Long Live the King

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.

20 thoughts on “Long Live the King”

  1. Thank goodness different criteria were used to select a king vs celebrity. Ideally a King was a fierce warrior or leader who proved himself on the battlefield. If not, then at least smart enough to avoid assasination or a coup. Celebrities don’t have those worries.

  2. Well, the old studio system put these stars under cntract; surfing & seeing the old black & whites I can’t help but think it was a better system.

  3. Ginny is absolutely right, both in general and in this particular case. Michael Jackson started out as a Motown artist. That was a tight ship. Berry Gordy had the whole thing organized. The singers sang and danced and were photographed to look good. Other people wrote the songs, played the instruments, produced the records. It was a division of labor run by an obsessive perfectionist. It produced some of the best pop records ever. Michael Jackson escaped from that system and obtained control over his own stuff. With dire consequences.

  4. Well, one mechanism for giving reality feedback to the king worked — it was called a parliament. In order to make it work, they had to require that parliament assent to taxes. This gave lots of reality feedback. In this regard it’s worth noting that the European Parliament has no budgetary authority.

  5. 1. In many respects, the celebrity culture is merely an extension of high school culture and its requirements. Who’s in, who’s out, who’s dating whom, what is she really like, that sort of gossipy juvenilia. The king of high school was no real ruler either, except over a small fiefdom of personality (never quite rising to the level of cult). His star rises, but by the fourth June he is forgotten, and replaced.

    It satisfies as a safe community for the viewer, who does not have to compete in it, unlike high school. However, there are no real relationships with your fellow viewers, even though you may watch the same thing together. Like high school, it is a false community, a faint echo of real life. Ultimately, celebrity is an empty experience for all concerned.

    2. Celebrity can be viewed as a disease. Cintra Wilson wrote “A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Reexamined as Grotesque Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations” about his thought. It is funny to be sure, but her central idea is really quite insightful. Celebrity defines, deforms, delimits, decapitatates, and ultimately devours nearly all who enter its beckoning doors. One couldn’t wish a more appropriate fate for one’s own worst enemy.

  6. The creation of a social hierarchy is one of those magical things that appears to be a basic primate function. Whether you’re discussing adolescent groups or the crowned heads of europe (or entertainers as nobility, which was largely a creation of the movie studios from the 1930’s on), society seems to stratify all of its own. The people at the top get power and the attention they seem to crave. The people at mid levels get to see how close they are to the top (that’s just out of reach) and how much better off they are and those below them. The people at the bottom get to watch the idiots above them try to hang on. The trick is to make people want to climb the ladder, and not let those at the top think for themselves, because they probably don’t have any experience.

  7. Ed in Texas is certainly correct on the innate need for social heierarchy. The difference here is that the celebrity heierarchy is a false one; it doesn’t exist for any real social purpose. All other such heierarchies perform some essential social role, but for celebrity there is none. It is merely self-referential and self-reinforcing.

    Celebrity heierarchy is simply a form of theater itself. Nothing real ever happens, and the viewers are as unaffected watching Mr and Mrs Smith as they are reading about Ben and Jen and Jen and Matt and Angelie and the cast of Friends.

    A king must act. A celebrity is just an actor. One wages war, the other performs in one on TV. One taxes me, the other entertains me.

  8. Re: So Hollywood = Everquest?

    Except that Hollywood is far less interactive than desired by the average male (or female, I would hazard).

  9. For tewenty-eight years now, I’ve worked as a lighting director on rock tours. I once heard a Scottish monitor engineer tell a stage-hand, “I’ve been fired by more people than you’ve worked for.” People who work at technical jobs in this business have a real advantage once they know the secret, which is: “I was out of work when I got here. It don’t mean nothin’.” It’s an approach that puts idiots on notice: “Go push someone else around.”

    I’ve only ever been fired once, when a British singer went neuro during a roll through Alaska. He was tired and cranky and bitchy, and I told him, “Just shut up. You’re not working any harder than anyone else out here.” I was looking for another gig when we got home a week later.

    Eighteen years later, we’re good friends, and he’s still ashamed of himself.

    I can hang with that.

  10. I have long thought that the division between the entertainers and the technical crew in theater and movies was some sort of grand metaphor for modern society at large.

    It is the anonymous tech crew behind the scenes that create the illusions of the stage. Without them modern productions just don’t happen. Techs are the adults of the entertainment industry who can’t rely on temper tantrums to get their way. They must answer to metal, wood, optics and electronics not fashion and style. They rapidly develop rather taciturn personalities and spend a lot of time rolling their eyes at the antics of the onstage individuals.

    I can’t help but see parallels between accountants, engineers, managers and others who work in the “real world” and academics, journalist, lawyers and the like who work in a world of fad and fashion.

  11. Folks – this is the best blog (and discussion) ever on this site. Can we archive it somewhere prominently on the front page?

  12. Shannon — I could easily do a book. I once discussed that very prospect with the owner of a major lights company. We concluded that one would have to be finished with the business in order to do that, because one would definitely be finished in the business, afterward.

    I still love my work, so I generally keep the details to myself.

    But you’re absolutely right about that division in the entertainment industry. Very few people ever see who’s dealing in reality out there. They’re all offstage, in the dark, and there are some really great people out there.

    (That was my comment, above. I don’t know how my name didn’t end up in it.)

  13. Billy,

    Your description mirrors in many ways the saga of corporate life in general, albeit writ larger and more colorfully. But the egos are as enormous, and so too their need to be petted, groomed, and their various whims attended to with dispatch.

    As per Shannon (spot on as usual), much of the real work goes on behind the scenes, unheralded, unsung, lacking even thanks save for the hatefully bureaucratic “kudos” proffered in place of actual money. Temper tantrums, hissy fits, and pouting are as frequent among some bosses as in a daycare for toddlers. The difference, of course, is that these “little princes” (and princesses) can crush you.

    Stanley Bing’s Throwing the Elephant: Zen and the Art of Managing Up is a good place to start. He is a TV exec, and describes this circus rather well.

  14. Kevin — I know. My youngest brother just got sacked after nine years’ work in IT with a large company that does scratch-off game tickets for organizations from McDonald’s to various state lotteries. The HR department didn’t appreciate his pointing out that some people were being paid well to perform, and failing at it. They cut him a $15k check and sent him on his way.

    He got snapped-up instantly by another firm, and he’s well known in his business so there are other offers rolling in. He’ll be okay, so I’ve been amused by the whole thing. (“Job security” is a prevalent American concept that has just about always made me fall down laughing, because it simply doesn’t exist in my business.) But that scene was just about Soviet in the details, or reminiscent of, say, universities, now. This kid is damned good at his work, and that is the very thing that won him the boot.

    The general issue in this discussion is reality and how people deal with it. More and more and more, it’s something alien to peoples’ consciousness.

    I know what I’m talking about when I call our time in history “The Endarkenment”.

  15. I fully agree about the inability to see reality, or to accept it. My field is much the same, sadly. Example: “enhanced work-life balance” became a mantra for “recruitment and retention” where I worked. What did it mean? Pamphlets and web sites agreeing that work-life balance was a good thing to have. (Meaning: fix your attitude and you’ll feel better.)

    Two books come to mind. On Bullsh*t by Harry G. Frankfurt, and Death Sentences : How Cliches, Weasel Words and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language by Don Watson. The second is superior, and although seemingly a text on language it is really about how the decimation of language in business and government has led to the escape from reality you are describing. The first is merely okay, an essay, really. But he does say that people need to call BS by its name, something that I always thought to be a particularly American trait.

  16. I’ve read “On Bullshit”, and it was pretty not-bad.

    That second title looks like it’s right down my alley. It would seem to concern itself with what I’ve long called “euphemasia”.

    Thank you.

  17. @ Billy: Don’t neglect S.I. Hayakawa’s classic “Language in Thought and Action.” It’s a very personalized version of general semantics. I especially love his “declensions” of terms from positive to neutral to derogative:

    I have principles.
    You are being stubborn.
    He is a pig-headed fool.

    I have the subtle, delicate frangrance of a rare, night-blooming Oriental flower.
    You rather overdo it, dear.
    What has she been rolling in?

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