Americans carry on a national conversation that’s driven by the media. You have to be connected to be a part of it. And I am profoundly unconnected when talk turns to popular culture.

I know what makes pop culture news because I spy it in headlines and I overhear conversations about it. But to me it’s white noise. It’s like the low din you hear coming from the freeway that’s five blocks from your house. You know it’s there and you know what it is, but you don’t give it any thought.

In recent weeks I’ve heard that Jay Leno replaced Conan O’Brien as the host of the Tonight Show but O’Brien is still making a lot of money and may be getting another show. I haven’t watched the Tonight Show for years and I’ve never seen Conan O’Brien do his thing. But you can’t help hearing about him.

My daily newspaper arrived about a week ago and I saw a headline that said Beyoncé had just won several Grammy awards. But who is Beyoncé? Her image passes in and out of my field of vision as I walk past newsstands or see TVs turned on in public places. I think she’s a popular singer and I may have even heard a recording of her during one of my many trips through the urban wilderness. But aside from that, I don’t know anything about Beyoncé and I’ve never formed an opinion about her.

This has been my reality for many years. In 1994 someone told me that rock star Kurt Cobain had committed suicide. I asked, “Who’s Kurt Cobain?”

We need famous people because we need people to talk about. They are the characters we cast in our folk tales. They are people to admire or despise.  The problem (for me) is that new communications technology and media competition have forged a celebrity manufacturing machine that generates product at a dizzying rate.

Andy Warhol summed up our obsession with fame by saying that soon everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. That’s only a slight exaggeration in an age when people are endlessly transformed into public figures for their talents, their beauty, their wealth, their misdeeds and their notorious use of fertility drugs.

If a person’s celebrity endures but their distinctions are unclear they are famous for being famous, a fact that is absurd but also logical in light of the gaping content hole the news and entertainment media need to fill every day.

The media are not the message but they do challenge us to decide what is really important for us to know, and making that decision speaks to our values. Celebrity culture values the individual, not the community. In a culture obsessed with stars it’s no wonder that CEOs of major companies make 200 times what the average company worker makes.

Okay… maybe I’m taking this too seriously. Maybe I just find information about the careers and personal lives of famous people to be boring and I’m not a big fan of most things that qualify as popular culture. And I’m not putting down Beyoncé. For all I know she’s the new Ella Fitzgerald.

But whether we’re famous or not, a hundred years from now very little of what we do will be remembered. I remember Garrison Keillor once saying he celebrates his children and grandkids because his family is the only thing he’s created that’s likely to last through the ages. So if you’re looking for celebrity news, watch your daughter’s soccer game and celebrate the joy that came from it. Read good books. And if you have no idea what music kids are listening to today, it doesn’t matter.


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One Comment on “Unconnected”

  1. Jim Fudge Says:

    Tom, I’m your dad and I agree with you. All the celeb stuff bores me too, and I don’t watch the guy at 11:30 either. Of course I know you’re not surprised. By 11:30 you’re mother is shaking me because of my snoring. Further, who are the Rolling Stones? a barbershop quartet?

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