Saturday, January 05, 2013

What Makes You So Special?

After several years of posting exactly once per week, I decided I was entitled to a two-week holiday break.  But now it's back to the weekly grind...

My last post dealt with the normalization of celebrity in our culture.  My assertion is that to become a celebrity is necessarily bizarre, akin to winning the lottery or getting a rare disease.  The odds are incredibly stacked against any one person achieving notoriety, so when it does happen, how does the individual reconcile this?  To my mind, there are four possibilities (though not necessarily distinct categories):

1. They don't think about it.  This is probably the most common reaction.  There is a reason the phrase "It is what it is" has become a part of our culture.  Once a path of reality has been blazed, we are reluctant to go back and consider if it hadn't been blazed (and overall, there is something to be said for not getting entangled by past hypotheticals when there is a present reality to consider).  But even though the celebrity may not consciously cogitate their celebrity status, there is always going to be an unconscious set of assumptions that affects their lives, which brings us to...

2. They assume, consciously or not, that they have attained celebrity by chance.  And in many cases I think this is largely true--without denying the talent of any given "star," there are many who have equal or superior talent who do not become "stars", and there is no way the "star" doesn't know this.  And to some extent, I think this can explain the behavior and the public meltdowns of a certain class of celebrity (Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, etc) can be explained by this assumption.  If you've attained something largely by chance, it can be taken away just as easily through the fickleness of chance.  This must be a heavy burden to bear, which would naturally manifest itself in dysfunction.

3. They assume that they are reaping the just deserts of their effort.  These would be the most stable celebrities.  A person such as Bill Gates comes to mind.  He spent the formative years of his life in anonymity, but he was spending those same years locked away for 10,000 hours writing code.  When he ascended to prominence as a cultural icon, he must have found it strange, but not wholly out of line with the narrative arc of his life.  Most sports stars would also fit into this category.  They've practiced for big-time stardom by being high school celebrities.

4. They believe that they are inherently different from the masses, perhaps since birth.  Few would articulate such a thing directly, since our American society in general is anti-elitist, and certainly has a built-in prejudice to the concept of a birthright.  Most of our society's formative narratives are built on the concept of individual achievement only through hard work (and in a weird way, we may award specific individuals "celebrityhood" so that we might validate this core value).  But one celebrity who has never been afraid to assert a narrative that goes against the cultural grain is Bob Dylan.  In an interview he gave to Rolling Stone magazine a few months back, he declared a kind of mystical philosophy that involved his being a type of predestined "chosen one":
I went to a library in Rome and I found a book about transfiguration, because it's nothing you really hear about every day, and it's in that mystical realm, and I found out only enough to know that, uh, OK, I'm not an authority on it, but it kind of sets you straight on what sets you apart. I'd always been different than other people, but this book told me why. Like certain people are set apart. You know, it's just like the phrase, "peers" – I mean, I see this, "Well, your peers this, your peers that." And I've always wondered, who are my peers? When I received the Medal of Freedom I started thinking more about it. Like, who are they? But then it became clear. My peers are Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, B.B. King, John Glenn, Madeleine Albright, Pat Summitt, Toni Morrison, Jasper Johns, Martha Graham, Sidney Poitier. People like that, and they are set apart, too. And I'm proud to be counted among them.
This idea has potentially unsettling implications, and it is definitely a weird one, but I would argue that it is an appropriate one given the weirdness of celebrity to begin with.  If it makes anyone uncomfortable, perhaps the solution would be not to dismiss Bob Dylan, but to find a way to dismiss a culture that would seek to hear what a celebrity named Bob Dylan has to say.


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