Essay

STAR-STRICKEN

We have an Insatiable appetite for celebs—and their high-profile meltdowns

JONATHAN DURBIN June 21 2004
Essay

STAR-STRICKEN

We have an Insatiable appetite for celebs—and their high-profile meltdowns

JONATHAN DURBIN June 21 2004

STAR-STRICKEN

Essay

We have an Insatiable appetite for celebs—and their high-profile meltdowns

JONATHAN DURBIN

IN MID-MARCH I witnessed Courtney Love’s comeback attempt on subsequent evenings at two small music venues in New York City. It was a terrible 48 hours. Love is, of course, the black widow of rock ’n’ roll, former wife of musician Kurt Cobain, and the knowledge that the 10th anniversary of her husband’s suicide was looming in early April gave some of the crowd the confidence they required to become aggressive. They swore at her, called out for her to play Nirvana songs, screamed at her to take her clothes off. They wanted

blood—the meat and gristle of someone over the edge. She obliged, and not just on stage.

Her new record is called America’s Sweetheart, but it wasn’t long into the Manhattan publicity blitz that everyone knew the album’s title was a joke. Hurricane Courtney in no way resembles girls next door Kate Hudson or Kirsten Dunst. At Love’s first Manhattan visit, she was a guest on The Late Show With David Letterman and flashed the normally unflappable host; she invited a public relations student to suckle her breast outside a Wendy’s and grinned at the camera as they were photographed; she later knocked a microphone stand into the crowd at the club Plaid, allegedly striking an audience member. On the whole, that show was a stunning disaster—the type of performance so utterly awful that it fired the imagination. It was difficult to look away because there was the chance you’d miss seeing her strangle her guitarist, or, perhaps, burst into flames. No one who stayed was there for the music. In fact, many left. It was too sad to watch. After that show, as my friends and I were milling about outside Plaid, we saw the NYPD arrive, and I joked about the police being on Courtney detail. Not funny, apparently: they arrested her for the microphone incident (she was charged again this week with assaulting a woman at the home of her ex-boyfriend and former manager, Jim Barber, in April).

The hangover, if that’s the right word, was worse. I’d been privileged enough to see Love in the middle of a Liza Minnelli-sized meltdown. It was fascinating to watch a star come unglued. But I left feeling sick and guilty, as if I’d betrayed a friend by reading

her diary while gorging on junk food. The after-effects of Love’s performances lingered. I felt in some way complicit.

Channel-surfing recently, I wound up watching Larry King interview Jermaine Jackson on CNN, and a less intense version of that feeling returned. Jackson was, inexplicably, talking to King from Bahrain. The discussion centred on his brother Michael’s decision to fire his lawyers and swap Jermaine’s

suggested counsel for his brother Randy’s. Wise move, as it turned out. The second hearing in Michael Jackson’s child molestation case was a much more subdued affair: no soft-shoe number on top of the black SUV, and no dressing like a diplomat from Soviet Stalingrad. The king of pop seemed to realize that he was about to be stoned and dethroned, and the gravity of the charges weighed on him—or his lawyers—heavily enough to inspire him to wear a Brooks Brothers suit and bookish spectacles. Clothes make the man, as the saying goes—or maybe that should be clothes disguise the man, since Jackson still lives in Neverland. It’s difficult to forget that, even if he’s now decided to dress like a banker.

I don’t know if anyone can follow the latest round of celebrity scandals without feeling ill. The media foist these heroes of yesteryear back into the limelight, artists we’ve loved and supported, with an exacting eye for lurid detail and a surgical evisceration of their public personas. The tabloidification of culture makes an artist’s work secondary to their biography. I’ve always thought it should be the other way around. I didn’t like Courtney Love because she was a failed actress whose first major role was a bit part in Sid and Nancy, nor because she dated rocker Julian Cope for a hot minute in the mid-’80s. I liked her for her music. And all I did was buy a few Hole records back in the day. Why did I feel responsible?

Chris Rock offers one explanation for the media’s emphasis on celebs. In Never Scared, a recent HBO special, the comedian’s standup routine addresses Jackson, Kobe Bryant, R. Kelly and David Blaine, men who’ve jammed the airwaves and filled newspapers with the unflattering ephemera of their private lives. “Don’t let all this celebrity news fool you,” Rock says. “It’s a trick to get your mind off the war. I think Bush sent that girl to Kobe’s room. Bush sent that little boy to Michael Jackson’s house. Bush killed Laci

WE REWARD our

public figures for ugly behaviour, whether it’s a publicity stunt or an episode of acting out

Peterson ... all to get your mind off the war.” He’s obviously kidding, but the sentiment isn’t a joke. TV is the opiate of the masses only if the masses are interested in what’s on during prime time. And diverting attention from the bleaker aspects of life— not just the war in Iraq, gas prices and bitterly contested elections—is integral to what makes the medium work. Distraction is just a synonym for entertainment.

Still, that seems a little dismissive, so long as you suppose that intelligent people run the networks and that intelligent people watch TV and buy magazines. It can’t all be about running away from issues of the day, even if dragging celebrities through the mud is the Western world’s favourite new pastime. On the other end of the spectrum, the best elucidation I’ve heard for celebrity obsession is from Salman Rushdie (no stranger to the party-pics pages himself), who offers a quasi-religious explication of it in his rock ’n’ roll fable, The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Rushdie writes: “We always did prefer our iconic figures injured, stuck full of arrows or crucified upside down; we need them flayed and naked, we want to watch their beauty crumble slowly and to observe their

narcissistic grief. Not in spite of their faults but for their faults we adore them, worshipping their weaknesses, their pettinesses, their bad marriages, their substance abuse, their spite. Seeing ourselves in [their] mirror, and forgiving [them], we also [forgive] ourselves. [They] redeem us by [their] sins.” Heavy, yes, but there’s some truth to that. While it seems silly to believe a star’s foibles can offer fans a sort of redemption, it nevertheless appears to be the guiding principle behind celebrity worship. Their public faults mirror our private fears. If their lives provide allegories for our own, it’s little wonder that their biographies should be of equal or greater importance than their work itself. It’s

unfortunate, but that’s the way pop culture works. And we reward our public figures for ugly behaviour, whether it’s a publicity stunt or an episode of acting out. The allure of the limelight is so strong, in fact, that desire for it seems to have trumped shame. On the other hand, the public’s rapacious appetite for scandal—which can be satisfied, however temporarily, by tabloid photos of celebs sans makeup—has given rise to paparazzi so aggressive Hollywood now refers to them as “stalkerazzi.” They’re the kind that tailed Princess Diana to her death, but they did so only because we provided the market for the pictures.

Celebrities are after coverage, and they’re well aware that if it bleeds, it leads. Given that ours is an aspirational society, that sort of consuming greed for acclaim makes sense. In Wall Street, Oliver Stone’s attack on the boom-time ’80s, lead sleaze Gordon Gekko declares, “Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” It’s worth remembering, though, that the film ends with Gekko’s protege going to prison. If the same happens to our favourite stars, we shouldn’t be surprised. We asked them for it. I?]

THE HUNGER for

scandal has given rise to paparazzi so aggressive Hollywood now refers to them as ‘stalkerazzi*