Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Best Of 2011, and My Predictions For 2012 (Today: Celebrities!)

Back when I was a kid, I regularly read Doonesbury comic strips. I still do, in fact, but now I read them on the Internet whereas back then I would check compilations of Doonesbury strips out of the Hartland Public Library, an institution I used so often that I still remember my library card number (it was "4002.")

Back then, you checked books out by having the librarian write your library card number on the little card and take it, and then stamp the book with a due date and send you on your way. I bring that up in order to compare it to how I checked out a book the other day from the Madison Public Library: I logged on to the website, found the book I wanted, entered my 13-digit library card number (actually Sweetie's; I use her card because of my ongoing feud with the Middleton Public Library, a feud that I'm fighting in part by not paying a late fee on my own card, so I can't use it), clicked a few buttons, and then went upstairs and began reading the book on my Kindle.

My, how things have changed!

Except that they haven't, not really, because this little jaunt down memory lane has a point, and that point is that way back then, Doonesbury did a series of strips where Rick Redfern went to work for People magazine and had to go to a gossip symposium where he learned how to be a celebrity journalist. One of the strips commented that the then-modern-day "celebrity" had not really done anything worth celebrating, and proposed rebooting the whole system (presumably, not a gritty reboot) to refocus on those people truly worth celebrating.

That debate has gone on, obviously, for at least 30 years, and maybe longer; I'd be willing to bet that if you go back and look at a 1920s newspaper (or, as they were called back then, event-o-printoriums)(but they still had horoscopes, which said things like "Today, you will do the jitterbug in a speakeasy with a tall, dark stranger.)(Yes, my knowledge of the 1920s is based exclusively on once watching the film version of Chicago.)

if you went back to the 1920s, you'd find that back then, people were griping about other people being famous simply for fame's sake.

So maybe it's about time we stopped debating whether people are famous for the "right" or "wrong" reasons, and just accept that people become famous for all kinds of reasons, and sometimes once they become famous we want them to keep being famous, for whatever reasons. After all, is it any better to become famous playing an ultraviolent delinquent who rapes people than it is to become famous for nothing at all?

Which brings me to the Best Celebrity of 2011:

Oh, come on. Who else could it be?

Once you stop obsessing over whether celebrities need be required to do something worth celebrating before we obsess over them, the choice of Kim Kardashian as 2011's Best Celebrity is a no-brainer, much like the people who obsess over Kim Kardashian's fitness for the public eye.

The answer to whether celebrities have to do something worth celebrating lies, like a zen koan, not in the external world, but in the meaning to the question itself. When people say things like "Kim Kardashian is famous for nothing! She has no talent!", they are exposing their own ignorance and biases.

I note that I do not pay attention to those who say she's famous because of her sex tape. Kim's sex tape, like Harrison Ford's gig painting a doorway, allowed her the entryway into show biz, but, like Harrison Ford, Kim has stayed around longer than her dearth of any displays of talent would allow her to do so. If you say that Kim Kardashian is famous, now, because of her sex tape, then, you are saying that Americans will pay attention to someone for four solid years because of one sex tape, and while Americans will pay attention to a great many things in hopes that there's some sex in it somewhere (see also: all those Dragon Tattoo books), four years is a lot longer than one sex tape can hold even our addlepated attentions.

Plus, think of all the other people who have released sex tapes and who have not maintained the level of fame that Kim Kardashian has.

No, the sex tape was what opened the door, but Kim Kardashian has kept her foot firmly wedged in that door since then, which brings us back to that zen riddle posed by people who say she's famous for doing nothing and has no talent.

Who do you suppose, in saying that, that those people are thinking about as the 'rightfully' famous?




Social workers?


I could go on.

People who say Kim Kardashian has no talent and doesn't deserve to be famous classify the world into "those deserving fame based on their talent" and "those not deserving of fame because they have no talent."

And then, under the deserving fame column, they put people like actors, and singers, and dancers, maybe, and directors, and possibly comedians.

All talented people, of course. Or many of them, anyway.

But the fact that those people are not arguing that doctors/judges/social workers/activists, etc. should be more famous shows that they classify talent very narrowly: the talent that deserves fame, they say, is the ability to make me laugh or cry or hum the tune to a musical about the 1920s.

I've been humming that song all week, since I jogged to it on Monday.

That-- that -- is the talent that most people say is deserving of fame.

That's why it's so ridiculous that people argue that Kim Kardashian should not be famous: because if there is someone deserving of fame, shouldn't it be the people that accomplish something that matters?

I love movies, books, (some) TV shows, music, art, sports, all that stuff. But do those things matter enough that we should be going nuts over them, and not over other things?

Here's a thought to mull on while you work through this. This past year, a boy named Luke learned to walk again after suffering a rare case of encephalitis that hospitalized him for lengthy periods of time and left him unable to walk for four months. With the help of 8 therapists, this little boy eventually walked on a treadmill, and 4-day-a-week therapy sessions built around a show Luke loved ("Wipeout") helped him build up strength and stamina.

Luke still used a wheelchair for many things when the summer came and he got to visit the Jacksonville Jaguars training camp, and, inspired by being there, Luke walked unassisted across the field.

That is a remarkable story, isn't it? Very touching and heartwarming and it was headlined:

Jaguars center Brad Meester inspires boy, 6, to learn to walk again

Now, I don't mean to diminish Brad Meester's role in Luke's recovery: Meester visited him and urged him on and invited him to training camp and was in general a wonderful guy.

But Luke was already learning to walk, and had his life saved by a team of doctors and therapists and surgeons none of whom saw their name in a headline as inspiring a boy to walk again.

So let's get a sense of perspective, okay? It was nice for Brad Meester to help a little sick boy recover.

It was heroic and talented and news- and fame-worthy of that team of doctors to use their skills, skills that did not involve "pretending people are shooting at us" or "standing resolutely in front of another large man for a few seconds at a time."

Whenever I hear people say "Kim Kardashian has no talent, she's famous for nothing," I think to myself "Yeah, but most people are famous for being marginally, if that, more talented." And the people who should be famous, the people who really are talented, rarely are.

With that out of the way, let's tackle the other big complaint about Kim Kardashian. No, it's not that she is serious about never being photographed from behind,'s that her wedding was fake.

That outraged people this year -- the fact that Kim Kardashian got fake married and then real divorced made people madder than any three things Netflix could have done; if I didn't know better, I'd have suspected that Netflix put Kim up to it simply so that they could get off the hotseat of "Americans being upset at stupid stuff".

But why?

Why, exactly, were people upset about Kim Kardashian's wedding-and-divorce news cycle? (The timing of it more or less exactly coincided with the premiere of various iterations of her shows, right?)

The general reason I hear is that she made lots of money off of it, and so people were really, really mad that she made them believe she was marrying for love and then she wasn't, really, and so she shouldn't have gotten paid for something that wasn't real and didn't matter.

Excuse me?

That is the standard we are now setting for our celebrities? You only get paid if we believe that what you're doing is real? I guess I ought to cancel my plans to go see Ghost Protocol tonight.

I can't believe that two decades into reality tv, this needs to be said, and I can't believe, further, that I'm going to mention Kim Kardashian and Erwin Schrodinger in the same sentence, but I just did.

Schrodinger, remember, famously said that it is the act of observing something that collapses the wave form and inevitably alters the possibilities of what can happen.

Schrodinger's cat is meant as a criticism of quantum mechanics; he used it to point out that the idea that all possibilities exist equally until we observe the outcome of an experiment; the act of observation reduces the waveform of probabilities to a single outcome.

Which is to say: observing changes the event.

Which is what happens when we create "reality" TV shows that follow people around and make them do things. No "reality" TV show is real because once you put a camera on someone, they stop scratching their butt and start doing things, and in the process of doing those things, they inevitably change their behavior, for better or worse.

The most obvious example of this was Horrible Kate Gosselin, who used her status as a "mom" to forget all about being a "mom" and try to become a reality star.

I do not object to people becoming famous; I do not object to people becoming famous by using their kids, either [provided the kids aren't ill-treated]. What I do object to is people like Horrible Kate Gosselin pretending to be a mom in order to get on TV; that's misusing kids and once people realized that Horrible Kate Gosselin felt about those kids the way you or I might feel about something nasty we stepped in, they stopped watching.

But that's not the point. The point is that when Horrible Kate Gosselin first got on the air, she was a struggling "mom" of 8 kids with an idiot husband and a fetish for natural peanut butter, trying to buy groceries at a savings club to make ends meet.

Within a season, though, the money Horrible Kate Gosselin was getting paid to pretend to care about her kids on TV had changed things: they took those kids to Disneyland and ate breakfast with Mickey, and vacationed in Hawaii and shopped for houses that included a horse farm.

Simply paying Horrible Kate Gosselin to watch her changed what people were watching.

That is what happened, I figure, with Kim Kardashian's wedding. TV shows have long featured big emotional hooks and suspenseful cliffhangers, which is why it's so hard to make a life into a TV show. Rarely does your life have a big emotional hook or suspenseful cliffhanger at the precise time you'd like it. Kim Kardashian may or may not have liked Kris Humphries for real -- seems pretty clear she didn't, though -- and may or may not have ever married someone if it weren't for the TV show. But we all are -- well, you all are, because I don't watch -- watching her, and so she had to do something important.

Her sisters had gotten married and had babies with a guy who is actively trying to look like a fictional serial killer, which, what?! How does that not worry the bejeesus out of you?! Is there a context in which someone can try to emulate a serial killer in a non-sociopathic way?!

But Kim Kardashian hadn't done much of anything for a while, had she? I'm pretty sure she hadn't, and so she got married because what else could she do? Try out to be an astronaut? Learn to kayak? Switch to Hinduism?

Kim Kardashian is in the entertainment business, and wants to remain there. So she got married, and if you watched the wedding, and then watched the divorce, you were entertained.

And yet, people got mad, because Kim Kardashian's wedding, they figured, was not "real."

You know: real like all the other stuff you see on television. Real like, say, Miley Cyrus' career.

You remember Miley Cyrus, right? She was someone, once. Miley -- not her original name, by the way, she was legally Destiny Hope Cyrus before she changed it in 2008 to Miley Ray Cyrus -- got famous playing a teenager who pretends not to be a rock star, and now Miley Cyrus is a rock star who pretends not to be a teenager, and nobody hates her even though nothing in her life is any more "real" than Kim Kardashian's wedding was.

Like talent, we apply the word real in an odd way: Kim Kardashian did, after all, get married for real, even if she didn't really intend to be married for long. But people felt it wasn't real because they wanted it to be real real, not just reality show real.

And THAT is why Kim Kardashian is the Best Celebrity of 2011. Not because she's so famous that merely looking kind of like her can lead to sort of offshoot fame itself -- as with Not Kim Kardashian in the Old Navy Commercial:

And not just because she's somehow managed to make everyone pay attention for four years of not doing much of anything while getting people to watch, and not just because she and her family make in excess of $65,000,000 per year just for hanging around their house and talking about themselves, which is a good reason why we should give up on our current civilization and start a new one: in a post-apocalyptic world, we might have to fight ravaging mutants for a can of avocadoes, but we probably would have our priorities rejiggered to avoid voluntarily donating $65,000,000 per year to people who don't need it simply because we want to see what they do next (answer: not much of anything, which is all they ever do! From what I have seen of the Kardashians, they don't do very much of anything).

No, all of those things are just offshoots of celebrity the way it has existed prior to 2011, and those alone wouldn't get Kim Kardashian to be the Best Celebrity of 2011.

Instead, I'm naming her because she completed the transformation of celebrities this year, and, in doing so, proved me right, in part, and then went beyond that.

Last year, I said that 2010 was the year celebrity died:

Celebrity, as a concept: the idea that there are those out there who are famous, celebrated, for doing something the rest of us have not. Those people no longer exist, at least not in the form that celebrity has taken since the 16th century, when the concept of celebrity was invented.

The door is wider open than ever...and as more and more people get let into the celebrity compound, the people already there have to try harder to get noticed: everyone's doing something else and frantically trying so hard to become, or stay, famous, that they will do anything to stay in the spotlight.

...It's the corollary to Warhol's famous comment: When everyone is famous, nobody is famous.

That's what I said then, and I concluded that in 2011,

The only way celebs get noticed now is to not exist... Hunger Games like, our celebrities in the future will increasingly be pitted against each other in a deathmatch for the fragmented public attention.

And I pronounced celebrity dead.

And it was, for a while -- but Kim Kardashian resurrected it, a mad scientist working in a mountaintop lair (or, in this case, a blue lagoon somewhere in the tropics), and like Frankenstein (read here why I call it that and not Frankenstein's monster), what now exists is not recognizable as a living form of celebrity, but celebrity is no longer dead.

Instead, we have a hybrid form of celebrity that has talent, of sorts - -it takes something to keep people watching for four years, and lots of people have tried to do that and failed -- and is famous enough for us to care about but not famous enough for us to not care about -- nobody cares that Tom Cruise's marriage is a sham, after all, and nobody is mad at Britney Spears for her string of failed marriages including one that lasted what, a day? -- and in doing so, created a new reality. After Kim Kardashian's marriage, there is real like what I do every day, and there is real like reality TV and then there is a different real altogether -- a new sort of reality springing up the way DC Comics used to create new universes. Call it Earth-K, and on Earth-K, real isn't real yet but it can be, if we wish real hard.

Kim Kardashian's marriage was Tinkerbell's fading glow, with one exception: whether you clapped your hands or not as Tink lay dying, Tink revived because that story had already been written. On Earth-K, the stories are written by what you demand, and that is why people are mad: They watched Kim Kardashian and willed her into a marriage, observing her until she collapsed the waveform into the reality they wanted. They clapped as hard as they could, and it didn't work.

Maybe that's Kim Kardashian's fault, but it's also her greatest accomplishment yet. Kim Kardashian, I salute you.

RUNNER UP: Rebecca Black. Because I really do like that song, and you people are all mean.

Predictions For 2012: Kim Kardashian will host Saturday Night Live, which has somehow become a thing to do again, will appear as a guest judge on either X-Factor or American Idol (if Idol is still on. Is it still on?) and at some point will be photographed with a foreign dignitary, before she goes on to become a spokesperson for Netflix, creating a singularity of hate that grows and swallows all the enmity in the world and starts a new era of peace and love.

Prior Bests Of 2011:

Books (And Other Smarty-Pants Things)


Stephen Hayes said...

You build a solid case for Ms. Kardashian's fame with lawyerly skill, but I still wouldn't cross the street to say hello to her.

Michael Offutt, Supra-Genius said...

In a zombie apocalypse, I would let Kim Kardashian get eaten and save myself. Now that I know you support her with such vim and vigor, I too would choose not to save you from the zombies.

Grumpy Bulldog, Secret Agent said...

The only time I ever watched Kim Kardashian were clips on "The Soup." "Celebrities" are like Freddy Krueger or gods in that if we stop paying attention to them they go away. But there are a lot of dumb people in the world who for whatever reason can't be bothered with changing the channel.

Andrew Leon said...

I feel like I have to say this explicitly. You danced around it a lot but never came out and said it: The "talent" is in -being- a celebrity. KK is extremely talented in that.