The Splintering of Celebrity
I remember when Fred Astaire died. I was walking to the LIRR from DC Comics and saw the afternoon edition of the New York Post and was thinking how an entire generation of performer was vanishing from the public eye.
On Monday evening, the In Memorium portion of the Emmy Awards saw us say farewell to the last few major figures from that Golden Age of entertainment. There was Shirley Temple, Lauren Bacall, and Mickey Rooney. And then came the touching tribute to Robin Williams and I flashed on the notion that he represents, perhaps, one of the final generation of beloved entertainers that are universally known.
While we mourn the passing of water cooler television, I am beginning to understand that as a nation, we are so fractured that there are fewer and fewer singers, dancers, actors, writers, and artists, whose deaths will move the vast majority of the population. Thanks to the explosion of steams and channels and platforms, we all have our favorites.
It used to be we all had the same common vocabulary. You could make a Groucho reference or quote Jack Benny and everyone got it. Today, those greats are largely unknown to the Millennial generation and the one that is following and remains unnamed will almost entirely not know them or Herman’s Hermits or I Love Lucy or Forever.
I began thinking about this when, to my utterly astonishment, the vast majority of my students admitted to not reading the Harry Potter books and few saw any of the films. Then, this week, I read in the Washington Post how these generations have their own celebrities culled from Vine and YouTube. Celebrity is increasingly fleeting with fewer cross-generational events available to unite us. For example, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett cut duets with younger, more modern singers and audiences got to sample across the years. You don’t see that on the MTV Awards and will rarely see such events on the Oscars, Emmys or even the Grammys.
I didn’t know who every presented on the Emmys was, another example of how splintered things have grown. While I may not have seen their shows, I was at least familiar with everyone seen on the memorial montage—that won’t happen in the future. It’s no longer possible.
A lot of parents are so busy showing their kids whatever is popular on the various kids channels that they don’t think to expose them to their childhood favorites. The same goes with movies, music, and maybe to a lesser degree with books, where evergreens appear strongest.
There’s a popular cultural literacy that is vanishing and will be missed. I’m not sure anything can be done about it, but I do strongly believe it should be considered and implemented. This way, more of us can find common ground despite age.