First things first, I’d be remiss if I didn’t address Valentin’s dismissive categorization of the content of my post. Trite musings, you say?! If you’d intended to disparage me with these words, it may be mildly irritating to know that you unequivocally failed. Not only did my ego remain unbruised, but you also gave me an idea for the title of my future memoir: “Trite Musings: The Life and Times of Hershal Pandya.”
Speaking more generally, I’d argue that in tackling a subject as broad and expansive as fame, anything short of a 15,000 word dissertation could correctly be classified as “trite.” Even the evolutionary analysis you provided, while offering a good framework, tells us very little about how fame is interpreted and reproduced in the modern era. Any nuanced exploration of the subject would invariably require one to delve further into the milieu of relevant sociological and psychological research to understand exactly why fame manifests itself and the various forms it can take. To harken it back to an evolutionary holdover isn’t wrong, but it’s a bit like trying to explain the act of murder by saying “it goes back to survival of the fittest.” It’s certainly part of the explanation, but it doesn’t offer much real insight into specific acts of terror or genocide. Valentin, in your attempt to spit fire onto my trite musings, all you really did was pull the pin on the fire extinguisher, unleashing even more trite musings into the NFC ether. Just as the man who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones, the man who lives in a house built of trite musings, shouldn’t, er, call the kettle black? Fuck it, I’m bailing on this metaphor.
On a serious note, Valentin’s post actually inspired me to do a bit of research to figure out what the good ol’ social scientists have to say about the topic-at-hand. Surprisingly, it appears to be a relatively underexplored territory within the discipline of sociology. I say “surprisingly” because, when it comes to social science research, I generally assume that every single area of every single discipline has been covered repeatedly as part of a mass-conspiracy perpetrated by academic journals to perpetuate their existence in otherwise economically impractical research disciplines. I’m still working out the specifics of this conspiracy theory, but as proof I can offer my anecdotal evidence of googling the phrase “sociology journals,” and, within 30 seconds, finding an article entitled “Reflections on the Use of Visual Methods in a Qualitative Study of Domestic Kitchen Practices.” What the fuck is a “kitchen practice?” Does this just mean cooking?
In the limited research that exists, the prevailing analysis seems to group fame or “celebrity” (the word that is more commonly used in the research) into two main categories: (1) celebrity as pathology and (2) celebrity as commodity.
In the former category, researchers have generally proceeded under the assumption that there are some shared mental traits possessed by celebrities (and those who aspire towards celebrity) that can help us understand their behaviour. Researchers have theorized that these same mental traits also have a tendency to make fame an inherently negative or corruptible force. Of course, it’s difficult to quantifiably prove any of this, and much of the research points to one particular study from a 2009 book written by, of all people, Dr. Drew. The study, which involved administering the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) to a sample of 200 celebrities, was actually fairly groundbreaking, as gaining access to celebrities for academic research had traditionally proved to be very problematic. Unsurprisingly, the study found that celebrities ranked higher on the NPI index than the average American, ultimately lending credence to the researchers’ hypothesis that “narcissism is not a byproduct of celebrity, but a primary motivating force that drives people to become celebrities.” As an interesting aside: reality stars had the highest NPI scores, followed closely by comedians, actors, and then musicians.
In the latter category, researchers have examined the concept of fame/celebrity as it exists strictly for the purpose of spurring capitalism. The research argues that celebrities are created and trotted out by the media for the explicit purpose of driving consumption. The research would argue that even the purest of celebrities—those we’d consider to have attained fame purely based on skill or artistic merit—are essentially just content creators to be exploited by media outlets. I’d argue that the media’s role in creating celebrities is much less prominent than it used to be at present, but even those who emerge organically as a result of public approval are quickly coopted into the traditional media framework. Take, for example, the surprise star of the last Presidential debate, Ken Bone. Within 24 hours of becoming an online sensation, Ken Bone had been trotted out all over the traditional media, from local news affiliates to Jimmy Kimmel Live. We’re now almost a full week removed from the debate and publications are still getting mileage from scouring through his reddit history and posting sensationalist headlines using his name. Meanwhile, Ken Bone is trying to derive any economic benefit he can from the situation, shilling for uber, and selling official t-shirts via his twitter account. Just today, I saw that some costume companies have put together sexy Ken Bone Halloween costumes that people can purchase online. In less than a week, an entire economy has popped up around Ken Bone. I’ve heard that there are a lot of barriers that prevent economic development in Third World nations, but I wonder if the path to growth is to just create more Ken Bones.
The question still remains, however: even if I subscribe to the notion that all celebrities are either diseased narcissists or explicit agents of capitalism (which I’m not entirely sure I do), what is it about celebrities that makes them so compelling to us? Why do we buy the clothes they endorse? Why do we click on the headline about their scandals? Aside from the evolutionary analysis—which certainly has its merits—I saw some research that reinforced Rachit’s idea about how celebrities help us fill our insatiable need for a deity to worship, and other research that simply said that we aspire towards their rung on the social hierarchy. Intuitively, both of these explanations seem apt enough, and I really have no further analysis to contribute here. This post is essentially just a meta-analysis of other research that is out there in the social science zeitgeist. Meta-reviews are great because you can just regurgitate other people’s conclusions without adding anything new of your own. Meta-reviews are like the Desiigner of academic journal articles.