“The star interview is dead, as a form. Sent to New York to interview Madonna, I felt no significant disruption in my plans when Madonna refused to see me. The great postmodern celebrities are a part of their publicity machines, and that is all you are ever going to write about: their publicity machines. You review the publicity machine.” - Martin Amis, in Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, 1993
Almost 20 years later, the verdict is in on Amis’s pronouncement: He was absolutely right and he was totally wrong. Certainly, the star interview has long been dead as a form, yet it continues to thrive as a ritual, a popular husk with eye-candy photo firmly attached. In fact, these days, you can’t even review the publicity machine any more, since its essential cogs – the phalanx of flacks, the gathered posse of supplicating journos, the star’s merchandised patter doled out in eight-minute blocks – are now too obvious and trite to bear deconstruction. Instead, the star and the interviewer trade platitudes over the star’s latest movie/athletic achievement/political pledge, and the public colludes in the twin illusions that access has been granted and information gained.
There’s a curious irony at work here. In an age when the stars’ private lives are eagerly violated, their public pronouncements are routinely sanctified. Everyone involved perpetuates those illusions. So, if they make it past the photo, seasoned readers of star interviews know that whatever comes out of the star’s mouth, the stuff between the quotation marks, is consistently the least interesting part of the piece. Somehow, that movie/athletic achievement/political pledge are all wonderful/thrilling/world-changing.
Remember the scene in Bull Durham, when the veteran catcher schools the rookie pitcher in the art of spewing “play-it-one-game-at-a-time” bromides to the big-league press? Well, that’s a lesson that the principal performers in our celebrity-obsessed culture – actors, athletes, politicians – have all thoroughly mastered. Their brightly spun clichés are the faux lifeblood of a dead form. The stars’ publicity machines run on them, but so do the media’s advertising machines. Since publicity and advertising are kissing cousins, a corroded love affair rusts into place. Journalists accept (even invite) the clichés in return for continued access to the famous: The stars get their publicity, the media get their stars, the advertisers get their audience.
In such a collusive milieu, where actual conversation is impossible and tough questions impolite, the ritual plays out like a rehearsed call-and-response. Nowhere is this more evident than in the sporting arena, where the illusion of access has expanded exponentially, but to the near-exclusion of content. Propped between the benches, or on the dugout steps, or the dressing-room corridor, the proud interrogator addresses the sweating star with the question that doubles as a statement, the “How” question that must be taught in every third-rate J-school: “How great did it feel to score the winning goal?” Apparently, “It felt really great to score the winning goal.” Sometimes how gets ramped up to why. The call: “Why are you winning?” Response: “We’re keeping things simple.” Alternate call: “Why are you losing?” Response: “We’re not keeping things simple.”
Simple, indeed. Which brings us to the starring star interview of the century so far: Katie Couric’s seminal colloquy with Sarah Palin, a revelation only because Palin accomplished what had hitherto seemed impossible – to fail to measure up even to the zero expectations of a barren ritual. She kept whiffing on softball questions that any semi-conscious 12-year-old would have hit out of the park. The content here was the sheer, glaring, stupefying absence of content. The vacuum of the star interview had collided with the greater vacuum of Palin’s brain, and we were all truly astonished – it seemed to defy some basic law of cultural physics.
Unlike most politicians, Palin proved herself, at least in those Couric moments, a bad actor incapable of memorizing the broadest dialogue, let alone improvising a line or two. Professional actors, even those whose intellect rivals Palin’s, tend to fare better with interviews merely by doing what actors do best: They act. Specifically, they pretend to be smart people discussing their brilliant art, brilliant cast, brilliant director. This brand of bromide leaves the interviewers/scribes to do what they do best: Spice up the bits between the predictable quotes. Problem is, by now, the spice itself has grown predictable. Check out Amis’s delicious parody, in the same essay: “It was with dread/detachment/high hopes that I approached X’s townhouse/office/potting shed. The door opened. He is fatter/smaller/taller/balder than I expected. ... Everyone told me how modest/craven/suave/vain/charming I would find him, so I was naturally unsurprised/taken aback by his obvious charm/vanity, etc., etc.”
Sound familiar? Yep, two decades later, that writerly gambit is just as prevalent and just as moribund. But pity the poor scribe. Can’t review the publicity machine, can’t review his own expectations, what’s the guy to do? Happily, in the era of social media, the stars too are active participants. Indeed, Twitter is their dream machine, because it’s an even more efficient model of their publicity machine – a guarantee that every conversation is brief, bland and blissfully one-sided. Still, it offers our dead-ended journo another option. Hey, now he can review the stars’ tweets. And, searching for indiscretions, the media do precisely that. If the search fails, they do it anyway.
That’s the weird yin and yang of the culture’s attitude. Obviously, our appetite for celebrity gossip and scandal is boundless. However, as a kind of counterbalance, the media’s vigorous muckraking of the stars’ private lives is set against the same media’s passive acceptance of the stars’ public utterances. A Tiger Woods story is salaciously intriguing; a Tiger Woods press conference is stultifyingly boring. Yet both are treated with like reverence, perhaps in the fond hope that the half-truths of their exposé plus the half-truths of his spin will somehow add up to a full truth. The math is bad, but the ratings are good.
Finally, if the star interview is dead, when are the stars worth listening to? For actors and politicians, the answer, with only a few exceptions, is clear: only when they’re speaking words written for them by someone else, their screenwriters or speechwriters, and not often even then. It’s different for athletes, who are at their most eloquent when most profane – on the ice or the field, “interviewing” each other in outbursts of competitive passion.
Strangely, our culture, so prurient yet so prudish, deems those heated conversations unfit for human ears, leaving sports telecasts to unfold like silent movies – the performers’ lips move but we can’t hear a thing. In his position between the benches, the media guy, surrounded by real stars finally speaking hard truths, is quick to do the right thing: He pushes the mute button on veracity. Platitudes, after all, are a much easier sell.