I’M an Irish immigrant loafing around Ellis Island. 1905, early October by the slight nip in the air. (Weird thing is, I actually am Irish—I mean the real, really real me, the guy who’s writing this, right now, in the West of Ireland.) Anyway, let’s call me—I don’t know—Tom. Good, solid name. Don’t want to distract a global readership with ornate, difficult-to-pronounce Irish Gaelic ainms. I shuffle along with the rest of the line, towards a walrus-mustachioed man with a brusque manner and an inherent decency in his aspect. He will, I’m pretty sure, give me a fair shot. Life will give me a fair shot. I take a deep breath and inhale stars and space-dust, galaxies entire. I think the mugginess of this room is making me feel faint. I inhale again, deeper still: a continent-sized bolus of possibility. Man, that fills the lungs. I shuffle once more. In about forty years’ time I’ll be a regular suburban schlub, balding, portly, bad marriage, bad knees, complacent. But my child will be a huge Hollywood star. “Flame-Haired Celtic Goddess Conquers the American Dream.” The sentimental backstory writes itself. It’ll help that she, like me, doesn’t have one of those ornate, difficult-to-pronounce Irish Gaelic ainms.
I’M a twenty-something dreamer who grew up in the Valley of the Shadow of Reality Television. As a consequence, like many of my peers, I now believe it to be natural, inevitable—and worse, desirable—to sing for your supper. Literally, in the infernal trenches of American Idol, but also metaphorically, across a broad range of shows and occupations and industries. So, impressionable little prick that I am, I think this is the way to get ahead in all walks of life. My mushy young brain is filled with E! advice and Bravo bullshit: Follow Your Dreams, Take a Chance, Anything is Possible, etc. These, I reckon, are all that’s needed to realize my ambitions, and no need for all that boring old tripe like education, hard work, or professionalism. So what happens? This happens: I pack up my 1998 Honda Accord and bring my shimmering smile and flashbulb exuberance to Hollywood. My story’s got all the trappings of a Steinbeckian epic, but with less bravado and more 1998 Honda Accord. I’m going to dazzle with my personality, amaze with my looks. I mean, if those yokels from Duck Dynasty can get famous just for being yokels. It’s going to work out for me, I’m going to make it, and everything is going to be great forever! But Hollywood, from my farmland vantage of Knob Lick, Missouri, is a far cry from the real deal. To me, this town is a stronghold built on nepotism and fertilized with the tears of freelancers and the piss of winos. Now, my Hollywood is like a parody of Hollywood, itself a movie set, devoid of emotion. They don’t say anything about that on the reality shows. On the reality shows, they don’t say anything.
I’M standing in line at the Piggly Wiggly in my Wisconsin hometown, and I’m buying a can of Hormel Chili with Beans and half-reading an article about some kiddie superstar who plays a kiddie superstar on some kiddie show. And I’m old, oldish, and I’m annoyed, reading this. I’m annoyed because society is obsessed with youth. Hey, I get it: The elderly must make way for the young, ’tis the natural order of things. I appreciate that, really. But still. I’m a curmudgeonly old bastard and I’m reading this shit in some supermarket rag and I’m a little peeved, a tad miffed. I’m fucking furious. Because I can see now, clear as day: We’re neurotically fixated on youth, we’re mesmerized by it, manipulated, enchanted. And for the famous, multiply that. You can’t have fame without youth, not really. Once a star passes a certain age, that’s it, kaput, expired goods, don’t let the door hit you. And the culture, as far as this cantankerous old coot can tell, is getting ever more obsessive about youth. Movies, music, books, TV, you name it: we leer at youth, we creep on it. Chop it up and flog it off. Angelic children monetized and sexualized and wholesaled. Sleazy teen voyeurism, vicarious rebellion, middle-aged idiots skateboarding to work in combat shorts. But youth fades, motherfuckers, and fame is fleeting. I want to tell them this, all those kiddie superstars, that their appeal is almost over, their shelf life dying. But I’ll never meet them, never see them face-to-face to say anything. Because I’m just a regular guy from Wisconsin, standing in line at the Piggly Wiggly, buying a can of Hormel Chili with Beans.
I am a celebrity’s abs. Well, technically I’m a vignette in a magazine article about a celebrity’s abs, but let’s not get too meta. Keep it simple: I am a celebrity’s abs. If you saw me from the inside—like a surgeon might, or a psychopathic killer, or inner-body bacteria and globs of insentient alien matter—you’d think I was nothing remarkable. Just muscle, that’s all, encased in a living unit. Indeed, if you saw me from the outside—say, between my cropped top and shorts, across from you in the gym—you still wouldn’t realize that I was anything special. You’d probably think, “Yep, they’re unusually well-defined, all right, but I can’t see the face of God in them.” However, if you saw me in my natural habitat—YouTubed and Instagramm’d, tweeted and Tumblr’d, my views and likes and followers clocking in the millions—then you’d understand. Then you’d know that I’m not just any set of abs. I’m famous abs. I’m famous because I belong to a famous person. And in a nice circle-of-life loop, a Kumbaya Möbius strip, this person is famous because of me. It’s symbiotic. It’s parasitic. It’s poetic and it’s copacetic. Abs and celeb: we’re one, but we’re not the same. And we got to carry each other, on, on, ever on, down the marble halls of fame, mirror-imaging into eternity like a Borgesian nightmare.
I’M Andy Warhol. Okay, cool. On my to-do list for the day/life are: Invent the Cult of Celebrity as we’ve known it for the past four decades. Make pop culture a valid subject for artistic expression: from “culture” in the sense of TV, movies, media, etc., to the flotsam and jetsam of the broader culture—advertising, industrial logos, and so on. Articulate the mechanization and atomization of society and humankind. Reflect and partly initiate the saturation of post-modernism, in which everyone from Mao to Marilyn is of equal value. Fashion the artist as his own artistic statement. Create countless iconic images, which will be pastiched and homaged to kingdom come. Develop at least two distinct forms of visual art, screen-printing and absurdly realistic drawings of Coke bottles, et al. Make groundbreaking movies which challenge notions of narrative and audience expectation. Rewrite my personal history and constantly negate my own utterances (a quintessentially modern thing to do, n’est-ce pas?). Realize that, for good or ill, the image and the substance are now the same thing (hello, Baudrillard; take a seat, McLuhan). Produce one of the most seminal albums of all time with The Velvet Underground and Nico; and don’t forget the “banana” cover, which becomes as famous as the record itself—I love that, it amuses me. And finally (for now), be as slippery, contradictory, and ultimately unknowable as modern life itself. I’m Andy Warhol. Okay, cool. The self-created myth deconstructing the self-same myth. The most sincerely ironic nod-and-wink ever fed to the fame-hungry masses.