How does one truly make an impact on culture without obsessing over building platform, managing one’s personal “brand” and constantly doing and saying things specifically to rile up and expand an audience? How can artists, writers, and other cultural creators who truly care about ideas and art avoid the pitfalls of ego and hubris while also wanting their work to have a wide reach?
When Scarlett Johansson announced she was going to release an album of Tom Waits cover songs, she was just the latest in a long line of celebrities who have “crossed over” from one media form to another—in her case, film to music. Celebs have been doing this for a long time, but these days it is happening with increasing frequency, it seems. Indeed, the “media-specific” star is pretty much dead; instead, we have “transmedia” superstars—those stars who transcend media forms and disseminate their personality in a multiplicity of forms and outlets.
It’s easy to see why this type of star is increasingly the norm. It has to do with shifts in the industrial landscape of Hollywood and the entertainment business. In a word: conglomeration. Disney was the first Hollywood “major” to introduce the concept of horizontal-integration back in the 50s, when it began cross-promoting Disney’s brand on television, in film, and in theme parks, earning money from each but also from the synergistic effects of the whole enterprise. Then in the 80s, government deregulation paved the way for more and more entertainmnent companies to combine and form massive conglomerates, so that one parent company (Viacom, for example) had control over film companies, TV channels (both network and cable), record companies, book publishers, etc. The result was an explosion of cross-promotion and intertextual dialogues: films based on television shows, television shows featuring the music by so-and-so, books based on films, etc… Throw in the Internet and it all adds up to a convergence in which media forms more fluidly relate to each other, telling the same stories just in different, though complimentary, ways.
Success in this sort of environment lives and dies on the strength of brand—namely brands that are strong enough to thrive on a multitude of media platforms (think The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, or Sex and the City)—and what better brands are there than celebrities? When you see a celebrity’s name on a movie poster, you know what that movie will offer. Quentin Tarantino is a brand. So is Beyonce. And Oprah, well, she’s the mother of all celeb brands.
For these celeb-brands, it makes sense (both for themselves and for the industries that finance them) to expand to as many media forms as possible. If I’m Oprah and I know millions of people will do whatever it is I do (or say), why not have a TV show, an entire TV channel, a magazine, some made-for-TV movies, a book club brand, and so on… In this day and age, there are no longer “movie stars” or “TV stars” as much as there are just “stars”… famous people with their hands in a little bit of everything.
American Idol epitomizes this whole idea. The point of the show isn’t so much to make music stars as it is to make stars. It’s a show about how to become famous; and once famous, its offspring can make money in a variety of ways. Idol alums have sold a lot of records, obviously, but they’ve also made a lot of money for FOX as TV stars, and some of them have become movie stars (Jennifer Hudson), Broadway stars (Clay Aiken, Tamyra Gray), and so on…
Obviously some transmedia careers are better than others, and some “brands” are just not strong enough to thrive in multiple platforms (and sometimes the talent isn’t there). As an example of this whole phenomenon, here’s my list of the best and worst of the transmedia superstars:
- Beyonce - Media conquered: music, movies, fashion, Jay-Z
- Miley Cyrus - Media conquered: music, television, movies, live concerts, theme parks, awards shows, magazine covers, basically the whole world.
- Justin Timberlake - Media conquered: music, movies (he’s actually a very good actor), MTV.
- Oprah - Media conquered: everything imaginable.
- Jared Leto – Just kidding! Though he has been in some good movies (Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream) and good TV shows (My So-Called Life), his rock band (30 Seconds to Mars) is pretty terrible.
- Jewel - Media conquered: music. Media failures: movies (she wasn’t bad in Ang Lee’s Ride With the Devil, but it was totally a one-and-done for her as an actress), poetry (A Night Without Armor, anyone?).
- Britney Spears – Media conquered: music. Media failures: movies (Um… Crossroads), television (Britney and Kevin: Chaotic was a disaster, though she was pretty good on How I Met Your Mother), motherhood…
- Paris Hilton – Media conquered: nightclubs, television (The Simple Life), adult video, prison. Media failures: music (one and done with the self-titled Paris), movies (House of Wax), and general classiness.