Fame will never be the same after Michael Jackson, we’re told: his life and death were a “high-water mark” for the entire idea of celebrity. And while his death — and those of at least six other people whose names deserved news headlines — has sparked days of tributes, retrospectives, and uproar about tabloids’ tactics, nobody seems all that eager to talk about what drives the entire world of stardom.
Mostly, it’s hard to think of celebrities as normal people: they’re either lesser men or supermen, as the case may be. Farrah Fawcett, Ed McMahon, and Michael Jackson always existed in that otherworld of fame and fortune: they spoke or sang or acted for us, but never to us. Michael Jackson’s Thriller might have been the soundtrack to people’s youths and Ed McMahon might have introduced Johnny Carson to the American viewing public every night for over 30 years, but they always stood just out of reach, their rapport with their audience as artificial as their stage makeup (or plastic surgery). And because of that distance, it doesn’t seem so odd to see old footage of any of them on TV, in the prime of their career: they created museum pieces, whether instances of pop art or flashes of musical genius, that were perfectly complete, with or without an audience. Their music, or acting — their art, in other words — exists entirely separate from their personas.
But we, the viewing public, also act as if anyone who shows their face on television enough deserves to have their lives combed through. And without any real, meaningful interaction, celebrities become blank slates for their fans to obsess over — hence the enduring interest in every lurid detail of Fawcett’s illness, McMahon’s bankruptcy, Jackson’s bizarre personal life, in the never-ending search for something relatable. And celebrities are happy to oblige, to a point. Their public faces are carefully orchestrated, in order that they never appear too individual, and cross the boundary of relatability. Even their quirks tend to be non-issues: Jennifer Aniston eats mayonnaise sandwiches; Angelina Jolie is really a private person at heart; and Bruce Springsteen demands raw oats in his dressing room. This is the stuff that allows People magazine to have almost half a million more readers than TIME, and a million more than Newsweek. We buy their creative output because it’s extraordinary, and then by fixating over the minutiae of their lives we try hard to make them ordinary — or worse.
Once they stick their necks beyond that threshold, they open themselves to a torrent of abuse. William Congreve might have said that hell has no fury like a woman scorned, but then again he had never heard of TMZ.com — or its readership. We watch to rubberneck, sure, but also to heap scorn on others’ apparent failings, especially if doing so reflects well on us. Meanwhile, we keep ourselves tuned in: there may not be anyone left who likes Paris Hilton non-ironically, but she still somehow manages to stay affixed in the public consciousness.
So whether it’s likened to a drug, a food, or plain old lust, fame becomes a psychological addiction. It’s not just the relationship between a performer and his or her adoring fans, it’s a mutual, infantilizing dependence. The silent validation of people we don’t even know drives us not only to google our own names but to become shameless self-promoters in order to boost our search rankings. But then we make a point to remember which Hollywood stars are dating and which ones are feuding, who’s released the latest sex tape, and the thousands of other gossipy factoids. And, on top of it all, there are plenty of people who make a point to mock the very idea of celebrity, but who are hypocrites about it all the same, either because they are knowingly cynical about it, or because they wish they were.
Oliver Cromwell once remarked that people who cheered him for being famous would have cheered just as loudly if he were going to be hanged. He at least understood the illusion of celebrity.