Not Even Coronavirus Can Stop the Cult of Celebrity

Not Even Coronavirus Can Stop the Cult of Celebrity

Remember when celebrity culture was supposedly over? It’s okay if you don’t. It was declared so in early lockdown, a distinct era that feels decades ago. Nine months later, there’s little to show for what once seemed like a unanimous agreement that celebrity culture had changed profoundly in the wake of a virus that left us socially distanced, societally divided, and, in too many cases, dead.

“Celebrity Culture Will Never Be The Same” proclaimed HuffPost’s headline. “The Celebrities Are Not All Right,” said The Ringer. “COVID-19 has changed celebrity culture—and it may never go back to normal,” declared Fast Company. Celebrities had been “upstaged by a virus,” according to a Guardian piece, titled “The coronavirus crisis has exposed the ugly truth about celebrity culture and capitalism.” The mother of all these thinkpieces, and frequently linked to within, was Amanda Hess’s March 30, 2020, New York Times essay “Celebrity Culture Is Burning.” “Among the social impacts of the coronavirus is its swift dismantling of the cult of celebrity,” wrote Hess. Her article excoriated the Gal Godot-spearheaded viral video of a bunch of stars singing “Imagine” in lockdown, which was held up as a totem of celebrity cluelessness.

The argument that the coronavirus had elucidated a gap between the wealthy and the rest of us—a gap that once seen couldn’t be unseen—seemed true to me then. Society has long been ranked, but seductively so. Inequity can appear fair when it blesses the gifted or likable—or in the rare event that it smiles upon someone whose ideas improve the life of our species. The jig, these essays informed us, was up.

The jig, these essays informed us, was up

I loved and quoted Hess’s piece in my own writing. But time has shown that this strain of thinking and think-piecing was not so much reflective of the way things were, but the way things felt. And these feelings, like most feelings, passed. From the current perspective, it seems that the pandemic only reinforced the public’s attachment to celebrity. Stuck inside, we all had to look at something; many of our eyes continued to fall upon stars.

This is a year, after all, that saw Kanye West run for President of the United States with breathless media coverage in response. West’s electoral failure could not obscure the resounding success of his campaign for attention. In 2020, Justin Bieber released two songs whining about fame that peaked in the Top 20 of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. One of the year’s most outstanding innovations in the field of shit to stare at was Verzuz, an Instagram-based “battle” of musicians that features them playing their old music and just sitting there. Streaming of content reportedly surged; the vast majority those TV shows and movies people watched and the music they listened to were created and/or populated by celebrities.

Olivia Jade was able to launch a redemption tour (on a platform belonging to other celebrities, Jada Pinkett-Smith’s family talk show Red Table Talk). Taylor Swift repeatedly discussed re-recording her old songs as a way to get a leg up in the tug-of-war over her previously released music (for all the philosophical implications as to whether corporate artists truly own their art, it shouldn’t miss anyone that this is largely a fight between millionaires over future millions). The Weeknd commanded attention by raging against his lack of Grammy nominations. Paris Hilton mounted a successful comeback without ever atoning for her blatant racism, just months after America entered a profound reckoning on how terribly Black people have been treated and continue to be treated in this country. And Donald Trump—a man who spent the majority of the past five years exhibiting in novel (and morbidly fascinating) ways why he shouldn’t be president, a buffoon who only doubled down on the incompetence indicated by his utter lack of political experience, a failure at business, a maestro of hype, a washed-up reality TV star—was able to secure 74 million votes in this year’s presidential election. If celebrity culture was burning in March, celebrities soon found a way to harness the combustible energy.

And while several stars reported testing positive for covid-19 (including megastars like Tom Hanks, Madonna, The Rock, Idris Elba, Kanye West, and Bad Bunny), there were few casualties. People’s list of Celebrities We Lost to Coronavirus in 2020 contains not a single A-lister and, in fact, few bona fide celebrities at all. That most of the list is people of note who worked in the entertainment industry hardly seems like a coincidence. With fame comes money, and with money comes access to exceptional medical care. All the resentment in the world couldn’t undo this simple fact.

With fame comes money, and with money comes access to exceptional medical care. All the resentment in the world couldn’t undo this simple fact.

Repeatedly, discourse set out to disprove the cheeky Us Weekly maxim “Stars—They’re just like us!” We weren’t living in mansions that we could compare to prisons, like Ellen DeGeneres; we weren’t sitting in expensive bathtubs surrounded by rose petals while proclaiming the coronavirus the “great equalizer” like Madonna.

But celebrities and civilians alike are prone to fucking up, sharing their fuck-ups on social media, and then apologizing for their mistakes. This system belongs to all of us. Kardashians party maskless on a private island; so do (mostly unknown) gay men. Josh Brolin visited his famous father and stepmother (James Brolin and Barbra Streisand) way before it was socially acceptable to make contact; so did a lot of people come Thanksgiving. Bryan Adams ranted about how coronavirus impacted him (cancelled shows); so did hordes of anti-maskers. In March, Vanessa Hudgens said she thought lockdown sounded like bullshit and that deaths were inevitable; people declared her over, despite her apology. (Hey look here she is driving a Ferrari in November.) Rita Ora threw a 30-person indoor party in November, apologized, and was fined $10,000. That’s likely chump change even for a hall-of-famer Who.

“I’m deeply sorry for breaking the rules and in turn understand that this puts people at risk,” read part of Ora’s apology. “This was a serious and inexcusable error of judgment.” Indeed, and unless she happened to miss the preceding pandemic months, Ora knew exactly what she was doing and almost certainly realized ahead of time that an apology would easily absolve her transgression. The calculated risk reminds me of that which some rule-bending commercial fisherman take: “If an operator is caught, for instance, fishing with too fine a net, the fine and confiscation are seen as a cost of doing business,” The Economist reported earlier this year. “Many pay up and head straight back out to sea.” A public apology is a minor tax for living one’s rule-flouting best life in full public view.

“Sorry my bad wasn’t trying to make nobody feel bad,” went Cardi B’s apology after sharing that she had hosted nearly 40 people for Thanksgiving. “I just had my family in my home for the first time and it felt so good & uplifted me.” As if to reinforce her privilege (which, in true privileged form, she seems oblivious to), she also revealed that she spent “soo much money” getting her attendees tested and that she and “everyone that works around me” get tested “literally 4 times a week.”

And that will probably be the last we hear of it. This do-first-apologize-later system works only with the public’s participation. A system without tangible consequences has little to teach anyone on either side of those consequences.

To be clear, I don’t think someone should be crucified for saying something stupid or breaking social distancing. But the manner in which celebrity blowback tends to blow over is indicative of celebrity’s continued stronghold on culture. In retrospect, I think there are several ways to interpret the think-piece-based backlash against celebrities early in the pandemic. One is the manner in which one’s feed can shape thinking, the extended mind of it all. If you see many people shitting on something, it’s easy to believe it is being universally shit on (never mind that Godot’s Instagram post with the “Imagine” video has over 1.5 million likes).

Feed-centric thinking has long been compared to existing within a bubble, and this has been a year of turning inward and cordoning ourselves off. Our bubbles’ shells have only hardened and been made literal. In some cases, too, I suspect that the premature dances on the grave of celebrity culture were ultimately self-owns of their writers. Celebrities have been visibly living better than and getting away with more than civilians for some hundred years in this country; it took a pandemic that looked as if it might leave all but the mega-rich unscathed for some (less but decidedly still) privileged people to have adequate concrete evidence of the inequity that cements our social order.

I do think that the manner in which celebrity blowback tends to blow over is indicative of celebrity’s continued stronghold on culture.

What’s fascinating about this particular moment is that the rollout of a coronavirus vaccine will require another sort of ranking that should shuffle the social strata entirely. Essential workers—long unsung and underpaid, certainly compared to famous actors and musicians—should be among the first in line to be vaccinated. Obviously. Don’t be surprised, however, when the rich and powerful—the segment of the population most visibly embodied by our stars—skip the line, as if for a nightclub. Whereas in superficial scenarios such as nightlife, the difference between them and us was ultimately low stakes, the difference in the case of vaccine distribution is closer to that of life and death.

We’ve seen signs of covid-19 celebrity privilege already: Cardi’s resources that allow infinite testing, the prioritizing of testing the NBA earlier this year, influencer Arielle Charnas’s ability to obtain testing earlier in the pandemic when supplies were deathly scarce, Trump’s experimental antibody cocktail, Florida declaring members of the WWE “essential workers.” There is absolutely no reason to believe that this won’t continue, that privilege will straighten out and fly fair. As the vaccine unrolls, there may be renewed ire directed toward the privileged. There’s no evidence said ire will overturn our societal structure.

It sure didn’t earlier this year during the celebrity-is-over thinkpiece cycle. Using (relatively) scant instances of backlash to prove the lessened status of celebrity is like citing toxins in the air to argue that we’re all choking. We aren’t yet. We’re still breathing (minus the 300,000+ American lives that coronavirus claimed), and as long as we have extra time and attention, it will be trained to society’s fortunate. To truly change our social structure, we’re gonna need a bigger cataclysm. Whether it’s environmental collapse, an even deadlier pandemic, or devastating warfare, it will pummel us to such an extent to make us long for the days when we had celebrities to complain about and hang our grievances on. Be afraid of that which finally breaks our gaze.

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