I heard from a 25-year-old the other week. She’d launched a business after college, the way they all aspire to do these days—it was a food business, needless to say—and now she felt the spirit moving her to write a book about it. Good luck, I said, books are hard. Came the reply, in a rather more practical key: do you have some publishers to recommend?
Really? The idea just occurred to you, and you already want to talk about a publisher? You seem to be forgetting there’s a middle step—you know, actually writing the damn thing. The impulse is characteristic today: the desire to leap, at a bound, from intention to transfiguration (to fame, to fortune) without the trial that comes between—without the work, the doubt, the practice, the daily failure, the inexorable shrinking of the dream. The young designers she sees, an older practitioner told me, don’t want to put in their 10,000 hours. They want it all now.
I blame the Web, of course. Everybody dreams of going viral (it seems so easy, after all); everybody thinks they’re going to be discovered. But the Web has only intensified and universalized a pre-existing culture of celebrity, one that’s always been bound up with youth. That may have been the most seductive thing about rock ’n’ roll, the fantasy that launched a million bands—not just that it could make you rich and famous, but that it could make you rich and famous fast, and young, and on your own terms, and sometimes, it seemed, with very little effort. You only had to be your charismatic self.
Celebrity is a product of publicity. The more intense the machinery—and it’s intensifying all the time—the more celebrities it needs to manufacture and the greater the area of culture it needs to strip-mine for its raw material. Now we have celebrity chefs, doctors, octomoms. The ’80s seemed to mark a turning point—Vanity Fair was relaunched in 1983—at least in the world of the arts. The literary “brat pack” of Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, and Tama Janowitz went with twentysomething painters like David Salle, Julian Schnabel, and Jean-Michel Basquiat—the last of whom was “living proof,” wrote Robert Hughes, “that one could make it straight out of the egg—no waiting.”
But there are turning points as far back as you care to go. Elvis is sometimes said to be the first celebrity, but so is James Dean, who got there a few months earlier—a synchrony that tells us more about the state of the culture (of the machine, again) than about the qualities of those two figures in particular. Before rock, before Elvis—which is to say, before television—you usually had to be a movie star. The camera loves beauty, so the camera loves youth. The notion of being “discovered”—not simply recognized, but recognized just by sitting there, just for being you—began, of course, in Hollywood (with Lana Turner, at Schwab’s, the legend goes, at age 16). If the ’50s had Elvis and Dean, the ’20s had Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino, the first two movie stars, who also broke through around the same time and are also each referred to as the first celebrity.
But the real first celebrity, it is more often said, was Lord Byron. If so, then all the elements were there from the beginning: youth, beauty, the overnight onset of fame, the careful construction of a mediagenic persona, even the persistent association between celebrity and aristocracy. Byron woke up one morning, as he later said, “and found himself famous.” That would have been the day of publication, a few weeks short of his 24th birthday, of the first two cantos of Childe Harold, the poem that introduced the world to the Byronic hero: “sexy, defiant, smouldering, rebellious, idealistic, melancholic,” as one critic has put it. The pattern for the rock stars was set by the Romantic poets, and the pattern for the poets was set by Lord Byron. He even pretended that writing came easy to him. The only difference is he didn’t mean it.
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