Death by the
State on Trial
Notes from the Cultural Wasteland
Do you want to be famous?
Most people seem to want fame--except for the ones who have it. An awful lot of famous people seem to be rejecting fame these days, and it's no wonder. People want to become famous because they crave the admiration of society; these days, however, being at the "top"mainly seems to make you an easy target.
For some reason, the topic of "fame" keeps coming up in my conversations. For instance, I just interviewed one of the cast of "Fame--The Musical," and we talked about kids in performing arts schools and their insatiable thirst for fame. It happened again the other night, while I was having dinner with a friend, telling him about the excerpt I'd read from the new "biography" of John Lennon. The book is excerpted in a British entertainment magazine, and my friend and I got onto the subject of "What price has fame?"
I have a lot of admiration for Lennon. When I was growing up, he was more a role model for me than my own father, so it comes as a bit of a shock to see him called "a wanker" and see his compulsive masturbation described in great detail--sort of like catching your grandpa whacking off behind the bushes.
No doubt, lots of Lennon's fans and non-fans will read this book, gleefully devouring every sordid detail. For some, the book will remove some of the enjoyment of listening to Lennon's music, or maybe even replace, in people's minds, the image of Lennon the artist, the composer, the give-peace-a-chance activist with that of Lennon the jerking-off-all-day wanker. That's a shame, really. The guy did some pretty incredible stuff.
Once upon a time in America, we didn't want to know all the bad habits and natural human foibles of our "greats." We preferred to keep them "great,"even if their greatness was mythical. We needed role models, and we protected the need for our role models to attain and maintain perfection, at least in appearance. Now, however, we've replaced "greatness" with celebrity-hood, and as Warhol pointed out, it's far easier to become famous than it is to become great. Besides, the media recognizes that fame sells, whereas greatness isn't all that marketable.
Consider this: once upon a time, you had to have talent or do something noteworthy, like climb a new mountain or something, before you qualified to get on a television talk-show. Now, all you have to do is have a lesbian affair with your step-mom, and suddenly you're on television. You can volunteer every week at a homeless shelter, build playgrounds for poor kids, train dogs for the handicapped, and donate 20% of your income to charity, and even the crappiest little paper in town will ignore you. Head up a white-supremacist group, have sex with your teenage baby-sitter, dress really weird when you go to nightclubs, or otherwise behave in a bizarre fashion, and you're the star of a talk-show--for at least fifteen minutes.
Fortunately, a few people still get to be famous for actually doing something worthwhile. Unfortunately, the media often uses that as an opportunity to deflate their image. Suppose, for example, you have the rare experience of making it onto a talk show for doing something good. Here's how your "fifteen minutes"will probably begin: "And now I want to bring on Mr. Joe Schmo. Schmo is the founder of Food for Thought, a nonprofit organization that donates meals to needy students, which he set up with funds he got from re-financing his house. He also founded Thought for Food, which re-trains homeless people and gets them jobs in restaurants."
"But before we bring him on, look at the monitor. See that woman? She was his seventh-grade math teacher, and she tells us Schmo used to always have an erection when she called him to the blackboard. He doesn't know she's here, so after he's made an ass of himself telling us what a great philanthropist he is, we're going to bring her on to confront this sex-starved pervert with the truth about himself."
With the high cost of fame, why do so many people still thirst after it? There must be pretty big rewards, if you're willing to pay the price, right?
Not necessarily. One evening, I sat in a chain restaurant having coffee with my friend Patrick. I had been bitching about how I'd done a lot of good stuff for the community, and when I'd begged for coverage--not for myself, necessarily, but for worthwhile projects--the media yawned collectively. Then I did something controversial involving three naked women and got interviewed by NPR, local affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, plus Comedy Central, Court TV, "Playboy," the AP, and the BBC.
"Damn, man. I'm sitting with an international celebrity," said Patrick. Said "international celebrity" was, at that moment, mentally counting the change he'd dug out of his couch-cushions, trying to figure out if he had enough quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies to get a slice of pie. Picasso, I read, used to pay exorbitant restaurant bills by drawing a picture on a napkin and giving it to the waiter. The waitress at Denny's would not, I am sure, have accepted a short essay from me as payment; she'd insist on the $2.39. So fame, in itself, is not a negotiable currency.
Of course, I'm not really famous--just a little notorious, maybe. I've just had a few fifteen-minute chunks, and once in a while, some stranger squints at me and asks, "Do I know you?" Which makes me wonder--how do you know when you're really famous? Does someone from a government office call to notify you? Do they call again when you've fallen from grace?
I have concluded that fame is, in itself, relatively pointless. Take any one unsung hero over any twenty celebrities, and you'll come out ahead. I think we'd be a lot better off as a society if we started wishing for greatness--hoping that with our time on earth we accomplish good, worthwhile, lasting things--rather than thirsting after fame. Fame is hollow and fleeting; greatness is solid, and thus endures.
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