Monday, June 20, 2005

Celebrity crack

Maybe it's been said before, but celebrity weeklies like Us and People and Star and Life & Style and In Touch and so on function on the crack cocaine business model: They deliver a mind-vaporizing rush that allows you to be entirely absorbed with yourself and your fantasies for a few minutes and they leave you high and dry and panting for more. This is why so many of these more or less identical magazines can coexist in the same market. You finish one so quickly and it leaves you so empty that you can immediately turn to another for a reprise of the same high. Their repetitiveness is actually a selling point; the echo chamber they form with each other amplifies the high they create, the illusion of significance they peddle -- they work together to make their shared fantasy world more concrete, more compelling. Reading celebrity weeklies is essentially a role-playing game, and the more comprehensive the weekly coverage is, the more compelling the fantasy world, the easier it is to immerse yourself in it the way Everquest junkies get lost in theie computers.

So I wasn't surprised to see that OK!, a British celebrity weekly, will be launching an American edition. The innovation that OK! will introduce is their practice of paying celebrities directly for their cooperation with the manufacture of editorial content -- the stars get paid for their photographs rather than the paparazzi. This seems like a production nicety as far as the final product is concerned -- there's nothing that's not contrived about these magazines and the handiwork of PR people marks everything that makes it inside the covers already -- but that didn't stop People's managing editor from fretting about the potential loss of "credibility," in the Wall Street Journal's words, for celebrity weeklies. "Everything becomes a commodity," the managing editor complained, "That's not necessarily the true. There are people and situations that don't have a price." What on earth is she talking about? Is she trying to suggest that People and its ilk respect life experience and seek not to exploit it for profit? Are she saying that People respects the sanctity of certain experiences, that there is a kind of gossip that they wouldn't pass along? Is she suggesting that celebrity weeklies have credibility in the first place? Is she pretending her magazine has a connection to news?

One shouldn't make the mistake of confusing celebrity weeklies with news. News attempts to refelct reality, to report on events. Celebrity weeklies work to create fantasy worlds that reverberate the ideologies of home and family and fame that make people feel good and spice up their fantasy life. If you have to pay the performers who help elaborate that fantasy, nothing will be compromised.

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