// essays //
The Artless Celebrity
Stardom in the Age of Social Media
“The curse of irresistible progress is irresistible regression.” — Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno
The breakup of The Beatles was not a simple affair. But at the end of the day, many place the blame of the 20th century’s greatest band’s breakup squarely on Yoko Ono. Doing so is unfair and misogynistic, but it is also very easy to assign fault to one person. Ono, by inserting herself into the band’s most sacrosanct affairs—attending recording sessions despite the band’s cardinal rule prohibiting significant others from being in the studio—became an easy target. By having a relationship with John Lennon, the outside influence of Ono’s role in the The Beatles’ breakup represents the two things that consumers of pop culture find irresistible: personal life gossip and a famous band.
Pop culture enthusiasts have obsessed over the personal lives of celebrities for a long time; the first bona fide gossip magazine came out 100 years ago . Celebrities’ personal lives are very literally commodified in the form of glossy magazines, E! True Hollywood stories, and more recently, GIFs and memes. But why? Why for all this time have we, the consumers, even cared about the personal goings-on—the breakups, reconciliations, grocery lists, clothing choices—of various celebrities?
Well, we care about their art, and their personal lives—complete with marriage, pregnancy, adoption, and award-show clothing details—by extension, influence their art. At least that is what we tell ourselves. Yoko Ono’s relationship with John Lennon was relevant because it affected The Beatles’ artistic production. Or, at the very least, that is why so many people cared about their relationship. Just think of Brangelina. We love their movies, right?
The primary celebrity product we consume is talent, which usually comes in the form of thumping musical tracks, moving acting performances, and exhilarating displays of athleticism. That is why most celebrities claim fame. And to Roland Barthes’ chagrin , we tell ourselves that a relaxing vacation in Cancun or even a disastrous fashion mishap at an awards show can affect the psyche of the artist behind the screen in the next week’s shooting of Mission Impossible 12.
But, as in many other spheres, social media has exposed and upended this false ideology. The constant window onto the lives of celebrities enables us to directly consume their personal details in an unmediated fashion—on a level even the editors of People and Us cannot grant. Indeed, the editors of those tabloids could only dream of having celebrities producing content about themselves for their magazines. Gossip reporters no longer need to seek out and interpret details about the personal lives of celebrities. And while celebrities who tailor their own social media personas might not have the sensationalistic spin that so often comes with paparazzi, who needs to dig for the elusive Jennifer Aniston pregnancy on Page Six when she herself can tweet a picture of an avocado toast brunch (with well-dressed influential friends in the background, to boot)?
Besides my affinity for herring, one of the most fogeyish things about me is that I am still relatively new to this whole Instagram thing. There are many wondrous aspects to it: the endless supply of mind-numbing yet shockingly relatable and funny memes; weird, fringe political info-graphic ramblings; sports highlights; the very underappreciated but thriving-despite-smartphone-bans Ultra-Orthodox Jewish singers’ ecosystem. The crown jewel of Instagram, though, is the Kardashian family. Kim Kardashian West easily garners at least a half-million likes on each of her posts, a distant feat that most other celebrities could only dream of accomplishing. Kim is the Queen; her 87.4 million followers  are her loyal subjects.
Harping on Kim Kardashian’s lack of talent—bemoaning that she is “famous for being famous” —is stale, but it is also oversimplified. Of course, it is annoying that one cannot easily think of any one way she benefits society other than the fact that she makes it irresistibly easy to waste time by following her.
Her entire appeal is simply that she lives a glamorous and desirable life. This being the case, there is a certain amount of escapism at play when we follow her on Snapchat and Instagram. Her life is so good that getting a glimpse into how she lives is satisfying to us—depressed, trapped-in-school-or-dead-end-job moderns. Further, because of her conspicuous lack of “talent,” Mrs. Kardashian West’s lifestyle feels accessible, something “ordinary people” can aspire to, in a way that the “talented” celebrity’s life cannot be. And it’s more than just the Kardashian-Jenners, following accounts such as Rich Kids of Instagram elicits similar feelings. No longer is artistic talent necessary in order to make enough money to live a desirable life, simply having money and high-profile connections is enough to live a life worth following. The consumer might be far off from the Kardashians, but they can certainly imagine themselves living like theme—all the glamour, none of the toil.
Although she may lack talent in the classical sense, Kim Kardashian West is very good at what she does. Individual posts of hers have inspired hundreds of think-pieces and news reports. Mrs. Kardashian West’s influence enables her to receive as much as $300,000 to post once about a single product. Her “lifestyle” app is branded as “an exclusive mix of free and premium paid content from Kim’s world, bringing you closer to her than ever before.” Her game app, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, which is based on her life, lets the user pretend to live like her, and is complete with avatars of her and her friends wearing the outfits they wear in real life—it earned Mrs. Kardashian West “only $43 million in the third quarter.” She herself is able to commodify her own life effectively and profitably, a feat even more impressive when seen in the context of her relatively humble upbringings (especially when compared to those of Paris Hilton).
All of this speaks to Mrs. Kardashian West’s ingenuity, as well as that of other so-called Instagram celebrities who have been able to literally capitalize on social media. They understand that this new form of access enables the consumer to appreciate the personal lives of celebrities apart from their movies and music much more easily than in years past. These social media platforms have debunked the tacit assumption that one needs to possess a talent—beyond leading an enviable lifestyle—in order to accrue the very wealth and possessions which make following their lives so intriguing in the first place.
And this goes the other way, too. Several extremely famous artists, such as Frank Ocean, relish in trying to live as private a life as possible . And while it is difficult to remain fully anonymous when your album is number one on the charts, I would not be surprised if fewer people recognize his face than they do Kim Kardashian West’s. I would argue that this is largely due to Mr. Ocean’s lack of social media presence. Nowadays, artists like Mr. Ocean are able to stick to music while an “artless” celebrity can suck up the fame and followers on social media. Adam Smith’s division of labor is still working its magic in the 21st century.
Celebrities’ online personas are not what Adorno called autonomous; their posts do not seek “aesthetic truths,” whatever that means. Yet, they are certainly revealing societal truths. And in paying for the app and liking the Instagram picture, perhaps we realize the truth these celebrities are tapping into: that they are willing to commoditize their personal lives to reap handsome profits in a sort of Marxian nightmare. But the unabashed capitalist ideology does not stop there. After all, it is only possible because we consumers are willing to spend our money on products that we know Kim and Kylie are being paid to promote, and are willing to give up our time to lose ourselves for just a couple of minutes in the lives of the rich and famous.
 Consensus is that that first gossip magazine was Broadway Brevities and Social Gossip which was first published in 1916.
 “The Death of the Author”—check it out, people!
 It has been brought to my attention that Jennifer Aniston does not have an Instagram. Perhaps that is why the tabloids are still trying to see whether or not she is pregnant.
 These numbers are as of November 17, 2016.
This adage has only felt more true ever since she married the exceptionally talented Kanye West. Mr. West’s clear genius for creating innovative and powerful music only makes Ms. Kardashian West’s lack of art separate from herself that much more apparent. Mr. West’s music has often been interpreted in light of his personal life. For example, his best album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is seen as a direct culmination of his thoughts and feelings from a self-induced exile over the embarrassment of the Taylor Swift VMAs incident. Furthermore, in late November 2016 Mr. West was admitted to UCLA Hospital due to exhaustion and in an apparently fragile mental state, this all after abruptly cancelling the rest of his tour, which in itself was described by one of his friends as, “art.” See: Parry, Hannah and Styles, Ruth. “Kanye’s ‘psychiatric emergency.’”
Kim Kardashian West Official App. Apple App Store. Khloé Kardashian and Kylie Jenner’s apps have the same language in their descriptions as well.
// MATT LANDES is a junior in Columbia College and Features Editor of The Current. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo courtesy of Avi Schwarzchild.