Fame Machine


From Lapham’s Quarterly:

Intricate and subtle technologies for attaching fame to persons both mortal and divine now serve commodities and their personification in brands. The icons of Andy Warhol, raised in the Eastern Orthodox church, register the equivalence which modern strategies of public relations, propaganda, and advertising have established between brands (Brillo and Campbell’s), entertainers, and politicians. In the marketplace of goods, the cycle of modern celebrity demands constant self-reinvention and rebranding (from Lord Byron and Pablo Picasso to Bob Dylan and Madonna) to maintain the limelight. Another strategy is to claim the status of an unchanging classic, binding oneself to an earlier fame technology, as in Ronald Reagan’s cowboy routine, George Clooney’s Cary Grant shtick, or the invention by Coca-Cola, Ralph Lauren, and Calvin Klein of a new iconography of American eternity. Warhol’s play upon the continually renewed attempt to create, reproduce, and maintain the “classic” echoes through pop culture, in its self-conscious reflections on the glory machine. John Lennon, reproached for recognizing that a pop group might be “bigger than Jesus,” said that he moved to New York City because if he had lived during the Roman Empire he would have wanted to live in Rome. One of Manhattan’s paradoxes—with tragic consequences for Lennon—is that it houses vast engines of global magnification and projection while constantly reducing celebrities to human size. Madonna’s early rise was through the sweaty clubs of New York’s downtown celebrity industry, but her apotheosis was only confirmed when she drew materially and immaculately upon the resources of Hollywood and the Vatican.

The new infrastructure of fame that the Internet has put into place simultaneously creates greater decentralization, wider diffusion, and opportunities for vaster, if shorter-lived, concentration. As one recent example (one that is, unfortunately, likely to be evanescent), Lady Gaga openly set out to claim Madonna’s mantle, though by occupying and operating a fame machine no longer defined primarily by radio or even by MTV. Her expansion and self-multiplication on magazine covers, gossip sites, talk shows, concert arenas, MP3 downloads, remixes, YouTube, and fansites have both asserted and proven that any content or meaning beyond the radio gaga of monstrous or godlike fame is superfluous: existence in the loving lens of the paparazzi trumps any need for essence. The contrast between Lady Gaga’s oft-noted ordinary voice and looks and her extraordinary and protean manifestations perfectly suits a system that encourages everyone to build and operate her own fame machine via Facebook, blog, and other addictively maintained personal media. If Martin Luther and Johannes Gutenberg made every man and woman a priest, with Gaga and Facebook every user becomes an icon. We must all now pass through a mobile, multifaceted, and omnipresent fame machine to enter even the modest arenas of friendship, family, and work. And we are coaxed—or indeed compelled—to extend our aura, to transform ourselves into diffused, delocalized entities whose power, size, and value we measure out (from the archaic, nondigital shadows) in hit counters and “followers.” We make ourselves our own cloud of glory, whose contours and impact are obsessively monitored and adjusted by an increasingly vaporous source.

“Gilgamesh to Gaga”, John Tresch, Lapham’s Quarterly