Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Cult of Personality

Civilization isn’t yet being sucked into a massive black hole, but the world as we know has changed irreparably thanks in part to American Idol.

I don’t even watch the show (wink-wink), but last night saw parts of it that were, um, exciting and scary and may portend a further deterioration of American civic and cultural life.

Verna and I were set to view (on a rented DVD) the rest of part one of Empire Falls, an HBO miniseries starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ed Harris, and others. But Verna is also hooked on Idol, so we had to switch back and forth between the two programs.

Last night’s Idol featured clips of the three remaining contestants’ rousing returns to their hometowns. As I was watching, I was dumbfounded at all the adoration lavished on three guys who are contestants on a cheeky reality show.

They haven’t even won anything yet and may never score big in the music world, but literally thousands of people (close to 20,000 for Kris Allen) showed up at venues in their hometowns to celebrate the returns of the not exactly Prodigal Sons.

And then it hit me as grown women cried when Adam Lambert shook their hands or autographed their t-shirts and little girls and pubescent females cried, actually cried, when one of the three touched them: Why are these guys so popular? What have they done to deserve any accolades outside a good swift pat on the back?

They haven’t stood up for any important causes or been role models for changing the world. They’re just competing in a rather shallow singing competition.

I am not trying to single out American Idol for all my reproach. But AI is another symptom of what I think is wrong in our cultural universe. I’ll call it (not originally) the Cult of Personality, whereby we elevate minor players on the cultural stage to the status of Very Important People.

We do it with athletes. We do it with actors and actresses. Remember Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, in which two serial murderers attained celebrity status? How many jailed deviants receive wedding proposals or get married to female admirers? Far too many to count, I think.

Facebook and other online social networks (Twitter, MySpace) are also serious parts of the problem. And bloggers. We have created a sub-society where we actually think (or don’t care) that people want to know (or don’t) the minutiae of our days and our thoughts.

And we do not shy away from letting people know just about everything (and, believe me, I am just as guilty as anyone). Today’s Facebook, for example: someone notified us about watching the finale of a TV show; someone wrote about nature; several people mentioned the end of their college semesters.

Not all of it is inane, er, mundane. One woman shared the awesome news of her second pregnancy. So social networking as a medium to update people and keep us in contact with those we’d otherwise never phone is a good thing.

It’s just that…I don’t know…I feel we are getting carried away. Do I really need to know if someone is overwhelmed by housework or that another has a cold? On the other hand, there is something delightfully democratic about being able to commandeer such a large forum and grab people’s attention. Why should the world of communication be reserved for the professional talking heads, pundits, journalists, and has-been political hacks? Everyone has a right to express him- or herself, and social networking makes it so much easier.

Maybe, though, it would be better if people went back to holiday letters. Just kidding (though I send one every year). Cyberspace has altered the communication landscape for better and worse.

I realize that my rant is rather hypocritical given that I blog (and advertise my blog on Facebook and via email). But, hey, nobody’s perfect. But given that I am not, what kind of homecoming parade might I expect in Bloomfield, CT this summer?

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