Over lunch a few months ago, digital marketing whiz-bang Tim Brunelle recommended that I start reading a column by Bob Lefsetz. I did; I loved. Sir Bob reminds me of another columnist I followed religiously as a young man, Rolling Stone writer and co-founder Ralph J. Gleason. He bought the farm in 1975.
Like Rick Reilly does in sports, Gleason (then) and Lefsetz (now) find the micro-story in music and transform it into a macro, urban language big-think. A recent column about her royal twerkiness Miley Cyrus left Sir Bob rightly wondering, “What’s the big deal, people!?”
Little Miley, bereft of a moral compass and, despite her physical and intellectual diminutivity, came armed with an oversized “who-gives-a-s**t” attitude and paraded in true derivative fashion around the stage of MTV’s VMAs. Sadly, her class-B mimic of Madonna, Prince, or even Christina Aguilera’s gold standard of pouty fetishness turned out to be amateur night. Yet the gawkers gawked and the press threw grenades. Her trailer-park chic, afflicted by an inexplicable tongue palsy, housed in a bra and panties ensemble straight out of Walmart’s “Horny Undies” catalog, and a mock masturbation act with a laughably clumsy “We’re #1” foam hand actually got many hot, bothered, and outraged, our cultural boundaries invaded, sacked, and pillaged.
We’re such suckers!
As P.T. Barnum said, “Clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung.” Yet we got caught in the simplest of webs spun by tiny minds. Acts like little Miley’s are rooted in manipulating with cheap spectacle, ploys designed to absolutely move our emotional needle, get big press, and then move our needle some more. As marketers become more sophisticated and data better defines where the rubes are, surgical strikes like this happen more frequently, drone hits intensely planned and expertly orchestrated.
Consider the Tiger Woods “moment” after he won the Bridgestone. Remember when his little boy ran into his arms? For a second, kinda grabbed ya, didn’t it? Maybe all that infidelity and shabby, rough-house phone sex with whores and waitresses was all just a big misunderstanding? I can just hear girlfriend Lindsay saying to Tiger from across the sheets: “You need to soften your image a bit honey, like Phil does.” I’m referring to Phil Mickelson, of course, by all accounts a good guy, whose mongo-tressed little girls and beloved wife Amy maul him on the green after every—single—win, choreographed in a PR office, aimed at sustaining a lovable persona and piles of endorsements. The reverse works as well, where revered child stars like Hannah Montana get de-Disneyfied with outrageous makeovers that transform them into the naughty little painted tart next door. Enter crowds and publicity—lots of both.
If this sounds cynical, it is.
Manipulation dominates our external lives. It feeds cover subjects of tabloids and People magazine, threading through our daily conversations, Twitter feeds, and party talk. If you believe stars aren’t complicit, next time you get blood drawn have them check your naïve count. America slathers and salivates for access to the “real” lives of celebrities, not understanding (or perhaps understanding all too well) that these are not real people at all, but rather marionettes dangled before us on all manner of stage, their manufactured personas, dreams, and train wrecks providing theater as well as antidote to uneventful lives.
They troll, we take the worm, and they laugh all the way to their manse in Antigua.