Starting in the mid-50s, television has fundamentally shifted the balance of power in the US. Other people would have to talk about other countries, but here all power now resides in the hands of celebrities. The impacts of this shift on our culture are practically incalculable. In politics for example, it began with JFK; the famous factoid is that people who listened to the Kennedy-Nixon debates thought Nixon had won, whereas people who watched them were strongly for Kennedy.
The story of the 60s, 70s and 80s was an unprecedented mixing of celebrity with traditional sources of power. Whether it’s John and Yoko’s “Peace Campaign” or John Lindsay being movie-star handsome, or Marlon Brando’s refusing his Oscar to bring attention to the plight of the American Indian, or Kissinger dating Cher, or Sonny Bono entering politics…or Jerry Brown being featured in the pages of Rolling Stone…or Arnold Schwarzenegger being elected governor of the fifth-biggest economy in the world…By the time Bill Clinton played saxophone on “Arsenio,” politician, celebrity, there is no longer any difference.
More recently, celebrity privileges have been extended to the ultra-wealthy. Homely, insipid, frequently weird, they are nevertheless covered like movie stars. Today people like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson, having accumulated all the money in the world, relentlessly insert themselves into entertainment via high-profile tweets or stunts. Donald Trump, a failed tycoon prior to The Apprentice, is the latest example of this leveraging of celebrity into traditional power (financial power, political power, even military power), and using conventional power to create more celebrity.
Since we are being ruled by celebs, it’s ever-more important for regular people to know how celebrities interact with the press. When the Beatles emerged, the mainstream print press was generally adversarial towards celebrities. They enforced strict class boundaries between celebrities (showbiz types, actors, musicians), rich people (confined to the society pages) and politicians. These boundaries had existed since the penny presses emerged, perhaps a hundred years, and while they were weaker in the U.S. than in Europe, they existed everywhere. Politicians were famous, but it was a rare one that had any kind of cult of personality in the modern sense; and those who possessed rabid fanbases (like Chaplin for example) paid heavy prices for entering the political arena.
TV changed everything. Constant, uncritical, and in your very living room, it took all these people and treated them like they were the same thing (George Trow’s In the Context of No Context is great on such stuff). Celebrities became political, and politicians became celebrities.
Someone else would have to talk about books and newspapers, but in magazines the effects were vast. After 1970, celebrities became the single most powerful driver of newsstand sales. This changed the business. Not only did this simple equation—celebrities = higher sales—create magazines like People (founded 1974), it also profoundly changed the power dynamic between editors/writers and the celebrities they covered. In 1970, Harold Hayes’ Esquire could publish a racistly titled, unfriendly profile of John and Yoko without any measurable backlash; ten years later, a much gentler piece called “John Lennon, Where Are You?” caused genuine anger after Lennon’s assassination. Journalists began relying on celebrity access to have any kind of career, which meant two things:
1) they had to provide favorable coverage in order to make a living; and
2) the PR people for famous people became vastly more powerful, being able to leverage the extra money their clients would make the magazine. This allowed the flacks to counteract almost any level of bad publicity or a bad public image.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the American press is not particularly hard on celebrities; literally no one I know reads tabloids, and I haven’t bought one since 1995. They take a lot of pictures, but in the vast majority of dealings with the press, celebrities have the upper hand. Fans want to believe GOOD things. GOOD things are where the money is, for everybody. Then, after the celebrity is dead (Michael Jackson’s a perfect example), the “allegations” come out. In this way, the media gets to retain some vestige of credibility and even-handedness, and also make a bunch more money on the back-end.
This is how people we now know to be psychopaths—people like O.J. Simpson, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby—were able to live in the public eye quite happily for many decades. This is how people like Michael Jackson get away with…really anything they want.
People like Simpson are only notable when they finally do something that can’t be ignored—something visual, something extraordinarily outrageous—in his case, a murder worthy of the Grand Guignol. Bill Cosby was merrily drugging actresses for decades, and lots of people knew he was doing it. Phil Spector’s murder of a woman in his mansion surprised no one who’d heard his tales of gunplay, or read earlier books written by his wife or kids. Harvey Weinstein’s use of the casting couch is, like Simpson, notable only in that he finally did it so appallingly, he paid a penalty.
So what does this mean for you, a devoted fan of The Beatles? That’s for you to decide. To me, it means keeping in mind the vast and relentless pressures everyone has to play along. It means to disabuse yourself of the notion that “bloodsuckers just want to get rich” by lying about or stealing from celebrities, or that there’s a vast nefarious industry of anti-celebrity muckraking. People made more money in its first year than Confidential ever did. Dirty laundry simply doesn’t pay very well, and The Lives of John Lennon is a perfect example. And on the internet, where anything supposedly goes, Hulk Hogan and Peter Thiel shut down Gawker with very little effort. Hulk Hogan’s outrage over his reputation being sullied by a sex tape—remember, this was a pro wrestler—was enough to net him $31 million. Who’s getting rich here?
Our society is obsessed with gatekeepers and “the real story,” and the days where Esquire could hire an ex-covert operator for the CIA like Charles McCarry to pen that lousy 1970 profile of Yoko Ono are gone. But blind spots remain, and they’re harder to root out because they’re held by fans.
Slowly, slowly, our culture is beginning to “believe the victim” in cases of sexual assault, because we’re slowly, slowly beginning to see how patriarchy tips the tables in favor of the (often male) perpetrator. But we don’t just live in a patriarchy; we also live under capitalism, and so the rich and powerful—people who make a lot of money for other people—have a similar advantage against their accusers. Not least because we want to like them. Want them to like us. Want them to be our friends. This need may yet kill American democracy.
So I’m saying: believe assistants. Believe accusers. Be suspicious of narratives revolving around “bloodsuckers” and “haters.” Beware of stories where people in notoriously tough, toughening businesses like movies or music are softhearted or menschy or “friends of the little guy.” Sometimes they are, and it’s delightful when they are—there are some great John Lennon stories along this line. But often they are not. They cannot be. If you’d been pestered by strangers for decades, would you default to “nice”? What if one out of every hundred fans had been pushy, entitled, crazy, dangerous?
Celebrity may be the only authority we recognize anymore, but the good news is, celebrity comes from us. We should not give that power lightly, and celebrities need to earn, and re-earn, our trust. We have a country with a political system designed to use politicians’ lust for power against them; but now celebrities are politicians and politicians celebrities, and that’s broken the mechanism. Unless we wish to be ruled by a cabal of trillionaires and their idiot children, our only way out is to start looking at celebrities with a jaundiced eye.