Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The most compelling thing I read last week was Peter Cheney's lengthy account of the Britney Spears microeconomy in Saturday's Globe and Mail. It's obvious that Spears has profited immensely from being one of the most famous people in the world for the last decade, and that this is in large part due to an army of photographers that track her every move. As her life unravels with all the spectacle of her rise from white trash origins in Kentwood, Louisiana, the result is that a battalion of poor, unskilled men have gone to Los Angeles to get rich by photographing her.

There's a lot that can be said about the shrewdness of those who get rich by snapping pictures of an untalented hack getting a haircut, and the mild retardation of those who find themselves so interested that they pay money. Evidence of the former: a 15-year-old made $2,000 in one week from a few pictures he took of Spears. Evidence of the latter: as Spears' life became an unmitigated disaster last year, circulation at tabloid magazines US Weekly and OK! rose substantially. Portfolio Magazine reports that though Britney Spears generated $120 million for the US economy last year. The Britney Spears economy, not a microeconomy at all, is the size of Oklahoma's and would rank 30th among US states.

The stupendously vacuous nature of Western culture with respect to celebrity worship isn't a surprise to anyone, but I think it's amazing that Britney Spears shaving her head was "a moment that the paparazzi consider the equivalent of the JFK assassination in terms of its news value", and that an exclusive image of this would have sold for well over $1 million. It's not simply that we have a lot of money to spend on stupid things, like $4 billion on iPods in the last quarter or $45 million dollars over six years on defensive end Justin Smith, the latter working out to about a half million dollars per football game. Capitalism is bound to produce all sorts of absurdities and oddities because people are willing to pay a lot of money for a product or service. What's most unfortunate is that a lot of people are willing to pay a lot of money for a picture of someone really, really famous going about their daily business.

What struck me most, however, was the sheer insanity of Spears' life, one part her fault and one part that of paparazzi, which does not seem real at all. Mad car chases between up to 50 cars with extra horsepower specifically for the purpose are so common in Los Angeles that a proposed "Britney bill" would restrict this. Even ordinary people are savvy enough to charge $100 for access to an apartment that offers a good vantage point of Spears leaving a dance studio. Most alarming of all is what one paparazzi says: "this business is a runaway train. It's huge, and it's only going to get bigger."

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