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.

But it's a mistake to see MJ as the end of the line for celebrity.

The big mistake of most chroniclers of popular culture is that they see only one side of digital technology. It is true that new technology enables niche acts to reach larger markets, giving rise to the Long Tail phenomenon identified by Chris Anderson. But the long tail is only part of the story of the transformation wrought by high-speed digital networks. Anderson's theory is based on a family of statistical distribution curves called the "power law" that are characterized by thick heads and long, trailing tails. All kinds of social and economic phenomena from the distribution of baby names to the distribution of city populations have been found to conform to these basic curves. Now, Harvard's Anita Elberse and PRS's Will Page are finding that, in the digital age, even though the tail is long but thin, the head remains "fat." In fact, if you take power laws seriously, the head of the tail should grow in proportion to the length of the tail - getting fatter as the tail gets longer.

The digital revolution - from Facebook and Twitter to YouTube - creates a powerful platform for instantaneous global reach that goes beyond what radio, TV, and even cable TV can offer.

My hunch is that sooner or later we will see a new mega-star on a truly global scale. Not arising in one country like Elvis from the U.S., or the Beatles coming from the U.K. to "invade" America, or Jackson, an American conquering the world. This will be a celebrity who emerges simultaneously on a global scale - a person less tied to one country of origin who will be seen from the outset as a world mega-star.

Henniger curiously mentions Barack Obama (as well as Mark Sanford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Mike Huckabee) as a new kind of celebrity, saying attention has shifted from pop culture to the sordid, hyper-real, sometimes surreal world of politics. Politics lacks the visceral excitement and appeal to launch a mass superstar, but Obama himself provides some contours of a world star. He is a global person - the product of a Kenyan father and white American mother, born in Honolulu, raised in Indonesia and Hawaii, schooled at Columbia and Harvard (among the most global of universities), and a Chicagoan before taking up residence in the White House.

Glimmers of the new age of global celebrity are peeking through. "Jai Ho," the theme song for the mega-hit Slumdog Millionaire, features lyrics in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Spanish and has been covered by Americans the Pussycat Dolls and Snoop Dogg. Its composer is A.R. Rahman, a star film composer who has already sold over 200 million records in a career that began only in 1992.

My students tell me that the mixed-race (black/Chinese/Jewish) reggae artist Sean Paul is almost as popular in India as he is in his native Jamaica. And Grammy and Academy Award-nominated rapper M.I.A.'s persona is equally rooted in London and Sri Lanka. TIME magazine ranks her as one of the world's 100 most influential people and sums up her global appeal:

She's a Sri Lankan refugee who didn't speak a word of English before she was 10, yet she's also a child of Chuck D and the Pixies and Fight Club and MySpace. There are no borders for her. . . You don't have to be from the West to have a favorite Biggie song. We are all listening to the same music.

These artists hint at the global reach of the new generation, but they're they're just inklings of the much bigger possibility to come.

Maybe celebrity and the power law that defines its mega-stars will end forever with Jackson's passing. But I doubt it. In each previous epoch, the rise of a new technology has led to a celebrity even bigger than the last. Digital networks and social media are platforms with such enormous potential and global reach that they are tailor-made for the Next Big Thing.