<< Front page Arts May 14, 2004

Pop Culture Digest
A critical look at the problem of “star power”

A flannel shirt, jeans and disheveled hair became a trend because that’s how Kurt Cobain looked in the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” After the first season of Friends, millions of women at salons nationwide requested the layers and highlights that Jennifer Aniston’s hair brandished. “I’m Rick James, bitch” became a popular catch phrase thanks to a skit on the Dave Chapelle Show. These are all examples of a phenomenon known as “star power” that seems to have infiltrated American popular culture to its very core. In essence, star power is characterized by the privileges and influence afforded to celebrities and public figures just because they are who they are. It is our idolization of particular individuals manifested to a level at which they are seen as something akin to gods and therefore anything they say or do becomes credible, although they truly know no more or less than we do. To put it simply, it is what gets Britney Spears into a club before you, even if your outfit is hotter.

This control over the hearts and minds of the general public can be used in a variety of ways depending upon the personality of the celebrity and what message they may want to convey about themselves at the time. For example, many stars choose to wield their power for the greater good of humanity. We all remember the assemblage of popular artists who joined together to form U.S.A., or United Support of Artists for Africa, the group responsible for the irrepressible hit “We Are the World” in the 1980s. Their goal was to bring attention to the widespread famine and violence that was consuming the continent of Africa, something that they felt the media and American public ignored. This tactic has been used for other causes like Farm Aid, a series of concerts headlined by artists like Wille Nelson and John Mellencamp to fundraise for the sake of the struggling farmers in middle America. And more recently it has been decided that We Are the Future, another “joining of the famous for the common good,” organized by Quincy Jones, will take place in Rome with the purpose of garnering attention for young victims of violence. Other stars like Michael J. Fox and Magic Johnson lend their support to the research and national discussion of things like Parkinson’s Disease and the AIDS virus. In these ways it can be said that star power is, perhaps, something to be commended and encouraged.

However, at other times the outcome of star power is not so positive. There are many cases in which celebrities have been pardoned for inexcusable deeds simply because they are famous, whereas mere mortals would not be so lucky. For instance, how many times has Robert Downey, Jr. been found guilty of drug possession? Yet he is still able to slide by with a slap on the hand and consider it just a pause in his film career? There are many people serving 10 years or more in prison for drug possession, but Downey still roams around, a free man. It is true that the drug charges have had a negative effect on his career, but if he really decided to change his life and go straight, Hollywood would welcome him back with open arms and all would be forgotten.

Other cases include R. Kelly who, despite his still-pending charges of soliciting an underage girl to appear in a pornographic videotape, is still topping the Billboard charts and was even invited to attend this year’s Grammy Awards ceremony. These are cases where it is clear how star power can give celebrities an unfair advantage and be dangerous both to the stars themselves and society at large.

Yet, star power is not limited to these realms of charitable or malicious acts; it can be said that, today, fame has also stretched to one of the more exclusive domains of our society: politics. Perhaps it began when John F. Kennedy began hanging with the Rat Pack and having an affair with ultimate Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe or when Ronald Reagan decided that instead of an actor he wanted to be the President of the United States. Whatever the case, for some time the worlds of the silver screen and silver-haired men have been intertwined. The recent election of Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger as the governor of California should be enough to prove that star power can not only make your opinions become scripture for your loyal fans, it may just allot you the opportunity to make your ideas into law. True, Schwarzenegger is clearly not the first celeb to breach the line between politics and entertainment; after all there were others before him, like the late Sonny Bono, who was the mayor of Palm Springs, Calif. before becoming a member of the House of Representatives. However, Schwarzenegger seems to have been more aware of the influence that star power has on the public and in fact used that to his advantage. For example, he made sure that the third installment of his popular Terminator movies had been released before he actively ran for the position of governor, thereby re-establishing himself as a loved public figure and as someone with a particular history in U.S. popular culture. The result was that, perhaps out of love for The Terminator, the people of California elected Schwarzenegger as the executive head of their state, seemingly without giving serious consideration to his actual credentials.

Howard Stern is also proving that star power may have the potential to be used to create the opposite effect. Stern, who once applauded Bush for his decision to launch military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, began publicly criticizing the president about the controversy surrounding his National Guard duty and his opposition to gay marriage and stem cell research. Stern believes that these opinions are now fueling the crackdown from the Federal Communications Commission, although the FCC states that their motives for targeting Stern are related to his show’s indecent content. As a result of the crackdown, Stern has recently made a call for his listeners to “remember me in November when you’re in the voting booth. I’m asking you to do me one favor. Vote against Bush. That’s it.” Incited by his pleas many of his eight million listeners have shown their support. Particularly the large groups of white, male audience members, a voting segment that recent polls show is cooling on Bush, has adopted Stern’s point of view. Stern proves the authority of the celebrity in relation to their fan-base, a power that, in many cases, can be frightening.

Just the other night I was watching a program on VH1 (which, by the way, has become star power central in the last few years) called I Love the ’80s. The program chronicles the many interesting and quirky cultural phenomenon that made the ’80s what it was: Garbage Pail Kids, Dynasty and Madonna. The people who lived through the decades theoretically narrate the program; however, as I watched the program I was struck by the fact that all of the people chosen to give their spin of what happed during the period were celebrities. Not one “average Joe” was asked about their experience or what they remembered. Instead that right was exclusively delegated to celebrities, some of whom, like Raven Symone, probably barely recall anything about the ’80s. To me this was another example of the double standard or priority that celebrities have over us. And that is not to say that I even blame them exactly; in fact, I think that we are partially to blame. It is our insatiable need to know everything about celebrities, the desire to emulate their style and dress and inevitably our idolatry of these mere mortals that has helped to create the outrageously influential forces that they are today. It is up to us to say “enough is enough” in reference to celebrity star power and, undoubtedly, when that happens, the vehicle we know as star power will come to a screeching halt.


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