OFF THE GRID

Bob Dylan, Skip Gates, and the New Celebrity Culture: Do You Know Who I Am?

Aug 17, 09 | 8:27 AM   byMichael Wolff
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In my neighborhood in New York there are countless 20- and 30-something celebrities who I don’t recognize. I had to be clued in that the girl in the Polish diner was Chloë Sevigny, that the guy jogging on Delancy Street was Justin Long (whoever he is), and that the fellow in the window of the pizza place around the corner was a rock star who my son thinks the world of.

Likewise, the police in Asbury Park had no idea they’d collared Bob Dylan, or, the cop in Cambridge that he’d cuffed Skip Gates.

What if there are no celebrities anymore? That is, nobody who’s universally recognizable. No truly iconic figures. No absolute stars.

It was bound to happen. Celebrities are made by media and if more and more people are watching more and more minusculely targeted media, we inevitably get to the point—the tipping point, as it were—where nobody shares the same famous folk.

True stars, perhaps, are the people who emerged in the sixties and seventies, that heyday of hegemonic mass media. Bob Dylan would certainly seem to be one of those immortals. But now there are many more people who don’t remember the sixties and seventies than who do (and we are losing our memories).

Partly it’s generational. Sometimes it’s regional. Or it’s gender-oriented (there seem to be a host of famous women novelists who write only for other women who are news to me). Oh, and there’s apparently a whole culture of religious-oriented stars. (There are also atheist stars.) And, of course, reality show stars—that ultimate celebration of the nonentity and nullification of celebrity.

We all occupy a highly-focused, specialized, and insular world. To people in his world, Skip Gates is a god; but when you act like god to people who have no idea you’re a god, that can cause confusion and irritation.

It’s the internet, of course, that great leveler, where everybody gets to have their singular, often fetishistic, obsession. The common culture is much less compelling than the individual one. This has something to do with the long tail (whatever that exactly is), in which there can no longer be rock stars, for instance, because everybody is listening to some micro-niche music, producing, accordingly, only micro stars. Curiously, the diminishing of star power coincides with a greater urge among the hoi polloi to be recognized. Does this reflect a sense of cultural loss or opportunism?

We tend to think that we live in a celebrity-driven culture. But, it’s actually a nobody-driven culture: vaguely familiar faces carrying their coffee. It may even be that what drives us is our lack of celebrities and our yearning for them—which will now be forever unrequited. Or, possibly, what drives us is our jaded attitude: We’re laughing at them, not with them—they’re all so small-time.

Anyway, this is just to point out that Bob Dylan, when he got nabbed for loitering the other day, seemed to act like an old-fashioned celebrity, serene in his sudden anonymity—that most horrifying condition for all the two-bit, wanna-be, Johnny-come-lately attention seekers of our age.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at michael@newser.com.

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