The New Celebrity Capitalism

Start with the word "entourage." Puffy didn't pull out a piece and start pumping lead, no, it was a "member of his entourage." While the lingo of hotheadded-celebrity-in-trouble news stories has its own disctinctive phraseology, the "weapons charges" and the "incidents," but there is something more at work here, in the way the media has obsessively discussed Puff Daddy's "entourage." It was all over the initial news reports, the dispatches filed over the course of that first week, pretty much any paragraph that had "Sean Combs" or "Jennifer Lopez" in it also had the word "entourage." And in the aftermath, the ironic commentary has started to focus on this idea -- this is where the humorists are making their go at the whole business, sending in their applications to be the money-catcher in Puffy's entourage.

In ordinary circumstances (ordinary for the world of famous people and their guns in public places, that is), I suspect the focus would have been elsewhere. The average celebrity flight-in-terror story usually spins more like that of Andy Dick, with some tongue-clucking and some laughs at the schmoe, and then, later on, some rehabilation, of both the rehab clinic and the talk-show circuit variety. The average celebrity firearms-arrest story usually involves them trying to bring their Colt onto the plane with them and the resulting humiliation, and also drops off the media radar screen almost immediately, sinking like a stone. And the average celebrity rap-star/bullet story usually involves somone getting plugged, and brings up the image/authenticity tension and much speculation about the dangerous world of rap music and its connection to the "street." And yet it's Puffy's posse that's drawn the attention this time around.

Part of the explanation is hermeneutic. "Entourage" is a word slapped onto something I suspect few of the reporters covering the story really understand, a word with a history and associations that are misleading, at best. One thinks of aging grand dame film stars with their publicists, manicurists, dog trainers, and luggage-wheelers checking into the Ritz-Carlton, of the staffers and flackers and Secret Service suits filling Air Force One. And neither of these associations, I guess, doesn't really go very far towards describing the role the members of Puffy's crew and how one of them decided his role was to protect Puffy from insult at the hands of a bill-tossing neer-do-well by shooting off a few rounds. I half-suspect that there are plenty of folks out there in the mainstream (read "white and unhip") media for whom "entourage" serves as a convenient codeword meaning "gang," and that it's received that way by plenty of folks in the mainstream media audience. I don't properly understand the phenomenon myself, what precisely delineates Puffy's entourage from your ordinary groupies or colleagues or friends or your regular downtown crew, but I have the sense that there's a coherent reality to the category, that these folks have a meaningful and accepted role to play, and that while it doesn't usually firearms in quite this way, protecting Puff Daddy's dignity from various ill-defined assaults and disses is central to their raison d'etre. And what happened when the shots rang out in that nightclub is that Puffy's reality, with his, I don't know, his homies and certain rituals of respect and disrespect, and a certain attitude towards living the high life in certain ways, ran headlong into the larger reality of American celebrity culture, image and magazine reporters and certain subtly different codes of behavior and a much more Robin Leach attitude towards success, and Puffy saw this collision and went "Oh, shit."

An entourage isn't really a modern concept. The age of entourages is pretty much past. Kings and noblemen travelled with entourages, burly men who could wear full suits of armor without falling over and whose hands went to their swords at the first sign of trouble. The modern image of celebrity and success and wealth has bascially removed these men, and the rest of the Great Man's travelling companions, from the picture. We don't have footmen any more, the servants have become unobtrusive in a different way. At Versailles, there were no back staircases, so the chamber-pots were carried up and down the same grand staircase the aristocrats trod. The kind of Not Seeing that made such a system work depended on certain distinctions in dress and manner and certain strong beliefs in social differences. The home servants have become either "equals" who are spoken to with requests, not orders, or they have become almost completely invisible, forced into more severely chameleonic behavior. And the big shots now are larger-than-life in a superhero way, it's a personal intensity and power, not just the guy in the fancy clothes with the big crowd of attendants. Executives travel with maybe a personal executive assistant who keeps the calendar and wears a suit too and acts just like anyone else in the room except for not speaking unless spoken to. And movie stars may have their personal trainers and so forth on the set with them, but these folk are paid mostly to wait around, to show up when their services are needed, not to be omnipresent visible reminders of their employer's status in having such an entourage. Wealth expresses itself in different ways these days.

Which brings me around to the other way in which this story is distinctively postmodern, in the way it cuts against the social expectations modernity brings to any situation. The insult, the provocation to the whole affair, was the tossing of a stack of money at Puffy, an act, we are told, of supreme disrespect. There are two distinct shades to this idea, one can think either that Puffy considers himself above money, or that he considers himself above such trifling amounts, but either way, apparently, the dismissive presentation of money counts as a mortal insult. Again, this is an idea that is distinctly premodern, it hasn't been cool to be above filthy lucre and its corrupting touch, well, since the hereditary nobility ran things, and in this country, perhaps never before. So here too, there is another touch of a bizzare return to feudalism in Puff Daddy's recent exploits, this crazy spark of an honorific culture taking the place of an economic one.

But I don't think the story here is really that celebrities are the new titular nobility of our society, or that rap stars are leading a new revolt against capitalism. Rather, I think that we're seeing the signs of some very interesting side-effects of the profoundly capitalistic, increasingly post-industrial, economo-society we live in. In some sense, money itself is unimportant to Puffy's story, money has ceased to have meaning as purchasing power and has become instead the currency in an economy of symbolism. I'm reminded of Jim Lewis's book Liar's Poker, and in it how money becomes an abstraction, one especially important pawn to be pushed around in games of ego and power. Puffy's crew responded to the tossed billfold the same way medieval peasants might have reacted to someone taking a little thatch from their roof to lay a spell on them -- it's an action that implies certain power relationships, and makes an especially dangerous claim, in the context of reality as they would describe it. Puffy's cred, in some sense, perhaps depends on his being perceived as in control and untouchable, immune to the totemic power of a wad of someone else's Benjamins. Money makes people do things, and nobody tells Puff Daddy what to do.

Except, of course, when Puffy returns to the source of his immunity from being told what to do, the American recording industry and its ties to American popular and celebrity culture. A world in which assaulting executives causes problems, rather than resolving them. A world, ultimately, with somewhat less tolerance for gunplay (except in the context of action movies and NRA advocacy), and with bizzare barometers of image and popularity and profitability, and in which people's economic purchasing decisions are swayed by the strangest things. A world strangely fascinated with the other world Puffy moves in, repelled and yet oddly attracted, with profoundly ambivalent attitudes towards the edgy attitudes and emotions that seem to move records so well and have suburban teens slouching and affecting the dress and dialects of upbringings not their own. A world that forms unaccountable snap judgements for unaccountable reasons. A world that, really, makes far less sense than one of entourages and pieces and insults and greenbacks. And when Sean and Jennifer hopped in his Navigator and tore away through eleven red lights, they were running away from that world, but in running at all, they were running towards it, for that is the only sort of motion it understands, and no entourage in the world will keep the news cameras away.

Originally published 27 January, 2000 at