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Why Are We So Obsessed With Pop Stars?

Love to hate it or hate to love it, what you think about it matters

Carly Rae Jepsen's wickedly addictive "Call Me Maybe" rings perpetually over stereo speakers, now claiming the top spot on the Billboard 100. Flavor-of-the-month heartthrobs One Direction have sold 1.6 million copies of their debut, Up All Night. And early estimates for how many copies of Justin Bieber's new album will sell in its debut tracking period run in the 400,000 to 500,000 range. As much as we might want to deny it, we're obsessed with this sort of stuff. Why can't we stop it? Who are the people creating it?

Nobody thinks celebrities are famous for being talented. Okay, maybe some people do—but they’re wrong. Most of us would concede that celebrities secure their thrones for reasons other than genius. Elvis could sing, but he was really crowned for his come hither hips. “MMMBop” meant nothing to anyone and yet everything to pubescent girls. And Kim Kardashian is known for being able to market much more than cosmetics and shoes. We don't just like the product these people are churning out. For some reason most people could never identify, we like the people themselves. Or, maybe, we hate them. Or, most likely, we hate to love them. 

Tuning into pop culture is like floating out of the midwest minimum wage world and into the glamorous territory of fame, fortune and even relevance.

Connecting to the Outside

For a lot of people, remaining fluent in KISS FM's latest dance jams and romantic ballads makes them feel connected to the world. Letting a DJ's bad jokes bounce off kitchen walls while washing dishes or allowing whispers of commercials to escort them through a traffic-jammed sunset can be magical. Tuning into pop culture is like floating out of the midwest minimum wage world and into the glamorous territory of fame, fortune and even relevance. 

Getting In the Joke

Satiric references to pop icons of all shapes and sizes are everywhere. Conan, Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock and even local news stations try to spice up their relevancy with pop culture peppercorns. In fact, the more immediate the pun, the more likely it is to trend. Nobody wants to be that clueless kid, mouth agape, when irony gets thrown down.

Boosting the Morale

On some level, knowing that the likes of Ke$ha can achieve fame is a morale boost. If mediocre skills and lackluster creativity can get those guys famous, there’s nothing for all us wannabe's to feel bad about, because getting big is really just a matter of luck. Unrealized hopes and broken down dreams can be excused. We can continue to believe that we are, in fact, talented. We just haven't been discovered yet. 

Awareness of a New Legend

Mass-market media has created some of the most enduring cultural emblems. What if UK listeners had shrugged off “Love Me Do?" Would there be a Rubber Soul? Had “Like A Virgin” been just another here-and-gone dance club hit, would we have the cone-shaped bra? If “Baby” remained an obscure track on a thirteen-year-old girl’s break up mix, would anybody be a Belieber? Like it or not, the bubblegum pop you despise today may well become the cultural touchstone of tomorrow. 

So Top 40 radio remains the Top 40, playing to the highest bidders and ignoring an entire market of independent rockers. No matter how hard they try, major labels seemed eternally doomed to be like that overly verbose dad in his Hawaiian shirt crushing beer cans with a “cool man” and a “yeah dude,” so certain he knows what "cool" is and is not.

Poorly done record label moguls, poorly done indeed.

There remain, however, the proud, the noble, the brave: the snobs. They see through the color-by-numbers culture encircling them. They pronounce judgment on the good, the bad and the ugly of mass media. Ironically, this also requires them to be completely dependent on it, even if only to provide them with an abundant supply of snarky jokes. They have a loud and abrasive disdain for songs are just bad and film reels should just be burned. Like any good coffee connoisseur will insist on good crema and despise whatever a "venti frappuccino" is, true aesthetes will vow a car dashboard exists merely as an iPod plugin and their television is nothing more than a device watching only the latest Sundance selections.

All this makes sharing artistic tastes with someone an incredibly vulnerable act. Everyone craves affirmation, especially from people they like. If nobody cared, social media apps everywhere would whither and die. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting the people we like to appreciate us. After all, if a date starts talking loudly over a favorite song, where could this relationship possibly go? And if a film brings tears and inspiration until a friend in the next seat starts snoring, what’s the point of living? 

A new anthem can break speed limits. An interesting article can change a lifestyle. And sharing those moments can form a connection with friends, family and humanity in general. But why would anyone truly confident in their quirky tastes and offbeat flavors feel such a compulsion to broadcast them? Maybe it’s because we use pop culture to make statements not just about what we are, but more importantly—what we are not.



Sgtthee commented…

I agree that we tend to connect over the stuff of pop culture and that it is often used as a measure not only of what we like, but a statement about who we are. Perhaps we should stop trying to care about things we don't really care about and start connecting over things that really matter, but then, that would require a degree of vulnerability far beyond what is required in sharing a "good tune."


Gary Catona commented…

Pop music is a form of escape. People can enjoy it without thinking too much about it. In the same way, people can live vicariously through these pop stars and forget about the mundane, in comparison, nature of their lives.

James Paul Manuel


James Paul Manuel commented…

I am part of the snob and yes...i know what "songs that are "just bad" and film reels that "should just be burned."

Gladys Talarico


Gladys Talarico commented…

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