Where have you gone, Joe Dimaggio
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you…
Mrs Robinson, Simon & Garfunkel
In Pittsburgh our identity is still as much defined by memories of labor in the steel mills as by the work Andy Warhol pioneered or refined at producing an image of oneself for consumption. Where Andrew Carnegie exploited the labor of his employees to produce a commodity, Andy Warhol commodified himself in order to become famous for being famous.
If anyone brought a unique identity to the work he did, it was Billy Mays. How much of his personality was genuine and how much carefully shaped toward selling the merchandise at hand is difficult to know. But it was hard to escape his raucous style. He was unapologetically and successfully a shill. As others have pointed out, you gave him your attention whether you bought the product or not. Mays was born in McKees Rocks, down the Ohio a short distance from Pittsburgh. Notable as the inspiration for K.C. Constantine’s Rocksburg police procedurals, it’s not the most elegant or advantaged of neighborhoods in Southwestern Pennysylvania. It’s pretty clear as soon as he could, Mays made tracks out to a celebrity career hawking products in infomercials.
Mays’ death came at the end of of a trilogy of passings last month, following Michael Jackson’s and Farrah Fawcett’s. The common ululation in the newspapers, television and on the Internet has nearly ceased. But it is interesting to reflect on these three individuals as symbols of how we value people based on what they are or can seem to be to others versus what they accomplish or produce.
Michael Jackson’s story is a sad and illustrative one. His profound musical talent was overshadowed by the weird amalgam of child star, rock star and alien that formed his persona. It was a persona he produced and was produced by, and it ultimately trapped him in an alternate and perverse universe of celebrity.
As for Farrah Fawcett, Tunku Varadarajan wrote an interesting and poignant article in Forbes Magazine about the impact the famous 1976 poster of her had on him and his adolescent classmates in India. He says she represented a "semi-wholesome" promise of America: fun:, flirtatious and healthy. But she transcended her lightweight Charlie’s Angels image to become an actress and person of substance.
Fame has been around for thousands of years. Greek heroes such as Odysseus and Ulysses practiced the art of self-promotion. But their fame came as a consequence first of peforming deeds deemed worthy and useful. Now fame is as an end in itself.
Michael, Farrah and Billy are gone. The celebrity fame machine continues. Even in death they are commodities for consumption by a public seeking connection and meaning amidst a world of instantaneous, false associations, and increasingly false promises. Once the the next two or three Big Things come along, they will be finally forgotten by most of us.
In the past hundred years we have gone from a society of producers to a society of consumers to one bent on turning ourselves into products for consumption. Internet phenomena like YouTube and MySpace have caused the trend to accelerate, even metastasize. For many people the fifteen minutes of fame that Andy Warhol predicted has become a lifetime dedicated to celebrity. How can our society and the individuals in it sustain itself and solve its problems when it is increasingly preoccupied with pursuing such a solipsistic and narcissistic activity? Inquiring minds want to know.
# # #