Pop Culture: For what it’s worth

I’m not one prone to celebrity gossip, but, having been awake through most of the night, I happened to see the headlines hitting in various stages, and it was the picture that finally set me off. The Stranger‘s David Schmader notes:

In other news, Britney Spears is desperately mentally ill. Last year, I wrote at least twice that humanity is forbidden to stand around and watch as Britney’s sucked into the same pathetic public death-trap as Anna Nicole Smith. This year, I think Britney will be lucky to have so dignified a death. After last night’s ruckus, I can easily imagine her being fatally shot in a McDonald’s parking lot by a man in a police helicopter.

Paramedics help Britney, strapped down on to a stretcher, into an ambulance after the siege in Beverly HillsYou’d think a critic of pop culture like me would celebrate the day Britney Spears was carted off to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation, but in truth I find her tragic condition a damning indictment of our culture. Pop stars are no longer people, as such. They’re products. And this is part of what cracks them. In addition to the grueling schedules and the isolation among people whose only regard is measured in dollar figures, there is the added pressure of meeting an impossible, undefined standard.

It would be embarrassing enough, I suppose, if someone posted a picture of your snatch on the web, but if you’re a Britney Spears, or a Lindsay Lohan, you don’t get to think of it the same way as if you’re Joan Q. Public. And, really, that was a fantastic picture of whichever Olsen twin that was, but that’s beside the point.

One of the strange things I see and hear is that, while we are willing to make the point that this or that star is crazy, for some reason people are less willing to indict the whole industry. Sure, it’s easy enough to pick on Hollywood, for instance, but in that notion we’re indicting the culture because of the people. We are not as willing, as a culture, to pause and consider that the people behave as they do because of the culture they’re in. Perhaps at some point in the past we could indict certain people for making it that way, but there are still parents who encourage their children to follow this or that dream, and one wonders whether they really believe their kid will be lucky enough to avoid the casting couch, or magic enough to get through it all without drugs.

If things keep up the way they’re going, we’ll get a porn film out of Britney before she either kills herself or, as Schmader has it, gets taken down in a sordid standoff. And for some people, this is great news. But she will never, ever get a chance to be human again. The closest she will ever be allowed is to be a washed-up, warmed-over has-been whose own reflection mockingly reminds daily that she used to be somebody.

The misadventures of child actors are something of a joke in the culture. The implosions of rock stars are the stuff of myth and legend. And yet, as we are easily reminded—if only we would pay attention—by everyday battles of seemingly greater importance, there are reasons why these celebrities collapse. There are reasons why they are dysfunctional, eccentric, and even downright nuts. They don’t call the music industry’s boilerplate a “slave contract” for nothing. To work so hard, day in and day out, to fashion a lie, a cheap fantasy bleeds the soul. In the end, the artists we admire are not the ones whose work bedazzles us. Instead of the music, or the drama, we are so often captivated by the image, a carefully-calculated product that you could stick anyone with half a voice and a smidge of rhythm into. This is the art of unseen hands and sinister, greedy minds. Genuinely talented artists will be lucky to only feel suppressed. Nearly all of them will feel exploited. And by the time they realize what has happened—by the time they are allowed to know the truth of what they’ve gotten themselves into—it’s too late to go anywhere but recklessly forward, pressing on and burning brightly until there is nothing left to give. And then they’re hauled off to the hospital for evaluation, and if they’re lucky, they haven’t burned everything away.

And this is what it’s worth. All so we can pretend to be cool.

• • •

A note of justification: I had originally composed this, as the first paragraph suggests, after avoiding the developing headlines through the course of the night in question. But I receive The Stranger‘s Slog via RSS, so it was hard to miss that ghastly photo, and, as I noted, it was the image that set me off. After composing my response to the situation, I decided the least I could do was verify the sources for the image, and following Schmader’s links, I landed at This Is London, a.k.a. the Entertainment Guide for The Evening Standard. Scrolling through the sordid article, which includes an ambush photo of Britney’s father that qualifies as morbidly hilarious, all things considered, I encountered another picture of Britney, on the stretcher, apparently mugging for the camera. At which point, ofOfficers escort troubled Britney to hospital, her sons followed in a car behind course, I gave a shuddering sigh and cursed myself for having been drawn into a paparazzi melodrama. As I lamented the episode Saturday morning, my brother made the point that mugging for the camera is pretty much all these dysfunctional celebs know how to do, and the thought struck me as sad. Eventually, I reconsidered my decision to kill this entry because, rather than being angry about feeling conned by a dimwitted skank pop star, it seems to me that here smile indeed represents something absolutely craven about her ilk. This really is all they know. And this really is all they can manage. If she lives to be some used-up whore aimlessly wandering the pier, a shadow of that smile will be all she has left. Maybe nobody will recognize her by name, but that smile will haunt them: “I don’t know who she is, but she used to be somebody.”