For more than two decades, Madonna was the consummate celebrity-image manipulator, a changeling nonpareil, a coolhunter’s coolhunter. That is, until she agreed to perform at this past July’s Live Earth concert, an all-star worldwide event designed to increase awareness about global warming. She had even written a song, “Hey You,” expressly for the event.
A straightforward mid-tempo number, “Hey You” was proof, she must have felt, that her heart was in the right place. The lyrics boldly preached that purifying one’s own soul can open the way to changing the minds of others, and the accompanying video was classic celebrity agitprop: a procession of glossy images of environmental devastation (fires, nuclear power plants, suffering animals), alternating with images of visionary leaders (Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi) and current hacks (George W. Bush, Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy). The video culminated in an image of underdressed but nonetheless festive African children tossing a globe into the air, where it resolved into an image of the Earth seen from space. During her appearance in London, Madonna exhorted the crowd: “If you want to save the planet, I want you to start jumping up and down. Come on, motherfuckers! If you want to save the planet, let me see you jump!”
|VIDEO: “Hey You” by Madonna
What was to have been a standard act of drive-by do-gooderism became a PR muddle, when Fox News revealed that Madonna’s charitable foundation had invested in a host of ecologically offensive car, oil, and timber companies. Worse, the BBC subjected her to an “environmental audit” in which her carbon footprint was found to be roughly 100 times that of the average U.K. resident (six cars, nine homes, a global concert tour with at least 100 people in tow, etc.). Hordes of bloggers called her out as a hypocrite. And worse: Some began examining footage of the concert to determine whether the star’s raging ax work during her performance of “Ray of Light” had been pantomimed.
When the master of the art of celebrity—someone who took on the Catholic Church, mainstreamed gay culture, more or less invented the now-common art of voyeuristic celebrity peekaboo with her documentary Truth or Dare, then put out a book of high-end porn and got away with it all—missteps so publicly, you know something has changed. Indeed, can we, at risk of mock-epic portentousness, call this a moment of celebrity crisis? Going further, can we posit that the very idea of celebrity, which has held for much of the past century, is itself facing an unprecedented challenge, one that has turned actors and musicians and all-around famous-for-being-famous people from demigods into lab rats, to be momentarily toyed with by the public and then discarded once their narratives become tiresome?
Surely there has not been a more embarrassing time for celebrities. A remarkable portion of young Hollywood has been arrested or almost certainly will be arrested at some point. Lindsay Lohan, at 21 the most promising actress of her generation, may well have become uninsurable after a numbing series of arrests and stints in rehab, putting her career on the shelf for at least the near future.
Older stars have had their preposterously botched plastic surgery picked over by “experts” in weekly magazines, while their confreres’ pill-popping, alcoholic antics are retailed in real time on blogs. Even Angelina Jolie, the queen of Hollywood, is apparently reduced to having her representatives plead with the public, via People magazine, to contemplate a history of Angelina photos purported to prove that she is not anorexic or suffering from a mystery disease, but in fact has always been skinny. And she is too still in love with Brad, despite what people say.
Blame, as always, digital media—underminer of newspapers, magazines, music, movies, and television—for eroding our traditional notions of celebrity. And celebrity, it should be said, is something distinct from acting or singing or doing. Celebrity is a state of pure fabulousness, in which one’s aura is projected across the land, inspiring envy, fantasy, endless curiosity. But as the number of celebrities grows, and as their likenesses proliferate, their carefully constructed personae are increasingly disputed terrain.
A story from the pre-digital era: When I was an editor at Esquire a bit more than a decade ago, I discovered some pictures in L’Uomo Vogue of Tom Cruise—taken by the photographer Herb Ritts—that showed him frolicking in the Malibu surf, his erect nipples poking through a half-wet tank top. Cruise was dogged even then by rumors of homosexuality, and the photos, which read as “gay,” had been restricted by Cruise’s publicists (in the analog age this was still possible) to European publication. Presumably this was because the international market was less interested in such issues or had a different signification system—perhaps in Italy, erect nipples are a sign of extreme butchness.
Regardless, precisely because Cruise’s sexuality was in question, the photos were quite hilarious, and would certainly cause a ripple were one to appear on the cover of Esquire, itself a publication prone to strenuously restating its commitment to hetero-male values. Four months of negotiation ensued, during which the PR folks bartered the right to use a Ritts photo for various assurances that the accompanying story would contain virtually nothing of interest to anyone. And because the gatekeepers for Cruise (only one of the firm’s many A-list clients) knew that magazines lived or died as a result of favors granted or denied, they wielded their power ruthlessly. Victory, when it came in the form of permission to use a single photo on the cover, was so sweet that I rallied the entire staff to go out and celebrate. The story, needless to say, was a fluffer.
This image control, different in form but similar in kind to that exerted by publicists and moguls and producers from the dawn of the entertainment business, used to be key to sustaining celebrity. With breaches in the 1950s, which had its scandal rags, and in the ’80s, when Spy magazine broke the cozy compact between celebrity and media, the control has always been top-down. Celebrities were manufactured, their brands honed by teams of marketers, then maintained through elision. The public never knew enough to truly understand, and hence judge, a celebrity, and therefore he or she could be described as “glittering,” “larger than life,” a figure of mystery and intrigue.
Now, of course, we have too much information: TMI. We are told that Britney Spears swam topless with her former assistant, that she ran crazed into a beauty salon and demanded to have her head shaved (the photos were online within hours), and that she feeds her two children ice cream and Doritos. Hollywood is besieged by wildcatting madmen on motorcycles swarming the city like locusts and capturing anything anyone of note does—preferably embarrassing, but mundane is fine, too. The more- colorful content finds its way onto blogs like Perez Hilton, the Superficial, Pink is the New Blog, and the Time Warner–owned TMZ.com, which features unedited video of drunk celebs getting into fender-benders or pathetically rationalizing their inability to gain admittance to the club of the moment. The British weekly heat, which should be required reading for any student of the age, focuses surgically, preposterously, hilariously, on celebrity minutiae. A recent feature—pure tabloid genius—centered on shocking celebrity sweat stains. Other stories have homed in, titillatingly, on unbuff celebrity midsections, best and worst hindquarters, and the ugly knees of otherwise-hot celebrities. The less-shocking content, purposefully banal, finds its way into the U.S. category leader, Us magazine, which features a weekly spread showing that celebrities are “just like us.”