Why is there such a strong craving for descriptions and pictures of the private lives of stars, actors, models and musicians as featured in the pages of tabloid magazines, gossip rags and celebrity info-tainment websites.
What is our obsession with gossip and celebrity culture?
The French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard described the use of stories for the transmission of knowledge by myths and religion as "narrative knowledge". This type of knowledge as well as political and social ideologies are known as "master narratives". In "The Post-Modern Condition", Lyotard argues that these master narratives have broken down and lost their authenticity. The result is the errosion of unified value systems and social cohesion.
The divisiveness within the Democratic party during the recent primaries, the "culture wars" and the red state/blue state battles are indicative of the erosion of shared values. The zero-sum games of reality television and gotcha journalism are just part of a larger trend that has made contentiousness a dominant mode of interaction.
Gone are the broad templates for meaning and valuation. The shared maps people once used to guide them through life are fading. As community and family structures become less stable and less relied upon, individuals increasingly find themselves left to figure it out for themselves. It's every man for himself and God against them all.
Over the past 60 years, Mass Media exploited, exacerbated and attempted to fill the gap left by the decay of "master narratives", but those days are numbered. Without preeminence, reach and control over a limited number of channels, the content they produce cannot create cultural consensus. The theatricized versions of reality no longer have the power to move people in any meaningful way.
The innate attraction to narrative storytelling persists as does the need for guides in answering the questions posed by life (who am I, where am I going and what is this all about?). Celebrity gossip info-tainment has emerged to fill the voids left by the collapse of master narratives and traditional mass media.
Because it is an organic and unintentional response to the needs it fulfills it has gone largely unexamined in this context.
Celebrities are our shaman. They exist outside the bounds of ordinary life. They are perceived as having gifts or birthright that place them beyond the tribal fold. Not unlike witch dotors, they are afforded things beyond the reach of ordinary members of society and rewarded lavish resources for their services. They live "dream lives" that are free from the survival struggles associated with "getting by", at times they are beyond the laws that apply to everyone else. Celebrities and shaman are able to do things and live lives that the rest of us are not.
A Zimbabwe witch doctor and Madonna are really the same thing. Music, more than any other artistic or cultural practice, induces a change in neurological and emotional state. Creating "state change" is a traditional function of tribal witch doctors.
The real lives of celebrities (as opposed to the roles portrayed by actors or the personas of musicians) have become our aspirations. They provide the scripts for social behaviors and our highest ideals. The give us the "models" for what one's "crib" should be like, how one should behave and what one should look like and wear. Lists and more lists of "what's hot", "what's new" and "what's now" are assembled and shilled like miraculous, voodoo cure-alls. Think about fetishistic shoes and automobiles and their associations of sexual desirability.
The tabloid-chronicled tales of celebrity lives are much more effective at creating (disorienting) cultural experiences than manufactured, industrial storytelling. (For a more complete explanation of the role that disorientation plays in art see my essay on: Culture, Chaos, Control (and Canine Companionship). I believe that art and aesthetics provided disruptive experiences that fulfill a psychologically need for novelty, physiological release, and disorientation (intellectual and sensory) that is necessary for "re-experience". This process of "re-experience" has parallels in the visions of shamen (to illuminate the unseen) and the use of drugs to defamiliarize ordinary sensory perceptions.
Gossip narratives challenge mores and test morals. They push the limits of believability and violate expectations far more powerfully than what is dared or imagined in the sanctioned and "crafted" narratives of tinseltown. They are "real", authentic in the sense that master narratives no longer are. They are real-time, continuous, ever-refreshing, open-ended stories filled with unexpected endings (the death of Heath Ledger), astonishing tales of never-ending folly (Britney Spears) plays against character type (OJ Simpson) and reversals of fortune (Michael Jackson). They are stories that studios wouldn't make, focus groups would hate and audiences wouldn't watch if they were manufactured media products, but the appetite for this fodder is ravenous and growing. In its ability to hook and emotionally connect massive audiences, the media world can't compete. The death of Princes Di cold crushes the last 10 Super Bowls and World Cups combined.
For better or worse, the function of myth and religion, the stories that we model and compare lives to, that help us to make sense of our world and create meaning for our existences, is performed by the pages of People and US Weekly.