Media Guy: Celebrity Is Dead

VH1's Dirty-Kitty Shimmy on Celeb Culture's Grave

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If you had told me even just a few years ago that some day one of the breakout stars on VH1 would be a fluffy white kitty -- a nameless fluffy white kitty that, for the record, is known for ostentatiously pleasuring itself -- I probably wouldn't have believed you. But Masturbating Cat is, indeed, a star on VH1, the theoretically more mature sibling to Viacom's MTV.

M.C. is brought to us courtesy of VH1's "Web Junk 20," a clever new hit series that spotlights viral Web videos. The cat -- which is hilariously un-self-conscious about using its paws creatively -- held the No. 1 spot on last week's show. As host Patrice O'Neal put it, "All right, kitty, do your thing. Don't be embarassed, kitty, everybody does it -- with their legs cocked back, licking their feet and their own nipples." (If you're on a PC, you can view the video at VH1.com; Mac users can search on "masturbating cat" at YouTube.com.)

Ah, what a marvelous time to be alive.

M.C.'s stardom is, I submit, simply of a piece with everything else that's going on in pop culture right now. That one of the most buzzworthy acts on VH1 isn't the Black Eyed Peas or even the Pussycat Dolls but M.C. Fluffy (or M.C. Fluffer?) shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.

To me it is -- stick with me here -- more evidence that Celebrity Is Dead. That "celebrity" as a gilded concept, as the driver of economies large and small, is so totally over. Even as major marketers -- virtually all the American and global greats -- have become evermore dependent on burnishing their brands by juxtaposing them with celebrity brands, it's become increasingly clear that celebrity culture is coasting on fumes.

If 2006 is remembered as the year that Masturbating Cat broke big, it's also the year that the unknowns of "American Idol" nearly doubled the ratings of the supposed megastars (Mariah, Madonna, Kanye, U2, etc.) who clotted the annual Grammys telecast.

I had lunch recently with the editor of a major glossy who was bemoaning the fact that there are, at the moment, no truly "hot" celebrities for him to put on his covers. No big celebrities doing anything really compelling, no young celebrities really breaking out in a big way. Meanwhile, on the down-market side of things, the celebrity weeklies have a cover breakdown that's functionally one big recycling project (sort of similar to how civic waste-reclamation facilities work). It goes, if I've done the math right, something like this: 42% pathetic C-listers like Nick, Jessica, Britney and Kevin, 38% long-in-the-tooth A-listers like Brad and Angelina, and the rest a marginal mishmash of D-listers like Paris Hilton.

I've written in the past about how, as celebrity culture has exploded, it's also simultaneously been reduced (the "Us Weekly" effect), pathologized (the "Page Six" effect), deconstructed (the "Behind the Music" effect) and cheapened (the reality-TV effect). But what's been happening lately has more has to do with a seismic disconnect between supply and demand. I spoke recently with one of the handful of major players in the Hollywood-management racket, and he was complaining, ironically, about the talent surplus. Even in the 500-channel universe (or 5-zillion-channel universe, if you count the Internet), there are, paradoxically, too many stars. Which is why even the biggest stars in his stable are increasingly doing movies and series on cable outlets that were considered marginal until about five minutes ago.

Now consider that National Lampoon just announced the creation of the National Lampoon Incubation Studios for its film, TV, mobile, Internet and publishing divisions. The Lampoon -- the once-legendary offshoot of the Harvard Lampoon -- is, of course, known for jumpstarting the careers of Bill Murray and Chevy Chase. But who needs an incubator when homemade, D.I.Y. talents like Andy Samberg (now of "Saturday Night Live") got pretty big by themselves on the Internet without working the usual farm-team systems like the Lampoon and Second City?

For that matter, who even needs Harvard in a world of masturbating kitties?

I think of all of this as the IKEA-ization or Target-ization of celebritydom: instant, cheap, disposable celebrity, everywhere. Only everybody's simultaneously realizing that the celebrities they've "bought" are really kind of shoddy (God, that veneer is already flaking off!), that everyone else has the exact same celebrities, that everyone else is already sick of them, too -- and that these ubiquitous celebs are actually kind of overpriced given how long they're likely to last.

Anyway, all's I know is that M.C. Fluffy's performance is a lot more interesting than anything that, say, Eminem or J.Lo have done lately.

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The Media Guy's column appears weekly on AdAge.com and in the print edition of Advertising Age. E-mail him at dumenco@gmail.com

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