America’s Celebrity-Obsessed Cultural Meltdown

To update an old “Saturday Night Live” Francisco Franco parody: “Anna Nicole Smith Still Dead.” Alas, the storyline is far from interred. There’s cause-of-death intrigue, ongoing estate battles and garden-variety sleaze at every turn. And all those rivulets of emotion on Facebook, the fan-produced tributes on YouTube, the candlelight- vigil plans for New York’s Union Square.

Arguably, Mother Teresa or Madame Curie wouldn’t have prompted such outpourings.

Of course, ANS is merely the most recent Exhibit A for an American pop culture and media in grave danger of devolving into total celebrity-obsession meltdown. We no longer ignore, dismiss or even excuse society’s dysfunctionals; we celebrate them. We no longer disapprove of aberrant behavior; we identify vicariously with it if it’s high-profile enough.

Would that this were merely grist for the tabloid mills. But it’s symptomatic of mainstream media too. Fame is a commodity, and people are famous for being famous. If Paris Hilton forgets — or remembers — her underwear, it’s news.

The true touchstone of any phenomenon, however, is to see how it’s playing on campuses. Not among students, but faculty. This is how legitimacy is imparted. There’s always a subset of the elbow-patch crowd that will study anything that can be rewarded with a doctorate.

“If I had to say what was Anna Nicole Smith’s legacy to the culture, I’d call her a conceptual artist,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

“It was almost like she was this explorer who went out to the edges of celebrity and by watching what she was able to achieve, we know more about the nature of celebrity.”

Whatever.

Two points:

1) This can’t be fair to real “conceptual artists,” whatever they are.

2) The “Center for the Study of Popular Television.” There is such a place?

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