The End of Celebrity?

In the wake of Michael Jackson's death, there's been no shortage of predictions about how his passing represents the end of the "age of celebrity." The Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henniger writes:

The Age of Celebrity died with Michael Jackson's heart. Those of us dedicated to the zoology of celebrity should have known it was over when the death of next-to-nobody Anna Nicole Smith filled the airwaves in 2007 for a week. Celebrity had lost its meaning. We will bury its golden age in Jacko's tomb.

Marketing runs the world now. Because of marketing the world is overflowing with people who are famous, or anyway familiar. These people aren't celebrities. Not real celebrities.

Henniger ties Jackson's celebrity to a major technological shift - the rise of cable television and MTV:

Michael is the last celebrity because he rose to fame in the 1980s, and in the 1980s there was no World Wide Web. We didn't have 1,000 cable TV stations. But we did have MTV. MTV broadcast Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean" video in 1983. Music videos helped make him a megastar, but Michael Jackson was the last one across the bridge from the world of celebrity to the media galaxy of bargain-basement fame.

And he argues the shift to digital technology works against the rise of another mega-celebrity:

It has taken some time to see how modern media squashed the life out of genuine celebrity. Web sites, TV and magazines shot Michael Jackson and his white glove into the sky like a Roman candle. But in the nature of fireworks, modern media then fired thousands of other people into the same sky - singers, actors, athletes, talk-show hosts, psychologists, comedians, models - and turned them all into . . . familiar faces...

A real celebrity is beyond reach. Today, to hang out with famous people all one needs is the ability to mouse-click. Constant clicking rubs the shine off anyone's glamour. Beautiful people have become a dime a dozen.

Not so fast.

There's good reason to suspect that, sooner or later, new technology will spawn an even bigger mega-star with even more global reach. That's been the pattern in the past actually and there's little reason to think it will end now.

My colleagues and I have been studying the implications of technological change and musical celebrity as part of the MPI's Music and the Entertainment Economy project. Our work is still ongoing, but our reading of previous studies of music, popular culture, and technology, and our early findings, identify a powerful pattern.

With every new technology - from the rise of film, recorded music, talking pictures, transistor radios, FM radio, cable TV, and now the digital revolution - experts have predicted the death of celebrity. But each advance has generated celebrities bigger than the past. New technologies, as the work of German economist Peter Tschmuck has shown, open up new distribution channels and new markets that give birth to ever bigger stars.

The first big star was Rudy Vallée, whose soft singing voice was amplified by the invention of the electric microphone. He inspired other crooners like Bing Crosby, whose 500 million records sold make him one of the top five selling artists of all time. Next came Frank Sinatra - a true mega-star whose scores of bobby-soxer followers helped solidify the notion of teen pop culture and who was one of the first to capitalize on tie-ins between radio, albums, and feature films. Then came Elvis Presley, the King who took teen culture to a whole new level - his hip-swiveling appearances on Ed Sullivan making national news - and sold more than a billion records over his career.

Noted rock critic David Marsh has said that Elvis ushered in the first major shift in modern popular music culture. The second shift came with the Beatles (who also sold a billion+ records) and the British Invasion, which augured the shift to album-oriented rock featured on FM radio. Michael Jackson defined the third major revolution in popular music, selling some 750 million records and, according to Marsh, giving rise to the heavily produced pop form which is with us to this day. MJ can count everyone from Madonna and Justin Timberlake to Beyoncé, Britney, and Lady Gaga among his disciples.

Presented by

Richard Florida is Co-founder and Editor at Large of and Senior Editor at The Atlantic. He is director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto and Global Research Professor at NYU. More

Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative ClassWho's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here

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