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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Want to be famous? The weathered cliché “be careful what you wish for” is particularly salient in the era of YouTube, where uploading a video can lead to international recognition. Instant stardom is possible, but so is instant  infamy.

You have probably heard about two recent examples, one where a student posted a rant about Asian students at her university, and another by thirteen-year-old Rebecca Black, whose music video went viral after many called it the worst song ever.

We probably know people who share angry thoughts about various ethnic groups and went to middle school with kids who thought they were talented singers (or actors, athletes, poets, or artists….). But fortunately for those of us who came of age before YouTube, any fallout from our peers was limited in scale. People might have made fun of others behind their backs (remember a few years ago when concerns about gossiping cliques reigned in the headlines?), but now the internet means that anyone with a computer can contribute their insults.

And yet Rebecca Black has been able to get media coverage any newcomer would kill for. She has been on The Tonight Show and apparently has a record deal. But one would image all of the hateful comments she has received online—which I choose not to repeat here—would be hard for anyone to handle, especially a thirteen-year-old who had not been in the public eye before.

Before the internet, the doors to fame were guarded by gatekeepers: agents, managers, casting directors, A&R reps, and editors to name a few. Talented people who failed to get the approval of these gatekeepers would find themselves on the outside, with few options other than to keep trying to impress the gatekeepers. And hateful comments would likely be limited to letters, handled by editors, a studio or agent, and maybe the occasional obscene phone call, resolved by changing one’s number.

The gatekeepers aren’t gone, but the entrances to fame (and infamy) are more porous today. We can go around them—sometimes at our peril, and sometimes without even meaning to. And the critics no longer need a byline to express their disapproval.

In Celebrity Culture and the American Dream I write about how the internet age offers more “jobs” in the fame industry, but not all of these jobs pay well, if anything. Stories about those who found fame via the internet, like Justin Bieber, help promote the idea of limitless upward mobility at a time when the economy stagnates, and the gap between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of us widens.

In fact, one wonders if the infamous—like the student who posted her rant about Asians—will face serious economic setbacks in the future due to the notoriety a single video created. Whether we like it or not, in the internet age we are all public figures.

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