Sunday, June 28, 2009

MJ's Death: the Religion of Celebrity

Like everyone else, I am saddened by the death of Michael Jackson. I spun my old "Off the Wall" vinyl in my record player just a little while ago. I couldn't help but get a little misty in the eyes knowing that the amazing talent that was Michael Jackson (especially during the "off-the-wall"/"thriller" era) was no more. Jackson was an amazing dancer. An amazing musical artist...

But the attention the story is getting is, I think, a little too over-the-top. I was watching "World News" with Charlie Gibson on Friday and it struck me how weird it was that the death of
Michael Jackson headlined the half-hour time slot. Nothing about Iraq. Nothing about Afghanistan. The most news-worthy story of the world, in the eyes of the ABC network, was the death of Michael Jackson. I mean, out of all the stories that could have headlined the world (yes WORLD) news, the "gatekeepers" chose the Michael Jackson story. Why? Because they knew this was what the public wanted, and I guess the main objective of ABC is not unlike that of any other business where the consumer's wants take precedence over the consumer's needs. (Whether this objective is an ethical objective for a news network is a different subject altogether.)

Anyway, on the front page of The Boston Globe this past Saturday I noticed a photo of a man kneeling beside Michael Jackson's Hollywood Blvd. star and saying a prayer. Surrounding him were candles and bouquets of flowers: a shrine dedicated to the deceased "king of pop". It was this image on the front page of the daily newspaper that made me realize the extent to which our culture values celebrity. I mean, I had obviously always known that our culture was obsessed with celebrity, but this image of the man kneeling in deep prayer at a shrine dedicated to Jackson made me realize that, in America, celebrities...are gods. And I almost mean this literally. It's like the death of Michael Jackson was the death of a messiah [notice the blatant Christ imagery in the above photo, which was also on the front page of the Globe].

America prides itself to be a land where we practice all sorts of religions and show reverence to all sorts of gods, but I think what nobody realizes is that there is a common religion in America that transcends all other religions: that of celebrity. This is a religion where people like Michael Jackson are so important that their deaths headline "World News" with Charlie Gibson and newspapers like The Boston Globe. Never mind the handful of soldiers who died overseas on the same day Jackson died. We don't hear about them. We only hear about Jackson. The religion of celebrity is a religion where those who are rich and famous automatically deserve more attention than those who have fallen in war.

But at least Jackson had talent, which means he is at least somewhat deserving of all this attention (although he most likely molested children and took a lot of drugs). Take somebody like Anna Nicole Smith's death, though: she didn't really have any talent...unless figuring out how to become famous for being famous is a talent. But even her death headlined the news (footage of the teary-eyed judge comes to mind). And another day went by where we overlooked the deaths of soldiers, not to mention other newsworthy stories far more deserving of our attention.

The fact of the matter is that the religion of celebrity is a religion where we show reverence to people who are not necessarily talented, but to those who have somehow figured out how to become rich and famous. I mean, it would be wishful thinking to say that celebrity is ultimately about talent; after all, somebody who is extremely talented isn't usually worshiped until they somehow figure out how to turn that talent into something that yields riches and fame.

Perhaps this is just the American way. Maybe in a land where the ultimate goal is to "make it", it makes sense that we deify those who have, indeed, "made it". And because "making it" is usually measured in terms of financial success, the real value here is on the money, not the talent. And that's the problem.

To put it simply, the celebrity-worship we see in our culture is a reflection of a culture where money is a god. When stories of a celebrity's death headline the world news (again, emphasis on 'world'), our culture is kneeling to the ground and showing reverence to the 'almighty' dollar bill.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Spielberg receives honorary degree at BU: 'pop-intellectualism' in our culture

To read the article about this, visit this link:

I'll admit that I always liked Spielberg's films. When I was in the third grade, I purchased a VHS copy of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and obsessively watched it over and over again. In fact, I got so into it that I created my own "grail diary" with an assignment notebook, just like the one Indiana's dad uses in the movie. I tried to make it resemble the one in the movie as closely as possible. This is how I got my kicks.

When I was in the fifth grade, I went to the movies to see Jurassic Park with my Dad and remember being completely blown away. You know that feeling you have when you walk out of the theater and your head is still caught inside a movie reality and reality-reality just doesn't matter anymore? Well, that's what I was feeling after I saw Jurassic Park. Jurassic Park was all that mattered anymore. I couldn't get the John Williams theme out of my head! "How'd you do this?" "Let me show you!" "You have a T-rex?" "We have a T-rex!" "And bingo...Dino DNA!"

After the movie, I went straight to McDonald's to get the Jurassic Park value meal, complete with a big plastic collector's cup that featured scenes from the movie. I think the box of fries had scenes on it as well. It was super-sized. It was delicious.

Anyway, what I'm getting at here is that I really enjoyed Spielberg's movies when I was a kid. Heck, I still like them now. However...

I raised my eyebrows when I heard that Spielberg received an honorary degree from (my Alma Mater) Boston University at last month's commencement ceremony. Basically, I'm not sure a prestigious University like BU (or any University, for that matter) should be giving honorary degrees to members of the entertainment industry. I feel the result of doing something like this blurs the lines between Entertainment and Intellectualism, which - in the long run - dumbs down our culture.

Honorary degrees should be a way to honor deep intellectuals (i.e. revolutionary thinkers), and I don't think many of the recipients at any school nowadays fall into this category. When I graduated in 2004, BU gave an honorary degree to New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Certainly Belichick proved himself to be one of the best football coaches of all time, but he hadn't made any significant intellectual contributions to society. So what was BU even honoring him for? Intellectual success, or just success in general???

Maybe BU only honors people like Spielberg and Belichick because they're popular. Maybe the degrees are just a shallow means of making the school look 'cool' because it can get some big names to attend graduation. I mean, no disrespect to Spielberg, but I don't think he falls into the category of intellectual either. I know a lot of people will point out films like Schindler's List and Munich and maybe Amistad and say that those films were products of a "thinker", but I don't really think they were. Sure, a film like Schindler's List has the appearance of being an intellectual film (shot in black and white, contains intense violence/graphic nudity, serious tone elicited via musical score, sophomoric use of symbolism etc.), but I think that when it comes down to brass tacks, nobody who watches that movie really gains any greater understanding of the Holocaust, like how or why it happened. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think a movie like Schindler's List (like many critically acclaimed movies in Hollywood) is a film that has the appearance of being intellectual - maybe a good word is 'pop-intellectual' - but is not really intellectual in terms of its substance.

So, frankly, I lose a lot of respect for BU (again, my Alma Mater) when they're giving honorary degrees to Spielberg - a man, I guess, who sometimes possesses the appearance of being an intellectual, but is not really an intellectual. He's a great entertainer who tells really great stories (many of which have a semi-important lesson or two to extract from them), but they are not products of a deep thinker who should be honored in an intellectual environment like a University.

When people like Spielberg receive honorary degrees, the REAL intellectuals go overlooked by society, and when that happens, true intellectualism gets watered down and eventually dies. The culture becomes dumb. And a dumb culture isn't a healthy culture. A dumb culture can be a dangerous culture.