Saturday, December 19, 2009
#14 - Paris Hilton
It was the decade when...
You were famous for being famous.
Resistance is futile! Turn off your TV. Avoid web sites ending in .com. Avert your eyes when passing billboards on the road. In the Aughts, no maneuver could help a person escape the galactic entity that was Paris Hilton, mega-mega famous socialite and celebutante to end them all. Eager to have her face plastered hedcut-style next to the word "celebrity" in Webster's (she already was located next to the words "skank" and "shallow"), Paris was the decade's most famous person that people loved to hate. Actually, she was this decade's most famous person, period. One had a better chance of avoiding coverage of the Iraq War than of bypassing Paris Hilton's event horizon, sucking, as it inevitably does, anything that nears it into a black hole of gossipy skulduggery. Paris was celebrity in the Aughts, designed to induce ridicule and, simultaneously (though clearly not paradoxically), envy. Created by and for the same audience who balks and gripes about the inexorable celebrity news coverage that they (secretly, ironically) can't stop watching, Paris Hilton was rich, pretty, and famous enough to make us want to be her just as she was shallow, artificial, and tacky enough to allow us to dismiss her. In this way, she was a kind of non-threatening comfort; we were all allowed to take her seriously because, of course, no one takes her seriously.
A joke more than a person, the most amazing thing about Paris Hilton was the ease in which she adopted the persona that the market demanded. Shameless and unaware of the fact, Paris Hilton would, seemingly, stoop to any low to keep her picture frequency in US Magazine high. Of course, this shallow bottom-feeding is exactly what drove the hotel heiress all the way up to the top. If Paris Hilton had not existed, we'd have had to invent her. Either the Paris Hilton persona was the grandest piece of performance art since Andy Kaufman declared himself a professional wrestler or Hilton was a figure of Hegelian import and inevitability, embodying her era with the same magnanimity as "history-on-horseback" himself, Napoleon Bonaparte. (Paris Hilton is to the Aughts as: a) Leonardo Da Vinci is to the Renaissance, b) Socrates is to Ancient Greece, c) Adolf Hitler is to 20th Century Fascism or d)F. Scott Fitzgerald is the the 20's. Answer: All of the above!) Who knew being a spoiled brat was such an art? (Or a business!) Paris (definitely not pronounced "Paree") invented a new kind of persona: the famous famous person. To be an icon in the 21st century one didn't have to act well, or sing fabulously, or even succeed as model...no. One simply had to be famous...for no reason at all.
Of course, the template here is Barbie. Ample of bosom, vacant-eyed, with a ludicrously singed and minuscule waist, the absurd proportions of America's most beloved doll are, strictly speaking, impossible in natural biology. It's more of a goal to strive for. With a polyurethane complexion amplifying her strained vacuity, the flesh and blood (we think) Paris came as close as any to embodying a life-size, walking, talking, breathing Barbie doll, albeit a Barbie with the fashion sense of a high-paid prostitute. Though it's easy, if sad, to see how Paris embodied an obvious male fantasy (blond, dumb, an easy lay), it still perplexes what women saw in the Diva of Ditz. And yet it seemed that every girl wanted to be Paris's BFF; they'd even compete for the honor. We couldn't decide if we worshiped her or wanted her publicly flogged in the town square. (Probably both and for the same reasons.) The stench of blatant schadenfreude permeating Hollywood when Paris was carted off to jail for drunk driving had people holding their noses from coast to coast. We built her up to bring her down. It was an ungainly sight all around.
Paris represented a grand cultural displacement, the myriad anxieties endemic to the new century were at once too horrible to dwell over and yet too distant to fully confront: terrorism threats, foreign wars, the flooding of American cities due to poor infrastructure - the problems were legion and yet, for most, not necessarily personal. Paris was the rejection of all such concerns, a nexus of artificiality to distract from the real. The shallow overwhelmed the deep, and the excessive vanquished the temperate. Underpinning it all was the worship of loose cash and excess spending; Paris's one legitimate claim to fame, if you can call it that, was her copious family fortune. Money was rolling in in the Aughts and Paris was there to show us how to spend it.
With the heiress nearing 30, the bloom is off the rose. So too with America. The collapse of the financial system has made the conspicuous consumption of celebrity culture obscene. Paris, practically a sketch comedy character to start with, is doomed to greater and greater irrelevance and embarrassment should she attempt to maintain her cultural cache. A product of her decade, with its passing so to does Hilton's grip on pop-culture. She's no longer a viable cultural force, she's a Hollywood Square in waiting. A wise woman would willingly fade away from the spotlight, sparing herself and the country the indignity of a 40-year old Paris doing specials on TV about her plastic surgery or later-in-life dating fiascoes. (You know it's coming.) But, somehow I fear that Paris is going to cling to her fame like some 21st Century Norma Desmond, ending up isolated and alone in her Hollywood mansion watching reruns of The Simple Life on a loop.
The point of pop-culture, what in fact makes it interesting, is it's shameless consumerism; pop culture is what people want to buy. And because of that, because it actually responds to the desires and whims of the general populace with greater flexibility and honesty than other more "refined" artistic pursuits, pop culture acts as a kind of Rorschach test for the mental state of a whole society. It's what we really desire even when think we don't. And in the Aughts, what we desired, at least figuratively, was Paris Hilton. The hotel heiress should be analyzed less as an object of the Aughts than a mirror of its vain, superficial, easily titillated, excessive and privacy-averse face. Paris was the endless cycle of paparazzi photographs, tabloid magazine headlines, online gossip mongering and "Entertainment" News television programs. She was the Aughts's seething, white-sunglass wearing id. And that is definitely not hot.
You AUGHT to remember...