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Why Are We So Obsessed with Celebrity Tragedy?

Why Are We So Obsessed with Celebrity Tragedy?

“Where were you when they found Lamar Odom overdosed in a Nevada brothel?”

That is a question literally no one will be asking in five years. And yet, for days, I couldn’t get away from the articles and exposés about the former NBA star and estranged husband to Khloé Kardashian.

Every story reiterated the most salacious elements of the story: the intended $75,000 five-day brothel binge, Odom’s cocaine addiction, the herbal Viagra and the Kardashian bedside vigil. 

In addition to these elements, the reports focused on the traumas he’d experienced in his life: a mother who died of colon cancer, a father who was a heroin addict, a son who died of SIDS.

As the coverage continued, I began to wonder what it was about this story that warranted this much interest and coverage. Was it the NBA angle? Kardashian media hypnotism? What’s driving the interest in this story?

I came up with a few reasons I think the media is so enamored with the Lamar Odom story:

We’ve Changed What It Means to Be Informed

There was a time when adults would get together and talk about issues. They had an intricate understanding of local, national and international issues that affected people’s everyday lives.

Through the latter part of the ’50s, television interview programs, like The Mike Wallace Interview, featured discussions with politicians, philosophers and artists. These interviews tackled deep and complex theoretical discussions—and this was prime-time programming.

As a culture, we no longer appreciate a deep and nuanced understanding of complex ideas. We’ve developed a taste of trivialities and flavor-of-the-month pop-culture minutiae.

Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death was released in 1985 and was fairly prophetic in its diagnosis of this problem, He says:

“I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed.”

There’s been a cultural revolution in what it means to be informed, and it happened so quietly that we missed it.

We’re Told It’s Important

I couldn’t turn on the news without seeing the Lamar Odom story. But the interesting thing is that I never heard anyone talking about it. There was an element of the story that felt completely manufactured. It wasn’t that the story was made up—the importance was.

Political commentator Walter Lippmann coined the “agenda-setting theory” in 1922. This theory suggests that if the media covers a story enough, we’ll become convinced of its significance.

If you think about it, we experience this even more profoundly with social media. The more the same story shows up as we scroll through our news feed, the more important it appears. It can be difficult to prioritize information when it is being curated for us.

We Don’t Understand Celebrity Struggles

We’re completely dumbfounded when we hear about multi-million dollar lottery winners filing for bankruptcy or committing suicide. It’s so contrary to our fantasy that our problems could all be solved by a million dollar windfall. We’ve developed the same kind of mythology about celebrity culture.

Thanks to the rise of reality television and the social media star, a lack of talent no longer feels like an impediment to fame. Now it seems like stardom is within anyone’s grasp—and we’re led to believe it would fill our emptiness. 

So when we’re confronted with celebrities whose brokenness seems exacerbated by fame, we’re mystified and curious. We’re all being conditioned to desire a celebrity experience, but then we’re flabbergasted when we get these glimpses behind the curtain.

We Resent Celebrities

Google the words “hated celebrities,” and you’ll find page after page of lists devoted to the famous people everyone loves to hate. You’d think that it would be just clickbait or gossip sites, but there are quite a few legitimate news sources. For some reason, we feel completely justified in badmouthing celebrities.

While we idealize the famous and enjoy fantasies that we could be one of them, we’re also incredibly envious—particularly with B-list celebrities who we don’t feel deserve their fame. In some ways, we want to see their world come crashing down, because it restores a sense of equity to the world.

Celebrities are abstracts to us—they’re not people. And it doesn’t help us humanize them when they market themselves as a “brand.” While we take vicarious interest in their glamorous lives, we relish their downfall. 

We Feel the Need to Stay Current

There’s a fistfull of late-night talk show hosts who need content for monologues, and their writers go right to the celebrity-news mill. But even if you don’t watch late-night TV, you still need to be able to talk to your friends about pop-culture’s current events—and don’t forget the memes!

In a world that’s constantly plugged in, there’s no greater sin than lack of awareness in the latest e-news. In fact, relevance is so important that news outlets are always trying scoop each other on up-to-the-minute gossip. That’s TMZ’s whole schtick.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always make for accurate reporting. When Odom’s story broke, everyone rushed to publish with the news that he was brain dead. This has not turned out to be the case. But the rush to be the first to report has made a lot of celebrity news simple gossip and speculation.

Rethinking Our Relationship to Celebrity Culture

It’s good news that, with months of rehab, Odom is likely to recover. And no matter what you think about the Kardashians, this event has contributed to family stress and heartache.

We Christians should engage with celebrity culture in a different way. Maybe we should rethink the societal temptation to put people on pedestals. Maybe we should abandon voyeurism as entertainment. We definitely shouldn’t be enjoying celebrity downfalls.

Are you a Lakers fan who has followed and cared about Lamar Odom’s career? Pray for him. He’s a real person who has walked through a lifetime of loss. He deserves to experience something more profound than just being the target of tabloid journalism. Like the rest of us, he needs to experience the touch of the living God.

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