Famous And Heinous

Cintra Wilson Punctures the Bloated Carcass of Celebrity in 'A Massive Swelling.'

When early '80s soundtrack diva Irene Cara warbled the relentlessly perky lyrics to the hit song "Fame" in 1980, unsuspecting Top-40 slaves undoubtedly overlooked the eerily prescient ideologies contained within. "Remember my name ... FAME! I'm gonna live forever ... FAME! I'm gonna make it to Heaven ... Baby remember my name ... FAME!" Against a throbbing disco beat, Cara perfectly nailed the wince-inducing neediness of fame whores everywhere, even managing to explicitly connect the attainment of fame with spiritual ascension; it was the synthesized sound of the desire for celebrity replacing religious ecstasy. Twenty years on, this bouncy but creepy pop ditty increasingly sounds like the theme song for a culture in which celebrity worship has become the dominant ideology and fame has become the opiate of the masses.

Cintra Wilson, journalist and writer for the hiply snotty web magazine Salon.com, may not exactly be famous in the Madonna sense of the word, but she is famous enough to have written and published a new book that ruthlessly dismantles the concept of fame and our slavish devotion to its many shiny idols.

A Massive Swelling, pointedly subtitled Celebrity Re-examined as a Grotesque Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations, blows like a gust of fresh air through the stifling glitter of our Planet Hollywood, gleefully pulverizing the rich and famous into quivering piles of collagen and Gucci remnants. Possessing a stinging wit and a cynical (to say the least) view of entertainment culture, Wilson at times comes off like the misanthropic offspring of Dorothy Parker and Nathaniel West, a dagger-tongued shock-tart who is both attracted to and repelled by "the beautiful people."

As Wilson herself points out, the very idea of criticizing our soul-deadening fascination with the bizarre notion of someday being adored by millions of complete strangers is almost passé in today's jaded climate. "The best and brightest pundits seem to imply that it is hipper to simply embrace Pop Life," Wilson notes, "even if one must bracket it in quotation marks and smirk at it through the lens of postmodern irony, and amusedly accept its rampant faults and perversities. ... I think that it is the perversion of this turn of the century that everything cutting or nastily true is repressed in the name of some form of quasi-Buddhist, ethical, and/or politically fearful good taste."

That being said, she then allows herself the freedom to unabashedly scorch the Fame Disease Bug with her verbal flame throwing, moving beyond hip detachment directly into righteous indignation--call it post-postmodern ranting.

In a series of essays examining shallow entertainment culture and the attendantly destructive beauty standards that cling to its backside like a blood-engorged tick, Wilson plots a hilariously mean-spirited demolition of the sacred cows of our starry-eyed, Gap-clothed culture.

She targets everything from prepubescent porno popsters like N'Sync ("quasimusical teens created in a lab to incite the kind of biological confusion and obsessive hysteria which causes little girls to wallpaper their rooms with gratuitous posters of dreamy, hard-nippled thugs and tarty kinderwhores and throw high-pitched tantrums until albums and T-shirts and concert tickets are bought"), to the body-image horrors of bony Canadian songstress Celine Dion ("one of the most freakishly mutated creatures the Streisand Machine has ever coughed out onto society ... the stretched-out hair, the terrible bones under the angora, the black-buttered eyelids ... her interior universe a brutally unpleasant wasteland hosting a deadly amount of the Fame virus").

Wilson scores points by being an unusually observant crank who happens to be able to twist her inner monologues into mean-spirited verbal pretzels.

She also finds it within her black heart to deconstruct the terrors of middlebrow "Entertainment Death Star" Las Vegas ("There's just something about the love of handguns and Jesus and Old Glory, astronauts and unborn children that makes a lot of fat, racist, ultra-conservative hickweeds want to gamble and buy sweatshirts and get all choked up in front of some whacked-out, self-worshiping bloatus of an entertainer in a full-body tiara singing 'Born Free'), and blast the cosmetic surgery boom of the past decade ("The message is that we're not allowed to relax and age anymore, but must go down kicking and screaming and trying to remain as sexually loud and airbrushed in the collective consciousness as a Colosseum-sized centerfold until we suddenly evaporate from cancer overnight, dying prettily and suddenly, fuckable to the last drop").

Wilson, despite her often reactionary stance on Fame's insidious effects on the "average" person (who seems to be anyone who is not her), manages to be frequently insightful about the way fame has been commodified and used by corporate interests to undermine our collective self-esteem, turning us into a nation of image fetishists who believe that true happiness can only be achieved by sporting a Brad stomach and Gwyneth calves.

She is occasionally didactic in her writing ("We must stop believing that famous people are sexier and better and more beautiful and interesting than other people. They're not. They're just like other human beings, only advertised, massively, into major leading brands, like dog food or shaving cream"). Yet Wilson's virulent attack on the fame game ultimately plays like a much-needed slap in the face, and while her central thesis that "fame is bad" isn't exactly an earth-shattering revelation, her bile-tinged perspective is refreshing and laugh-out-loud funny.

Despite her slant toward the humorous, Wilson does ultimately raise serious questions concerning the public's willingness to gauge their own self-worth against cyborg celebrities who are held together by piano wire and duct tape, why fame is no longer seen as a happy by-product of true talent but as an end unto itself, and why perfectly nice individuals would dismember their own grandparents in order to suckle at the diseased teat of fame for even five seconds.

All of which begs the question: How can a writer who has become relatively famous by trashing fame not become her own worst enemy?

The answer to that question constitutes the most fascinating irony that A Massive Swelling has to offer readers--namely, that in our fame-frenzied culture, even those individuals who despise fame must become famous in order to effectively denounce it to an eager audience. While the glamourpuss photo of Wilson that adorns the back cover of her book may indicate that she (or her publisher) buys into the fame thing more than she would care to admit, it's also indicative of how complicated cultural subversion has become.

In the '60s, a famous countercultural figure like Abbie Hoffman could be viewed as a radical outsider, advocating the overthrow of the government and being beaten over the head by fascist police, all while maintaining an image of dangerous anti-celebrity. Today, with Americans fairly apathetic about anything remotely political, and with fame being one of our few universally connective thought systems, subversive writers like Cintra Wilson must attack the very cultural machine that has given them a voice and an audience, and must learn to master a game that they are expected to tear asunder.

At last, the Fame Virus has evolved to its most perfect form--an indestructible disease that creates and feeds off its own critics. It's all enough to make those perky kids from Fame contemplate kicking off their leg warmers and looking for sensibly anonymous day jobs.

A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-examined as a Grotesque Crippling Disease and Other Cultural Revelations, by Cintra Wilson. Viking, $24 (hardcover).
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