Aside from a few lucky actors and singers who seemed never to pick a lame role or make a bad album, it used to be expected that most entertainers, if they were lucky, would have a few good years before permanently dropping out of sight.
A quick look at the current pop culture landscape reveals this rule is no longer true. Entertainers who were supposed to go the way of the dinosaur and Debbie Gibson have instead managed to maintain their celebrity, despite the often artistically inferior work they continue to produce.
The examples are perhaps most glaringly obvious among Gibson’s savvy successors, with Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson managing not only to avoid has-been status, but to thrive. In the past two months, Spears and Simpson have both scored #1 radio hits—Simpson’s first ever and Spears’ first in nearly four years. Despite the pervasive predictions of a few years ago, neither has graced the pages of Playboy, and for the time being, it doesn’t appear that either will do so as part of a career resuscitation campaign. Thank you, Mr. Hefner, but they’re doing just fine.
The trend doesn’t stop with pre-packaged pop singers. After fading away for a few years, the precocious brat rockers of Blink-182 have also returned to heavy airplay on radio and MTV. Despite several years of legal squabbling and failed solo efforts, the Backstreet Boys—no joke—are reportedly heading to the studio to record another album. The album may flop worse than Ruben Studdard attempting a swan dive, but if it doesn’t, you read about it here first. More surprising and significant is the return of a number of other past music stars to the headlines and cultural legitimacy. In the first half of 2004, high-profile records have been and will be released by former punch-lines like Prince, Cyndi Lauper and Blondie.
Meanwhile, the last year has also witnessed Lazarus-like returns by several formerly struggling A-listers like Demi Moore and Uma Thurman (not to mention the current governor of California), none of whom was able to deliver box office results equal to their reputation in Hollywood.
Yet, like Thurman’s character in the Kill Bill movies, their careers are suddenly back from the dead (despite Thurman’s near-false start with last December’s quickly bounced Paycheck). Luminous and fashionably skeletal in last weekend’s Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (which earned more in its first weekend than Vol. 1), Thurman is once again a hot commodity in Hollywood, where the break-up of her recent marriage adds an extra dimension to her comeback.
Moore has also returned to the top of the heap after several years of “self-imposed” exile from Hollywood (which was sort of like the “self-imposed” exile Saddam Hussein was urged to take early last March). Capitalizing on her old age and new face (she’s 41), Moore generated massive buzz last summer with her suspiciously fresh-faced appearance and relationship with the years’ younger Ashton Kutcher. The excitement was so great that even the disappointing box office results of her cinematic return (Charlie’s Angels 2) appear to have done little to dampen public interest in her romantic and professional exploits.
Five years ago, it was widely accepted that each of these entertainers had a limited shelf life, that their expiration dates were rapidly approaching or had already passed. But in the past few years, a number of music and movie figures are showing preservative abilities that could make a Twinkie jealous.
So what charitable force is granting all these people second, third and fourth lives in the entertainment industry? The change, interestingly, may not lie with the stars themselves, but instead with the public they entertain. Audiences nowadays are more sophisticated than they were even a few years ago, and are better able to understand the fakery of what they see and hear on the radio and at the movies. Intentionally or not, Simpson, Moore, and others have proven exceedingly adept at using this understanding to reposition themselves back in the public spotlight.
Reality TV in particular deserves their gratitude for unmasking the artificiality inherent in the world of fame and celebrity-seeking. Seeing their average fellow citizens compete to be a “Survivor” or “Apprentice” has revealed to most Americans how fame can be created and manipulated, changing what we admire about those who reach the top rungs of the celebrity ladder. J. Lo, for example, is a purely modern phenomenon, admired not for her music or god-awful recent movies, but because she is so undeniably crafty at using the media to her advantage. For most pop culture consumers, seeing how long she can hang on to her position is part of the fun of watching her (and certainly a lot more fun than watching Maid in Manhattan or Gigli).
In contrast, the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake stunt at the Super Bowl caused an outcry not because of her nipple shield or his dishonorable intentions, but more because people resented the pair’s lack of imagination in trying to get the public’s attention. The half-time performance/fiasco was so unimaginative and obvious that it became downright patronizing. The nudity was inappropriate; the condescension was far worse.
The backlash against the two singers is already fading, however, and the pair will certainly be given at least a few chances to redeem themselves. A commercial or critical failure used to be the first sign of the apocalypse in a singer or movie star’s career, but these days it is understood that both mortals and the super-famous make mistakes. As a result, fame is no longer just about the quality of a performer’s latest film or album—it’s also about how that product seems to play into a singer or actor’s strategy to conserve his or her celebrity.
It would reflect better on mainstream society to say that this change has occurred because popular culture has grown more forgiving of professional mistakes and personal miscalculations. In truth, however, the change has arisen primarily because Americans have gotten savvier, and perhaps more sadistic, in watching others pursue fame and success. The public has learned that failure can be highly entertaining and, occasionally, quite funny. Comebacks can be inspiring, sure, but they’re even more fun to watch—and therefore more profitable to facilitate—when they’re creatively bizarre and shamelessly attention-seeking.
These days, it seems, stars can live past their second album flop or a couple of bad movies. They just need to make it clear that our attention, even if it’s mocking, is more important than any artistic success they hope to achieve.