The End of the Lohan Era

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Yesterday we learned that Lindsay Lohan, the last decade's fiery queen of destruction, has officially landed the starring role in a new Lifetime biopic of Elizabeth Taylor. It's a decent-sized coup for the largely unemployable actress (insurance reasons is the technical explanation) and, one hopes at least, a sign that Lohan is finally growing the hell up and getting her act together. Lifetime isn't exactly a star-making network, nor have any of its films ever been terribly good, but still, Elizabeth Taylor is a big, juicy role to play, one that requires at least some actual acting. And the network, putting aside any cynical hunger for cheap attention, seems to actually trust Lindsay Lohan to do the job. This is Lohan's first starring role in three-plus years, and the first one bound to get any attention in about five. So it could happen that, if Lohan doesn't screw it up, people discover her innate talent all over again. There she'll be, in every scene, doing a competent job in an albeit silly movie, encouraging the industry to climb back aboard the Lindsay express. Sure it's just one movie and things could go to pot again — some of our greatest cultural minds seem to think that's likely — but what if that doesn't happen? What if Lohan does this movie, then another one, then another one, and those DUI jailbird days are finally behind her? Will they finally be behind us?

Three and a half years ago, just as the recession was truly kicking in and things were looking significantly changed, I wrote a post for Gawker declaring the era of "celebrity hedonism" to be over. You see, the bad economy was smothering the urge to party, and creating instead some squeaky clean generation of can-doism. Barack Obama had just been elected at the time, so maybe my reasoning was a little clouded by all that hopey changey stuff, but in some ways the prediction presented in that old post has borne out. Are we still as obsessed with all that sleazy glitz, the TMZ on Robertson cameras and the party photos and all that? Not really. That trend seems to have passed and been replaced by celebrities at Coachella, Ryan Gosling hero memes, Lana del Rey spinning forever. Sure TMZ still turns a good business, but does the Celebrity Mess industry feel as big as it once did? It doesn't seem that way from here.

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Everyone grew up or something. Not just the objects of tabloid obsession, but those who consumed it too. When's the last time you heard someone make a Paris Hilton joke or harsh on Tara Reid? That particularly sad creature was just in a new American Pie movie and there was hardly a peep. The culture has moved on. TMZ's featured stories are still nonsense as ever, but there's something less giddy about their coverage now. It's quieted down, there's a tired head-shake to it. And of course Perez Hilton, once the chief perpetuator of starlet disaster mythology, saw the light a little while back, perhaps with Jennifer Aniston's help, and no longer participates in most of the sneering. There's a huge engine of this particular micro-economy gone with a snap. Things just seem over.

Lindsay Lohan has been maybe the last holdout, with news of her various probation violations and whatnot washing up on our shores as recently as last month. But that mention was merely that she was in court to get her probation lifted, not for some new infraction. And the news barely registered. So, even the queen bee of celebrity wastoids — specifically young party girl ingenues — doesn't get the press she used to. And sure we've had bobbles from Demi Lovato and most recently Amanda Bynes, but folks don't seem to care with the same teeth-gnashing glee as they once would have. We're not necessarily better now — the ripping into Lana del Rey after a wan performance on Saturday Night Live would dispel any claim to that effect — but our targets have changed, or something. Maybe it's Charlie Sheen fatigue, though a dude getting branded an amusing rascal for his drug use and other insanity isn't quite the same thing as the pillorying of Lohan and her cohorts. There's got to be another reason.

I don't think it's strictly the Great Recession's fault like I did back in '08. Instead I think it's all just a part of a larger cycle. (A cycle that has to do partly with the rise of and fall of the economy, for sure, but not entirely.) Think back to the Brat Pack and grunge stuff of the late 1980s and early 1990s. All that drugging and partying and whatnot. What, in a certain stream of popular culture, came to replace that? All the bubblygum Hanson and boy band and early Britney Spears stuff. Mandy Moore and Jessica Simpson and B*Witched and, of course, the Spice Girls. And of course the young actors like Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sarah Michelle Gellar and the Dawson's Creek gang. These people were clean to varying degrees of squeak, but all were determinedly not partying fuckups (at least not overtly) the way young celebrities had been before them. It wasn't the bobbysock 1950s exactly, but it was a lot more wholesome.

And then of course Paris Hilton and reality television and La Lohan herself had to come along and tear it all down, dragging poor Britney into the muck with them, keeping all the lights on — it was so bright then — but turning everything cheap and garish. All those awful nightclubs we'd hear about, Marquee and Hyde and god knows what else, and the guys, the oil barons' sons and shipping merchant heirs who suddenly entered the public consciousness. It was an incredibly bleak time, but it was perhaps the necessary period of growing pains for a world suddenly obsessed with the minutiae of other people's lives. Everyone held out hope that a corrective awaited, but no one knew what it would look like.

Well, it looked like a few Disney stars, sure.  They weren't totally immune to the culture that was still teasing at their heels, even Miley Cyrus and her friends had some drug moments (remember salvia?), but they were more akin to what suburban kids do in rec rooms than what out-of-control party girls do in nightclubs. And there was Obama, there was a new sense of earnest youthful progressiveness, of perhaps seriousness, of suddenly It Gets Better, of young smarties like Michael Cera and Jonah Hill and Emma Stone doing fun, intelligent things with themselves. Even our reality stars tried to get classier. All that Rock of Love and I Love New York VH1 debauchery is now Celebrity Rehab. The party was over and it was time to be decent again, to be a little serious. Lindsay still danced sadly and alone in the background for a while, but eventually even she grew tired, slowed, and stopped. And now a television network has made her the star of a TV movie. That's something. We made it. But can it last?

Right now we're experiencing a small boy band rebirth with One Direction and The Wanted, so it's feeling like the late '90s and early 2000s all over again. It's comforting in a strange way, to be back to those easier days. But those ended, so these must too. Trouble is, we don't know where our next doom will come from. Some dark forces have already come to destroy us, but failed. The American version of Skins, a supposedly realistic depiction of the blithe depravity of America's youth, resonated with no one and crashed and burned. Ke$ha's Jack Daniels slurring came and went. In fact, the pop music scene seems almost intellectual at times these days. It's hard to say where the next cultural downturn might come from, but the internet seems a likely source, some kind of more widespread 4Chan-ish chaos. Either that or dubstep. Something will be the trigger and all of a sudden young stars and starlets will be going bonkers again, TMZ will buzz louder and harsher than ever before, gossip sites will sprout and bloom like mushrooms once more. It's coming, is all I'm saying. Be glad for the Lohan news and that her infamous heyday is over, but don't let it mollify you. This is just another calm before another storm.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.