One of our frequent contributors, Shaan, asked me to comment about the current celebrity culture that seems to be pervasive in American society right now. It’s an interesting topic, especially in light of the passing of France’s most well-known singer, Johnny Hallyday, who died yesterday.
Watching from a distance here in Paris, America’s obsession with celebrity and fame, and its unhealthy influence on our society, is painfully obvious. I’m saying nothing new, as anyone who’s endured reality television and the baser elements of the internet will confirm.
We all know what the problem is. The only solution I can offer is to limit our access, and our children’s access, to this influence, and emphasize the importance of accomplishment over recognition. We must teach and reinforce that it’s okay to do what you do, for the reward of what it does for you and for your world. It’s okay if no one knows ‘who you are’, and certainly better if they don’t know everything about you.
I still read with quiet admiration the New York Times obituaries. They’re often populated with people who had never had their name in the newspaper, or their picture online, or their exploits touted on television. Yet they accomplished much, with quiet dignity and modest reserve.
The French, of course, have their celebrities, some who live and breathe to be in the tabloids here. The young people, however, seem less inclined to ape every hairstyle, fashion, or attitude that their music and film stars present. The idea of originality and individuality is a point of pride. With Parisians, it’s more like a residency requirement.
The octogenarian grande dame who strides confidently down the rue Saint Honore, clad in her leopard-print pants and stilettos. The baker who’s blinged out like some Hindu god, earrings, gold chains, and bracelets clinking as he kneads the daily bread in his storefront window. And whoever the ZZ Top roadie-looking guy is who walks past my cafe every day, dressed in all black, from the top of his top hat to the tip of his cowboy boots, foot long beard and all. These are the Parisians I live among.
Whoever said, Do Your Own Thing, may not have been Parisian, but the city is damn sure the world capital of the concept. These people don’t care what celebrities do: they are the stars of their own movies, even if those movies are only in their own minds.
One of the natives who transcended celebrity was Johnny Hallyday. Most often referred to as the French Elvis Presley, his career started with music and film in 1960. He brought rock and roll to France, sold 100 million records over his almost 60 year career, and appeared in dozens of films. Most people outside France and French-speaking countries, however, have no idea who he was. Not bad for a Parisian who was abandoned by his parents and left in the care of an aunt and uncle.
I had an idea of who he was before I came to live in Paris, thanks to European friends who shared videos of his performances. But I had no idea of how important he was until he died two days ago, and television screens, newspapers, magazines, and cafe conversations focused on nothing else. For hours. Nonstop.
My initial impression of Johnny, or “our Johnny” as the French refer to him, was a little cheesy. The hairstyle hadn’t changed since the 1960s. The stage costumes were a little over the top. But I had to hand it to the guy when I saw him perform a French-language version of CCR’s “Fortunate Son” to a packed stadium of 100,000 fans. The event was also televised, and 10 million French people, who have no particular affection for television, tuned in to watch.
You can watch that performance HERE. And if you think his fame came from just good luck, good looks, and showmanship, give a listen to his version of “House of the Rising Son.” You can watch that performance HERE. It’s powerful.
His stardom–and not to mention a furious, almost nonstop work schedule–took its toll on his personal life, with numerous marriages and divorces. It also took a toll on his health. I was living in Los Angeles when he had to be admitted to Cedars Sinai Medical Center for an overnight stay. I don’t remember the illness, but I do remember the local news program covering his discharge. When a reporter asked him if he was feeling better, he replied without bitterness, “I have to. I’m not the guy who gets to be sick.”
He smoked cigarettes his entire life, as best I could tell from news clips I watched last night. He died of complications of lung cancer. The first lady of France, Brigitte Macron, went to his family’s home last night to sit with his wife and children, offering comfort and consolation. Fans made the pilgrimage to the gates of the estate, handed flowers to the police officers stationed outside, then tearfully turned away and left. Belgians, who went to his concerts and bought his records, spilled into the squares of their cities and sang his songs, sniffling not just from the cold, but from the loss as well.
Celebrity is a funny thing: nobody knew Johnny Hallyday outside France. But he was golden here. A couple of people I know here saw him perform. One was a fan, one not so much. But on one thing they agreed: he did not leave his audience disappointed. He left it all onstage.
And for an artist, that’s quite a compliment.