It’s no secret that in the USA bigger is definitely better. The buildings, the people, the food portions; small just doesn’t exist. Even when talking about my car to my cousin’s husband in Atlanta (“It has a 1.4 engine? I don’t think they even exist over here!”) it was obvious size is everything, but this doesn’t stop at physical objects.
During a three month trip to the States this summer I had the chance to closely observe the popular and celebrity culture that dominates the American way of life.
Hype your money maker
My first observation was obvious: where money can be made, it will be, and nothing generates money more easily than the ever-in-demand world of celebrity. Many of the world’s best known celebrities are American, and create hype wherever they go, so why not capitalise on this?
From tours of the stars’ homes to personal shoppers ‘in the style of…’, the quantity of celebrity available for consumption is illustrated by the variety of merchandise Hannah Montana’s promotional team will sell to eager fans, keen to spend money on any imaginable object with the famous name or picture on it.
This kind of effort doesn’t stop with the media. They know the public love celebrities and are willing to give them what they want and as much as they want in celebrity news channels, websites and magazines.
If you’re in the group which thinks celebrity magazines with ‘exclusive photos’, stories of stalkers and who Katie Price is engaged to now are a waste of printed media, consider yourself lucky you’re only faced with the UK ones on a daily basis. American celebrity magazines make the UK Hello! And Closer look like the Times in comparison, with genuine headlines including ‘Obama’s past gay lover now a White House employee’, and reports of absolutely everybody being on the brink of divorce.
Whether Americans like it or not, popular culture is what the country does best, but this doesn’t mean all of it has to be cheap and tacky.
The philosophical argument as to whether pop culture means bad culture, or lower than that of high art does get blurred a little when the culture is embraced into the country’s surroundings.
For example, whilst in Chicago I had the opportunity to attend a subtitled Chinese arts film, being broadcast in Grant Park, as part of a summer film festival, where other films included widely known titles, combining high and popular culture into one event.
This was a common summer entertainment medium, also found in New York where I went to see Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands as part of the ‘Movies with a View’ season, held in Brooklyn Bridge park, located directly underneath the bridge to enable an appreciation of the architecture and view of the Manhattan skyline at the same time as enjoying a popular film. 5000 people turned up for the event, and as stereotypical as this may be, not many looked the type to follow every footstep of the celebrity of their choice.
That said, popular culture in the States is beyond what it is anywhere else. The short film shown in the run-up to Edward Scissorhands was about a girl describing her obsession with Harry Potter and what this meant to her, during which the statement “Harry Potter is Jesus!” was made with enthusiasm, much to my obvious amusement and rather unimpressed faces of some more religious members of the silent crowd around me.
Cult or religion?
Despite religious beliefs though, this did display the level of celebrity culture and what it means to some people, particularly the younger, more impressionable citizens of the country, who do, genuinely follow celebrities or crazes and worship them like a religion, which may explain why Hollywood Boulevard is the most cleaned street in the world at six polishes a week.
Others consider their favourite stars almost to be family, as we saw following the death of Michael Jackson. While people at home were busy circulating jokes about the entertainer, I was trying not to let an over-emotional hostel owner see my Facebook page in fear at what she’d think (since she thought drinking whisky at 11am was an appropriate way to cope with the news ‘that we’d never see Michael again’). I’m not sure he would have thought first name terms were appropriate, having never met her.
Describing celebrity culture in America would not be complete without a mention of the biggest celebrity of the year: President Obama, a politician whose methods of maintaining a relationship with the public has turned him into a bigger celebrity than any film star or singer, and most definitely any politician before him.
Before arriving in Chicago, his home city before the move to the White House, I was expecting a rush of ‘Obama mania’ as it has been described. This is what I found, but not in the way I expected:
Although any form of merchandise attached to the President was available for purchase – like the cardboard cutout of Obama dressed in a superman style outfit with a large ‘O’ in the centre of his chest – there wasn’t any evidence of the city capitalising on their celebrity president, such as tours of his home area, small museums and exhibits displaying their careers and personal lives.
One reason for this is the lack of interest some celebrity worshippers have in the political side of Barack Obama; they are far keener in reading about who he has had dinner with this week than what he has achieved in the Oval Office.
But whether it is politics or fame, he knows creating hype keeps America tuned in, just like the PR team of any celebrity, keen to feed the country-wide audience around the clock.
Whatever negative reputation the US may have, it can’t be doubted that it is one of the most unique and interesting places to visit. Where else can offer States which all feel as distinct as individual countries? I managed 14 of them, and I wouldn’t hesitate to move to some of them tomorrow if I had the chance.
Photos supplied by the author