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Celebrity Culture and the American Dream

by Karen Sternheimer

Tag Archives: icons

By definition, celebrities seem larger than life. As I write about in Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, they take on roles in real-life dramas that play out in public. Sometimes it is only when they die that we remember that they are only human.

Perhaps part of the lure of celebrity is the quest for a semblance of immortality, to be known during our lifetime and not forgotten after.

The recent passing of Whitney Houston came as a shock in part because of her age, but also because celebrity deaths often feel a bit impossible. Someone who seems to be woven into the fabric of our personal and collective memories may appear superhuman, with life experiences to which few have access. It may seem as though their heightened existence could protect them from something as common as death.

Part of the sadness that comes with the death of a major celebrity is a sense of personal loss, even if most of us never actually met the celebrity. We might feel a sense of connection with them if they remind us of part of our own lost past—the retrospectives of Whitney Houston have largely focused on the 1980s and 90s—and put us is in touch with our own inevitable mortality. 

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The recent death of singer Amy Winehouse at the age of 27 is clearly a tragedy for her family, friends, and fans.

The aftermath and coverage of celebrities who die young remind us that celebrity status is about more than fame and talent. It is also about us.

Sociologically speaking, when a person of renown meets an early demise, they may serve as a cultural touchstone; the person becomes synonymous with a moment in time. They remain forever young, always associated with a specific image, uncomplicated by age and the changes it brings.

Like Winehouse, musicians Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain also died at 27 and have now become symbols of their respective musical eras. image

Of course it is too soon to know whether Winehouse will achieve the same iconic status in death that the others have. In some instances, their lives and music take on new meaning in death. Their record sales may skyrocket too.

A celebrity’s early death also serves as a strong reminder about mortality. Celebrities are often people who seem larger than life, for whom many of the normal rules don’t seem to apply.

Their deaths—especially if drugs or alcohol are involved—are a sharp reminder of their mortality. Ironically, death reminds us that those who appear so powerful are perhaps more vulnerable than imagined.

Celebrity deaths can also reinforce the notion of middle-class virtue. As I write about in the first chapter of Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, celebrity coverage can also serve as a powerful morality tale:

[The] mixed emotions we have about celebrities’ lifestyles also reveal a central contradiction within American culture: the coinciding desire for plenty and the lingering value placed on self-restraint. The Puritan ethic of self-denial, thrift, and austerity…[is] made visible by outrageous celebrity excesses and failure to maintain self-control. (p. 10)

The celebrity with a substance abuse problem embodies this contradiction. Their death can serve as a tragic reminder of the importance of sobriety as well as romanticize the “live fast, die young” ethos.

And for some, the outpouring of love a star my receive posthumously and their elevation to iconic status serves as a powerful siren song…drawing others to try and achieve celebrity status themselves.

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