The death of Robin Williams this week made a very big impact on a lot of people. I too, was stunned by the death of one of the greatest comedians of our time. It seemed like for more than a day after he died, all the sources and social media were full of Robin Williams tributes, and it seemed to reach much farther than when a number of other celebrities died. It may be useful to us to stop and consider for a moment why celebrities are so important to us.
If you look at the day's most popular searches on Google, MSN, Yahoo and other places, what you typically will see are a bunch of celebrities and odd stories. Sometimes big news like a major storm or a catastrophic event gets in there. You may or may not be surprised to discover that they are dominated by celebrities. TV & movie stars, pop music stars, models and athletes typically dominate the searches.
I find that I am unfamiliar with most of these celebrities. I have to look at the links to get any idea of who they are. Probably because most of them are not in movies or TV shows I have watched or in music that I listen to, and since I don't watch sports, few of the names ring a bell.
Robin Williams though had even greater recognition because he has made so many funny movies and did such great stand up routines that probably most people have seen him more than once. How many people were inspired to try careers in comedy because they saw Robin Williams? I don't know, but I am going to guess that quite a few did.
And that is one thing that celebrities do. They can inspire us. Of course, today there are also people who are celebrities who are famous simply because they have been on TV. They have not created or invented anything or performed some amazing, record setting feat. Perhaps those types of celebrities inspire in a different way. I am not sure what that is.
But what does this fact tell us about our culture? It is simply about the power of storytelling. Many people find stories about how the economy really works or trying to understand politics to be too stressful and complicated. So the story of some girl becoming a famous actress and marrying a handsome actor is easy to follow. So is the story of the downfall of a celebrity, especially if they were busted or embarrassed by something we really enjoy doing ourselves. When a star gets drunk and makes a fool of themselves, we can relate, because most of us have done that at one time or another. When a star is seen in serial marriages or affairs, we can relate to that too, because half of all married people have also been divorced people. What that says to us is that we do have a lot in common with famous people. The difference is that info about their problems and situations are broadcast and ours are not.
Of course, there are always those fake stories, like stars who pose for photos that they know will be controversial just to get publicity. Or saying outlandish things just to get publicity. But then we always know that storytellers also embellish and exaggerate for the sake of a good story.
You might think it is sad that more people care about what or who a pop star is doing than what is the significance of new banking or investing practices, what the truth is about fracking, or why the newest conflict between nations came up. But there is a sensible explanation for that.
For example, I have always thought than any financial deal that is hard to explain and hard to understand is meant to be deceptive. In other words, they do not really want you to follow the story line. Lots of people may wonder why something like derivative trading even exists, or whether it was a mistake to change banking laws or whether that should be or can be changed.
How much easier it is for us to follow the story of an actor who suddenly makes lots of money and ends up in a downward spiral of drug and alcohol addiction with revolving stints in rehab. Or the fabulously rich girl who gets off on going to bars and partying hard just like a lot of people like to do after work. It makes them easier for us to relate to. Or the athlete who gets millions of dollars a year to play ball and somehow managed to waste it all and end up broke. We also follow the upbeat stories of stars who use some of their celebrity and wealth to help orphans and starving people, or help build houses for poor and homeless people. We enjoy the stories of those who are still productive and aging gracefully, but these are not as exciting as the spectacular crash and burn stories. Most of us have lives that are up and down, and so we can relate to even the most famous, wealthy and popular people having up and down lives too.
Just like we all know stories from mythology because we see the gods and goddesses with both greatness and flaws just like we have. I may not be up to date on the most contemporary stars, but I do know some stories.
People Google over pop stars for the same reasons that people have enjoyed mythology and fairy tales for generations and centuries before there was an internet.
Which brings us to the fascinating study of mythology, which has played a part in our lives for millennia. Even the earliest people related to mythology the same way as contemporary people relate to celebrities.
Think about how today people may be inspired to try their hand at comedy because of Robin Williams, how many people may be inspired to become inventors because of Steven Jobs, how many people might be inspired to become actors because of Lauren Bacall or Helen Mirren? How many people have been inspired to become singer/songwriters because of Bob Dylan or artists because of Andy Warhol or Georgia O'Keeffe, or chefs because of Julia Child or Wolfgang Puck? How many people got inspired to do charity work because of Jimmy Carter or Bono?
These people have flaws, just like us, and in most cases, new stories about them keep popping up long after they are dead, some about good things they did and some about the bad things they did. Their complexity is fascinating.
Joseph Campbell, who is famous for his books about mythology and achieved his greatest recognition on the PBS specials he did with Bill Moyers, was of the opinion that all mythology was just a bunch of stories made up by people, that all of those characters simply were products of imagination.
I think that Campbell was absolutely wrong. He also stated the opinion that all god and goddess stories from around the world were all just versions of the same story. I think he was absolutely wrong on that point too. I do appreciate that he inspired people to study mythology and think about it some more.
But here's where he was wrong. In the ancient world, there were also people who did great things, and after they died, people kept telling stories about them until they grew to even greater proportions, and the stories were known far and wide.
In each ethnic group in this world, in order for them to survive, they had to have among them some great warriors, artists, tricksters (the first comedians), healers, builders and storytellers. So there were naturally some similarities and some differences in the stories for the same reasons that there were similarities and differences among people.
How many of those ancient people were inspired by stories from their mythologies and folklore? How many did things to advance civilization because they listened to the stories? Great people from those ancient cultures did amazing and heroic things and people continued to tell stories about them.
Like the celebrity stories we have today, maybe some are true and some are not exactly true. For example, perhaps the story in Irish literature about how their music was invented is somewhat fantastic, but somehow, somebody way back there did create Irish music, and maybe those stories do draw on the roots for their origins.
Perhaps the story in the Norse myths about how Odin got the runes is a fantastical embellishment, or maybe it is the truth or close to it. What we do know is that people have had the runes for many centuries now, and obviously people made that happen.
Stories say that Francis Drake used magic to defeat the Spanish armada. There is no proof whether he did or didn't, but his victory is a fact and the stories still are told.
The Johnny Appleseed story is told one way by Disney, and his story is told very differently by the great contemporary author Michael Pollan.
So you see, all through history, celebrities have played important parts in our societies, and they always will.