- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

I already miss the Oscars. The Academy Awards are one of the few cultural activities left in America where celebrities do what they should be doing. Everywhere else, from children’s books and instant memoirs to magazine articles and news programming to political events and commercialendorsements, celebrities are taking over. America’s creative arteries are getting clogged because celebrities are dominating opportunities once shared with non-celebrity artists, writers and performers.

You may not know Tony Pope, who died last month after a long career as a voice artist. Mr. Pope was the voice of Goofy in the 1980s animation hit “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” From Woody the Woodpecker to Yosemite Sam to Elmer Fudd and Donald Duck, America’s best-loved cartoon characters were the collaboration of animators and voice artists. Those days are gone. Now celebrities record their own voices for animated entertainment. The old voice artists were rewarded for their ingenuity in giving animated characters unique voices. In contrast, the celebrities are paid to sound like themselves. Artists like Mr. Pope are forced to shift their careers to doing voices for video games, elbowed aside as celebrities like Chris Rock and Ellen DeGeneres become the voices of animated characters.

Celebrity sclerosis is depriving America of a diversity of talent in every field of creative endeavor. Take children’s books. Motivated no doubt by the success of J.K. Rowling, who just made Forbes’ billionaireslist,lastyear Madonna suddenly reinvented herself as a children’s author. Other celebrity makeovers as instant children’s writers include Britney Spears (barely more than a child herself), Spike Lee, LeAnn Rimes and Cindy Crawford. Sports celebrities are in on the act, too. Shaquille O’Neal writes children’s books, sort of; he actually rewrites classics such as “Little Red Riding Hood” by inserting himself into the story.

Book critics complain that celebrity children’s authors simply draw on autobiographical material instead of offering good, original storytelling, but such criticism misses the point. Publishers don’t want celebrities to be original. They want them to be predictably uniform, in character as the celebrities already are, so that the publishers can profit safely. If they wanted to take creative risks, they wouldn’t need celebrities.

Reader’s Digest was one of the few magazines in the supermarket checkout line without celebrities on the cover. Not anymore. I let my subscription to Men’s Journal, once renowned for hard-edged reporting from the likes of Sebastian Junger, lapse when male celebrities began appearing on each cover. In one issue, Clint Eastwood gave general advice for living that easily applied to any successful movie star, but nobody else. Sting had a softball father-and-son article about trekking in Nepal with glaring historical errors that a no-name author could never have gotten past the fact-checkers. As magazines succumb to the lure of celebrities, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of fewer publishing openings for other writers.

Not even journalists’ jobs are safe. ABC bypassed its news division so Leonardo DiCaprio could interview Bill Clinton. Drew Barrymore (the noted campaign expert) is making a documentary on the Democratic presidential primaries. Soon you won’t be able to open the editorial pages without being overwhelmed by celebrity opinions.

Of course, there are financial reasons for celebrity sclerosis. Five mega-corporations — Viacom, General Electric, Time-Warner, Disney and Murdoch News Corp. — control most of the news and entertainment production and distribution in America. Their holdings run the gamut from film and television to book, magazine and newspaper publishing. They use this power, which supporters call “synergy” and economists call “vertical integration,” to push their own products and exclude competitors.

Celebrities are the brands of these new media conglomerates. Celebrities have become packaging for almost everything imaginable. Want to compete in the telecommunications wars? Sign Catherine Zeta-Jones. Want to sell books? Put a celebrity’s name on the dust jacket. Celebrities even re-brand like corporate products. When Kentucky Fried Chicken wanted a fresher image, it became KFC. The artist-formerly-known as Jennifer Lopez did the same thing when she was becoming stale.

No amount of re-branding can erase the fact that our celebrity-crazed culture is in danger of becoming a creative wasteland. As the tentacles of a handful of celebrities spread throughout every realm of expression, they not only strangle opportunities for other, less-renowned artists, they choke our culture with a dispiriting uniformity. That’s because celebrity-marketing can only succeed by selling us more of the same.

So, I miss the Academy Awards. For a few hours, the celebrities are where they belong, and we are briefly safe from celebrity sclerosis.

John B. Roberts II is an author and television producer.

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