Fame is evasive right up to the moment in which it becomes suffocating. Toxic Fame is a book about what an incredible nuisance it is to be famous. The celebrities quoted therein describe so many unpleasant scenarios that you have to wonder why people seek fame at all. It’s as if the your fans feel entitled to claim you as their property. Stephen King gives an especially gruesome rendition of the proprietary nature of fandom in Misery, in which a famous writer is held captive and hobbled by a psychotic fan. To be famous is, in some sense, to be imprisoned.
This scenario has existed for a long time in human culture. When I came across Toxic Fame some years ago, I was immediately reminded of Frazer’s Golden Bough, a Victorian-era encyclopedic compendium of cultural practices. Frazer describes a fantastic variety of rules and taboos associated with chiefs, kings, and high priests around the world. There are whole chapters on the king’s prohibition on leaving the house, on letting his feet touch the ground, on being outside when the sun sets or rises, on being seen while eating, on leaving food on his plate. You don’t have to read for very long before you realize that royal privilege is wildly overrated. The chief is always in a box, always performing, and when his performance does not suit he will suffer.
We need to project our mythic images onto high-profile individuals. The age of kings has passed, but the age of celebrity has arisen conveniently to fit the same bill. The foolish behavior of celebrities is one of the things we demand of them. We need our celebrities to have too much money. We pour money on miscreant rockers and movie stars for the same reason a ten year old boy pours salt on a slug: for the awful pornographic spectacle of it. Then we can tut-tut at the tabloids and pretend it isn’t exactly the performance we were looking for.
What is especially interesting now is that the money is draining out of the music business. Old rock stars are still in the news, but who are the new bad boys? We’re not giving them enough money to misbehave in the truly spectacular ways we crave. Movie stars, for now, still satisfy this need. But consider, if movies should go the way of the newspaper, the vinyl LP, and the ivory-billed woodpecker, then upon whom will we dump our toxic and voyeuristic love?
Perhaps the departure of the celebrity will usher in the return of royalty.