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The Glittering Skull: Celebrity Culture as World Religion.

<1> The owners of Esther's Haircutting, the salon in Tarzana where Britney Spears shaved herself bald in 2006, knew immediately that the relics of her breakdown were sacred. The sweepings from their floor along with a blue lighter and the half can of Red Bull the star had left behind went on auction a few days later with a reserve of a million dollars. The bidding may have started too low. Photographs of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's twins--images with a shelf life of less than a week--sold to a transatlantic consortium of People and Hello magazines for $14 million a few months later. The first blushes of Knox and Vivienne were worth more than a midsize Learjet, more than a goodish penthouse apartment in Dubai, more than 1.4 million malaria nets. It may seem ridiculous, but we value these artifacts so highly for a reason; they belong to the spirits that guide us through the stages of modern life.

<2> Celebrities are not appendages of our society anymore; they are the basis of our communal lives. Literature and architecture, art d politics are at most sidelights--small, ancient alleyways down which fewer and fewer minds wander. Pop culture has long since left the word culture behind to become the primary way we understand the world, lust before she died, the film critic Pauline Kael told a friend: "When we championed trash culture, we had no idea it would become the only culture," and she was too right. The average American household now watches eight hours and eleven minutes of television a day. If we want to understand ourselves, if we want to understand the civilization to which we belong, we have to understand celebrities, because the modern world of freedom and loneliness has produced them as the primary communal experience. (I know more about Tom Cruise's sexual history than I do about my cousins'.) We confront the mysteries and the terrors of life through them.


<3> Celebrity culture may seem ahistorical--superficial and of the moment--but its roots reach deeply into the past 400 years. The dominance of celebrity culture is the long triumphal march of image over substance.

<4> The word "celebrity" in its current English sense of "a famous person" dates from 1849, only a few years after the invention of photography. Just as voodoo is a danced religion, pop culture is a religion of poses, a spiritual response to image reproduction. The prehistory of celebrity is identical with the genealogy of mass-produced faces. The first celebrities were the kings and emperors who stamped their faces on coins; royalty is still the dominant mode of celebrity--the image of the powerful personality whose charisma is a guarantee of authority. In Canada, Hello magazine became the best-selling glossy the same month it decided to focus on the Royal Family, and the most popular celebrities in Holland and Britain are still the royalty.

<5> France's Louis XIV was the first modern-era king to recognize that image mattered more than actual accomplishment. Battlefield triumphs were each depicted immediately on engravings, which could be quickly and cheaply duplicated and disseminated. He built Versailles, which served as the model for all the other courts of Europe, and insisted that Israel Silvestre produce high-quality books with images of "all his palaces, royal houses, the most beautiful views and aspects of his gardens, public assemblies, Carrousels and outskirts of cities." Louis was the original king of poses, announcing his status as Sun King in the performance of a ballet when he was fourteen years old and maintaining power explicitly as a kind of performance art centred around his personality. Celebrity culture was born in the middle of Louis XIV's orgy of conspicuous consumption, as he mastered the ability to project his personality through stuff. The king's preference for champagne made it the beverage; his love of diamonds made them the most precious jewel; fashion began to change with the seasons according to his taste; French replaced Latin as the global language because it was his language.


<6> On June 26, 1663, a boot maker named Nicolas Lestage became the first brand name in history when he presented a stunning gift to the throne for the king's wedding, a pair of "bottes sans couture, boots without seams. No one could figure out how he did it. Louis was so entranced with his wondrous boots (famously more entranced by them than he was by his bride) that he ordered a painting of the boot maker hung in his portrait gallery with the title "Master Nicolas Lestage, he is a miracle of his age," and refused to wear shoes made by anyone else. Lestage's boot is one of the most important gestures in the history of trade--making an economy out of a magical event. (He also was the most successful designer in history at using swag to con a celebrity endorsement.) Even in the beginning, brand names were never just a mark of proven quality but a free-floating connection to a fantasy world--something different from fame. And what happens to handbags eventually happens to people: flee-floating fantasy is still the essence of celebrity.

<7> The mania for perfume--another of Louis XIV's inventions--is maybe the best example of the extreme lightness of celebrity essence. Imagine if the perfumes on the shelf played musical chairs, and the smell of Puff Daddy's I Am King was transferred to Jennifer Lopez's Glow, while the Guerlain of Hillary Swank shifted to Danielle Steel's Danielle. Who would notice?

<8> In the nineteenth century, aristocracy by talent emerged from aristocracy by birth. The Romantic poets were the first genuine celebrities as we know them today--men more famous for their lives than for their art. Beaches in Italy and Greece are still noted for the fact that Byron rode on them. Much as in the case with Britney Spears, the demand for Byron's hair was intense--so intense that he often sent strands from his favourite dog Boatswain to his adoring female fans in place of the genuine article. Despite the non-stop attention paid to every detail of their lives, every celebrity hides a bit: "Who are these people really?" is the question that we can't answer but can't stop asking. The icon retreats behind the screen. Smoke and mirrors hide the fire and reflection. None of the Romantic poets lived "in society"; none were associated with London or New York; they all had to flee either to the Lake District or the Continent. Walt Whitman could stay in the city when he was unknown, writing and self-publishing Leaves of Grass, but by the time he became a true celebrity--and he lived into the era when he actually received the title--he moved to the country.


<9> The personality of a celebrity is inherently a contradiction. There cannot be genuine intimacy exactly because he or she offers mass intimacy. Billy Wilder had a famous story about laughing with Garbo, after shoots, because they both found her public image so hilariously incorrect. To people who knew her, Garbo was the living embodiment of a German hausfrau (though she was in fact Swedish)--completely lacking in glamour or even the desire for glamour. Those who saw her only on the screen worshipped her transcendent beauty; she just wanted a quiet cup of tea. Garbo was the first movie star intelligent enough to run away from the cameras, and her flight only increased her celebrity. The basis of our intimacy with celebrity is exactly that they retreat when we try to see them. Their very resistance is why we can't stop looking.

<10> When Bonnie Fuller took over as editor of Us Weekly, she instituted the now famous Just like Us feature at the front of the magazine. Rachel McAdams riding a bicycle. Marcia Cross pushing her children in a stroller. Cameron Diaz surfing. Star magazine countered with a regular section called "Stars: Are They Normal or Not?" Johnny Depp leaving Starbucks took its place beside Kevin Federline buying sneakers by the bushel. Mary-Louise Parker building a sandcastle was set against Amy Winehouse leaving her apartment in her underwear. The brilliance of this feature was that it uncovered a truth that has always existed in celebrity culture: they are the exceptions that prove the rule, the freaks who establish normalcy. We love and despise them in equal measure. What we give with one hand we take away with the other.

<11> These are the hollow people from whom we demand fullness--the impossibility of real-world actors. They are characters that we use for the stories that we need, but we also demand that the stories be real, just as previous generations demanded that the story of a man loading all the animals in the world, two by two, into an enormous ark be true. It was not enough for Jonah to be swallowed by a whale; he must also have really been swallowed by a whale. Jay-Z and Beyonce cannot be a mere urban love story; they must really love one another.

<12> In the twentieth century aristocracy by image emerged from aristocracy by talent. The invention of film took the magic of brandname people and gave it world dominance. Film is celebrity, a something-nothing, a cloudy and vague gloss over reality. A trip to the movie theatre is an overwhelming experience of two-dimensional superficiality that conjures a wealth of imagined interiors. The earliest audiences were entranced not by the plots of her films but by Greta Garbo's face, maybe the purest form of ecstasy the modern world has produced. We receive the celebrity in the dark, both in public and alone, in an image which spreads everywhere but seems directed at each individual viewer. The experience is both public and singular. Celebrities give art the impossible gift it demands: mass intimacy. Celebrities are works of art felt so deeply that they are no longer art--Greta Garbo becomes more interesting than any movie in which her face appears.


<13> The rise of more intense, and briefer, celebrity over the past century is a side effect of the movement from silent film to the camera phone. American Idol, alone, has produced William Hung, Josiah Leming, Kellie Pickler, and a dozen others. Andy Warhol's dictum that everyone in the future will have fifteen minutes of fame was probably overstating the duration. Viral videos have given the briefest, most superficial fame to a boy doing light-saber tricks, a man knocking down the Oasis frontman, a baby laughing maniacally for a couple of minutes. With Twitter and Gawker, it is possible to be a celebrity for less than two minutes, to be widely known and recognized for the briefest of flashes.

<14> Within this maelstrom of image, however, certain celebrity types return to the public consciousness again and again. Gwyneth Paltrow is not just Gwyneth. Without Greta Garbo, there is no Grace Kelly; without Grace Kelly, there is no Gwyneth. The power of this particular god--the Blonde Princess--is huge; Great Garbo was the most charismatic actress in history. Grace Kelly Boulevard in Monaco is the most expensive stretch of real estate in the world, nearly twice the square-foot value of an average Park Avenue apartment. Gwyneth Paltrow changed the way that an entire culture names its children. Hipsters name their kids Octobra and Woolf to be more extraordinary than Apple; the young bourgeoisie go with Otto or Boaz just to keep up. Each manifestation of the Gwyneth/Grace/Garbo god wears the skin of the previous manifestation. For women, along with the Blonde Princess, we have the Blonde Whore (Mae West, Tallulah Bankhead, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna), the Exotic (Sophia Loren, Penelope Cruz), the Independent (Katharine Hepburn, Barbra Streisand, Ellen Burstyn). Among men, the Tough Guy, the Consummate Gentleman, the Upstanding Fellow, the Outsider, the Schlub, the Permanent Child, the Destroyed Adolescent, the Man Who Consumes Himself to Death have all been constantly reinvented. As in any other form of paganism, gods appear and disappear, built to fit time and occasion and place, creating stability through change. No matter what social change is underway the gods above remain; they hover over the changing world without moving. There has always been a James Dean; there will always be a James Dean: it makes no difference what changes in politics, the economy, or high culture.


<15> Celebrity culture is a hidden religion. It pretends to be junk while giving us the sustenance that we need. Celebrities have become gods. They live like gods. They act like gods. They dwell in the dark recesses of our souls where we crave the images of gods. In the aisles of the supermarkets they stare down at us like the saints and gargoyles that once crowded the cornices of medieval cathedrals with the iconography of suffering or like the statuettes on Hindu temples that celebrate birth, sex, death, rebirth. The latest American Religious Identification Survey shows that the fastest growing religious choice in the United States is "none," now larger than every other group except Baptists and Catholics. Pop culture is rushing in to fill that space, an unacknowledged religion of consumerism, guiding the major transitions of life: birth, adolescence, marriage, sin and redemption, power, aging, death, and life after death.

<16> Our true spiritual history can be found only in our relationship to celebrities--their presence, their contact, is what we crave; the magazine rack matters more than any theology, any philosophy; the Cineplex matters more than the cathedral. Look at how we live: "By their fruits ye shall know the tree." Strange gods reveal themselves in beautiful shapes, appear eternal and untouchable for the brief stretches of their fame, and then vanish as swiftly as they came. The dizzying newness of celebrity culture is its greatest genius, its ability to generate constantly new and immediate responses to the slightest flutter of need in the public consciousness. Worshipping youth and ignoring age, it churns out new deities desperately, turbidly--a seething froth of beauty and cruelty.

<17> The lives of celebrities, with which we are so obsessed, are not quite real but not quite imagined. Their humanity is suspended. Liberated from quotidian questions like sex and money, they appear eternal--it seemed at the time that the Spice Gifts would be with us forever--and when they have gone, they may as well never have existed, leaving only the faintest of residues. We have moved on to whatever's next, to whatever seems now that it will be with us forever. Celebrity is ultimately an encounter with the glittering ephemerality of life.

In the largest Aztec festival of the year, the feast of Toxcatl, a young man, selected by the king, was given complete freedom for a year. He was treated like a god, decorated in gold and quetzal feathers, given four beautiful wives, but at the ceremony of the end of the year he himself, of his own will, had to climb the steps of the temple, and willingly suffer his heart to be cut out of his body. Celebrity involves its own destruction. And the bigger the celebrity the more glamorous the destruction. The power of Diana's death was that her celebrity birth and death occurred in the same moment. She was the People's Princess--the people gave birth to her, and the people destroyed her. The mourners who laid flowers at her grave were the same readers of tabloids who kept the paparazzi in business. Everyone cried when Elton John sang "Candle in the Wind"--Diana's final elegy was a song written for Marilyn Monroe, and how appropriate it was that the act of memorialization should show her complete exchangeability as a person. No one knew or cared about her person--they cared about the face on the memorial plate. But we should pity neither her nor any celebrity. It is quite easy not to be famous. If you want to be a god, don't be surprised when they strap you to the altar and bring out the obsidian blade.


<18> Pop culture reveals our pagan heart, our pre-Socratic, pre-Columbian core. If George Washington were to take a walk through Times Square in 2010, his Christian Enlightenment self would not recognize the civilization he supposedly founded: a culture in which third-rate players of ball games make more than the most gifted scientists; in which music is the background to Dionysian orgies rather than rational enjoyment; in which young flesh is conjured, admired, despised, and then discarded. The man on the dollar bill could not possibly understand American culture in the twenty-first century. But Montezuma would understand it perfectly. Pop culture is the only way the contemporary world has provided for dealing with the world as it is, a world of money which creates incredible beauty and then denies it to all but the very few, a world of intense precariousness and freedom and massive, sudden change, where no one knows the future, where no one knows what will happen to their children, how they will grow old, how they will die--and this is true of everyone in the system, from Anna Wintour to a Mexican strawberry picker.


<19> Celebrity culture is neopaganism--it finds human value in flesh and image. No one would claim to subscribe to its tenets, yet no one escapes its power. To deny celebritydom, to reject it consciously ("I don't pay attention to any of that nonsense"), is a form of dissent that only reinforces its dominance. A flight from celebrity culture is a self-imposed exile from the world as it is. Some do choose to flee. They choose the "classic" look, imitating celebrities that no one remembers. Others flee into countercultural cool, a very short journey to the lower circles of the demigods of the celebrity world--girls in Feist haircuts, boys in Decemberists costumes, old men precisely as grubbily unkempt as Allen Ginsberg. No doubt people exist on earth who don't know about George Clooney or Madonna or Brad Pitt or Jennifer Aniston, just as there are 700 million subsistence level farmers in China who neither take nor remove. They are off the grid. Celebrities are the grid.

<20> We need them, and we will need them as long as we live in a consumerist society After September 11, we believed that we would stop caring about celebrities and their superficialities, but within a few months we had returned to Paris Hilton and the rest. Celebrities and pop culture are how we deal with the world as it is, a world of gorgeous little things and extreme danger, in which human beings are worshipped and expendable, and no one knows what's coming. They are the religion we have conjured out of the shallowness of our deepest selves.


STEPHEN MARCHE is the author of Raymond and Hannah (2005) and Shining at the Bottom of the Sea (2007). He is currently the culture columnist for Esquire magazine.
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Author:Marche, Stephen
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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