So much is said about the way millennials grew up and what differentiates our generation from others, but one moment in time every young adult remembers is singer Britney Spears’ 2007 public breakdown. Spears’ shaved head is one of the most influential pop culture moments from the 2000s, perhaps only rivaled by Michael Jackson’s death. The umbrella, the electric razor and the flashing cameras were a pivotal moment in affecting how America, and the media, deals with scandal today.
Rapper Kanye West was hospitalized in November and released this past week, leading to media speculation of his mental health and relationship with reality television star Kim Kardashian. Articles popped up linking West’s hospitalization to all sorts of physical or mental health emergencies. Every American, no matter how disinterested in the cult of celebrity, knows how these articles read. An attention-grabbing headline asks an outrageous question, but the claims are minimized in the article and even sometimes contradictory. Among countless other examples, Us Weekly published an article this week that cited two different anonymous sources with two opposing stories.
But the fact that tabloids misuse anonymous sources is not new, nor is the fact that entertainment news is dangerously invasive to celebrity’s lives. Spears’ breakdown may be the most well-known, but it is not the only one. Countless celebrities have discussed the press’ negative impact on their mental health. Additionally, the press frequently oversteps boundaries, as evidenced by Gawker, which no longer exists in part because it violated the privacy of WWE wrestler Hulk Hogan.
But as gossip magazines are theorizing as to what will become of West after his hospitalization, we should take a moment to think what will become of these gossip magazines. Social media is giving fans direct access to celebrities, despite it being a more glamorous look. Who needs a magazine to tell us what we’ve already seen on Snapchat, Twitter or Instagram?
Thinking back on Spears’ meltdown is saddening. A woman was publicly crying out for help and felt isolated as millions of Americans looked on, cameras blazing and criticisms on hand. It’s hard to imagine that situation playing out with another celebrity today. Spears had a perfect storm building up around her that many now avoid by any means necessary.
Gossip will always be a guilty pleasure, as tabloids continue to creep up on Americans as they check out at the grocery store with attention-grabbing headlines and scandalous pictures. The way we look at celebrities should be analytical, not speculative. Whether you like it or not, Kanye West is influential and people care what he does and has to say. The story that will impact more people is not his hospitalization, but the fact that he endorsed Donald Trump, going against the vast majority of his fanbase. Even with West’s hospitalization, the rumors about his mental health can be critical, which takes away from a potential moment to address mental health.
The stories that get the most play are the crazy things or the dramatic moments in their lives, not the potentially impactful moments. After a celebrity dies, extreme and casual fans alike reminisce on the impact these stars had on their lives. Why is it only in death that we realize celebrities shape the way we behave and think about controversial issues?
The art, movies, music and occasional charity work we associate with stars are almost always commentary on issues facing all Americans. Bruce Springsteen articulated the working man’s struggle in his music and became a superstar in the process. Actress Elizabeth Taylor spoke up about AIDS when others would not. Lady Gaga was influential to every queer person’s life who came of age in the 2000s. Yet we associate these celebrities with the moments of scandal or drama more than the actual impact they had on our national conversation.
The bald and umbrella-clad Britney is still chasing the American psyche, and those who consume gossip “news” are complacent in allowing the paparazzi to reach its current point. Speculative journalism, the elimination of privacy and the encouragement of reckless action put Spears, a mother of two at the time, into psychiatric care. But what is more reckless is that, by emphasizing the dramatic moments, the impact that these artists have on our nation is underplayed. We should not have to wait until they die to realize the importance of certain stars. The fake news that has political circles abuzz has been present in the entertainment world for generations — it is what drove Spears to shave her head.
So, when Kanye West discusses his hospitalization, Kim Kardashian discusses her robbery or the next A-lister has a public cry for help, we need to ask ourselves how we are going to handle the story. Will rumors yet again supersede our awareness of the impacts?