Friday, November 5, 2010

Do You Know Me?

The New York Mets are almost a half-century old (would you believe it?). In their early years, one of the major sponsors of their broadcasts was Rheingold Beer. Aside from their inane jingle (“My beer is Rheingold the dry beer/Think of Rheingold whenever you buy beer,” it began), the staple of the beer’s advertising campaign was the Miss Rheingold contest. Beer guzzlers (and anyone else) were encouraged to vote for their favorite contestant (out of six) at bars and liquor stores. The face of the winner of the contest (which at one point had the second-largest vote count in the country) would adorn Rheingold’s advertising for the rest of the year.

It was during the first or second year of the Mets’ existence that the contestants visited the broadcast booth during games to do a little electioneering and to do things worthy of a Miss Rheingold—whistling themes from Wagner, for example—err, scratch that . . . to answer the usual powder puff questions, like what is your goal in life? I remember being stunned when one of the beauties didn’t answer, “I want to save mankind from the scourge of war,” but averred that she wanted to be “a television star.” “Wait a minute,” I almost shouted out loud (almost, because I’m quite mannerly even by myself), “you become a star on television by singing well, dancing elegantly, or acting superbly.”

Of course, I was wrong. The world had changed. “Television star” was now its own category, and one achieved television stardom by being on television. Welcome to the modern world of celebrityship*, where one is famous for being famous**. Consider Vanna White, whose talent was what? Knowing which panels to display on Wheel of Fortune? Not even that—the panels lighted up to guide her. Yet, at one point ABC’s advertising for the show teased viewers to tune in to see what Vanna would be wearing. Not to see Vanna singing, dancing, or acting.

***

Today, in the world of the remote control, at the merest hint of a television commercial I turn the sound off (which means, of course, that I don’t have a modern jingle equivalent of Rhiengold’s assaulting my waking hours). It also means that, with only a half glance at the tube to see when the programming is resuming, I have only the slightest idea of what is going on during the commercials. Recently during one of my half glances I recognized on a jeans commercial a guy I had seen before. “That’s that same actor with the baseball cap from last year’s Ford commercials,” I again didn’t shout out loud. But then suddenly at the lower left corner of the screen there appeared the name of the becapped one. “Wait a minute,” I didn’t shout out loud, “if they’re showing us his name, they want us to be impressed that he isn’t just an anonymous actor in a commercial, but a Somebody.” But if he is a Somebody, I thought, why do they have to tell us who he is? He’s in these commercials because he and/or his baseball cap are famous (in the celebrity sense***) or he wouldn’t be there. But if I don’t know who he is, then what the hell good does it do to tell me who he is? That’s not going to make me run to my local Ford dealer or jeans supplier and open my wallet.

Which raises the question: If I refuse to recognize modern-day content-free celebrityship, can I, in my solipsistic insistence, deny the fame of the famous-for-being-famous?

To me, the truly famous should be like the Lone Ranger; he cleaned up the town, left behind only a silver bullet, and didn’t do talk shows.

***

*There have been several recent books on celebrity, tracing its roots back in time. But while the content-free celebrity did exist in the past (e.g., Beau Brummell being famous for what exactly?—wearing certain clothes?), most other great celebrities, such as Lord Byron (“mad, bad, and dangerous to know”) did something, like write great poetry.

**Modern content-free celebrityship was anticipated a decade before our Miss Rheingold contestant in the movie It Should Happen to You. Out-of-work model Gladys Glover (Judy Holiday) spends the last of her money to rent a billboard at Columbus Circle. Soon she is mobbed at a department store by people who recognize her as the face on the billboard.

***I Googled the name of the becapped one and found that he could be called a “television star,” assuming anyone bothers to watch the Discovery Channel. For the rest of us, he isn’t famous for being famous.

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