Sharon Marcus

Public Culture, 2015


In the 1920s, gossip columnist Walter Winchell catered to a formidable public appetite for celebrity news, reaching about 50 million Americans via his weekly radio show and daily newspaper column. Winchell relished the power his column gave him: “Democracy is where everybody can kick everybody else’s ass. . . . But you can’t kick Winchell’s” (Gabler 1994: xiii). Precisely because public opinion had become such a formidable political force, the autocratic few who shaped it were cushioned from its blows. Today Winchell would be posting online and getting kicked by commenters within seconds. In the Internet era, no single tastemaker has the monopoly Winchell once enjoyed, and the lines between producers and consumers of public opinion have blurred. When pop music celebrities like Bono practice international politics and politicians like Brazil’s Lula become international stars, when Lady Gaga can exhort her millions of Facebook fans to protest government policies such as “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” when in the week following Michael Jackson’s death millions of people the world over watch a YouTube video of Filipino prisoners dancing to his music, it is time to ask whether we are witnessing structural changes to celebrity or whether the Internet has merely accelerated and extended dynamics that have fundamentally changed little over the past two centuries.

View the paper hereCelebrity, Past and Present