The word “fame” is a noun derived from the Latin term “fama,” which describes the condition of being known or talked about by many people, based especially on notable achievements. Fame used to be attributed to athletes, musicians and actors who made career-defining waves within their industries for their accomplishments. The word fame evokes an image of being blinded by a larger-than-life figure whose accomplished something to aspire to.
Today, however, fame has become a grotesque version of itself as people are becoming famous for what can be considered basic human behavior. Kim Kardashian West is the obvious example here because she’s created an empire after a leaked sex tape went viral. Her husband, Kanye West, explored the issue of fame in his song “Famous” where he boasts about making Taylor Swift famous and brags about the many women he’s had sex with who are mad they’re still nameless, the suggestion being that public knowledge of having sex with someone is enough to gain — to earn — fame in our culture. Unfortunately, people are gaining fame for far worse and much less impressive behavior.
The New York Times ran a story last week on Z-list celebrities and the media machines that perpetuate their quest for… what exactly? Fame? Attention? Social media following? These figures are often vaguely familiar: reality tv contestants, Instagram models, the criminal with the hot mug shot. Their actions have yet to merit anything resembling an accolade, like Rihanna’s well-deserved Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award, or Michael Phelps earning the most gold medals in Olympic history. Rather, these celebrities become situated in the periphery of our collective consciousness for things we’d rather avoid doing like being cuckoo enough to compete for “love” on a dating show or get caught committing a criminal offense.
According to Amanda Hess, who wrote the Times’ piece:
“It used to be that the only way a non-recognizable person could land in the pages of the glossy celebrity magazines was to lose 100 pounds, serve as some heartwarming testimony to good-old-fashioned American values, or be murdered. But in the early aughts, the magazines started diversifying their coverage of Hollywood’s leading Jens and Bens with stories on the romantic dupes and plastic surgery nightmares of reality television. Now, as the rise of social media demolishes the leverage that celebrity tabloids once had over their most famous subjects, the gossip industry keeps defining celebrity downward. (After all, no magazine can match the reach of Taylor Swift’s more than 90 million Instagram fans or Kim Kardashian West’s 47 million Twitter followers.)”
It’s silly, really. Take the Who? Weekly podcast, for example. The bi-weekly show promises “Everything you need to know about people you don’t,” in a deliciously addicting and voyeuristic way. A quick exploration of the Tumblr-style site allows people to jump down the rabbit hole of people who haven’t gained fame, per se, but notoriety for ridiculous behavior. The absurdity of it all is hard to resist. Why not watch a clip of someone make an ass of themselves and gossip about it? It’s an extension of the meanest facet of high school, public ridicule that leads to temporary infamy.
Kanye West commented on fame (again) at the VMAs, noting the chutzpah it took to make the music video to accompany “Famous.”
“It was an expression of our now, our fame right now, us on the inside of the TV. You know, just to put... the audacity to put Anna Wintour right next to Donald Trump. I mean, like, I put Ray J in it, bro. This is fame, bro! Like, I see you Amber. My wife is a G. Not a lot of peoples' wives would let them say that right there. We came over in the same boat. Now we all in the same bed. Well, maybe different boats, but uh,” he said.
For West, and others like him, the route, method and drama encountered on the way to fame don’t matter. The figures who make it to the top tier of fame all make it to the same gossip-filled finish lines fueled by microscopic attention to a person’s every move. It hasn’t taken long for artists and the public to realize these moves rarely ever signify anything of meaning or influence.
Rapper Vince Staples released a short film for “Prima Donna” in the form of a 10-minute commentary on the absurdity of fame. The video opens on the set of a hip hop video shoot for Staples’ track “Big Time.” Nearly naked women, a cacophony of bass and synth all limned by strobe lights of many different colors showcasing him as the greatest rapper ever and every other superlative — yada, yada, yada. The director calls “cut” and Staples steps off set to grab food from craft services, and proceeds to his real life, presumably outside the construction of the facade the video is supposed to suggest is reality. It’s all very meta.
Staples catches a cab and ends up at a strange hotel after an even stranger elevator ride. Crowds of fans swarm him, and for a moment we’re lost in the din of noise, chaos and fear that are associated with that level of fame. Oftentimes we overlook the power of the fans who make a person famous. Figures resembling Tupac Shakur and Amy Winehouse serve as haunting reminders of the darker side of fame, before taking a deadly turn. The video concludes with Staples shooting a mirror and ends with him in a pool of blood.
The video presents an anti-glamourous perspective of fame. One thing about fame is its ability to beguile based on a sense of pseudo-intimacy with the outside world. Rather than connecting, it seems only to attract more people into a celebrity’s orbit, which can cause them to be all the more isolated. Videos like Staples’ deserve the acclaim they receive because it touches on something that hasn’t been previously explored in this context. Rather than maintain the played out tropes, Staples questions the methods used to achieve fame and influences a change in thought. Maybe that’s something we should all get in bed with.