So long ago, I saw this music video on MTV, back when music videos were a thing. The song was called Cult of Personality and it was performed by a band called Living Colour. Through the magic of music streaming services, I can now listen to that song as write this. With a search string, “cult of personality lyrics”, I can find and read the lyrics and know what they meant in the song, and share them with others online.
That song was released in 1988 and it made a huge impression on me. I like that song because it reminds me of the power we give to celebrities, whether we intend to or not. And right now, in this age, we’re giving a lot of power to celebrities, and I’m not so sure that’s what we want to be doing with our power. In case there is any doubt, one only needs to look at who is living in the White House right now.
I’m a fan of Tom Cruise. I enjoy his movies, for the projects that he chooses to take part in provoke in me deep thinking. My favorites are Vanilla Sky, Minority Report, and The Last Samurai. Now you might like other movies with Tom Cruise, or none at all. Maybe you don’t know even like Tom Cruise.
I like Tom’s movies, but I don’t really like that business with Scientology. I can separate, or compartmentalize my experience of him. Yes, his movies are great, and interviews of the directors he has worked with cast him in a favorable light. But I don’t really know Tom Cruise. I would have no idea what to talk about with him if we were thrust into the Maple Restaurant in Beverly Hills to have lunch. And who would pick up the tab? That’d be an awkward moment.
It seems fortunate then, that Tom Cruise is more interested in making movies than holding political office. He has name recognition and if he wanted to run for a seat in Congress, well, I think he’d have a pretty good chance of winning that seat. He’s an actor and he can be persuasive. I think he’d put on a very good show to prove that he’s capable of making good public policy. And the show he puts on might not give us any idea if he’d really be able to do the job well.
When I think of other celebs out there, people I like, I remind myself that I don’t really know them. I don’t hate them or love them. I don’t have enough information to know what they’re really like in person. Celebrities can include politicians, too. I don’t like them or hate them, I only look to their actions for guidance as to who they really are, in person.
So I bet you’re wondering when I’d turn the conversation to Donald J. Trump. Right about now would be right. Donald Trump is now president of the United States. He rose to fame in elite social circles in New York. He’s had his own television series that ran for more than a decade, “The Apprentice”, and he’s made numerous other appearances as an entertainer. He even has a severely abused star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. To me, that makes him an actor.
Donald Trump ran for president on his name recognition alone. There was no serious effort by the Republican Party to vet him as a candidate. It’s like they just assumed that Trump would be a great president just because he’s a “success”, and a celebrity.
It wasn’t until long after he took office that we learned that he isn’t really the self-made billionaire that he and his handlers wanted us to believe. Investigations into his career in real estate showed that he “lost” a billion dollars in his businesses and that he received at least $413 million from his father through a variety of structured transactions. Other investigations turned up embarrassing recordings of him making very crude statements about women and showing him with Jeffrey Epstein, and other not-so-model-citizens. And now there is now a huge fight over his tax returns.
Even after all the investigations of Donald Trump, most of us still don’t know who he is or what he’s like in person. Only those people he keeps close to him know what he’s really like. The rest of the time, he’s “in character”. What Trump does and says in public often leaves me wondering if he ever breaks character.
Most celebs are like that. We don’t really know what they’re like in private because, just like us, we act differently in different contexts. We play different roles throughout the day. We even change our voices depending on who we talk to when we’re on the phone. And yet, this obsession with celebrities remains a powerful part of American culture, placing celebrities on pedestals above us.
This is how I see most celebrities. It’s rare to see someone sitting on a pile of money, with fame and fortune, to allow themselves to be vulnerable on camera. If they choose to be vulnerable in public, that vulnerability is very, very selective.
This isn’t to imply any villainy to any and all celebrities, for I make an assumption that most people act in a way that allows them to sleep at night, and that they want to do the right thing. I just think it’s a good idea to remind ourselves that celebrities have a lot of power, that we gave it to them and that we can choose to withdraw that power from them at any time by changing our minds. Living Colour recognized that fact in a passage in the closing lyrics to their song, Cult Of Personality:
You gave me fortune
You gave me fame
You gave me power in your own god’s name
I’m every person you need to be
Oh, I’m the cult of personality