Miscellany

The Hotness Menace

Roger Ebert's blistering takedown of what he calls the "CelebCult" delivers a well-earned beating to magazines and web sites supported by what would, without the intervention of cameras and thus "journalism," be easily classifiable as stalking. It's bad for us all, dealing daily in the details of whether Suri Cruise will or will not wear pants. Let us agree on that premise.

But because Ebert has bitten off so much — the publishing crisis, the AP's 500-word limit on everything from reviews to interviews, celebrity obsessions, the disappearance of critical critics — the piece is a little bit...all over the place. One of the things he doesn't directly address came roaring to the front of my mind as I perused the Rolling Stone "Hot List" for 2008: I have come to view hotness as the enemy of everything about pop culture that I enjoy. I hate hotness.

Why hotness is a menace, and what it's crowding out, after the jump...

And why? Because hotness is a vapid, ill-considered cheat so you don't have to discuss, think about, or take a position regarding the quality of anything. "You know what's hot? Twilight!" "Okay, but...is it good?" "Not the point! Not the point! Read these 1000 words on why it's hot!"

Consider the Rolling Stone list. Barack Obama is hot; so is Leighton Meester from Gossip Girl. The sport of winching is hot; so is genuinely brilliant musician Bon Iver.

The closest I can come to explaining what "hot" is supposed to mean in this context is something like: "Things you have already heard of, or things that everyone else has heard of except for you, and if anyone finds out you haven't heard of them, they'll make fun of you, so listen carefully." Your cultural currency now depends on being able to nod knowingly and say, "Ah, yes, Bon Iver; that folk singer who released that one 'icy moonscape of a record.'" Not because you've heard the record, but because you read about it on a Rolling Stone Hot List.

One journalistic advantage to the Hot List is that you cannot argue with it. Can you write to Rolling Stone and argue with the idea that Leighton Meester is hot? That winching is hot? Of course not; they are on the Rolling Stone Hot List, so if they were not hot before, they are hot now, because it is possible to become hot by being considered hot. It's all in the perception. It is possible to become hot against your will, or by association, or after you're dead.

If I tell you today that Judge Judy is hot, then that actually takes Judge Judy one step closer to being hot. She is hotter if I say she's hot than she is if I don't say she's hot, except that if I say she's hot and there are 100 comments saying she is not hot, then that might make her less hot than if I had never mentioned her at all. Hotness is invented and perpetuated by being recognized; "hot" is, in that sense, the least organic adjective we have.

If you wander through the recent news listings looking for the word "Hottest," you will see exactly what I mean. As of this writing, the results include Lonely Planet's possible endangering of the Bay Of Fires by naming it the "Hottest Travel Destination" of the year; a discussion of the continuing hotness of the Wii; and plenty of coverage of the aforementioned Suri Cruise being named the Forbes "Hottest Tot."

That's right: Hottest Baby. Hottest Person Who Is Younger Than The Socks You're Wearing Right Now. Forbes was kind enough to explain what, exactly, makes a two-year-old "hot":

To determine which tykes were tops, we looked at both press clippings and Web presence for more than 50 A-list kiddies (5-years-old and younger) over the course of a year. Then, with a whittled down list, we reached out to Los Angeles, Calif.-based polling firm E-Poll Market Research for both awareness data for the kids and consumer appeal rankings for their celebrity parents.

So it's essentially an index of who's already been covered the most, along with "awareness data" (the next frontier in parental one-upmanship: awareness data!) including the hotness of their parents. For the most part, it's a measure of which baby has already achieved the greatest media saturation. And how many "related articles" are there in which other publications report on the report on which baby they report on the most? At last count, 353.

Hotness is just what it advertises itself to be: a constant taking and retaking of our cultural temperature, not to identify what might be worthwhile or interesting, and not to comment on what it says about us that we choose to hot-ify graphic horror films or celebrity babies. It is telling you the thing you are most capable of determining for yourself; it is measuring the one quality you are best equipped to eyeball: ubiquity.

There is, with every question, the What, the So What?, and the Now What?. Hotness is stuck idling in the What. Vampires are hot: that's a What. But...So What? And...Now What? For this, you have to look beyond hotness, and a good start is to resolve to never, never, never care about Suri Cruise.

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