The Celebrity Decade: The Stuff of Fluff
January 2, 1990
Earthquakes. AIDS. The homeless. Amazon rain forests. Holes in the ozone. The greenhouse effect. Iran. Bush. Quayle. Crack. Dispossessed farmers. What they’re doing to chickens these days. Oil spills. Baby seals. Black rhinos.
You’re having an anxiety attack now, right? I know I am. Mention even one of the above subjects to me and my mind scrambles madly for a replacement topic. Quick, lemme turn on Entertainment Tonight! Hurry, tell me everything about Roseanne’s new boyfriend’s chicken recipe! I must know, right now!
Jeez, I can’t believe I’m involved in this ’80s wrap-up. Makes me feel like I’ve been alive long enough. But the editor at the Voice is standing over me with a rifle, insisting that celebrity worship went through the roof during the ’80s, and I guess he’s right.
If we didn’t have Cher’s nose job to think about, we would all go stark staring mad. No, really. The media knows exactly what it’s doing, focusing our attention on Arsenio’s hairdo. We need to keep our brains brimming with rubbish. If we didn’t we might think about things.
If we had lives even vaguely free from marauding horrors, if we had any sort of lives at all, if any of us even had a meager chance of personal fulfillment or (ha ha) happiness, if we even had a small notion that we had control over our own destinies, we wouldn’t give a shit whether Cybill Shepherd lived or died. But we don’t, so we do.
DURING THIS VILE and grimy decade we have by necessity come to believe that unless you are a celebrity, you don’t exist at all. If you are not a celebrity, you are inert filler. If the media isn’t flashbulbing your every gesture, it didn’t happen. Private epiphanies, soul-wrenching despairs, so what, who cares? You are a tree falling alone in the forest.
And so was born a frenzied desire in all psyches to achieve celebritude and therefore existence. The media, ever-obliging, obliged. Slots opened up all over television; new magazines were created simply to make room for the surging of tides of wannabes.
But some of us have still not managed to become celebrities. We don’t have the knack, we’re always picking our noses just as the camera clicks. Instead, we try to be close to them, to brush against them, hoping to get some pixie dust on our coats.
Plus, we need something to talk about when we go to parties with strangers. What the hell are we supposed to say to that guy with the ponytail standing under the mistletoe? “Hi, what do you do for a living?” “What’s your major?” “Hello, fishface?” No. What we can talk about easily and happily to perfect strangers is how much we hate and despise LaToya Jackson and everything she stands for. And then when we get tired of this we can talk about what a git Terence Trent D’Arby is. Rob Reiner’s derivativeness. Barbara Hershey’s lips. Celebrities are our common frame of reference, celebrity loathing and revilement crosses all cultural boundaries. Celebrities are not our community elders, they are our community.
I PITY CELEBRITIES. No, I do. The minute a person becomes a celebrity is the same minute he/she becomes a monster. Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Barbra Streisand were once perfectly pleasant human beings with whom you might lunch on a slow Tuesday afternoon.
But now they have become supreme beings and their wrath is awful. It’s not what they had in mind. When God wants to play a really rotten practical joke on you, he grants you your deepest wish and then giggles merrily when you suddenly realize you want to kill yourself.
Sly, Bruce, and Barbra, fervently, more than any of us, wanted fame. They worked, they pushed, they stepped on the other guy’s face in their desperate need.
“If I can be famous, people will adore me and my nose,” Barbra thought.
“If I can be famous, I can get my chin reduced and life will be a breeze,” Sly reasoned.
“If I can be famous, I can have a baby with Demi Moore and all my dreams will come true,” Bruce decided.
The night each of them became famous they wanted to shriek with relief. Finally! Now they were adored! Invincible! Magic!
The morning after the night each of them became famous they wanted to take an overdose of barbiturates.
All their fantasies had been realized, yet the reality was still the same. If they were miserable before, they were twice as miserable now, because that giant thing they were striving for, that fame thing that was going to make everything okay, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to provide them with personal fulfillment and (ha ha) happiness, had happened. And nothing changed. They were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable. ■
The Squandered Decade: Why My Kids Have a Right to be Pissed Off
By Robert B. Reich
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 6, 2020