1) The owners of Esther’s Haircutting Studio, the salon in Tarzana, California, where Britney Spears shaved herself bald in 2007, knew immediately that the relics of her breakdown were sacred. The sweepings from their floor, along with a blue lighter and the half can of Red Bull the star had left behind, went on auction a few days later with a reserve of one million dollars. The bidding may have started too low. Photographs of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s twins—images with a shelf life of less than a week—sold to a transatlantic consortium of People and Hello magazines for fourteen million the next year. The first blush of Knox and Vivienne were worth more than a midsize Lear Jet, more than a goodish penthouse apartment in Dubai, more than 1.4 million malaria nets. It may seem ridiculous, but we value these artifacts so highly for a reason: they belong to the spirits that guide us through the stages of modern life.
2) Celebrities are not appendages of our society anymore; they are the basis of our communal lives. Literature and architecture, art and politics, are at most sidelights—small, ancient alleyways down which fewer and fewer minds wander. Pop culture has long since left the word culture behind to become the primary way we understand the world. Just before she died, the film critic Pauline Kael told a friend, “When we championed trash culture, we had no idea it would become the only culture,” and she was right. The average American household now watches eight hours and twenty-one minutes of television a day. If we want to understand ourselves, if we want to understand the civilization to which we belong, we have to understand celebrities, because the modern world of freedom and loneliness has produced them as the primary communal experience. (I know more about Tom Cruise’s sexual history than I do about my cousins’.) We confront the mysteries and the terrors of life through them.
3) Celebrity culture may seem ahistorical—superficial and of the moment—but its roots reach deeply into the past four hundred years. The dominance of celebrity culture is the long triumphal march of image over substance.
4) The word “celebrity” in its current English sense of “a famous person” dates from 1849, a decade after the invention of photography. Just as voodoo is a danced religion, pop culture is a religion of poses, a spiritual response to image reproduction. The prehistory of celebrity is identical with the genealogy of mass-produced faces. The first celebrities were the kings and emperors who stamped their faces on coins; royalty is still the dominant mode of celebrity—the image of the powerful personality whose charisma is a guarantee of authority. In Canada, Hello is a best-selling magazine, and it focuses heavily on the royal family; the royalty in Holland and Britain are still among the countries’ most popular celebrities.
5) France’s Louis XIV was the first modern-era king to recognize that image mattered more than actual accomplishment. Battlefield triumphs were each depicted immediately on engravings, which could be quickly and cheaply duplicated and disseminated. He built Versailles, which served as the model for all the other courts of Europe, and insisted that Israel Silvestre, designer and engraver to the king, produce high-quality books with images of “all his palaces, royal houses, the most beautiful views and aspects of his gardens, public assemblies, carousels, and outskirts of cities.” Louis was the original king of poses, announcing his status as Sun King in the performance of a ballet when he was fourteen years old, and maintaining power explicitly as a kind of performance art centred around his personality. Celebrity culture was born in the middle of his orgy of conspicuous consumption as he mastered the ability to project his personality through stuff. The king’s preference for champagne made it the beverage, his love of diamonds made them the most precious jewel, fashion began to change with the seasons according to his taste, French replaced Latin as the global language because it was his language.
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