The Power of Prime

The cluttered mind uncluttered

Popular Culture: Too Much Time On Our Hands

What is with our obsession with celebrities?

You read a lot lately about how busy we Americans are. That we don't have time to do anything important, like paying the bills, spending time with family and friends, and taking care of our health. But I think much of America has the opposite problem; we seem to have too much time on our hands. How does most of America spend its leisure time these days? Not volunteering or bettering ourselves physically, intellectually, or spiritually. Rather, most of America seems to immerse itself in popular culture: watching television, movies, and DVDs, playing videogames, listening to music, surfing the Internet, and reading women's or men's magazines.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not totally against popular culture. It can be a wonderful source of entertainment and escapism. And who am I to judge whether Fellini is better than Aptow or Beethoven is better than Jay-Z. But when so much of America is spending so much time in that contrived world, I get worried and ask: Why do we devote so much time and energy to something that is unquestionably irrelevant to our lives?

This obsession with the trivial is most evident in America's preoccupation with celebrity. Why do so many of us care so much about people who have so little impact on our lives, namely, movie, television, and music stars, professional athletes, and others who are simply famous for being famous? So what if Angelina and Brad are a couple? What is it with our fixation with Jon and Kate Gosselin? And Kim Kardashian (I ask with absolute incredulity)? Of course, America has always had a perverse fascination with the rich and famous. There have always been gossip columns and tabloids. We have always discussed celebrity happenings around the water cooler at the office. But this obsession with people who have absolutely no effect on our lives has gotten out of hand. Sales of supermarket checkout-line staples, such as People and US Weekly, are up dramatically in recent years. Who's too fat, who's too thin, who's divorcing or sleeping with whom? These have become burning questions to a large segment of America. The television networks and the cable news channels devote entire shows to celebrity comings and goings. And the information age has made this mania even worse. Web sites and blogs provide instant access to celebrity dirt and more opportunities to express our own views about said dirt. We now have an almost limitless universe in which we can dedicate our time and energy to people who affect our lives not one iota.

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Why such devotion to something so unimportant in our lives? Some have suggested boredom, to stay in the know, or the vicarious thrill of sharing the exciting lives of celebrities. But I think there is something far more troubling going on here. We appear to be trying to escape from something and are searching for something else.

There's plenty to escape from these days. The specter of September 11th continues to cause fear about our safety and our futures. The recent economic crisis and the ongoing instability creates doubt and worry. The widening gap between the haves and the have-nots makes many feel irrelevant and inconsequential. Seemingly endless wars in which thousands of Americans have died and inhuman abuses have occurred has weakened our moral certitude. And a toxic political system that is fueled by 24-hour news and talk radio has made many of us cynical and discouraged. How else to cope with such an inhospitable landscape than by distracting our concerns and drowning our angst in the fascinating lives of celebrities.

We're searching for two things that have become casualties of America's progress and prosperity. We're looking for meaning when life for many seems to be devoid of significance. We once found meaning by creating stable lives for our families and working to make life better for our children, but such security and opportunity are less likely now than at any time in our recent past. Meaning came from believing that America was united in its values and its vision for the future. But the political divisiveness and acrimony that have infected our country have led to mistrust and pessimism. Meaning came from hope for a better world, but many now ask: Where is the hope?

We're also searching for connectedness when Americans, despite the unprecedented degree of technological connection, have never been more isolated. Connectedness came from being a part of a larger family called America, yet many of us have never felt so alienated. Where there were once connected communities of families, neighborhoods, and schools, there are now cloistered suburbs and exurbs of disengaged families who are adrift in a sea of people. As we immerse ourselves in the make-believe world of celebrity, we become even more disconnected from our own lives, and this immersion, rather than nourishing the soul, acts only to anesthetize our pain. As this distance grows, we move away from our most basic needs: to feel valued and supported, to feel safe, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, to have hope for a better future.

So what do we do? I think it's safe to say that our culture isn't going to help us to make changes. Ultimately, our culture doesn't care about us, only about making money and accumulating power. Instead, it is up to each of us individually to decide that a different road is necessary if we wish to find what we seek.

We must start by regaining perspective on the role that popular culture plays in our lives. Our worship of popular culture has caused many in America to search for meaning and connectedness in all the wrong places. The only place to find real meaning is by immersing ourselves in our own lives and the people and activities that actually mean something to us, rather than turning to the contrived-and ultimately unsatisfying-meaning that popular culture tries to sell us. We need to rediscover connectedness with real people instead of accepting the virtual connections that are readily available with modern technology. But for this to happen, we must first admit how truly unimportant popular culture is, reject its allure, and recommit our time and energy to the search for real meaning and connectedness.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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