Fame, Infamy, and Celebrity

The first two words that came to my mind about the Rolling Stone cover of The Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were “craven” and “disingenuous,” but they were followed by other words.

The craven part is easy. The magazine needs clicks, tweets, looks, dollars, and chatter. The cover aims for what it needs, in the most expedient, efficient way possible.

The cover is disingenuous because it denies the magazine’s own iconicity. With what must be faux naiveté, the editors act as if they don’t know that the Rolling Stone magazine cover itself is a cultural player, and semiotic. It’s something that signals culturally, to the extent that it becomes its own event, not merely an innocent, neutral conduit of an objective thing like the bomber’s selfie. To be on the cover of Rolling Stone is to have become a star, because you are on the cover. It’s a cultural tautology, but a real one. You know you’re a star because you’re on the cover of RS and you’re on the cover of RS because you’re a star.

Had this been the cover of, say, Foreign Policy, it might not have offended as many people, since celebrity and stardom isn’t the semiotic of that magazine, and it doesn’t have RS’s anointing celebrity authority. No one says, “I’ll know I’ve made it when I’m on the cover of Field & Stream,” or Cat Fancy. But they do, and have, said that about Rolling Stone.

Wouldn’t it be better if the editors just embraced the craven, and said, “look, magazines are dropping like flies, and we wanted to draw eyeballs?” Or, “it’s our business to generate buzz that generates clicks and ad dollars.”

As for the disingenuousness: The editors retort that the writer interviewed “dozens” of people, and try to hide the cover—ironically!--behind the article, and its seriousness of purpose.

The idea of the article is just fine. We should all seek to understand things deeper and better--even monstrous things like bombings. But nothing would have stopped the editor from praising the article to the skies, with any number of provocative cover photos, so the defense of the article is a non-sequitur to the critique of the cover.

Incidentally, the article belongs to the genre of Humanize the Monster (as RS itself calls the bomber) journalism that we’re familiar with by now. Take a criminal and get behind the criminal’s motives, background, lifestyle, and experiences. Typically, mothers get subtly blamed for their inadequacies, other adults for their obliviousness, and so on.

On the other hand, I can discern an inner if perhaps unwitting logic to the cover. Tsarnaev looks like an early Bob Dylan. He has the same glamorized disaffection that rock music, and rock stars, used to feed off of.

The story told about Tsarnaev shares contours with the rock star story, too: he was inadequately nurtured, promising but alienated, disillusioned with conventional society.

It’s just that a rock star picks up a guitar and translates his disaffection into music. The bomber picked up a bomb and translated his disaffection into murder.

Perhaps the ends to which each puts his disaffection no longer matter as much to us, although I dearly hope that that is not true.

Still, you have to worry that it is. The bomber, for example, has “fangirls.” I don’t pretend to understand what would drive someone to be a fangirl, and I have to wonder how someone who lost a child, or a leg, to the bomber’s attack feels about their existence, and I have to wonder if empathy is entirely withered today.

But the Bomber and his fangirls aren’t the only example. Aaron Hernandez has female fans on Twitter who defend him because they don’t care if he murdered, he’s sexy. He’s “too sexy” to spend his life in jail, one tweets. 

This parallels the obsession with hotness that surfaces in comments about professional women, even Wimbledon champs: Just as men judge only by hotness, these women judge only by sexiness. Sexiness eclipses the man’s evils; hotness eclipses the woman’s accomplishments. What a world.

Or, maybe this Rolling Stone cover and the fangirls and all the rest is what the celeb culture has wrought: we’ve finally arrived at the end of the tracks, the terminus of the Celebrity Emptiness line, at the station called Totally, All-Out Vapid, where the quality of one’s deeds—even if they’re murder—matter not so much, only the quantity of one’s celebrity.

There seems to be no difference anymore between fame and notoriety. Celebrity absorbs and trumps them both, and blurs the line between them.

Violence isn’t what it used to be. Disturbed posts on Facebook idealize rape. And, since I can’t seem to write a column anymore without fussing about Fifty Shades, the best-selling romantic hero of the young century has torture chambers. Fangirls idolize the monstrous; embrace the cruel.

Meanwhile victims, bystanders, firefighters, doctors, all non-celebrities, have a cold unreality to them. Crime itself seems to have an unreality to the fangirls.

T.S. Eliot sensed something “unreal” in culture at the turn to the 20th century, and modern life. Here we are in the 21st century, and in the bowels of post-modern life, and you’d have to say to him, if you want unreality? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

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