Here in the U. S. of A., we love celebrities – and we’re pretty much experts at producing big stars. So, if we’re so great at creating icons, why do we seem to take so much pleasure in tearing them down?
On the world stage, no one’s talent is more globally exported than ours. We are – and always have been – a star-making nation. Through our movies, TV shows, and music videos, we market our celebs better than any country in the world. For the ambitious few who choose to go into this business that we call “show,” the American Dream is still alive and well.
The U.S. mints new icons almost as quickly as we can churn ‘em out. In the last five years, we’ve launched Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Jessica Chastain, Channing Tatum, Emma Stone, and Jennifer Lawrence to the level of superstardom. Although Justin Bieber is Canadian and the Hemsworth brothers are Australian, they became huge by passing through the U.S. star-making machine.
However, in the last few weeks, the criticism of some of our best and brightest has almost overshadowed their many accomplishments. Case in point: the way in which we collectively were so quick to jump on both Beyoncé’s and Alicia Keys’ renditions of the “National Anthem.” Many in the media were quick to call Beyoncé a lip-synching fraud, when she was actually singing to a pre-recorded track (in what is actually a very common industry practice), a far cry from true “lip-synching.” For some folks, the conversation quickly turned to whether or not Alicia Keys’ rendition of the “National Anthem” was too self-indulgent (albeit there’s an argument here that it’s the “Anthem” which is the kiss of death here).
There’s a big difference between what Keys did with the “National Anthem” and what Rosanne Barr did to butcher it in 1990. And there’s a huge gap in the definition of “lip synching” between what Beyoncé did and what Milli Vanilli did to deserve having their Grammy stripped in 1990. Comparisons between the two are quite simply unfounded. There’s a reason why Beyoncé and Keys were both chosen to sing the “National Anthem” recently – because there’s a whole lot to love about them and their talent.
Perhaps two of the best examples of our great talents who we criticized in life, only to revere again in death, were Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Jackson was arguably the biggest solo music star the world had ever seen. Yet when the first allegations of child sexual abuse came forward, many fans were quick to turn their backs on him. He was, of course, later cleared of all accusations, but many people believe he never fully recovered from the damage that those two awfully public trials caused him.
Houston was crowned “the voice” way before “The Voice” ever existed. Her version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the barometer against which all others were measured. It has been widely speculated that she struggled with drug use, brought about by the pressure of trying to live up to expectations that were too high for her to handle. The limelight was ultimately what crushed her. As we reflect this week upon the one year anniversary of her death, she is being remembered not only as one of the greatest singers of all time, but also as a troubled tragic soul who was taken from all of us much too soon.
It’s not just music artists that we tear down, albeit they certainly seem to be more easy targets because of their more eccentric behavior. The American public has taken glee for years in attacking Tom Cruise, one of our biggest male movie stars of the past three decades. A couple of hops up and down on Oprah’s couch and suddenly everyone forgot that he’s a hugely talented Academy Award nominated actor. In between reporting on his rumors, romances, and his religion, he’s still breaking huge at the box office with films like 2011’s “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.” (Unfortunately, his most recent entry, 2012’s “Jack Reacher,” underperformed.) Collectively, we’re quick to overshadow Cruise’s charisma with his personal comportment.
So, again, why do we do it? Once we elevate our celebrities to the world stage, why do we then as a culture feel the need to tear them apart? And what does it say about us as a nation?
One of the most obvious answers is that a lot of celebrity behavior that takes place actually is worth being truly disappointed in. For every Beyoncé and Alicia, there’s a Lindsay Lohan and a Lance Armstrong, whose actions are, at the very least, highly questionable. We’re cynical because we’ve already witnessed so much bad behavior from our stars. We’re jaded because we’re taught to be from past experience.
The rapid development of technology has certainly contributed to how quickly and loudly we’ve become able to express our opinions. Information travels quicker than ever via social media, and the tide of public opinion now has the ability to turn on a dime. Technology has changed our relationships with celebrities more in the past 10 years than in the entire half century (not to mention how it has changed the entire PR game – but we’ll save that topic for another day). If Twitter can instigate the upset of governments and start revolutions, Beyoncé’s singing credibility certainly never stood a chance.
According to Robert Thompson, Director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, it’s a complicated issue. “First we should not make the assumption that everybody does like to tear down celebrities,” he points out. “For all the people making a fuss about Beyoncé, there were just as many people making a fuss about the people who were complaining.”
Thompson sites three factors, which contribute to whether or not we find happiness in watching a celebrity, stumble. First off – it depends who the celebrity is. He explains that he personally found a certain degree of delight when Martha Stewart got arrested.
“I think that’s because she presented herself as so perfect,” he notes. “I’m certain that if I went to an event that she was at, she’d shake her head at me using the wrong fork. She made everyone believe that we could never aspire to be her.” So, when she ended up breaking the law, it was particularly damning.
On the flip side, not every celebrity could create such vitriolic response.
“I don’t think people would take that same delight if Tom Hanks crashed and burned,” he explains. “There would probably be a more genuine disappointment.”
Second for Thompson, he points out that we’re always looking for some sort of dramatic narrative in our celebrities’ lives. “At any given time, there are 100 – 150 celebrities in the public eye. Right now, it’s Psy right? Nobody had heard of him seven months ago. In exchange for wealth and attention and fame and everything that comes with being a celebrity, to some extent, they surrender their life stories. Their lives become like a soap opera and in a soap opera we expect something to happen. For example, with Michael Jackson, we looked forward more to his next outrageous action than we did to his next album. We follow these people the way that we would follow our favorite TV show. It’s a lot more interesting to follow the romantic exploits of Brad or J.Lo when there’s a continuing saga of breakups and getting back together. We crave the action.”
Charlie Sheen’s whole public breakdown in 2011 was a perfect example. How many of us didn’t ready the popcorn while waiting to see what Sheen would do next? Some would argue he deserved an award for that performance. “‘Tiger blood’ was way more interesting than him saying, ‘Everyone gives 110% on my show,’” Thompson notes. “At some point, Charlie discovered he had a great piece of performance art on his hands.”
Finally, there’s the German concept of “schadenfreude” (popularized in the cultural zeitgeist via a song in the 2003 musical “Avenue Q”), which roughly translated means “deriding pleasure from the misfortune of others.” The Germans may have lost a couple of world wars, but schadenfreude is alive and well in America today. When we’re constantly inundated with media messages (“Go see my movie,” “Buy my album,” “Follow me on Twitter”), the pleasure that comes from watching a public stumble is inevitable.
“Celebs have everything that we think we want so badly,” Thompson extrapolates. “I think there is a real sense that we resent some of that because we’re envious of it. There’s a degree of thought of, ‘Why is it that that reality star, who is no less talented than me, gets to be on every late night talk show?’ This goes back to Greek mythology and the theory of hubris [or pride]. Because we live in a democracy that tells us that we’re all created equal, ‘fame’ is one example of how new class systems have developed in America.”
We have definitely entered a new era of celebrity worship; one in which Andy Warhol’s principal of everyone having their “15 Minutes of Fame” is still very real, even though those 15 minutes are more likely to come for all the wrong reasons. Great talent will always stand out in a crowd, but our most talented stars also must now possess a new set of skills to help them navigate the complicated waters of higher expectations. It would be wise for any aspiring celebrity to remember the Greek myth of Icarus, who crashed to the sea when his wings were burned after flying too high to the sun.
With Grammys weekend upon us, some of our biggest talents are going to do what they do best – entertain us. The opportunity to criticize will be ever-present. Inevitably, some scandal we can’t yet predict is on the horizon for the media and Twitter users alike to write about on Monday morning. Let’s save the harshness for those that truly deserve it. In the meantime, just listen to the music … and try to enjoy.
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