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Last year, Mariah Carey suffered a very public emotional breakdown, then trundled off to a clinic for some psychic decompression. Now, to add insult to injury, her record company has given her the kiss-off, albeit with a $28 million parachute. Should we laugh or cry?

Neither, suggests Chris Rojek in this smart compendium of celebrity study. Mariah Carey is a divinity of our own making. “Celebrities are part of the culture of distraction today,” he writes. “Society requires distraction so as to deflect consciousness from both the fact of structured inequality and the meaninglessness of existence following the death of God. With the death of God, and the decline of the church, the sacramental props in the quest for salvation have been undermined. Celebrity and spectacle fill the vacuum.”

Something more is in play, however. Capitalism and democracy, Rojek contends, promise many things to the masses, yet don’t deliver. Celebrities act as instruments of hope and, conversely, revenge for audiences made skittish and churlish by our collective predicament of anonymity. We can appreciate Bono, a regular guy up from the streets of Dublin, working to forgive Third World debt. Yet we also take pleasure in watching Barbara Walters ask Liz Taylor why she’s so fat.

Audiences can make or break celebrities. That is our power in a social system that often tries to render us powerless. Those celebrities furthest down the food chain, whom Rojek calls “celetoids,” are the most volatile of all, precisely because they are so much like us — lottery winners, stalkers, one-hit wonders and “the various other social types who command media attention one day, and are forgotten the next.”

Post-Sept. 11, to say that Elvis or Mariah trumps the old-time religions is naive in the extreme. What may be true in the industrialized West is certainly not in the East. In a couple of decades, will Afghanis shun the mosque and the mullahs in favor of Britney Spears? Will the world of ethnic and religious fundamentalism turn from the Quran and the Bible for the National Enquirer? Probably not. Indeed, if the field of celebrity studies in its present incarnation is exhausted by Rojek, a fertile field awaits in the caves of Osama bin Laden.

Timothy Dugdale writes about books and visual culture for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].

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