The Power of the Audience

“Modern fame is always compounded of the audience’s aspirations and its despair, its need to admire and to find a scapegoat for that need.  To dismiss the circus of contemporary notoriety with pat versions of Daniel Boorstin’s phrase, ‘a celebrity is someone who is famous for being famous,’ too easily allows us to ignore the importance of even celebrity in shaping the values of our society, not always for the worse.”

-Leo Braudy

For our second meeting, we attempted to explore the history of modern fame.  What characteristics caused one to be famous?  Is fame more dependent on the famous or her audience?  Who was the first celebrity?  We focused our discussion around excerpts of Leo Braudy’s The Frenzy of Renown and Elia Kazan’s 1957 film A Face in the Crowd.

LinKai lead off with an excellent prompt:

What is fame? “A Word”. This answer suggests the superficiality of fame. To be famous is not to announce the essential character of a person, a moral principle or the innate value of anything. To be famous is to capture the fascination of the public: their hunger for a medium to live their unfilled dreams and a dramatized figure to be seen falling, eventually. Being famous comes with the expense of being objectified as workplace gossips, and being alienated as images. The wholeness of the person is fragmented and later reconstituted, although artificially, by and through the audiences and the media.

From this, Andrew pondered whether there is such a thing as “organic” fame, or if the desire to become famous exists only as supported by external cultural, historical, or societal pressures.  Can one become famous accidentally?  Katie noted that fame is a possible side effect caused by particular professions or life decisions.  Ideally, a senator entered politics because of a genuine interest in law and government, not in order to win the popularity of her district.  This is merely the after effect of her passion for politics, but it does exist nonetheless.

Jacob, though, was more intrigued by the latter half of a celebrity’s “arc” of fame: is it possible to cleanly exit the public eye?  We parsed through recent celebrity scandals and various celebrity vanishing acts, searching for an example in which a celebrity was banished by the public, but we discovered that these motions to destroy fame only increase it: a scandal gives the public something to discuss, and a hiatus only increases the anticipation for a return (ala Dan).  The arc of fame, thus, is not determined by the celebrity or the famous, but rather her audience.  Jacob described this phenomenon as an equalizing effect: the public is happy to see those who may have been unfortunate (Joe the Plummer) gain from fame, but we’re equally eager to tear down those who might be too fortunate (Paris Hilton).

After thoroughly discussing the effect of the audience on the famous, we dove into the celebrity’s effect on the consumer.  As Andrew noted, celebrities are used in marketing campaigns to draw two seemingly disparate things together.  Buick, for instance, uses Tiger Woods as its spokesperson to draw those who respect or like or at least know of Woods to their line of SUV cars.  Further, the campaign is an attempt at rebranding: just as Tiger revolutionized the sport of golf with his youthful exuberance, he repeats this message in car commercials: this isn’t the Buick your grandpa owns.

Our discussion left us with almost as many questions as we started with.  By developing an elaborate model to describe the ways in which celebrities and audiences interact, we complicated our original interpretation of the fame dynamic.  How will our understanding of this relationship affect the way we act toward celebrities in the future?  Will we become self-conscious of our immediate judgments?  Will we judge celebrities even more, under the impression that we as individuals have some form of power over their arc of fame?  Hopefully this will be something we can discuss in the future.