDonald bemoaned middlebrow culture, he didn't know as much about Marilyn Monroe's life as the average hipster blogger now knows about the Kardashians. Cheap celebrity convention is the way the average hipster makes the vastness of contemporary culture comprehensible—you only need a model, like the Charlie Sheen redemption tour, if there is simply too much data to process. The best response to 21st century popular culture is to take neither the MacDonald tack (many popular things are not worth understanding) nor the hipster blogger one (the same hype-backlash cycle). I will never comprehend everything worth comprehending in contemporary popular culture to the degree that I should. Accepting that makes me wise, not stupid.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.







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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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