King of Pop dethroned in bloodless coup. — Headline from The Onion
While laid up and channel surfing recently I flipped past a lot of celebrity-news shows. It seemed that every third time I did so the story was about some legal trouble caused by the celebrity’s extreme behavior. Watching all this weirdness it suddenly struck me that we could have it much worse than having to hear about the celebrity trial du jour. In a previous age, we would have had these nut-jobs ruling over us.
I have long thought that most celebrities are crazy. I am not sure how many start out that way but a disturbingly high percentage seem to end up being fitted for a jacket with extra long sleeves. It seems that the very environment of celebrityhood warps people.
Celebrities often exhibit a sense of entitlement far greater than which can be explained by their mere wealth or fame. I think this behavior results from the celebrity being the sole focus of a multimillion dollar enterprise. Individual actors and musicians are often the only irreplaceably element of their productions. If they can’t or won’t perform then the show doesn’t go on. Everybody from the biggest investor to the janitor loses big if the celebrity doesn’t perform. As a result, the natural inclination of everybody involved is to construct an environment of pure pleasure around the celebrity. The normal give and take of human interaction disappears. The celebrity looses any visceral sense of self-restraint.
Such an environment can warp even a mentally healthy individual. For somebody who already has some issues the effects can be extreme. Worse, the wealth that accompanies celebrityhood makes it easy for the celebrity to surround himself with sycophants if he so chooses. One commentator said of Michael Jackson that apparently nobody in his life was willing to tell him that living in a theme park and sleeping with children even “looked” weird. Instead, they fed back to him his own self-justifications so that when he tried to explain his actions to the general public he seemed completely unaware of how bizarre it sounded to those outside his own captive circle.
I think that the modern celebrity is the closest role we have in the modern world to the kings and emperors of the past. Kings were usually irreplaceable individuals because they occupied a unique position in the network of families that comprised the nobility. Very few people could be king and an empty throne almost always presaged a time of civil war. Everybody in the society had a vested interest in keeping the king alive and happy. Many kings were treated this way from the time of their birth. The king himself usually had the power to surround himself with advisors of his own choosing. Again and again one reads of the ultimate rulers of many different societies becoming progressively unhinged in a manner very similar to that of modern celebrities. Although disease, accident and various environmental toxins are often credited for some of the behavior of the powerful, I think in most cases they just went Hollywood nuts because nobody ever told them “no.”
Every ancient authority recognized the dangers that unbridled wealth and power posed to the mental health of despotic leaders. Many different cultures struggled to come up with the means of providing some kind of realistic feedback to such unaccountable leaders. As a general rule, they met with little success.
We should be glad that modern democracy prevents this sort of psychosis from overtaking our leaders. The need to answer to the people and the division of powers means that it is harder to get trapped in a world of yes-men to the degree that it drives one actually crazy. Even if a leader does go crazy, it matters little because in a democracy, nobody is irreplaceable. Indeed, the entire premise of a democracy is that leaders can be disposed off pretty much at will.
Perhaps we created the modern celebrity to fill some void left by the fall of kings. Recent research in primates suggests that we may be genetically programmed to pay attention to the lives of high-status individuals. If so, perhaps we have created a disposable nobility out of our entertainers. I think we like them precisely because they have so little true relevance to our lives. We can emotionally invest in them, use them as conversation props, and even idolize them without consequence. A star who self-destructs is just another spectacle with no greater significance to the wider world. When celebrities try to inject themselves into serious matters they usually receive nothing but derision. We like our celebrities real but ultimately inconsequential.
So be ever grateful. In ages past, Michael Jackson wouldn’t just have been “The King of Pop” but “The King.” If that thought doesn’t keep you up at night I don’t know what will.