Like many others raised in conservative religions, I learned early on in life to hold a healthy disdain for celebrities and the “sinful” lifestyles they championed. Nowadays, it’s not celebrities’ drug use or suggestive lyrics that I consider a threat to the welfare of the planet. It’s their constant pretense that they’re the foundational artists of our time — not the physical embodiments of Western culture’s violent obsession with wealth.
The function of the modern celebrity is not to resolve any systemic injustices or even console us in light of them but to repackage those very injustices into palatable, consumable products off which they make an obscene profit.
The solution? Ignore them.
Celebrities are Enforcers of a Toxic Ideology
Ultra-wealthy influencers, musicians, actors and athletes alike aim to convince us that underneath all the razzle-dazzle, they are human beings navigating life just like the rest of us. There is some truth to this, but what this class of elites consistently fails to do — whether they’re sharing their relationship struggles or dressing up for the MET Gala — is acknowledge the absurdity of their wealth and engage in bridging the chasmic divide between their quality of life and the quality of life of others. Last week alone, 860,000 Americans filed for unemployment, but that’s a conservative figure compared to over 6 million Americans who filed for unemployment during one week in April.
As workers were laid off, families were evicted and underpaid essential staff risked their lives to handle the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., celebrities came scuttling out of their yachts and mega-mansions to plaster over the decay with cheap platitudes. Gal Gadot virtually brought a group together including Jimmy Fallon, Natalie Portman, Amy Adams and Will Ferrell to all sing “Imagine” by John Lennon, letting us know that “we’re all in this together.” Meanwhile, Vanessa Hudgens used Instagram Live to laugh about the exaggeration of the coronavirus, Bill Murray promised a round of golf to the lucky winner of a donations contest, and Ashton Kutcher — boasting a net worth of $200 million — asked his followers to donate to COVID-19 aid by purchasing his new line of pricey “Quarantine Wine.”
This ignorance should not be mistaken for innocence. Celebrities are not bystanders to the violence of wealth disparity — they are its smiling envoys, here to serve as the fetishizing of wealth to entertain the hard-working Americans starved of it. They actively perpetuate the ideology that profit maximization is to be valued above all else, and this ideology has grave real-life implications.
The ideology that puts unemployed people on the streets during a pandemic so luxury high-rises can sprout from the deathbed of affordable housing is the same ideology that can starve local cinema houses — like the non-profit Salt Lake Film Society — so the Disney showings at the Megaplex theater downtown have less and less competition. Or, take the case of Ivory Homes’ plan to demolish locally-cherished Ken Sander’s Rare Books, forcing many Salt Lake readers to book-shop from big online retailers like Amazon. When profit is our dominant cultural value, art begins to disappear. Celebrities are complicit in our ideological system that funnels resources — not just wealth and political authority, but also art-making — into the hands of a few at the expense of the common good.
Is Anybody Worth Paying Attention To?
I can’t pretend to be the arbiter of what qualifies as “good” platform use and what doesn’t. But personal favorites of mine are individuals who, regardless of their fame, stick to creating impactful art instead of engaging in the drama, wealth flaunting and egoism of celebrity culture. For example, synth-pop singer Declan McKenna, indie-emo singer Phoebe Bridgers and indie-folk singer Yoke Lore all have a commitment to activism intricately woven into their music and personas. During this tumultuous summer, rapper Noname shared resources and powerful insights on racial justice while comedian Ziwe used her platform to explore white privilege in a unique and entertaining format. Rather than hoard wealth, stuff their egocentrism down our throats and then make empty gestures against it whenever it’s popular to do so, rare artists like these challenge cultural traditions.
Let’s Ignore Them
Celebrity culture is a messy and surprisingly intimate thing. I think we all have a handful of famous people to whom we feel a deep attachment — my Twitter handle ironically divulges one of mine. Maybe this is human nature or maybe it’s just an inescapable element of life in the modern era. But regardless of who we choose to support, I think it’s clear that anyone who participates in celebrity culture can stand to be ignored quite a bit more and we’d all be better off for it.