In about the year 2047, I think we’ll see a lot of glum middle-aged people.
A recent study shows that television shows preferred by tweens (ages 9 to 11) have increasingly focused on the aspirational value of fame.
Fame topped the list of values recognized in the top two shows for tweens in 2007 ( American Idol and Hannah Montana), up from fifteen (out of sixteen) in 1967 (Andy Griffith and The Lucy Show), and most decades between (Laverne and Shirley, Happy Days. Growing Pains, Alf, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Boy Meets World).
And while the study went only as far as 2007, the researchers also point to more current media programming, such as Simon Cowell’s upcoming talent show, The X Factor, which will be open to children as young as 12; iCarly, about a young web star; and Guitar Hero, which allows children (and plenty of adults) to pretend to be rock stars.
Fame, fame, and more fame. And as kids get increasingly plugged in, media messages have more time than ever to penetrate developing young minds.
If media and society feed off each other, as they seem to, then we have a lot of young people who will enter adulthood aspiring to fame. And you know what that means: In about 40 years, we’re going to have a lot of middle-aged adults feeling like failures. (Unless by that time we’re living to 150, in which case push those midlife crises to 2067.)
Heed my warning.
I grew up in a starstruck household. I have vaudevillians, a movie star, and recording artists in my family tree. My father regretted until his last days that he hadn’t pursued the theatrical career he believed he was meant for. My brothers took to the stage themselves, as musicians. Brushes with fame were a big deal in our family, tallied up like a birder’s life list.
The bar was set high. Success=Fame. So naturally, I always wanted to be famous.
I still do, deep in my childish id. I appreciate everything my life has been so far, but also know that I will never feel truly successful unless Jon Stewart interviews me. (And, of course, that’s not even real fame. Lots of obscure authors sit across from Jon once in their careers.)
Dopey? Youbetcha. I know that.
That’s why I was drawn to a book titled The Fear of Insignificance: Searching for Meaning in the Twenty-first Century (which I discussed here). And author Carlo Strenger persuaded me that my lust for fame is not only a product of my upbringing, but also the way our society has developed.
In fact, I know lots of other people in midlife wrestling with the same dopey demon, not quite ready to let go of that unlikely dream even as we mourn the passing of our potential.
Our media has created a fantasy in which fame is right there for the plucking, but we live in a real world where only few will reach it. And if everyone could, there would be no such thing as fame, anyway. As W.S. Gilbert wrote, “when everyone is somebody, then no one’s anybody.”
Whereas television used to promote family and friendship, today’s media pushes fame, fame, fame—either by molding stars a la American Idol; or creating them, a la Jersey Shore.
Not only does fame guarantee nothing in life (RIP Amy Winehouse), but no fail-safe formula for fame exists. Not even American Idol. Sure, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, but think of all the hundreds of thousands others who auditioned with confidence and grand ambitions. Not to mention Lee DeWyze and Kris Allen, probably destined to be American Idol footnotes.
Fantasy is fun and ambition is great. Nevertheless, if we don’t ratchet down our obsession with fame, we’re setting up tomorrow’s adults for a world of disappointment.