Teenagers, today I’d like to talk to you about the power and influence of celebrity.
I address this to you primarily because celebrity is something that seems to attract the young more than the old. After one has seen many moons, the rush to wax eloquent over another’s ability to act or sing begins to wane.
That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy good acting or singing. When I was growing up, I cheered for Sylvester Stallone and loved some of his movies. In fact, when I was about 13 years old, I went on a business trip to Philadelphia with my Dad just to see the steps that “Rocky” famously climbed. As far as singing was concerned, I loved listening to Karen Carpenter’s golden voice.
(Stallone and Carpenter—a bizarre combination, I know. What can I say? It was the 70’s.)
But celebrity has changed a lot since then.
Back in the day, some of the personal details of celebrities were reported, but never in the minute detail that they now. We seem to know everything about every celebrity. And for reasons that escape me, people want to know even more.
The other thing that has changed is that people had to do something to achieve celebrity. It didn’t have to be a great and wonderful thing; it could have been just throwing a football in a stadium or telling jokes onstage, but it was some tangible thing. This is no longer the case. Now, as the saying goes, people are “famous for being famous.” I’ll be honest: I don’t understand that.
But I do understand this: celebrity is power; power is celebrity. And yes, it corrupts. Lord Acton’s famous observation that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” makes far too positive a concession to human nature’s fallen condition. The truth is that minimal power corrupts absolutely. As does minimal celebrity.
Of course, neither Lord Acton’s nor my observation is universally true: there are those who govern wisely and never fall prey to the Luciferian temptation of power, and there are those who use their celebrity to achieve great good. Yet, for those who succumb to the temptation of power or celebrity, very small doses are needed for corruption.
But if celebrity has a negative effect on celebrities, its effect on the disciples of celebrities is often far worse. Young people see celebrities who are living lives that are far from virtuous, yet want to follow closely behind, carefully retracing their footsteps. They want to dress (or undress) like them, sing like them, rebel like them, date like them, and break up like them.
I actually wonder how many teenage girls begin dating boys for the sole purpose of breaking up with them so they can more meaningfully sing along with a random Taylor Swift breakup song. (And I thought Phil Collins had cornered the breakup-song market back in the 80’s.)
Celebrities are popular because they fill a perceived need, and young people need heroes. I understand that. I am not suggesting that you don’t admire anyone or look up to them. Far from it. What I am suggesting is that you be impressed by real people in your own real life, not the fictional characters in “reality” shows.
Be impressed by the priests in your life. They have devoted their lives to God, they hear hundreds of Confessions every week and they say Mass every day. They may not be able to sing or act, but they help you achieve eternal life. That’s pretty cool.
Be impressed by your parents. Until I had children of my own, I never grasped the courage and faith of own my own mother and father. Please don’t wait as long as I did to understand that.
As it turns out, real heroes might be much closer than you think. Maybe it’s time to start being impressed by them.