Celebrity culture can be mystifying — if you're not a Britney Spears fan, you might wonder why she's famous at all. And if you do, you're in good company: Homer, Plato and Horace all wondered where the true heroes had gone.
Tom Payne, author of Fame: What The Classics Tell Us About Our Cult Of Celebrity, believes we need famous people. He opens his book with the story of Spears, who infamously shaved her head in full view of onlookers.
"There was this knowing look at the crowd that had gathered around her that seemed like a kind of sign," Payne tells NPR's Neal Conan. "It made me think, 'Well, what really matters, what's really worth exploring about this situation — and many like it — is what we make of it. So, it's the way in which we responded ... that's as much a part of the story as what on Earth she had in her mind when she was doing it."
Payne observed comments on a YouTube video of the incident, one of which read, "don't you just love watching someone self-destruct in the fast lane?" It captures the pleasure people feel in observing the cycle of pumping up celebrities only to watch them fall.
What's important about that experience isn't just that it's schadenfreude at work — it's that the celebrity's crash is so attention-grabbing, it gathers people around a central figure and story.
"The bonding thing is almost like what we experience when we're in a congregation or a church or a mosque or wherever we are. We gather around a story, and we bond around it," says Payne.
In the cult of celebrity, "we have these people, we glorify them, and then, when it's time, when we decide communally and collectively, we can deprive them of their fame and," he adds, "sometimes, their lives."
In a classic example, that cycle is found in Euripedes' play, Iphigenia At Aulis. Explains Payne, "if Iphigenia is tricked to coming to the island of Aulis, Agamemnon will have to sacrifice her, his daughter, so that the Greek fleet can sail on to Troy."
She's upset, at first, but then "this peculiar thing happens — she realizes that her own fame will accrue from this incident." And she decides to go through with it.
Achilles decides he won't let Iphigenia die, but his soldiers gather outside his tent, banging on the wall calling for her sacrifice. "It's one of those baying images that links up, I think, with those scenes around Britney Spears, those scenes around gladiators as well, and Christian martyrs."
Payne also believes celebrities help us figure ourselves out. When we look at famous people, we either feel thankful we don't have their lives or wish we were more like them. And stories like that of Oedipus, or the Faust myth, give us ways of dealing with that.
"You can look at Dr. Faustus, see him selling his soul to the devil, and begin to envy the kind of life he lives, the kind of hedonistic pleasures he enjoys," says Payne.
But you know he'll be punished, "so you have the double satisfaction: One, of knowing that you're not getting the same punishment, but also that that kind of pleasure can be experienced through somebody else."