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From Barnum to “Bling Bling”

The Changing Face of Celebrity Culture

Amy Henderson

Poster for “The Barnum Bailey Greatest Show on Earth” (1908). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Showman P. T. Barnum set the stage for modern celebrity culture by opening the curtain on mass entertainment in the mid-nineteenth century. He dazzled in an era before technology could “broadcast” performance—before the advent of the recording, radio, and motion picture industries; before the heyday of advertising; before the mass distribution of photography in rotogravure sections of the Sunday newspapers. yet somehow he ignored these constraints and created such popular culture events as the establishment of the American Museum in New york in 1841, the introduction of “General Tom Thumb” shortly thereafter, the orchestration of Swedish songbird Jenny Lind’s celebrated 1851–1852 American tour, the organization of “The Greatest Show on Earth” (a traveling circus/menagerie/museum) in 1871, and the creation ten years later, with James Bailey, of the Barnum & Bailey Circus. His American Museum on Broadway in particular showcased Barnum’s love of humbug in such wildly diverse entertainments as “industrious fleas, automatons, jugglers, ventriloquists, living statuary, tableaux, gypsies, albinos, giants, dwarfs, models of Niagara, American Indians....” “It was my monomania,” he said in his autobiography, “to make the Museum the town wonder and town talk.” And this he did with astonishing ingenuity: “my ‘puffing’ was more persistent, my posters more glaring, my pictures more exaggerated, my flags more patriotic.” It worked brilliantly.11xQuoted in Neil Harris, Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973) 40, 53–54.

The bravado Barnum used to create his wondrous celebrities, illusions, and spectacles injected ballyhoo into the rarified air of America’s earlier devotion to Great Men on a Pedestal. Lacking millennia of history as a nation, Americans of the Revolutionary republic fashioned a mythic national character out of military heroes and eminent statesmen who embodied the ideals of virtue, self-reliance, and achievement.

By mid-twentieth century, this heroic pedestal was claimed not by politicians and generals but by sports stars and movie legends—by “personality” rather than “character.”22xSee Warren Susman, “‘Personality’ and the Making of Twentieth Century Culture,” Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York: Pantheon, 1984) 271–85 This shift, reflecting the cultural changes wrought by the communications revolution of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and by the rise of immigration and urbanization between the 1890s and 1920s, says a great deal about the nation’s continuing need for self-definition, and about the culture that contributed to the search for it. In his groundbreaking book The Image, Daniel Boorstin described this metamorphosis as one from traditional “larger-than-life” heroes known for their achievement to “celebrity-personalities” recognized for their “well-knownness” in a society enamored of “pseudo-events.”33xDaniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Atheneum, 1971) 57.

By the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, the changing face of fame existed squarely at eye level, lacking any pretense of pedestal altogether: postmodern pseudo-celebrity blips flooded the airwaves with “reality television” and Americans eagerly clawed their way to fame as “Apprentices” and “American Idols.” yet flash and spectacle remain crucial components of “celebrity,” as exemplified today by “bling bling”—the diamond-studded, showy rapper style that has recently won approval by the Oxford English Dictionary.44xSee www.mtv.com/news/articles/1471629/20030430/bg.jhtml?headlines=true

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