The discussion of these cultural phenomena is often centered around the idea that their position in the public consciousness is undeserved due to a perceived lack of substance. For the Kardashians, the missing substance is talent and for the Occupy movement, it is a clear message.
The typical criticism of the Kardashians goes something like:
"I don't understand how those girls got so famous without a single discernable talent."
The typical criticism of the Occupy movement goes something like:
"They are just protesting to get attention and they don't have a clear, uniform message."
Despite the futility of the endeavor, expressing outrage over the unfairness of popular culture or media attention is a favorite national pastime.
But, I ask you, would the Karsdashians be as famous if they had a single discernable talent? Would the Occupy movement have gained as many followers or as much interest if they had a concise and refined message?
Specific talents or agendas limit an audience to the aficionados of that discipline or viewpoint. How many twitter followers does Yo-Yo Ma have? Can Daniel Day Lewis carry a $100 million summer blockbuster movie? When was the last time you sat down to read peer-reviewed journals on economic theories? When a national sense of discontentment prevails the baseless promotion of the unworthy can inspire media content with a broad appeal. Only a few people will take the time to deeply understand artistic excellence and economic policy; everyone can immediately react to unfairness and envy. The media content that generates the most interest will appeal to universal emotions not refined intellect.
Substance can dictate an audience whereas a perceived emptiness allows us to project ideas that reinforce the beliefs we already had.
The criticisms aimed at cultural phenomena only increases their "phenomenaness". Tweets poking fun at the Kardashians only help the Kardashians trend. Trending tells media outlets that people care and that they should increase their coverage. When Sean Hannity disparages, he also validates. When pundits pound on their desks about the lack of political substance, it strengthens the beats of the Occupy drum circles.
The criticisms about the substance that they lack, reinforces their positions in cultural discourse that provoked the criticism in the first place.
If they really are so undeserving then why do people care?
Cultural phenomena are not always born out substance, merit or clearly articulated strategy (see the fluctuating crop of early front-runners in the 2012 Republican primary as an example); sometimes they just emerge from a stew of cultural tendencies. We may not understand why they are there or what they want, but it doesn't mean they aren't special and worth considering.
It's hard to name a single talent or merit but it would be equally hard to recreate their successful navigation into public consciousness. Not every untalented person can be made famous and their position within the hyper-competitive world of pop culture is significant.
If they truly are un-special, why can't their success easily be duplicated? Why have others failed where they succeeded? Attributing it to random luck is the easy answer but maybe they have a special set of intangible talents.
The talents of the Kardashians
Maybe our inability to discern their talent is because we are looking for it in a single location. They don't have a single-discipline talent but rather a multitude of abilities that congeal into what our culture defines as interesting. The absence of discernable talent and presence of "interestingness" creates space for viewers to project all sorts of feelings on them.
Their talent is to be shiny, generous, and ample targets for cultural noise and they are really, really good at it. They are the catchers, not the pitchers, in our true national pastime of celebrity worship/hating.
The Occupy movement's lack of a specific agenda creates space for a broad number of disenfranchised individuals with conflicting viewpoints. They formed a coalition of discontent that can act as a giant multi-colored, garishly visible umbrella full of holes. They are aware of the holes but it's the shared angst that shelters them; defining the specifics would only tear bigger holes in the only shelter they have.
A singular message for the Occupy movement would be like Kim deciding she was no longer going to make appearances in tabloid magazines, abandon twitter, give up reality TV, and only focus on becoming a serious actor or singer. Her fame would give her the opportunity to do it, and for a while we would love watching her suck at it, but would we really want to go see her movies or listen to her songs?
Maybe a Tim Tebow analogy can make things more clear. In sports, there are ways to describe the merits of an athlete that lacks discernable talent. Terms like "intangible" are used to describe the winning traits that defy statistical analysis. "He just wins games" is the typical praise heaped upon Tim Tebow, who supposedly has "off the charts" levels of intangibles. Maybe the Kardashians just have "off the chart" intangibles that can only be appreciated when looking at the "scoreboard" of the fame game. Maybe the Occupy movement has intangibles that will affect the scoreboard in the next election. Tebow represents the idea that winning is what matters even when it's ugly and we can't explain it.
How to stretch the 15 minutes: what the Occupy movement can learn from the Kardashians.
A sex tape or public display of urban camping can act as a spark that ignites interest, but you need a stable media platform to fan the flames. The Kardashians emerged from the milieu of social media, blogs, and tabloids with a reality TV show. They increased their exposure without ever bowing to the idea of selecting a single-talent focus. They feed the beast by providing more targets.
The lack of singular talent makes for a great spectacle but they can't progress into new single-discipline platforms without exposing other deficiencies. They are talent rich in intangibles but that is not a liquid asset that can be applied to reach specific agendas other than simple attention. Their fame demise is inevitable but they will leave a mark, and generate a ridiculous amount of revenue, in the meantime.
The Occupy movement doesn't have a single, discernable message but rather a multitude of messages that coalesce into a movement of dissatisfaction. Like the Kardashians, they face a difficult challenge in leveraging their current attention, which is based on chaos and physical visibility, into a sustainable pattern of interest creation. An occupation of physical space was an effective way to begin an occupation of culture consciousness but supporting strategies are needed to perpetuate and elevate the position. Exerting energy and resources to resist displacement from the authorities creates interest generating conflict which can be leveraged. A continued focus on physical occupation would be a mistake. Kim Kardashian didn't maintain her status as a sex symbol by simply making more sex tapes. She elevated her position through sustained levels of appearances in a diversified set of media platforms and celebrity alliances.
A massive coalition of chaotic discontent will generate more interest than an organized, compromised message. I suggest that organizing flash mob-type performances, weekend campouts at country clubs, spontaneous dance parties at political events, and general PETA-style PR tactics as episodic attention grabbers would be more effective than reducing the chaos into a watered down message. As long as they stay within the public consciousness, they will be more influential by making politicians guess what they want, then by telling them.
For those still irked by the existence of these cultural scourges just remember, you can't stop the unfairness of popular culture or media attention but you can hope to contain it by ignoring them.