Celebrity Culture & the Triumph of Ordinariness

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    • 00:11

      JOSHUA GAMSON: Hello.My name is Joshua Gamson, and I'ma professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco.I'll be discussing today the rise of ordinarinessin American celebrity culture over the past coupleof decades.I'll be covering the following points.First, I'm going to offer a definition of celebrityculture, and describe its main components.Then, I'll describe briefly what can be gained

    • 00:33

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: by studying celebrity culture.Next, I'll focus on attention in American celebrity culture.Between the idea that fame is earned and the ideathat celebrity is artificially produced.Then I'll zero in on the triumph of the ordinary in celebrityculture.That is, of ordinary people becomingfamous, and famous people being presented as ordinary.

    • 00:55

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: In particular, I'm going to describehow both reality TV and social mediahave contributed to the rise of online celebrity.Lastly, I'll consider the questionof whether these changes amount to a democratization of fame.Let's start with the Oscars.

    • 01:16

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: When you watch the Oscars, it's like watching old schoolcelebrity.It's kind of a nostalgic ceremony.There's the red carpet.There's movie stars.There's cheering fans.There's the fashion.There's the TV cameras.The click, click, click.There's the self congratulatory camaraderieof a cultural elite.It's just a big production.

    • 01:37

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: There, famous people are more specialand pretty and glamorous and luckyand deserving of attention than the rest of us.But turn to another channel and you find people of all sorts,from the Kardashians to say, the contestants on Cupcake Wars.Who are neither perceived to be nor claimingto be extraordinary.Or turn to social media channels like YouTube,

    • 02:01

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: and you can find people who are famous for eating cinnamon,for going shopping, for applying makeup, or playing video games.That is, ordinary people who have become so well known,in fact, that several of them were invited to interviewthe President of the United States,but whom most Americans have never heard of.So some people might wonder, aren't famous people supposed

    • 02:23

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: to be A-- people everyone has heard of,and B-- somehow extraordinary?The answer, of course, is no.Which is the puzzle that I want to talk about today.So there's a whole slew of huge celebritieswho operate mainly out of living rooms, who could reallybe anybody down the street, and have fans in the millions.

    • 02:44

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: Meanwhile, over on reality television and social media,we're also being regularly reminded-- quite relentlessly--that celebrities are ordinary folks just like us.As they compete say, on Celebrity Apprentice,and they offer constant Twitter updateson what they're thinking and eating and wearing.That's what I want to grapple with here.What is with all this ordinariness?

    • 03:06

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: As opposed to earlier periods, where American celebrities werea distinct class of extraordinary people,living extraordinary lives-- theywere called the powerless elite by one scholar.Celebrity culture is increasingly populated nowby unexceptional people who have become famous,and by celebrities who have been made ordinary.

    • 03:26

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: What are we to make of all of this?How did it happen?What, if anything, is really new,and what is its significance?Let's first take a step back.To put these questions in context,let's take a look at what celebrity culture actually is.I think the best way to do that is to break it down

    • 03:48

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: into its key elements.Celebrity is, to begin with, a currency and a commodity.The commodity is basically embodied attention.So the value of the celebrity inheresis in her capacity to attract and mobilize attention.Which is then typically attached to other products,like a TV show or a magazine coveror a record album or an advertisement.

    • 04:10

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: Or else sold for cash directly to peoplemaking those other entertainment products.Sold basically in the form of getting a job.Secondly, celebrity is also an industry.Historically, celebrity has been actively producedby a tightly controlled, centralized, wellresourced industry.A set of linked institutions centered mostly

    • 04:31

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: in Los Angeles and New York.So publicists and entertainment journalists,along with celebrities and their teams,negotiate how the celebrity's life story gets told.Third, celebrity culture is also a set of narratives or stories.Not just about famous people, but about fame itself.About the machinery of publicity.About what is and isn't admirable.

    • 04:51

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: And about distinguishing the fake from the real.The private self from the publicly presented one.And fourth, celebrity is also a participatory culturalactivity.Some people use celebrity storiesto say, fantasize about a different life.Some to construct their identities,or to model themselves on people they admire or envy.

    • 05:11

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: Many people use them as fodder for connectingsocially with one another by gossipingabout the behavior and relationships of these commonlyheld figures.Or just to talk about the difference between what's realand what's fake.So celebrity culture is comprised of human commoditieswho have more or less attention getting capacity,

    • 05:32

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: and whose lives are offered up as a means to gettingattention.Industries that generate and exchangeof these commodities, a set of stories,and participants or consumers whogenerate their own activities conversations and meanings.These elements hint at some of the reason sociologistsand others consider celebrity culture important to study.

    • 05:52

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: First, who a society directs its attention towardscan reveal core values of the society.For instance, some societies might give a lot of attentionto the lives of people who are marked by great achievement,reminding people of the value of hard work.Others might give attention to people who are entertainers,reminding people of the value of leisure and of pleasure.

    • 06:13

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: Celebrity culture may show us whatis central to a particular society,at a particular time by showing us its idols.At the same time, the celebrity systemmay also have an impact on the core values of the society.So celebrities may encourage an emphasis on consumption,or promote the idea that with hard work anyonecan become successful, or serve as role models

    • 06:35

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: after which people fashion their own identities and behaviors.Secondly, we study celebrity because celebrity constitutesits own status system alongside other sources of social status,like gender, race, wealth, or professional standing.Being famous comes with societal resourcesand societal prestige that place some people above others.

    • 06:57

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: So understanding celebrity is thereforepart of understanding social inequality and social statussystems.Third, celebrity is also its own industry,and its a central one within the global entertainment system.Since celebrity is deliberately pursued and producedand managed and used and disseminated by profit makingorganizations primarily, understanding

    • 07:19

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: how celebrity culture works as an industrycan give us insight into how global entertainmentindustries do their work.Lastly, celebrity culture is widely consumed, clearly,through television, magazines, internet sites, movies,and other media.Studying the people who consume celebrityand how they do that can thereforereveal important dynamics of fandom and of consumption.

    • 07:48

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: Ordinariness has actually been a themeof modern American celebrity culture since its beginningsin the early 20th century.In fact, two stories have kind of competed with one anotherover time.In one story, famous people are thosewho have earned admiration and attention becauseof their extraordinary achievement,or their extraordinary qualities,or their extraordinary talent.

    • 08:09

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: In other words, in that story, fame is a meritocracy.In the other story, famous peopleget attention because they have been selected and producedby an industry who benefits from them.That is, it's a story that fame is manufactured.Artificially produced.Displays of ordinariness have actually often served

    • 08:30

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: to mediate between these two storiesby showing the real behind the manufactured celebrity image.However, some scholars argue that celebrityhas entered a new phase in which the theme of ordinariness thathas been a persistent part of American celebrity discoursefor over a century has now basically taken over.So let's turn next to the question

    • 08:50

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: of how that has happened.Let's look at the concrete forces behind the riseof ordinariness.Two things really.New television programming strategies-- especiallyreality television-- and new technologies--especially online and social media.

    • 09:11

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: So-called reality television developedin the late 1980s in response to changing economic conditionsin Hollywood.This is a programming strategy in which ordinarinessis absolutely essential.Reality television works by reversingthe logic of celebrity.Rather than relying on people with specialized training,a track record, or a proven attention getting power,

    • 09:31

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: the idea is to take civilians-- that'swhat I call them anyway-- often with no special abilitiesor achievements, and turn them into entertainment.If they then become celebrities, all the better.But celebrity is a consequence of rather than a prerequisitefor being on television.This has advantages for producers in that reality TV

    • 09:52

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: contestants or performers are basically commodities ownedby the company that produced them,since without that company they would not be celebrities.The labor is also inexpensive and easilyreplaced given that there's a vast oversupplyof ordinary people seeking visibility and celebrity.The celebrity that's produced is relatively cheap, novel,

    • 10:15

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: and short lived, in part because ittends to be so closely associatedwith the program that generated it.Making celebrities out of ordinary folksis not just one of reality TVs chief consequences,but it's also one of its main storylines.Think about some of the main genres of reality TVand how they work.On reality talent competitions like American Idol,

    • 10:35

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: or America's Next Top Model, or The Voice, any of those--the central story line is extensionally about findingthe best at and the most extraordinary.At the same time, the processes on dramatizingthe process by which ordinary people are transformed,commodified, branded, and marketed.The way they move from obscurity to celebrity, completely

    • 10:57

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: sometimes with screaming fans.That is, these shows dramatize, theytell the story of the process by which regular people aremade into celebrities.For example, on reality dramas, so-called ordinary peopleare followed, their interactions and relationshipsand especially conflicts, are presentedas melodramatic documentary.

    • 11:17

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: Through that process, ordinary people become celebrities,and that often becomes part of the storytelling.On the flip side, on other shows like Celebrity Fit Cluband Celebrity Apprentice and other programs like that,fading celebrity is revived through the displayof the ordinary lives of celebrities.Mostly has been celebrities.

    • 11:37

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: Filming celebrities ordinary lifeis the means of regaining or maintaining their fame.As these celebrities purportedly show that they are real people,free of the artifice of the star system in which they'reworking so hard to remain.So in short, reality television--which is essentially a financially strategic formof programming-- has done a couple of things.

    • 11:59

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: It's opened up a large space for so-called ordinary peopleto become celebrities, often without the old Hollywoodstar making machine.And it has accentuated storytellingabout that process by which a nobody becomesa somebody, often through the proud commodification of self.

    • 12:22

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: There's no question that the internet and social mediaare changing the face of celebrity culture.In many ways, of course, they simplyextend the reach of the existing entertainment industry.Which tends to use online marketingas another outlet for fame that's achieved in other media.More significantly though, new digital technologies have also

    • 12:44

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: given rise to a semi autonomous, bottom up,do it yourself celebrity production systemthat further promotes ordinary celebrity.In the old Hollywood based celebrity system,a person had to navigate the tight gatekeeping structure that was alreadytipped towards the young, the beautiful, and or talented.

    • 13:05

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: The internet drastically expandedthe pool of potential celebritiesby lowering the entry barriers.Basically, a computer and a bit of moxie and you've got a shot.And then bypassing the tightly controlled publicity systemand the tightly controlling middle people.This is also a celebrity arena in which the fans are extremelyactive in the creation of celebrity,

    • 13:27

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: since celebrity grows primarily through sharingand liking and tagging and favoriting and so on.So the role of consumers in making celebritiesis much more pronounced.In fact, many of the stories thatare being generated about celebrities and about celebrityas a phenomenon are therefore beingwritten outside of the Hollywood star system.

    • 13:48

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: And they are stories of regular people in their living roomsor out on the streets, turning themselvesinto attention getting and money making stars.Sometimes this different celebrity environmentjust means that sites like YouTube and apps like Vinebecome a launching pad for performers who wind uplooking much like other celebrities,but who manage to build an audience online

    • 14:10

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: that they then use to break into the offline entertainmentindustry.The more traditional entertainment industry.Justin Bieber is probably the most obvious example of that.In that way, the online celebrity systemis kind of like a farm system for the big leagues.But that's certainly not the whole picture.In fact, YouTube, Vine, and even Instagram

    • 14:30

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: have created a star system with its own celebrities.Who are known to most teenagers, and unknown to most others.These stars have their own conventions,sell out stadium events, their own production strategiesand distribution networks, their own merchandise,their own screaming fans, their own product placement revenue.

    • 14:51

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: They've attracted big media financing, and some of themmake six figures or more.This parallel star system has given riseto a distinctive celebrity culture in which ordinarinessis further promoted.The kinds of celebrities that are madetend to be quite different, in ways that once again workagainst the notion of celebrity as an extraordinary, rare

    • 15:12

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: status.For instance, many of those internet figureswho have become most widely knowntend to be about as far as one canget from the old image of the Hollywood star.One typical internet celebrity typeis the anti celebrity, for instance.A kind of collective in-joke in whichthe most unlikely candidate becomes the most celebratedcirculated star.

    • 15:34

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: These celebrities tend to be people with no special talentsor admirable qualities.Offering no claims to greatness, asidefrom some quirk that marks them as social outsiders often.They're self-made, not Hollywood commodities.A close relative of the anti-star staris the micro celebrity.Who is famous to a small communityof fans, who themselves participate directly

    • 15:56

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: in producing the celebrity.Some of what makes their fame micro is just its scope.And some of what makes the celebrity microis the way the fame is generated.Through the interactive disseminationof information about, or pictures from,one's everyday life.Self publicity has become so technologically easy,

    • 16:16

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: and the revelation of the ordinary self in every dayactivity becomes the mechanism of the attention getting.Nothing else seems to be needed.This is a celebrity system in which ordinariness,rather than extraordinary merit, and in which social closenessrather than social distance, are the basis for celebrity.Technology facilitates this push towards ordinariness.

    • 16:40

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: First, it involves two way interaction,the stars are in continual contact with the fansand often respond to them directly.On YouTube it's almost like they're Skyping or Facetimingyou.Second, the technology is always on,so these online stars feel like constant companions.Also you're often literally holding them in your hands.

    • 17:02

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: As journalist Ted Friend puts it,the experience is like carrying around a newborn puppy.Finally, because anybody with a computer or phonecan give it a try, there are many, many micro celebritieswith fans who know a lot about them.So online celebrities aren't stars above us,but buddies next door, or puppies in our hands.They're ordinary people like us, if more popular.

    • 17:30

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: So to sum this up, pressed forwardby reality television and social media,celebrity culture is characterizedby a vast increase in the spectacle of ordinary peoplebecoming celebrities, in the spectacle of celebritiesbeing shown to be entirely ordinary,and in the exposure of ordinary life as a means to celebrity.

    • 17:51

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: And the resurgence of the narrative that celebrityis a status of available to anyone, no matter how ordinary.So what?So what are we to make of all of this?In many ways, one can see in this--and many commentators have-- a further democratizationof fame.And the evidence for that is pretty strong.Access to celebrity status appears

    • 18:12

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: to have opened up radically for two reasons.First, people defined by being ordinaryhave been actively pursued as entertainment.And second, technologies that are notin control of elite Hollywood gatekeepers--and they're relatively easy and inexpensive to access--have become available.So access to celebrity has opened up.

    • 18:32

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: Also, celebrity cultivation has beenat least partly decentralized so that itis in the hands of many rather than a few.Through the internet in particular,the power of audiences to create celebrity, rather than simplyconsume it, appears to have dramatically increased.Finally, alternative visions of celebrity cultureseem to be thriving, and many of them

    • 18:54

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: are a lot more egalitarian than their predecessors.Some are against the industry-- antiindustrial, some are trying to evadethe commodification of celebrity,others celebrate the empowered self commodifying celebrity.Still others assert that ordinary lives reallycan be, at least for a bit, worthy of attention.

    • 19:15

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: However, I think it's premature to declarethat the rise of ordinary celebrityindicates a democratization of fame.There is actually considerable evidence against this claimtoo.For one thing, the emergence of a vast layerof short-lived, disposable celebrities,like reality TV stars, may serve to reinforce the valueand distinction of those at the top of the celebrity hierarchy.

    • 19:38

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: It's probably not coincidental, for instance,that the trend towards ordinarinesshas coincided with the popularizingof ranking celebrities, as like ABC and D list.The prevalence of d-list celebritiesmay actually serve to solidify the status of a-listers.Second, even if there is a lot of celebrity creation going

    • 19:58

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: on outside of the entertainment centers of Hollywoodin New York, the control center of celebrity culturehasn't shifted.At least not yet.The interests that are served, basicallyof those with the capital to give celebrity it's value,those interests remain primary.In fact, the internet may simply takea lot of the guesswork out of discovery

    • 20:20

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: by reducing the risks and the costsfor major entertainment companies,since aspiring celebrities basicallydo all the development and marketing for them.And digital celebrity still has nowherenear the social and commercial value of a good old fashionedTV appearance or studio contract.Internet users may be flexing their musclesat the moment of discovery of stars,

    • 20:42

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: but cyber stars still do tend to quickly tryto convert their online celebrityinto conventional Hollywood currency.In fact, the established entertainment industrycompanies are now jumping on, and also transforming,that parallel celebrity system that I described,and professionalizing it in the process.So DreamWorks and Disney and AT&T and the like

    • 21:05

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: have all snapped up their own multichannel networks,which develop and manage YouTube stars, for instance.YouTube itself is becoming more like a mainstream networkwith paid ads brought in by showsthat have been underwritten by major media companies,and produced in a major studio in LA.

    • 21:27

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: To conclude, I want to suggest to youthat the triumph of ordinary celebritymay be significant less because it indicatesa democratization of celebrity culture--as I said the evidence is mixed on that.Perhaps it's significant for whatit reveals about everyday understandings of publicness.That it both encourages and crystallizes.

    • 21:48

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: The ordinary turn in celebrity culture, I think,is ultimately part of a heightened consciousnessof everyday life as a public performance.An increased expectation that we're being watched.And a nagging sense that maybe the unwatched lifeis invalid or insufficient.It's part of a growing willingnessto offer up private parts of the self

    • 22:11

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: as indicators of authenticity, to watcherswho are both known and unknown.Taking this close look at celebrity cultureI hope illustrates both how and why sociologists of culturestudy celebrity.I suggested at the beginning of this discussionthat sociologists of culture study celebrity culturefor what it reveals about a society's values,

    • 22:31

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: and for how it shapes those values.They study it as a particular kind of status hierarchy.And as a prime example of commercial media productionand consumption.Here we've seen that celebrity cultureis a key site, at which societal values are worked through.In which questions about democracy,about the line between public and private, about authentic

    • 22:53

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: versus manufactured selves, are considered and reworked.We've also seen that the interaction between howcelebrity is produced, that we sawin the rise of reality television and social media,has an impact on what celebrity looks like.In this case, we saw how technological changesand industry changes have given rise

    • 23:13

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: to a focus on ordinary celebrity.As you move forward, you might consider these questionsabout celebrity culture.How has celebrity culture changed in your lifetime?And to what do you attribute these changes?What are the ways that consumers engage with celebrity culture?What do you think people get from viewing and reading aboutand thinking about celebrities.

    • 23:34

      JOSHUA GAMSON [continued]: And how might we go about studying that?Lastly, do you think the rise of ordinary celebrityis a positive social change?Why or why not?

Celebrity Culture & the Triumph of Ordinariness

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Professor Joshua Gamson discusses celebrity culture and the rise of ordinariness in American celebrity culture. American celebrity culture has been changed through the onslaught of reality TV and social media. Gamson discusses how these changes have occurred, how ordinary people have become famous, and how fame has been democratized.

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Celebrity Culture & the Triumph of Ordinariness

Professor Joshua Gamson discusses celebrity culture and the rise of ordinariness in American celebrity culture. American celebrity culture has been changed through the onslaught of reality TV and social media. Gamson discusses how these changes have occurred, how ordinary people have become famous, and how fame has been democratized.

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