Volume 96, Issue 57
Friday, January 10, 2003

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Our obsession with the culture of celebrity

By Megan O'Toole and Maggie Wrobel
Gazette Staff

Although North Americans have been obsessed with celebrities since the days of silent film stars, this obsession seemed more profound than ever in 2002.

From the whirlwind relationship of J-Lo and Ben, to catching glimpses of Avril Lavigne's "back cleavage," to kids "becoming" their most idolized celeb for a day, the last twelve months have been a veritable heyday for America's celebrity-obsessed youth.

Following every move of their favourite celebrity has always been a popular hobby for Americans, but this year, television took this fascination to new heights by providing people with a window into the day-to-day life of a musical legend.

The Osbournes became MTV's biggest hit ever, providing the nation with an "all-access pass" into the home of the drugged-out, mindlessly gleeful, ever-engaging Ozzy Osbourne. Kept in line by brilliant manager/marketer Sharon Osbourne, Ozzy – along with the couple's sullen son Jack and their punky daughter Kelly – was welcomed into the homes of millions of American.

Not content at simply allowing Americans to watch celebrities, MTV also cooked up a scheme to allow Jon from Connecticut (or any other generic teen like him) a chance to live his dream and actually "become" his favorite celebrity. MTV's Becoming is a strange phenomenon, showing kids that, if they're not happy with their own mundane lives, there's still hope for them to become someone else – if only for a few hours.

But no TV show could compare with the success of Fox's Star Search-esque soap opera, American Idol. Hundreds of young hopefuls poured in to try out for the show, some with the full knowledge that this would probably be their only chance for a Hollywood-style "big break."

Although a nation of teens was glued to their TV sets throughout the show's run, winner and "American Idol" Kelly Clarkson is already facing one-hit wonder status and accusations of cheating to win her shot at the big time. Not exactly a perfect example for impressionable, starry-eyed youngsters.

But, if any one artist in 2002 set the example for fame-starved teens all over North America, it was a teenage girl from a small, northern Ontario town.

No one had a bigger year than Napanee's Avril Lavigne. Her instant fame wasn't surprising, considering her calculatingly polished "punk rock" look, catchy pop hooks and the support of record industry mogul L.A. Reid.

Rather, what was surprising was the amount of fiery backlash and the seemingly instant army of "haters" that Lavigne inspired. Following closely at the heels of Lavigne's fame came a trail of accusations: she used to be a country singer! She doesn't write her own music! The punk look is just a clever facade to help her sell records!

Of course, at the same time, the people making such accusations rarely chose to do little more than complain. These very people are the same ones continually buying into an industry of "cool" – an industry that makes someone who looks like Lavigne an instant superstar.

Yet for every star that rises in the media world, another one falls, and 2002 was no exception to this long-standing rule.

Former icons Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson all made headlines with bizarre behavior and very public meltdowns – including the rather disturbing disintegration of Jackson's nose – and both the media and the public were absolutely unmerciful.

Michael Jackson is perhaps the most notable example of this phenomenon, as he has done almost a complete 180 since his Thriller days. Someone who was once considered the true "King of Pop" is now mocked for his freakish plastic-surgery mishaps and bizarre behaviour. The "King," now dubbed by the media as "Wacko Jacko," has fallen into the pit of public ridicule.

Is the public truly so fickle that their opinions can be fundamentally altered by the media? Can magazines and television shows cause people to lose all respect for a person whom they once idolized?

Unfortunately, in today's media-driven world, the answer is yes. It's easier for the public to jump on the bandwagon of "celebrity-hating," rather than to stand up for the stars who may not be cranking out the current hits, but who contributed greatly to the history of the entire entertainment industry.

Overall, 2002 was a year that emphasized, rather than altered, the key issues at the heart of a celebrity-obsessed nation. To borrow the lyrics of goth rocker Marilyn Manson – an artist who has faced the wrath of the media and the public repeatedly – the media of 2002 continued a vicious cycle: "They orchestrated dramatic new scenes for celebritarian needs."

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