To be sure, the state of popular culture today is loathsome. Television, music, movies and books have become commodities, mere commercial goods intended to satisfy some momentary yen for instant gratification, only then to be tossed aside in pursuit of the next quick fix.
This should not surprise us. It is, at least to some extent, the very logical and probably inevitable result of the evolution of our distribution networks. In the time it takes to read this sentence, you could instantly listen to the new Rihanna song on Spotify, get the latest John Grisham pulp thriller on your Kindle, start watching the latest episode of “So You Think You Can Dance” on iTunes or cue up (or, more likely, queue up) any one of thousands of movies on Netflix instant streaming.
When we can almost instantaneously satisfy nearly any cultural craving with the press of a button or the click of a mouse, we are never left to want for something more substantial. To put it another way: When you can have dessert now, why bother with dinner?
That said, there seems to be a growing perception that disposable culture and its attendant pack of fame-whores are entirely new phenomena that sprang up virtually overnight, and this line of thinking — while seductively self-affirming — is wrong.
Not only did we have throwaway culture in the 20th century (anyone remember the Guilty Pleasures column in Film Comment in the late 1970s and early ’80s?), we had throwaway celebrities, too. In fact, we had them in droves.
Just before Y2K, I wrote an article (itself, ironically, a throwaway piece of journalism) for a local newspaper that was originally intended as arch commentary on the then-ubiquitous end-of-the-millennium listmania that had overtaken mainstream media. Looking back at it now offers plenty of reminders that all our celebrities were not brilliant performers, theoretical physicists or astronauts.
They were people like Rip Taylor and Jaye P. Morgan, who basically made their entire careers out of being game show panelists. (Game shows were to the 1970s as reality shows were to the naughts.) They were people like Charo, who was on “The Love Boat” 21 times. (Incidentally, Friday nights on ABC — “Love Boat” followed by “Fantasy Island” — were basically a cottage industry to prop up Hollywood has-beens and milk every last dime from their fading celebrity.) They were MTV veejays, and “Dance Fever” judges, and “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” VHS peddlers, and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
Look, I’m not saying popular culture in the 20th century wasn’t superior. But let’s at least try to argue for its eminence from a position we can defend with facts.
After all, when it comes to being famous for being famous, Zsa Zsa Gabor was a mother***in’ trailblazer.