Among the several poignant things I did to celebrate Labor Day (i.e. work), I boycotted Paris Hilton’s new CD, Paris. What bullshit, you may be thinking, because either (a) your criteria for pop stars is more or less your criteria for high-school prom dates or (b) you’re so disdainful of the Paris phenom that you don’t deign to notice that she has, in her spare time, directed someone to put out a CD featuring songs performed — in the loosest sense of the word — by her. But a pox on either extreme; Paris is a sign of the beast, a cultural signpost that is worth our derision for the message that it blinks like a neon Vegas marquee.
I’m sure it was as inconceivable to Hilton and her PR menagerie to name the album something besides Paris as it is for me to compare Paris favorably to that golden icon of an earlier era who made her big-time debut with an eponymous record. Madonna has sold many ideas with her music, her body, and her hairstyles (sexual liberation, reinvention, conflicted Catholicism, personal vision … ). Paris sells only one: It’s good to be an heiress. On the face of it, that statement may seem both obvious and hardly worth comment (what other idea would Paris schlep anyway? You can never have too many facials?).
But let’s come back to Madonna for a moment. The pop expatriate’s estimated net worth is between $600 million and $850 million, and assuming you believe in capitalism, she earned it. As of 2005, Warner Bros. estimated she had sold more than 200 million albums worldwide, a success supported to a large extent by her reputation for visually stunning videos and the occasional provocative foray into other media, including film and books.
Whether you care for her music and persona or not, the story of Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, born in 1958 to a working-class Detroit family, is inspiring. According to her own creation myth, she landed in New York in 1978 with $35 to her name and worked odd jobs until her 1983 breakout. In some small way, when you buy a Madonna album you’re buying that once all-American idea: rags to riches, up-by-the-bootstraps (or ballet laces). Madonna was a straight-A high-school student and attended the University of Michigan on a dance scholarship. She represents, in short, a gonzo version of the dream we have every right to dream for our children: hard work and talent lead to great rewards.
Paris, on the other hand, is selling a baser metal. Lest you forget, her perfume and last year’s Your Heiress Diary hammer home the source of Paris’s reign with each ka-ching of the cash register. Interestingly, the inheritance was not freely given. Paris’s great-grandfather Conrad Hilton, who founded the Hilton brand in Dallas in 1925, left the bulk of his estate to charities and the Catholic church. In 1988, her grandfather Barron Hilton won a suit overturning Conrad’s will — the family is now worth upwards of $1 billion, but has yet to establish a cultural legacy beyond the upscale tabloids. What the then 7-year-old Paris (who is expected to inherit upwards of $350 million) may have learned from this episode one can only guess, but she settled for a GED and didn’t bother with university.
Unencumbered by even the lightest of obligations, Paris’s reputation as a party animal led to society pages led to The Simple Life, which might have withered on the vine if not boosted by her internet DIY-porn debut. Web porn led to an international brand, which now unloads Paris-phernalia with the regularity of World-War-II German air raids — and the press now treats it all as if it hints at some finer quality that we’ve heretofore missed in the celebutante, rather than at our own failings. Paris has nothing to sell you but the idea that the idle rich are good for society, if only because they take your mind off of your bills, or your failing local schools, or the war in Iraq, or the fact that the idle rich live at the expense of the working class — it’s a socially and morally bankrupt ideology that has ended poorly on other continents. We’ve evolved beyond the guillotine, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend your hard-earned money adding to an empire that scoffs at the basic tenets of democracy: education and equal opportunity.
Oh, Madonna’s not perfect, I know, but she is occasionally political. Call me sentimental, but I long for the days when our “Material Girl” actually worked. Somehow, that seems like a better investment than a woman-child who wants to celebrate having it all on a silver platter just for getting out of bed in the morning.