When Did the Concept of Celebrity Jump the Shark?

Somewhere over the last 25 years, the idea of what constitutes a “celebrity” changed from a person with some kind of history of achievement to pretty much anyone with a pulse who manages to get his, her or its mug splashed across a TV screen. Actually, as the wailing and gnashing of teeth surrounding the death of Michael Jackson demonstrated last year, the pulse is now optional.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the ridiculous, cynical remake of “We are the World,” an exercise that according to news accounts seemed less focused on assisting the people of Haiti than on stroking the egos of the pseudo-stars and future nobodies who did the yodeling.

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The tiresome video (directed by the tiresome Paul Haggis) raises an important question – who the hell are these people? I think one of them – the dude with the expensive clothes and dull stare – was Puff Diddley or P. Daddy or whatever idiotic moniker he’s using this week. You know, there was a time when grown men used their given names instead of childish nicknames that are just emblems of the eternal adolescence that modern pop culture worships.

Now, the original “We are the World” was itself nearly unlistenable, but that’s a matter of taste and reasonable people can disagree (I thought the British supergroup Band-Aid’s “Do They Know It's Christmas?” was a much better song, though it shared "World's" inexcusable refusal to confront the reason the Ethiopian drought turned into the Ethiopian famine – the cruelty and stupidity of its left wing government ). However, at least most of the participants were people with track records of success. You had Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Diana Ross, Bob Dylan, Dionne Warwick and a bunch of others. Now, not all of them might have been your cup of tea – I’d rather pass a kidney stone made of broken glass than listen to the Boss – but you had at least heard of them.

Let’s review the crop of hit-making legends present at the recording of the remake: Well, Barbra Streisand showed up. She’s a real star, and her presence assures the buy-in of the middle-aged gay couple demographic. There’s “will.i.am.” Mr. am is a member of a group called the Black Eyed Peas. I’ve also heard of them. They suck. And you’ve also got noted cannabis aficionado Snoop Dogg, who probably did it because he confused Haiti with Jamaica.

Also present were entities known as “Weezy,” “Drake,” and “Kanye West.” I thought “Weezy” was Sherman Helmsley’s wife on The Jeffersons. Apparently she’s gained some tats, some extra appendages and started rapping. Drake sounds like a cool name for a private eye, but my guess is he’s a rapper too. Apparently most “stars” today are rappers. I have heard of this Kanye fellow – I think he blamed Hurricane Katrina on George Bush. I bet he blames the earthquake on 43 as well – hell, apparently everything’s Bush’s fault anyway.

The news report on the recording session also raised more questions than it answered with sentences like:
Fifteen-year-old Canadian heartthrob Justin Bieber, who sang the opening line originally performed by Richie, joked that he would ask his new friend, R&B singer Akon, to get the telephone number of Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls.

I know who Lionel Ritchie is, and I know what Canada is. Other than that, these words make no sense when placed in that sequence.

We can sum up the whole thing with another sentence from the same news story: “Randy Phillips, one of the organizers, said his ‘one regret’ was the absence of dance-pop star Lady Gaga.”

How lame is any endeavor where the absence of Lady Gaga makes it worse?

The point isn’t that charity is bad. USA for Africa generated tens of millions and hopefully it was well spent. To the extent this generates money that is neither squandered nor diverted into the pockets of thugs, good. The point is not that these singers are somehow wrong for using their talents, such as they are, to assist others in emergencies – we should all do so when disasters happen.

The point is that in 25 years the concept of celebrity has degenerated into parody. Borderline cretins with fake boobs and bulging wallets wander the streets of Los Angeles pursued by hordes of shutter-clicking parasites in self-reinforcing cycle of publicity whetting the appetite for more publicity. Glance about the magazines at the supermarket check-out line – consider yourself on the cutting edge of pop culture if one face in ten makes an impression. You have some NBC reality star’s heartbreaking split from a dude who plays a brooding werewolf on the CW while a breasty gal from a show on MTV beckons from the cover of Cosmo, promising to disclose her patented sex tips – tips that can probably be summed up with the words “Anyone, anytime, anywhere that might help my career in any way.”

The original “We are the World” was an event; this one is a mere occurrence. And the reasons are not hard to see. We have celebrities who do not deserve celebration. We have a public grown weary of the shameless antics and craven pandering of the celebrity culture. Who actually believes that most of the participants want anything more from this recording session than a close-up on Entertainment Tonight before they slink back across to the far side of the velvet rope?

Or perhaps this really isn’t a just another ploy designed to feed the fame machine. Maybe these “stars” do care about the people of Haiti. After all, if there’s one thing that the name “Snoop Dogg” is synonymous with, it’s caring about others.

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