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Popular Culture: I Don't Care about LeBron James or Lindsay Lohan or…

Why do people care about LeBron James, Lindsay Lohan...?

Boy am I glad that the media feeding frenzy over the ill-advised LeBron James/ESPN cluster@#&%, "The Decision," is long past. It just demonstrated what we should have assumed all along, namely, that behind that façade of loyal and humble Cleveland homeboy was the usual narcissistic superstar athlete that we have come to expect these days. The clues were always there, of course, right in front of our eyes; the royal and religious nicknames (King James and the Chosen, the latter tattooed across James's back like a billboard) and the third-person references ("I don't think he ever cared about LeBron," says LeBron).

But this post isn't about LeBron James. It is about what I don't care about, what we Americans seem to care about, and what I think we should really care about.

And let me make this very clear: I don't care about LeBron James or Lindsay Lohan or Lady Gaga. And don't even get me started on Snooki; at least the former three pop-culture icons have a talent for something. The reason why I don't care about these four people, and the legion of other professional athletes, pop stars, celebrities, supermodels, actors, and the absolute lowest on the food chain, celebutantes who have no discernible reason for being famous (hello Kardashian sisters!), is that they are so phenomenally unimportant to our lives.

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Okay, for you free-market types, I don't blame them for taking advantage of the opportunities given to them by our popular culture; they are real entrepreneurs, filling a void in the marketplace with products--themselves--that many of our populace appear to want. And I will admit that they do boost the global economy to some small degree by generating ticket sales, advertising revenue, television ratings, magazine and tabloid sales, Web traffic, and don't forget jobs, particularly for the assorted family and friends who comprise their all-important entourages.

It's not like this absorption in the inconsequential is anything new. People up and down the socioeconomic and educational food chain have had a keen interest in the unimportant for centuries, even millennia, really for as long as we humans have had leisure time. This relationship between the citizenry and its idols is only more "in your face" now for the sheer frequency and intensity of exposure thanks to the explosion of new media in the last decade. In the past, there simply weren't the means to become overly immersed in the immaterial. Now, between the Web, smartphones, twitter, RSS feeds, and the like, it's possible to be connected to the insignificant almost every waking moment of every day.

But, really, what do any of these denizens of the "entertainment-industrial complex" bring to the table that makes them worthy of such widespread attention and adoration? Okay, LeBron James is a great basketball player, Lindsay Lohan seems to be a talented actress (when she isn't in rehab or in trouble with the law), and, as for Snooki, she is a perpetual barely walking and barely talking train wreck in waiting. So, fine, watch a Cavs (oops, I mean Heat, sorry Cleveland) game, The Love Bug, or, if you really must, Jersey Shore, but do you really need to read, watch, talk, chat, text, post, and comment about it constantly?

Which raises the question: Why do so many care so much about so few who mean so little to our so busy lives?


Most people would say, they are, well, entertaining. Gosh, everyone has a right to spend their leisure time in whatever way they see fit. And, before I get accused of being one of those coastal intellectual elites, who I am to judge whether Beethoven is better than Jay-Z or Fellini is better than Atpow; to each his own. And I certainly have my own share of brain-dead entertainment attractions (I loved last summer's GI Joe movie!). Perhaps it is just entertainment and this intense interest in the pointless doesn't mean a thing. Heck, everyone needs to have a little escape periodically, even from the most interesting and meaningful life.

But the fascination that we have about the "celebusphere" seems far beyond just mere interest and entertainment. It isn't just chatting it up around the water cooler at work for a few minutes a day. Instead, if you explore the web sites, blogs, chat rooms, and tabloids, it appears to be substantial chunks of people's time. And I have friends who talk about American Idol or Top Chef as if it was the latest news out of Afghanistan or the upcoming elections, such was their level of investment and passion.

I have two concerns about this sort of preoccupation with the pointless. First, it worries me when people can't find entertainment that has more immediate connection and value to their own lives. It would seem to me that entertainment that has such proximity would be more, well, entertaining. But maybe distance is the point, that with all that is happening in the world, the geopolitical unrest, economic crises, political warfare, environmental disasters, and other various and sundry tragedies and calamities, perhaps immersing ourselves in the triviata of popular culture is the equivalent of burying our heads in the sand; out of sight, out of mind. Hey, if we are powerless to do anything about what is happening to us, why even pay attention to it?

That question leads me to my second concern, that the 24/7 connection that people have with the unimportant prevents them from paying attention to what really matters in the world and, more importantly, to have an impact on what really matters. The reality is that there is a lot of stuff happening these days that needs our fullest attention and, furthermore, that we actually can do something about. But it requires an informed, invested, and energized citizenry to make the best decisions and to effect the most positive change. Just think what would happen if people devoted even half the time they spend on the inconsequential on that which is important and meaningful in their lives. Imagine the engagement and power we the people would have then.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco.

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