Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined
Grotesque, Crippling Disease
Other Cultural Revelations|
by Cintra Wilson [New York: Viking, 2000] Reviewed by Martin Kich
Anyone who has read any of Cintra Wilson's columns for The San Francisco Examiner or for Salon.com will know what to expect in this lively diatribe against the American cultural obsession with celebrity. (Even a glance at the titles of her columns reveals much about her characteristic approach: "Robby Benson's Clean White Underpants"; "Let Us Now Praise Famous Wankers"; "Hollywood Maggots Eat Dead Ideas.") Other readers, however, will likely be very startled by the raw critical energy, the unrelenting linguistic inventiveness, the unsparing vision, and the profane joy that Wilson brings to this extended treatment of her signature subject.
Although she would probably balk at the association with such culturally conservative "dead white men," Wilson is the literary descendant of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. For all of their high intentions of preserving "civilized life" from the transient social phenomena that would undermine it, Swift and Pope never invented an insult that they found too base to publish. Instead, they seem to have decided that an insult needs to descend to the level of its target, and they typically looked a very long way down their noses to their targets. From such an elongated perspective, there was relatively little difference between the insults appropriate for a poet laureate associated with the Whigs and for a locally popular astrologer. No authors ever employed so much hyperbolic scatological humor, or took so much joy in it, in the cause of preserving civilization.
Within this tradition of joyful derision, the nearest thing to a great writer that America has produced was, of course, H. L. Mencken. Among more current writers, Christopher Hitchens has a comparable disdain for his cultural targets, and, like Swift and Pope--and less like Mencken--his focus is pointedly as much political as cultural. Although, on the surface, Cintra Wilson lacks Hitchens' political earnestness, she does ultimately acknowledge that a corrupt popular culture suggests much more deeply seated and dangerous kinds of corruption. Nevertheless, she asserts that there is something inherently worthwhile in simply lambasting the ridiculous. In the preface to her book, Wilson anticipates some of the backlash against her less "constructive" approach to cultural criticism: "Those concerned with 'spiritual growth' seem to think critical flamethrowing is merely 'negative'" (xviii). If hard-pressed to compare this critical flamethrower to another commentator on contemporary culture, I would say she is like Fran Leibowitz, but with a manic edge that at times approaches Tourette's syndrome.
In a somewhat more direct paraphrase of her suggestive title, Wilson straightforwardly announces her thesis in her preface: "Fame is a perverse deformity, an ego swelling as ludicrous as an extra sex organ" (xix). But then she does not explicitly return to the broader argument at any length until the very end of the book, where she asserts: "Celebrity is a virulent killer of fundamental human values" (226). Indeed, she observes that when one stops believing in celebrity, "the Emperor is a fat, naked freak, and it all looks sick and ridiculous" (227). But most Americans never reach that point of disbelief: "SHOW BIZ!!! We love and hate it desperately and masochistically, the same way that peasants despised and idolized the drunk aristocrats who terrorized their streets and used their heads as impromptu polo balls on medieval Saturday nights" (174). So Wilson feels compelled to advise her readers: "We must stop believing that famous people are sexier and better and more beautiful and interesting than other people. They’re not. They just like other human beings, only advertized, massively, into major leading brands, like dog food and shaving cream" (227). If not for the surprising, concluding detail, the perception would seem rather pedestrian, an insight not quite worth a whole book. But Wilson is so good with detail that the book is something like a textual tilt-a-whirl: you know in your head that you are strapped in and cannot fly off, and yet you are holding on for dear life and thrilling to the way you whip through the backstream of your own hysteria.
Wilson's first target is the recent phenomenon of the "boy bands." She suggests that their tamer prototype can be found in The Monkees: "We never imagined them without pants, but if we did, they had the same hairless nether-mound G.I. Joe had in lieu of an actual unit" (8). After observing that "now all media outlets are saturated with bedroom-haired, cologne-marinated, undergraduate-age dancing boys," she narrows her focus to "multinational super-pasteurized Hispano-sensation Ricky Martin" (5). Although there is a lengthy digression on older rock stars, in particular Mick Jagger (whom she describes at one point as "a male Helen of Troy" ), she eventually works her way back to the "boy who grew too many underarm hairs to remain in Menudo" (26). Attributing his success to "soap-opera good-guy ethics" (26) and "hips like a lazy susan" (25), Wilson explains how his appeal derives from his being a remarkable composite of the seminal traits of former heartthrobs:
"[Ricky Martin] a near-perfect fusion of male cliche sexual images: one part Cary Grant self-amused privilege to one part James Bond eyebrow-raised-at-the-way-these-birds-just-seem-to-tumble-into-my-lap to two parts Julio Iglesias-cum Ricardo Montalban-cum-Medellin-drug-cartel Latino megasuave to three parts Elvis good-natured nuclear cock power, all shrink-wrapped into one silk-‘n’-leather Milano-pimp outfit" (26).
One cannot help but feel that she was listening to "La Viva Loca" as she wrote this sentence.
Next Wilson turns her attention to the diva phenomenon. Identifying Barbra Streisand as "the monster who started it all" (33), she asserts that "they can all belt the scuff marks off a stadium floor with their laser-punishing vocal instruments" (34). According to Wilson, "Divadom demands your cash, your love, your fealty, your not laughing at them" (34). She describes her sense of personal revulsion with a banal but astonishing image: "Listening to such music makes me feel as if I have just rubbed a floral-scented electric-blue toilet puck all over my face and neck" (32-33). Of course, no current discussion of divas would be complete without some lengthy discussion of Celine Dion. Wilson surmises that Dion's smile is "the placid, tranquil smile of a woman whose every soft inch has some spiky metal clamp teething down on it; a woman like the protagonist of The Story of O, who at the end of the book is so totally, unbearably uncomfortable that she can finally sort of relax" (37). In a wonderful imaginative leap, Wilson imagines Celine Dion singing "a Celine Dion song at a karaoke bar, which would be some kind of unforeseen postmodern coup of I’m not sure what proportions" (37).
Wilson focuses not only on categories of celebrities but also on the geographical centers of our celebrity culture--Las Vegas and Los Angeles. She writes of Las Vegas:
"[It is] home to the most interesting form of celebrity entropy anywhere; Vegas is where strangely ego-poisoned and laughable entertainers crawl off to live like Louis XIV until they’re dead. . . . Vegas is the limelight graveyard for Caucasian fame-junkies, the only nether-sphere of big-dollar entertainment where aging closet queens and hypervain, sideburned Republican megalomaniacs who refuse to wither and crawl into obscurity draw their last, star-spangled burst of audience attention and surrender to their own brands of frightening and delusional multimillion-dollar gluttony" (52-53).
After discussing such legendary stars of the Strip as Liberace and Wayne Newton, Wilson turns her attention to Elvis purported resuscitation of his career in Vegas. In one densely observant and suggestive paragraph, she may capture more of the terrible ridiculousness of Elvis' reinvention of himself than other cultural critics have managed to convey in whole books:
"Elvis, of course, was able to spin his problem wheels the hardest and fastest in Vegas, while wearing spangled Mayan sun calendars stretched over his Krispy Kreme-laden paunch, and sweaty muttonchops upholstering his swollen and porous head. He would sing “Glo-o-ory, Glory Hallelu-u-ujah” with thunderously overwrought isometrics of Feeling, squeezing the air in front of him with clenched teeth, heroically wading step by heavy step through a pathos thick as spackling putty, and girls and women would keen hysterically, mascara rolling down their necks, clutching at their chests, trying to peel their skin off to be nearer to the King, until the superprofessionally tight Vegas game-show-horn-section music spirited him offstage and back to the Valley of the Dolls. There was no irony in the love that Elvis’s latter-day Vegas audience had for him, even though he was clearly Another Elvis, not the guy who went to the army or married Priscilla or gleamed like sexual mercury on the black-and-white screen, but mainly an unhappy fat Southerner, spaced out on Demerol, working overmuch to musically emote like an ouzo-stricken Greek uncle at a wedding reception. His Vegas fans loved him As Is to the point of religious exhaustion, Vegas providing the older female fans with a comfortable outlet to be the same snot-streaming hysterics they were when they and Elvis were all young and almost pure, the primary function of Vegas entertainment being to infantilize wilted adults until they act like delusional, fantasy-stoned, preadolescent Mouseketeers and wholly suspend all of their irony, taste, belief, and moderate behavior" (54-55).
Wilson further describes Elvis' (and Wayne's and everyone else's) Vegas groupies as "girls with something a little too damp around the mouth, the eyes of a soul who is looking for the wrong kind of action, and babyfat that is no longer cute" (50). Warning that "there’s an ignorant danger about these women-children, sucking cigarettes, smacking their jellied lips, fumbling keychains bearing miniature shoes and bottle openers and roach clips and acrylic trolls," Wilson punctuates the portrait by adding that they "have raunchy sex with evasive, mustachioed gun owners, then watch television" and they "like bacon in their tacos" (51).
Wilson's expository excursion through Los Angeles is not quite as concentrated or vivid, but it does contain some pithy observations on the city's pervasive manifestations of the most awful tendencies in American culture. She describes greater Los Angeles as "the Fuselage of Human Error" (123), and she suggests that "the rhythm of the streets of L.A. is the soundtrack of Faust performed by Yanni and John Tesh, and it sells zillions and zillions of copies" (125).
At the center of Wilson's book is an extended, associative riff on the linkages between strip-mall culture, strip clubs, advertising, pornography, plastic surgery, the politics of endorsements, beauty pageants, the fashion industry, awards shows, and the ways in which "celebrity news" is generated and disseminated. The common denominator, according to Wilson, is "the tragedy-loving section of America who adore Reader’s Digest articles about the bravery of Christopher Reeve and support the breeding of legless and dwarfy 'Twisty' cats because their struggle for normal movement is so 'inspirational' (116).
Among her extended treatments of her headliner subjects, Wilson provides concise takes on the more briefly celebrated. Her remarks on the star of River Dance are illustrative: "Flatley! The hopping, bucking satyr in the rubber bolero jacket, cock package, and leather headband! Seeing him at an awards ceremony is sort of like peeking into Oscar’s top drawer and seeing a two-foot black strap-on dildo on top of a bunch of Zamfir CDs" (182). Wilson also offhandedly inserts comments on a number of broader topical issues. For instance, she describes Andean bamboo flute music as "enough to make you want to destroy all young trees so that hamburgers and chemicals and cancer can prevail uncontested on the earth" (30).
Furthermore, Wilson inserts a number of vignettes about former Hollywood stars that demonstrate that she is as conversant about the history of celebrity as she is about the current state of our celebrity-driven culture. The following anecdote about Tallulah Bankhead is so compressed as to be almost clipped to the punchline: "Rogue gentleman in an elevator mentions to Tallulah Bankhead that he’d 'like a little pussy.' She replies, 'Oh, darling, so would I–mine’s as big as a handbag!'" (35). Soon afterwards, Wilson references Quentin Crisp's take on Joan Crawford: "at a certain point in her later career, you could just see all of the raw terror and ambition starving through her big raccoon eyes" (36).
Finally, Wilson's remarks about Michael Jackson are, perhaps, even more accurate today than they were several years ago when this book was originally published. Starting with "the overaccessorized buckle-and-zipper ensembles which made him look like a rodeo dominatrix" (42), she builds to the assertion that Michael Jackson is "the strangest uninstitutionalized crazy person in the public eye since Howard Hughes" (47). Moreover, Wilson notes that "Liz Taylor, Diana Ross, and later Lisa Marie Presley and Debbie Rowe, the Mother of His Children, all seemed to care very deeply for Jackson while staying at least a six-hour plane trip away from him at all times" (42). In the midst of some extended remarks on Jackson's bizarre marriage to Presley (whom she describes as a "second-generation Ultra-Fame scorch victim"), Wilson offers the simple but incisive insight that Elvis and Michael Jackson "both had to vandalize themselves" (44). For Wilson, Jackson has become the signal illustration of the hard truth that "Big Fame will fuck you, fuck you, fuck you in the head until there’s nothing between your ears but a sour, translucent jelly" (49).
Even if our celebrity culture is ruining America, as Wilson convincingly contends, one can at least rationalize that it exists to provoke such trenchant disgust as this book manages to contain--albeit just barely--between its covers.