Celebrity culture is characterized by a pervasive preoccupation with famous persons and an extravagant value attached to the lives of public figures whose actual accomplishments may be limited, but whose visibility is extensive. It became a feature of social life, especially in the developed world, during the late 1980s/ early 1990s and extended into the twenty first century, assisted by a global media which promoted, lauded, sometimes abominated, and occasionally annihilated figures, principally from entertainment and sports.
- The Leadership Vacuum and the Globalized Media
- The New Transparency
- Consumption and Commodification
Celebrity culture defined thought and conduct, style and manner. It affected and was affected by not just fans but entire populations whose lives had been shaped by the shift from manufacturing to service societies and the corresponding shift from consumer to aspirational consumer.
While some have argued that there have been acclaimed and illustrious characters of considerable renown since the days of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great in the third century BCE, and perhaps before, the distinguishing features of contemporary celebrity culture are: the prodigious number of famous individuals whose fame is predicated less on achievement and more on the attention of the media; the ubiquity of their representation; and the immoderate esteem afforded them by a wide constituency of consumers.
A further distinguishing peculiarity of celebrity culture was the shift of emphasis from achievement based fame to media driven renown. This was captured in the contrived verb to celebrify, which, while never formally defined, might be interpreted to mean ‘‘to exalt; praise widely; make famous; invest common or inferior person or thing with great importance.’’
In his Illusions of Immortality, David Giles (2000: 25) submits that: ‘‘The ultimate modern celebrity is the member of the public who becomes famous solely through media involvement.’’ While the ‘‘ultimate’’ celebrity’s rise might be attributable ‘‘solely’’ to the media, celebrities typically performed some deed, however modest, to attract initial attention. That deed might involve an appearance on a reality television show, a criminal action, or an inept showing at a major sports event. In other words, conduct that would hardly be regarded as commendable and deserving of recognition in earlier eras, perhaps as recently as the 1980s.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, conceptions of merit were rendered indeterminate and figures who traditionally earned distinction and drew praise for their efforts vied with more prosaic characters whose achievements were often uncertain. This heralded what we might call the Age of the Celebrity, in which idolatrous followings accrued to what seemed literally worthless individuals. In fact, they were not worthless, worth being an equivalent value of merit conferred on someone or something by a population. Whether the neophyte celebs actually deserved reverence is a less interesting question to a sociologist than the reasons why so many believed they deserved it. A participant in a reality television show, a contestant in a quiz show, a hitherto unknown bank clerk featured in an advertising campaign: these were the types of characters who ascended from obscurity to public visibility and, in some cases, veneration. They became estimable without seeming to do anything.
What they did do was appear; their images were relayed to millions via television and Internet sites; newspapers recorded their exploits; magazines recounted their thoughts. ‘‘Media involvement,’’ to repeat Giles’s term, was the key to their deeds: they involved themselves with the media.
Various accounts purported to explain the zeal with which consumers pursued celebrities, who, by the late 1990s, were assigned an unofficial alphanumeric rating, members of the A list afforded most prestige. Most arguments suggested that being a fan – and that probably included anyone who was aware of celebrities, i.e., all but recluses, hermits, and ascetics – sought and discovered a sense of empowerment. Though rarely interrogated, empowerment (at least in the context of celebrity culture) meant a fortification of confidence, especially in controlling one’s own life, and perhaps claiming one’s rights.
The Leadership Vacuum and the Globalized Media
While it appeared to pop out of a vacuum at the end of the 1980s, there were three conditions under which celebrity culture came into being. The first is a widespread loss of faith and confidence in established forms of leadership. In times of national crisis, we are forced to place our faith in traditional leaders. Engaged in war or under siege, people look to their politicians, generals, and church leaders. These were active people, who based their reputations on what they said and did.
In the absence of crises, our commitment became less secure and we had no need to trust them anymore. In his Big League, Big Time, Len Sherman (1998) argues that, while celebrities might not have been obvious replacements, they were functional equivalents of leaders: people who represented, influenced, perhaps inspired and commanded our attention, if not respect. In addition, they possessed a kind of exemplary authority. As such, they became what Sherman describes as ‘‘the most watched, admired, privileged, and imitated people.’’
The next condition was the time space compression. The globalization of the media introduced the capacity to transmit large volumes of information – news, entertainment, and advertising – around the world, not just quickly, but instantly. Satellites, or transponders, were the instruments of the media’s global expansion. By wrapping the world in an invisible network of communications, satellite broad casters were able to bounce information off satellites and send them literally anywhere. Satellite television companies recognized no national boundaries. This effectively meant that virtually everyone on earth was part of one huge market.
Rupert Murdoch, perhaps more than any other media figure, exploited the opportunities offered by the satellite technology pioneered in the 1960s, and the deregulation and privatization of the television industry in the 1980s and early 1990s. In February 1989, Murdoch’s European satellite started beaming programs via satellite through his Sky network. By the end of the 1990s, his various channels reached 66 percent of the world’s population.
The problem with having so many channels is content: what do you fill them with? MTV supplied a clue. To keep so much of the world glued to the screen, television networks needed a formula. Televised programming detached itself from fixed content and began firing off in the direction of entertainment, for which we should read amusement – something that occupies us agreeably, diverting our minds from matters that might prompt introspection, analysis, or reflection. This is not to suggest that drama that provokes contemplation and critical examination cannot be entertaining too, nor even that the narratives of soaps or cartoons are not open to critical reading. And it certainly does not underestimate the viewers’ speedy acquisition of skills for screening and skimming information. But, for the most part, entertainment does not prompt us to modify ourselves in any way.
Light entertainment, to use a more indicative term, became a staple of a formula that demanded only a modest level of attention from viewers: music+movies+sport. Asked to respond to this in the 1990s, an informed person might have said: people will soon get sick of it; they will feel bombarded, under siege, over whelmed by too much entertainment. This did not prove to be the case.
Of course, the communications revolution did not end with television and the proliferation of multimedia brought a further layer of information conduits, notably the Internet.
The New Transparency
The third condition concerned the relationship between performers and the newly emergent media. Even before it was called show business, the entertainment industry furnished individual artists who drew acclaim and were used as selling points. From nineteenth century minstrel shows, through ragtime, the British music halls, silent film, radio, and, of course, theater, popular entertainment forms invariably provided a showcase for figures who distinguished themselves from their contemporaries. The Hollywood star system, beginning in the 1940s, was able to exploit this as no other industry ever had, operating a smooth functioning, factory like production line in which ‘‘stars’’ were treated much as commodities. Their use value was in generating box office sales.
While the concept of producing stars rather than waiting for them to emerge stayed largely intact until the mid 1980s, the newly abundant media both offered different opportunities and demanded a different kind of engagement with artists. Madonna, perhaps more than any other entertainer, realized this.
After the success of her fourth album, Like a Prayer, in 1989, Madonna appears to have seen the future: the days when people got to be famous and stayed that way through just making movies, hit records, or writing bestsellers were approaching an end. The most important feature of the coming age was visibility: doing was less important than just being in the public gaze. With so many channels of communication being filled up with all manner of entertainment, there was bound to be an overflow of entertainers, most of whom would make little impression on the public consciousness. The ones who did were those who would not just make themselves visible but transparent – there was no contradiction.
Madonna not only epitomized this, she also helped it materialize. She seems to have struck a bargain with the media. It was something like: ‘‘I will tell you more, show you more about me than any other rock or movie star in history; I will disclose my personal secrets, share my fears, joys, sorrows, what makes me happy or sad, angry or gratified; I will be more candid and unrestricted in my interviews than any other entertainer. In other words, I’ll be completely see through. In return, I want coverage like no other: I want to be omnipresent, ubiquitous, and pervasive – I want to be everywhere, all the time.’’ It was an intriguing quid pro quo; almost as if new rules of engagement with the media had been formulated. The age of celebrity began.
As the 1980s turned to the 1990s, Madonna was, as she wanted to be, everywhere. This was surely the meaning of Blonde Ambition, the title of her 1991 tour. The following year, she bared herself in her book Sex, accompanied by the album Erotica. Being famous was no longer sufficient: it was necessary to make consumers privy to as many aspects of a celebrity’s life as permissible.
The beauty of the age of celebrity, though, was that the consumers were not hapless chumps: they were educated in the arts of celeb production by the very channels that presented them. Put another way, they didn’t just look at the pictures: they were able readers. They did most of the work. This is the thesis of Joshua Gamson’s study Claims to Fame, which portrays fans as knowing and savvy participants in the celebrity production process: ‘‘The position audiences embrace includes the roles of simultaneous voyeurs of and performers in commercial culture’’ (1994: 137).
All the celebs did was make themselves available. Madonna was the first celebrity to render her manufacture completely transparent. Unabashed about revealing to her fandom evidence of the elaborate and monstrously expensive publicity and marketing that went into her videos, CDs, stage acts, and, indeed, herself, Madonna laid open her promotional props, at the same time exposing her utterly contrived persona changes.
Consumption and Commodification
Writers such as Graeme Turner (2004) and Helga Dittmar et al. (1995) have pointed out the ways in which celebrities, perhaps inadvertently, promote aspirational consumption by becoming ambulant advertisements. In this sense, celebrity culture is perfectly consonant with commodification – the process whereby everything, including public figures, can be converted into an article of trade to be exchanged in the marketplace.
Consumer culture was originally built on the avarice, envy, and possessiveness that flourished in the post war years. Robert K. Merton’s classic study ‘‘Social Structure and Anomie’’ had concluded that desire drives us toward appropriation: we want to possess the things we see dangled in front of us by advertising. The advertising industry had sensed that people didn’t buy products just because they needed them: the needs had to be encouraged. Desire worked much better. If someone desires something, the second they procured it, the desire is gone. So, the trick was to keep pumping up new desires: as soon as consumers upgraded the fridge, they needed to start thinking about a new car. As soon as they got the car, they started thinking about a new house. ‘‘The accelerator of consumer demand,’’ as Zygmunt Bauman calls it, is pressed hard down as new offers keep appearing on the road ahead.
In his article ‘‘Consuming Life,’’ Bauman (2001: 16) argues that one of the triumphs of the consumer culture is in liberating the plea sure principle from the perimeter fence beyond which pleasure seekers once could venture only at their peril. ‘‘Consumer society has achieved a previously unimaginable feat: it reconciled the reality and pleasure principles by putting, so to speak, the thief in charge of the treasure box,’’ he concludes.
In other words: consumers still want to possess commodity goods, but they allow themselves the indulgence of whimsically wishing for things that they know are out of reach. However, that does not stop consumers wishing to be like any number of other celebrities who actually possess not only the coveted goods but also a congruent lifestyle. Consumers do not just want the attainable: they wish for the unattainable. What once seemed totally irrational now appears completely logical. Human desire has been transformed.
Shopping is now considered glamorous, not utilitarian. The consumer is encouraged to declare her worth by spending money on items that will help her look like, play like, or in some other way be like someone else. That someone else is the celebrity, or more likely, celebrities with whom she feels or wants to feel an attachment. In this sense, the consumer’s enterprise is as much to express a sense of bonding or even identity with the celebrity as acquiring new possessions.
Celebrity culture is a phenomenon that is simultaneously well known and recondite. Many are fascinated by celebrities without actually understanding why they are fascinated. Everyone is aware of celebrity culture while remaining ignorant of when, where, and why it came into being. Maintaining this paradox is arguably the greatest triumph of celebrity culture.
- Bauman, Z. (2001) Consuming Life. Journal of Consumer Culture 1(1).
- Dittmar, H., Beattie, J., & Friese, S. (1995) Gender Identity and Material Symbols: Objects and Decision Considerations in Impulse Purchases. Journal of Economic Psychology 15: 391-511.
- Gamson, J. (1994) Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Con temporary America. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Giles, D. (2000) Illusions of Immortality: A Psychology of Fame and Celebrity. Macmillan, London.
- Merton, R. K. (1969) Social Structure and Anomie. Reprinted in: Cressey, D. R. & Ward, D. A. (Eds.), Delinquency, Crime and Social Process. Harper & Row, New York.
- Sherman, L. (1998) Big League, Big Time: The Birth of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Billion Dollar Business of Sports, and the Power of the Media in America. Pocket Books, New York.
- Turner, G. (2004) Understanding Celebrity. Sage, London.
- Waters, M. (2001) Globalization, 2nd edn. Routledge, New York.
Back to Sociology of Culture.