I have been following Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey's marriage closely. Not because I care about the state of that particular union, but because I have little choice. At the newsstand where I buy my newspapers, the celebrity magazines are displayed right next to the register, and I can't avoid the blaring headlines about the fortunes of the two reality-TV stars, who occasionally also sing. Star magazine asks on its latest cover, "Nick & Jess: Over by Xmas?" By now, I know to expect next week's cover line to be "Jess & Nick: Back Together by New Year's?"
As an exercise in sociological inquiry, I bought the whole rack of the latest issues. People magazine was the pioneer in the genre. But now a host of competing publications have sprung up that are so lowbrow they make People — because it has occasional blocks of relatively uninterrupted text — look like The Paris Review or The New Yorker.
They all chronicle the ongoing sagas of Tom & Katie and Brad & Jennifer (scratch that — I mean Angelina) and Paris and Britney and Justin & Cameron and Charlie & Denise. All the people belonging to these first names are famous for something or other. If it used to be an insult to say that a celebrity was "famous for being famous," now it's almost as if no one is famous for anything else. These magazines have a favorite punctuation mark; and it's not the semicolon. It's the exclamation point, used nearly as often as the rest of us use the period.
I still have much to learn. The cover of Celebrity Living Weekly declares "Kirsten & Jake ready to wed!" All I can think is: OK, great! Who are Kirsten & Jake? As far as I can tell, celebrities are always either ecstatically happy or desperately anguished, about to break up or get together, gaining weight or losing dangerous amounts of it. They apparently have time for little else.
Tom & Katie, for instance, are about to get together, at least until such time as they break up. People magazine has a report on "How Tom Proposed," including "details of a Scientology wedding" (readings of L. Ron Hubbard are optional) and a romantic sidebar on "Tom's past weddings." But wait! According to Star, "Katie's Friends Plead: Don't Marry Tom!" And it trumpets a worrisome sign that this relationship will never work: "Even Oprah's Upset With Tom." Worse, according to US Weekly, "Rosie Turns on Tom." Oprah, Rosie — can Barbara or Star be far behind?
Celebrity family values are so complicated. Kevin Federline dumped his girlfriend Shar Jackson when she was seven months pregnant with his child to marry Britney Spears. Now, Britney is six months pregnant, so it's that time again. Kevin allegedly can't handle the stress of her pregnancy, and, according to Life & Style Weekly, "he's turned to his ex for comfort!" Kevin just can't manage to be with whatever woman he impregnated most recently.
US Weekly promotes on its cover, "Brad & Angelina: A New Secret Romp." Wait a minute. How secret can it be if it's on the cover of US Weekly and Life & Style Weekly, too ("New pics show they're one big happy family")? US Weekly talks of the "secret strife" in Nick and Jessica's marriage. Secret? Like the tree falling that no one hears in a forest, a celebrity secret that no one reads about doesn't really exist.
These magazines are geared, of course, to women. No one can blame them for picking the magazines up for tips, say, on how to accessorize or diet. And men's magazines are just as insipid, only with more cleavage. It's the obsessive interest in celebrities that is creepy. What does it say that so many of us live vicariously through a set of people who generally are weird, shallow, and uninteresting, no matter how many exclamation points you put on the end of it?