The Trappings of Fame


“Fame … makes a man take things over …. puts you there where things are hollow”

If you were a baby boomer in the sixties, you most likely never knew anyone who was ‘really really’ rich. There was a kid in my school whose dad was a famous football player, but I didn’t know her well. And there was another friend who came from Texas; they had a big house, and even had a maid, who let us make chili and mess up the kitchen.

I had relatives who had oil patch money – they didn’t come around to many family parties, though. They likely got tired of being hit up for loans that would never get repaid.

USA - 30th Anniversary of Elvis Presley's Death - GracelandWhen you think about it, one of the most famous, and presumably wealthiest, person with a high profile, back in those days, was Elvis. And by today’s standards, Graceland isn’t exactly the Taj Mahal. Not with all that shag carpeting. But for the time, it was high glam.

As a child, I knew, through reading, that there had been times in history when some people had attained obscene wealth, usually by conquering another country, and by subjecting those natives to their will. Those people were called kings, and whatever they wanted was granted to them, for their skill in warfare.queen of sheba

England had a royalty, but they wore sensible shoes.

I didn’t look up to those people; I never wanted to be ‘royal’ It seemed a pretty high price to pay for a life lived entirely in the public eye. And back then, there were a lot of people who wondered if the trade off of privacy for public adulation was a good one.

Now, of course, people will do anything to be seen, hopefully to be admired, for whatever it is they can do to be different. Tattoo a snake on your face? We’ll only be impressed if you’re the first to think to do so.

“Could it be the best, could it be? Really be, really, babe?”

I don’t know if it is a Canadian way of thinking, but I remember how most people I knew, growing up, adhered to the ‘tall poppy syndrome‘ … that meant that you didn’t want to stick your head up too high, or blow your own horn a little too loud, because you’d be sure to get cut down to size if you did. The syndrome is basically a way of sneering at those who revel in having a ton of money – which we assume is ill-gotten gains – or of seeking fame in public life.

william shatnerIn the seventies, you’d have been more likely to hear someone snigger, “geez, who does he/she think he/she is!” when a Canadian even got a mention in American media.

We did not put many Canadians on pedestals for their achievements, though we’d often get a little warm feeling when we felt like we’d snuck a Canadian through, behind America’s back. Like that William Shatner guy, with the weird way of talking. His mum had an acting school on Girouard in Montreal, so he was one of the good one’s.

We had our own awards, our Junos instead of Grammys, our Genie awards instead of Oscars, and by geez, that should be good enough for any Canadian! Just look at that Walter Ostanek fella, and all his polka Grammy wins! Does HE look happy? Now, you just go practice your accordion, and try not to get all stuck up and big headed!

“Fame …. what you like is in the limo”

And then came …. rock and roll hedonism.

“In the seventies … There was more excess, more hedonism, more drugs, more attitude, more sex, more style, more enthusiasm. Just?… more.” (The Telegraph, UK)

mudsharkI’m not saying that the days of mud sharks, Whovian displays of hotel trashing, and the deaths by overdose of nearly every icon of the day opened the door to the pedestaling of the rich and famous….

but it helped.

The austerity of the post war years, and the drive and eventual success of the lower class kids, who knew the only way to get out of soul crushing poverty was to get into sports or rock n roll, became the envy of those who wondered what it would be like to literally have the world and all of it’s glories at their feet … drugs, drink, the most beautiful women in the world … it could all be yours, if you just cracked the Top Ten Charts.

Mo’ money, mo’ problems. Some of the luckier and richer rockers listened to their dear old dads, or to the managers and accountants who flocked to help funnel some of this largesse into safer investments, like property. And sadly, some of those ‘helpful’ advisors turned out to be there with the intention of taking advantage of the silly geese now laying multiple golden eggs.

Fame and wealth are on a sliding scale, as the wiser of the nouveau riche artistes soon learned. And if those musos wanted to keep at least some of the moolah that was coming in, in order to pay for their growing entourages, they’d have to learn to manage, manipulate, and increase their funds, just like the robber barons of the last century had done.

And off they went, to the tax havens…. and began to grow their own little dynasties …

“Fame, “Nein! It’s mine! is just his line … to bind your time, it drives you to, crime .”

We aging hippies, especially those of us who chose careers in the arts, might not have prioritized the acquisition of wealth, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t drool a little when these new ‘lifestyles of the rich and famous’ were dangled before us, in the mid eighties.

make it rainMTV glommed onto that envy, and promoted the lifestyles of celebrities in shows like “The Fabulous Life Of … “ and “Cribs.” These quasi reality features pretended to give the plebes a glimpse into the opulent homes, glamorous lifestyles, and vacation playgrounds of those musicians who had ‘made it.’

FAME … and wealth, were now what everyone wanted to achieve, by any means possible. Oh yeah, it was all about the Benjamins …

“Fame … what you get is no tomorrow … “

And we bought it .. oh yes, those of us who looked on and envied the lifestyles of those who had cracked the money and power code, wanted in on the fun.

“Americans are accustomed to talking about fame using the heady language of the cosmos: the celebrity as a celestial truth, situated above us; the superstar as a force in the firmament, all heat and light and gravitational demands. Michael Jackson’s environmental form of fame—music that permeated people’s lives, iconography that saturated American culture—anticipated the intimate version of celebrity that is the default today. It is fitting, in that regard, that celebrity itself functions as a spectral character in Leaving Neverland. Jackson was acutely aware of the affordances of fame; he leveraged them, the documentary suggests—and, ultimately, he weaponized them. Joy Robson, Wade’s mother, recalls Jackson making a request of her; she recalls, as well, that when she refused it, he coolly informed her: “I always get what I want.”” (The Atlantic, March 2019)

This year has seen the release of several documentaries that question what the pedestaling of fame has done to our vulnerable young women and men. With the allegations in Leaving Neverland and Surviving R. Kelly, we also need to be aware of what fame does to the psyches of those who wield that much power.

camp followersThere have always been camp followers, disciples, those who believe that proximity to what they covet, for even a few moments, raises their own profile and value amongst those who have not had the same access to the royalty of their time.

When those who possess power of any potency use manipulation, a righteous fear, and their fame/perceived authority to get what they want, they are abusing that power in order to exploit vulnerable people for their own advantage or gain. And even if those people go willingly to the abuse, it’s still abuse.

Now, the funny thing is that, somewhere along the line, we all started to think that those who achieve fame and financial reward for being good at one thing, like music, or business, could translate that magic to other careers.

And strangely enough, in a culture that appears to embrace a meritocracy, those who seek fame and power somehow manage to drape the mantle of unique talents upon those whose rise to fame may well have simply come from a well placed endorsement, a reality television episode, or a sex tape featuring some very, very large buttocks.

kardashian buttWe would never expect our dentist to take out our appendix or fix our plumbing, but for some reason, we think that someone who has managed to acquire – by hook, and likely crook – a large amount of money, should be given free reign to guide a country, or should be allowed to tell us who and how to worship. The mind boggles.

The political ‘base’ of a country is as subservient to a populist politician, as a congregation is to a hyperbolic preacher, or a groupie or ‘musical prodigy’ is to a music mogul. There’s a parallel in the abuses.

rewards just aheadDangling the promises of future prosperity, they will assure their acolytes that there is a brilliant future awaiting them, if they’ll just listen to their master’s advice. The prey might wonder at what is asked of them, if they follow this path, and they may be reluctant to give their all, without the assurances, as false as they may be, that their faith will bring them enormous rewards in the end.

The followers will put that preacher, or politician, or musical ‘genius’ on a pedestal, and make that person their whole world, believing that their devotion and loyalty is as strongly returned.

But eventually, and inevitably, that faith is abused.

Our adoration of those with fame and wealth blinds us, and when those whom we’ve put on a pedestal are toppled, our beliefs in our selves is fractured.

toppling idolsWhat goes up .. must come down. At some point, the blinders fall off, and we see that those we call gods and kings are just selfish, spoiled, narcissists, and that we are the toys and pawns they use to satisfy their own whims and urges.

2011 … “A new study co-funded by the Gates Foundation, however, portrays the ultrarich as lost souls burdened by the fears, worries and family distortions of too much money.

Yeah yeah. Cry me a river.

 

 

An Embarrassment of Riches


Money and power have one very similar trait – neither are destructive at face value, but both become toxic when an obsessive love of either or both overrules a person’s basic humanity.

when you're rich you can do anythingBoth can be hoarded, without much censure. Many look at the very wealthy or very powerful, and envy their hoards. Even if the hoards consist of ill-gotten, or at the very least, suspicious, gains, morality ceases to matter in the face of a society that has elevated the acquisition of wealth over all other talents or abilities.

The ability to acquire wealth, by shrewdness or stealth, does not automatically confer godliness or any other talents upon the wealthy. To believe that someone who is rich is thus inevitably able to excel in other fields is misguided at best, and heinous when peddled as truth to those who have neither wealth nor common sense, and consequently, will literally “buy anything.”

I actually remember a time when it was considered ill-mannered and rude to brag about your wealth, your possessions, or yourself. Now, it’s not only allowed, it seems to be required of anyone who wishes to appear as a valuable commodity, ripe for exposure. Today, everyone has to have and hone a ‘brand.’

making it rainMusic’s been tainted with this obsession. I can’t listen to most of the songs that extol mindless consumerism and waste of resources. And I can’t watch videos that equate the humiliation of others, professionally or sexually, with an enviable use of power. It is abuse, condoned and even applauded, by the easily entertained.

While it might not be politically correct, I also abhor the conceit that the portrayal of overly sexualized femininity makes the female artist more powerful. To the contrary, the music business is one of the most sexualized industries, and women artists have been routinely harassed and abused since they first entered the scene. You’re not ‘getting out front’ of being defined by your sexuality because you disrobed first – you’ve just made the task of undressing you easier for others to do. A woman is more than her sexual parts. In truth, we give away our power every time we need to look outside of ourselves to find acceptance, or a sense of our own worth.

An awful lot of what passes for popular music strikes me as the rantings of the terminally under-educated. There’s fourteen writers for some of the songs, and still they can’t avoid plagiarism and triteness. It’s not that the music of my era, or any other era, was that much ‘better,’ it’s that there seemed to have been more of an attempt to learn and grow, be it musically or spiritually, than there is now. Once, we built an art form from the bottom up. Now it’s deconstructed from the top down.

We are a confused society. First frightened by high tech, we’ve now embraced it with all the fervour of the newly converted. The very thought of being without the constant information available terrifies many; they challenge each other to undergo the horror of 24 hours offline. Or to eat a Tide pod. And the very idea of not having access to anything consumable we might fancy, at any time, seems something only the most disenfranchised would have to contend with.

media controls usYes, we are a confused society. And thus – ripe for those who would take advantage of this seesawing state of mind by using the disorder to mould and shape the thoughts and opinions of those who gag at the glut.

Historians will look back at these times and wonder at our lack of sophistication, our inability to tell reality from fiction, our willingness to be led by social media trolls that rely upon our innate prejudices and biases to warp how we assess and treat each other. And they will marvel at how easily we would shed the rules of law to rush to the court of public opinion.

Too much of anything is as bad as too little. Both extremes warp our personalities.

We are soaking in media. We like to think that we’re capable of floating through the cacophony of noise, dissent, fear, and paranoia, interspersed with the odd moment of joy, and carry on multitasking our busy lives with ease. The truth is that we cannot. If we are brutally honest with ourselves, we have to acknowledge that doing several things concurrently means that not one of the tasks is actually getting all of our focus and care. Instead, all of our responsibilities are getting only as much of our distracted attention as we can spare, meaning none of them receive our very best efforts.

Self-Deception,jpgA few years back I realized how easily we fob off our inattention. When we stub our toes, or fail at a task, it’s human nature to seek a culprit to blame our error upon. Damn! we say, it’s not my fault! It was the stair’s fault for not being perfectly even, the bartender over served me, and that noise I heard made me lose focus! Once I had decided to take a mental step back whenever my knee-jerk excuses came into play, I realized that, almost inevitably, the misstep or blunder had to do with my own lack of attention and/or mental laziness.

If we’re honest with ourselves, there is really only one person to blame, and that is ourselves. But honesty, especially of and to ourselves, is something we learn to avoid at an early age, even before we become skilled at swearing that the dog ate our homework.

slow down and thinkSome days, our lives feel too short, while on other days, it feels like an endless slog. The reality is somewhere in the middle. But we do ourselves no favours when we try to game the system, excuse our own foibles while pillorying other people’s errors, and live a life of self-deception and lies.

Sometimes an embarrassment of riches is just a pretty billboard concealing a reeking garbage heap. Knowing which is which is the hard part.

Roxanne Tellier, wealth, money, power, self-deception, media, control, sexualization, Tide pod challenge, laziness.

Running On Empty


It’s minus -21C today – that’s 5 below zero in Fahrenheit – and it’s so cold my cats have cat I has a sadgone beyond being angry and have become despondent, either staring sadly into space or denying the existence of the world with their heads smacked up against a wall. I’m sitting at my desk, wrapped in a black flannel poncho, and wondering where I’ve left my fingerless gloves.

I sprang from my bed this morning, rested and brimming with ideas of ‘great social and political import,’ but instead of researching, I’m waiting for oatmeal to cook – this is not the sort of day you face on an empty stomach.

On days like this I am very grateful for the science and technology that allows me to stay warm. I’m over the moon that I can flip a switch and have light to see by, and flip another switch to start up my computer and read mail and messages from family and friends. I’m really pleased that I have warm clothing that just rests in my closet until I want to wear it, and I’m grateful for the closet being part of a house that has walls and a roof that keep out the worst of the cold.

Silly-HolidaysWe often take for granted what less fortunate people would consider luxuries. We set aside a day here and a day there to give lip service to the giving of thanks, the honouring of lovers, parents, veterans and a host of others to whom we see fit to throw a bone. “Here you go, secretaries. It’s not much, but we’re calling today National Secretary Day! As soon as you’ve read that card, I’ll have a coffee with two sugars. Thanks for being you!”

Our culture has moulded us into people that can never have enough. Everywhere we turn we’re told that we’re missing out on something – a new power drill, an iPhone6, a bigger or tidier home, a more luxurious car, vacations in the sun, and most importantly … money, money, money!

and then we'll get himEven though studies have definitively shown that those with heaps of money are not significantly happier than those with enough to comfortably cover their needs, we’re still told that it is only with the amassing of wealth that we can really be content.

In reality, rich people are not all tanning by their dollar-shaped pools while chatting casually with the men and women we’ve elevated to media stardom. They’re far more likely to be spending their time trying to get yet more money, in any way possible, and are probably more anxious and hostile than you are when trying to decide whether to go with a name brand tin of peas or the generic house brand.

Scrooge-PorpoiseBeing addicted to money is like being addicted to drugs; at first, a small amount gives you a buzz, but as time goes by, you need higher and higher doses to maintain the high. And if money is your drug, that upward spiral contains another component – a need to have more than anyone else, to have it all, regardless of whom it damages. Exorbitant, mindless wealth precludes empathy towards those who struggle to survive on minimum wage or government assistance.

“The peasants have no bread!” “Then let them eat cake,” tittered Queen Marie Antoinette. Her joke, rather than having them rolling in the aisles, soon had heads rolling from the guillotine instead.

That anecdote is likely only the fabrication of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his autobiographical, “Confessions,” but has been used ever since as a cautionary tale of the perils of great wealth and self-indulgence in the face of social unrest. One would think the lesson would be self-explanatory, but apparently the accumulation of wealth does not always translate to the accumulation of historical knowledge.

In Canada, we can point to arriviste Kevin O’Leary, who, with a net worth of US$300 million that the true 1% would consider pocket change, can’t seem to stop patting himself on the back. When he’s not crowing over his own wealth, he’s exhorting the poor of the world to pull themselves up by their socks – even if they don’t own any socks.

But of course, that’s the dream we’ve been sold since the Industrial Revolution. “Come, work for me, make me wealthy and I will share my largesse. You too can be like me, all you need do is work hard, save your money, and keep your nose to the grindstone.” And we bought it, for decades. We called it the Protestant work ethic, and called anyone who didn’t agree lazy and stupid.

scrooge silly pleasures“The Protestant work ethic (or the Puritan work ethic) is a concept in theology, sociology, economics and history which emphasizes hard work, frugality and diligence as a constant display of a person’s salvation in the Christian faith, in contrast to the focus upon religious attendance, confession, and ceremonial sacrament in the Catholic tradition.

The phrase was initially coined in 1904–5 by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” (Wikipedia.org)

We forget that his essay was his observations on the Germany of his time, and not a ‘how-to’ manual. Weber considered himself agnostic. His argument was that Catholicism, with its emphasis on doing good works in the hope of eternal salvation, rather than pursuing wealth for its own sake, impeded the development of the capitalist economy in the West.

Capitalism depends upon everyone in the society believing in the same goals. When the West had a booming middle class, there was room within the prosperity to dream of a country free of traditional constraints. We could reach out a hand to those who needed help, be they poor or infirm, or young or old. That sense of community resulted in government safety nets and a surge of infrastructure building that connected and included all of the people, regardless of their economic place.

North America looked at what they had wrought in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, and found it good. Good enough to not make a priority again until it started to collapse around us.

glittering TorontoIt’s been decades since the roads and bridges and communities were put in place, decades in which the needs of the wealthy became more important in politics than the needs of the tax payer. In Toronto, once Canada’s most glittering city, our highways are clogged with commuters, while our transit system is woefully inadequate to shuttle workers from their homes to their jobs. The local politicians have been arguing about whether to tear down the eastern end of the Gardiner Expressway since the 1990’s. And the majority of our subway system, which opened in 1954, is held together with patches and prayers.

business and politicsThere’s blame enough for everyone at this sorry state. Although we love to complain about ‘the system,’ every aspiring politician has to present a platform that will be seen to not only address community issues, but cost the tax payer less. Once in office, the newly elected official can point to budgetary concerns, and remind us all that there aren’t any funds since he’s cut taxes, just as we requested. Or that they are working on a solution, but we mustn’t hope to see real change until some year in the future where they will hopefully no longer be held accountable for the project and the additional costs incurred during the delay.

Politics on crosswordFor corporations, political concerns are less about the community, and more about expediting the accumulation of more wealth. Despite needing an infrastructure that allows workers to arrive at the work place on time, and roads and other delivery systems to get product to consumers, the emphasis is placed squarely on tax cuts that they have convinced politicians, and even many consumers, will result in a more equitable distribution of wealth.

Corporations spend billions on pushing forward measures that will deny workers fair wages and benefits, and will spend yet more on media essentially blackmailing consumers into giving them what they demand. Health care, no. More tax cuts, yes. Or we’ll take our ball (company, franchise) and go home. Many even believe that we have no other alternative but to agree.

The last several decades of austerity for the general public, but unheard of wealth for the few, is slowly shaping us into a timid, obedient mass, who are only valued as long as we are able to further enrich business through our labour and consumption of goods and services.

hedonic-treadmillThe pursuit of happiness has become a joyless pursuit of money, dooming its followers to an endless treadmill of greed and desperation. You’ll never catch up to the 1%, no matter how hard you try, but real happiness and satisfaction can be had in a life that encompasses empathy, generosity, and gratitude for what you’ve achieved.