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What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity

by Tom Payne

Paperback, 274 pages, St Martins Pr, List Price: $16 |


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What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity
Tom Payne

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Book Summary

In a comparison of modern celebrity culture to the classics, the author draws parallels between the society's perception of such celebrities as Britney Spears and Michael Jackson and figures from Greek mythology.

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NPR stories about Fame

Singer Britney Spears arrives at the 2009 Teen Choice Awards. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images hide caption

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Fame

A Certain Sacrifice: What Was Britney
Telling Us When She Cut Her Own Hair?
You do have to sacrifice your freedom when
you're in this business, but it's a small price
to pay for all the good.
Britney Spears Heart to Heart (2000)
And shall my life, my single life,
Obstruct all this?
Iphigenia at Aulis
i. Hey, Britney, I hear you want to lose control
At 7 P.M., Tarzana, California, was getting dark.* It was that sinister time the French call entre chien et loup, when the world turns onto its wilder side. Esther's Hair Salon had shut for the night. That didn't stop Britney Spears. She strode up to the door and demanded admission. When Esther Tognozzi recognized the singer, she opened the shop. Britney Spears entered, trailing long, mucky, black locks and, behind them, a couple of tall bodyguards.
In Tognozzi's account, Britney comes across as solemn. She asked the hairdresser to shave her head. The hairdresser said that she would rather not, and proposed what she later called "less drastic solutions." She was concerned about being sued, but seems unintimidated nonetheless, and said, "Please, let's not have a hormonal moment." Still, "She was on a mission," said Tognozzi. "She had made up her mind that she was shaving her head before she came in."
So what happened next was completely up to Britney Spears. Tognozzi even tried good-cop interrogation techniques to make her reconsider, such as talking about babies; but babies have always been a tricky subject for Britney. According to J. T. Tognozzi, Esther's husband, "She grabbed the shears and just started shaving her head." As she did so, a crowd gathered outside to watch. When she was halfway through, like a monk with a mullet, she turned to her audience, some of whom had cameras ready, and beamed a sustained smile.
It is that smile that has convinced so many, including Esther Tognozzi, that the whole thing was a per for mance, a publicity stunt. If so, was Britney seeking publicity for its own sake, or trying to tell us something? It led others to speculate on the cultural history of women with shaven heads. One journalist, Patrick Barkham, invoked Joan of Arc's spirit, and another, Lisa Appignanesi, recalled Théroigne de Méricourt, the courtesan who became a symbol of French revolutionary fervor but who ended up in an asylum, bald as a victim on the guillotine's scaffold. Barkham offers the precedent of Greek slaves.
Does any of this explain why Britney Spears did what she did that night? Was it something apparently spontaneous, and yet for public consumption, along the lines of the sex tapes that are leaked with the connivance of those having the sex? Britney has been capable of similarly desperate ploys, and, according to Vanessa Grigoriadis, went so far as to conceal the existence of her second child, Jayden; as the journalist put it, she was "hoping for a big payday."* (So no wonder she wasn't going to talk to a hairdresser about babies.) It might well have been a performance. But did it really mean that much? Maybe she really needed a haircut. Esther Tognozzi thought so, and pointed out that Britney had "about four inches" of real hair beneath her extensions: "Maybe she just got sick and tired of all the extensions and chemicals in her hair, and maybe she just want[ed] a new beginning," she said. "It's only hair. It grows back." This sounds pretty convincing (if inconsistent with the other Tognozzi theory). But was it so urgent that Britney needed to batten on Esther's locked door when she was sweeping up clippings or counting change?
It's worth seeing if there's anything in those comparisons with the tonsures of the past. She might not have said, "I want to go with a Théroigne de Méricourt look for a bit," nor have had Joan of Arc much in mind. But the urgency of it, and the openness of it, does suggest something subconscious and irrational--Britney losing control.
So either her head needed a fresh start, or else she really was trying to tell us something. To suggest that Britney's gesture was an attempt to communicate with her audience is to make stalkers out of all of us. By this definition, fans and detractors alike would be looking at celebrities' actions and constructing intimate messages. He's wearing that tie. It's the tie I like best on him. He loves me back.
But is this so silly in Britney's case? What if we could, collectively, be stalkers? In so many ways, society can and does act as a faceless beast. It is how we come to call ourselves a society. Émile Durkheim, the French thinker often considered to be a founding father of sociology, wrote, "It is through common action that society becomes self-aware. . . . The collective feelings and ideas that determine its unity and character must be maintained and confirmed at regular intervals." If this weren't true, fame wouldn't work. People are famous when lots of people know about them. It helps if the famous people wanted the fame in the first place; but once they're in our hands, we decide just how famous, and for how long.
Certainly this was true when the word was invented. In Latin, fama has a spectrum of meanings, not many of them polite.* It is closest to the idea of Rumor. The word itself comes from the Greek word pheme, meaning speech; and the Greek word for fame is kleos, meaning something heard. This allows for a whole game of telephone, and of misunderstandings; but ultimately, the result is some kind of consensus. "Gossip" is one English equivalent for fama, although there's also a sense that this is the kind of gossip crowds agree to be true.
In Virgil's Aeneid, when the African queen Dido begins her affair with Aeneas, up pops Fame to spread the news. Her techniques are as lethal as TMZ:
No other malice goes faster than fame;
growing with movement, strengthening as it goes,
first little, fearful, soon striding the winds,
it treads the earth, but hides its head in clouds . . .
the horrid huge monster has many wings
beneath which, strange to say, are vigilant eyes,
and each eye has a pricked ear, tongue and voice.
Before long, a story coheres, and Fame has done her work: "Foul fame spreads this to people's mouths passim."
This creature was doing its work as it spotted the happenings in Tarzana and strode about the globe; the only difference these days is that it doesn't start off little and fearful. Once a tale has been uploaded or bought by a network, Fame has all the confidence it needs. And then, even quicker than before, the same talk is on mouths everywhere. Before long, we reach a kindred feeling about Britney; we feel like society as Durkheim defined it. We can feel as one, and we feel as convinced as a stalker that what we feel is true. We could do this with the guidance of the media, who have been apt to link her action with suicide attempts. We could do it by consulting bloggers who believe these reports. We could do it by blogging for ourselves. And we could end up agreeing with whoever it is on YouTube, calling him or herself saobsidian, whose comment on the footage of Britney's number-one cut is, "Don't you love seeing someone self-destruct in the fast lane? muaHAHAHA!"
So we think (don't we?) that Britney Spears is telling us something. She might be; she might not be. The matter seems to be out of her control. We pick up the signals emitted by luminaries, and do what we want with them. What great ones do, the less will prattle of. The result is myth. But we have to ask ourselves what myth is. Myths, after all, tell us little about anything that really happened in the universe ever, and yet they do tell us almost everything about ourselves. They tell us the grim truths about humanity that we would struggle to express otherwise--those desires so unspeakable that we have to evolve a kind of code.
And if we link Britney's haircut to her self-destruction, what are we learning about our own needs?
Our needs might not always be like those of the ancient Greeks, those shavers of slaves; but they knew a lot about control and the irrational. They were at once sophisticated thinkers and prey to primitive urges. They managed to analyze the disturbing rituals and actions of the past, and to preserve vestiges of them. And in common with other societies, they placed enormous importance on hair.
ii. Like a virgin
In the age of legends and heroes, there was a young mortal man called Hippolytus, who hated the idea of sex. He poured all his energies into hunting. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, took such offense at this that she accused him of "consorting with Artemis," the goddess of hunting, and of not having sex, and quickly resolved to kill him. Artemis could do nothing to stop this; but when the hero's body lay heaving its last, having been gored by a bull from the sea--a symbol of bottomless, surging energy--she offered him a lasting fame. That fame was to take the form of a cult:
To you, poor man, instead of these travails,
I give great honors in the Trozen town:
throughout deep time, before their wedding days
unyoked maidens will cut their hair for you;
the great grief of their tears shall be your tribute.
In his play Hippolytus, the tragedian Euripides slips in this passage to explain an ancient custom his audience would have known about, and he is linking the practice to a character whose celibacy made him famous. But what about the practice itself? Other writers picked up on it, because it really did last a long time. The travel writer and historian Pausanias was writing about it in the second century A.D., roughly six hundred years after Euripides' play: "Each virgin cuts her hair before the marriage, and bears up the snips, carrying them to the temple." The fate of Britney's locks would be to arrive at that new kind of public site of worship, eBay. Lucian, also writing in the second century, says that men would cut their hair, too. There is more than an echo of this in Orthodox Jewish wedding ceremonies, in which the bride cuts her hair, and covers her head with a wig, called a sheytl. Only her husband is allowed to see the hair that grows in its place.*
To offer one's hair is a rite of passage. There are instances of this from all over the world: Fiji, Cambodia, Assam, Central America, and some tribes in Africa. Among Eastern European Jews, there would be a party to celebrate a child's first haircut. Like nail clippings and foreskins, hair is believed to contain the owner's personality, even when it's cut off. The women celebrating Hippolytus are sacrificing a part of themselves, and saying good-bye to it.
Now, Britney's career has been a rapid sequence of good-byes--not just to her children, with whom the courts do not trust her, nor to her husband, Kevin Federline. As Vanessa Grigoriadis reported in Rolling Stone:
She has pushed away her family: her brother and father, her sister, Jamie Lynn, whom she speaks to on the phone and sees rarely; and her mother, Lynne, whom Britney considers poisonous.
Well, to say good-bye to your hair is really a proxy for saying goodbye to something else; and if haircuts are as important as all that, then in Tarzana Britney was delivering more than a kiss-off to her coiffeuse. Unlike the maids weeping at the shrine of Hippolytus, the entertainer never really gave her chastity a decent farewell.
You could argue that the hair came off rather late--a long, long time after the Justin Timberlake tryst, for example--but the transition that other singers have handled in so practical, even formulaic a way was a much more muddled business with Britney. Nelly Furtado announced that she was no longer "like a bird" with her song "Maneater"; Christina Aguilera demurred in "Genie in a Bottle," with her body saying yes but her heart the opposite, but was unambiguous in "Dirrty," where the heart has little to tell someone who is "sweating till [her] clothes come off." And what could be clearer than when Rihanna (or her people) called a transitionary album Good Girl Gone Bad? One waits for the next crop of pop starlets to grow up in this formulaic display of public image metamorphosis.
The affair of Britney Spears, on the other hand, was tenebrous from the start. She began her singing and dancing life as a card-carrying member of the Mickey Mouse Club. In a book she and her mom composed together, she ends up saying, "I've been in a couple of clubs where people are drinking a lot and doing drugs and I'm like, 'Get me out of here!' I don't understand that behavior--it's just so uncalled for." This book is a tragic document in every sense, in which a mother and daughter appear to be interested in protecting the latter's innocence by placing her firmly by the hearth; and yet this is the time of her very debut album, . . . Baby One More Time, in which she presented herself as a mutinous high-school girl who needed a smack. The audience could see that she hadn't sacrificed her hair; they couldn't be so sure that she hadn't sacrificed her virginity. The fact that she was once virginal and innocent is an important part of her act, and she has played with it, by, for example, sporting a top that says, I'M A VIRGIN, BUT THIS IS AN OLD SHIRT.
Given all this ambiguity, there had to be some kind of statement from Britney the artist. It came in 2002, around the time she was turning twenty-one, with the song "Overprotected," which could be read as the beginning of the good-byes--a circular letter to anyone with a stake in her future. It could remind us of the ancient Greek women who, at their marriage ceremonies, would offer their toys, such as balls or tambourines, to Artemis. With hindsight, though, if we take this as having anything to do with her life, it could point to the moment when Britney Spears allowed her life to become chaos.
In any case, it took her further up the hierarchy of things people are prepared to sacrifice for fame in its broadest sense, even if she did it in the wrong order. It should be hair first, then chastity, and then--we shall see. Still, the passage into adulthood can lead to its own kind of renown; with any luck, good renown. For the women mourning and honoring the chaste Hippolytus, the crossing from maid to wife was traumatic and inevitable. But there was at least a sort of fame they could earn from it. The Greeks called it eukleos--good reputation. The good reputation came from being married and doing nothing wrong.* In ancient Greece, the standards were already pretty high, and being seen outside was bad enough. Women were expected to marry when they were about thirteen years old, to a man of about thirty. And failure to do this, or to produce children shortly afterward, could produce its own kind of shame. (So people are allowed to be proud, too, and Britney Spears had her own way of showing pride in childbirth: People magazine, which had given her 1 million for her wedding photographs, paid her the same again for pictures of her firstborn, Sean Preston; hence, the expectation of a pricey epiphany for her second baby, Jayden.)
This automatic bad fame has been hard to shake. One custom that persisted into the twentieth century in some Mediterranean countries was the displaying of the wedding bedsheets to show that the bride was chaste. This in turn harked back to the passage in Deuteronomy ruling that if a man slandered his new wife, then the father must bring the sheets to the elders. If the groom was lying, he was chastised and fined; if the bride was lying, she was stoned to death.
These days, it isn't so bad to be bad. Madonna let it be known that losing her virginity was a career move. If we take her seriously about this, then we see her sacrificing something in the name of fame itself. The story becomes a part of the process. Unlike Christina Aguilera, or Nelly Furtado, there was no simulacrum of innocence at the start of her career: Her first album included the songs "Borderline" and "Burning Up"; her second album, Like a Virgin, reminded us that the chastity she sacrificed can be remembered but not retrieved. She won fame for being sexual, and one of the ways in which she sealed the deal was with sex. It might well be the case that her later dalliances with record producers and musicians, including Prince, were career motivated, and, as she has been eager to explain, mutually beneficial; but this is all part of the Madonna myth. The truth is much too sweet to be well known: She lost her virginity to a man named Russell Long, who now works as a trucker for the United Parcel Service.
All this activity points us toward the highest, most eye-catching sacrifices of all--the sacrifices of the self. In some ways they are interchangeable. The French speak of la petite mort, and the use of "die" to indicate a sexual sort of completion litters madrigals and plays from the Renaissance onwards. It provides the double entendres that link the bawdy laughs to the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. Jokes on the word "die" rely on the play between the impossibility of dying more than once in one sense and the possibility of dying lots of times in the other sense. In a song from his play Marriage a-la-Mode (1673), John Dryden offered progressive advice on how repeated mortification can lead to bigger, better deaths:
Thus intranc'd they did lie,
Till Alexis did try
To recover new breath, that again he might die:
Then often they died; but the more they did so,
The nymph died more quick, and the shepherd more slow.
From famous people, we want many things; and famous people become famous because they deliver. They must give of themselves in as many senses as they can. On one level--one sense of dying--we want them to be ours completely, and to know them intimately. On the other, we take some share, and even some satisfaction, in their deaths. A death tells a story that is familiar to all of us, and we want to know the details, however gory. Homer's audience wanted to know just where the spear or arrow struck a victim, and all about the exit wound; the world received daily, then even more frequent updates on the demise of Pope John Paul II; Farrah Fawcett confronted her own death, and shaved off her hair, in front of ten million viewers. It is one reason why obituary pages have such allure: Certainly we grieve for the men and women memorialized there, but this gives us a chance to share that feeling of loss and pain. It brings us together in a way that makes us civilized, however odd that might seem. When civilization itself was still emerging, we brought ourselves together in even more dramatic ways.
iii. If I die to night, at least I can say / I did what I wanted to do
If Britney didn't think of herself as Théroigne de Méricourt, even less can she have wanted to be a cow or a goat in some Athenian temple. But let us try looking at what those holy beasts experienced in their last hours, and why the Greeks put them through it; and why people did these things to people.
One of the most gripping accounts of a Greek sacrifice comes from Euripides' tragedy Electra. In Euripides' plays, whenever we hear of sacrifice, we become aware of grislier precedents, when humans were offered to the gods. Here the echo comes because the man offering the sacrifice, Orestes, uses the occasion to kill Aegisthus. Commenting on the drama, the British classical scholar J. D. Denniston gives a calm account of the usual procedure:
* The place takes its name from Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, whose creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, owned the land.
* Rolling Stone, February 21, 2008.
* If the Romans wanted to talk about fame in a good sense, they would use some other word: Lewis and Short's Latin Dictionary offers such peaches as gloria, laudatio, plausus, and dignitas.
* There was a space for weeping in the proceedings, too: In traditional services around the Yiddish-speaking world, a man called a badkhn would make up verses with the aim of making the bride cry, then laugh. An album by Budowitz called Wedding without a Bride re-creates some of this gloriously, with excellent liner notes.
* In Hippolytus, Aphrodite's plan to kill Hippolytus involves killing his stepmother, Phaedra, too. She's only a little regretful about this: "Phaedra will be eukleos, but she dies all the same" (47-48).

FAME Copyright © 2009, 2010 by Tom Payne