Celebrities, it has been said, are our culture's high priests; through them, we commune with the gods of consumer capitalism. Of course, there is no vow of poverty for these chosen ones--to say nothing of chastity. But the lowly worshiper has enjoyed little access to the inner sanctums and consecrated temples of this religion--until, that is, the advent of MTV's series Cribs (9:00 p.m. Thursdays). In this pageant, we tour celebrities' pads, inside and out, from their monstrous front doors to their titanic living rooms; from their spotless (and mostly unused) kitchens to their pristine bedrooms; from what can only be called playrooms (a PlayStation, hooked up to a six-foot TV, is apparently most platinum-selling artists' first purchase) to yards outfitted with basketball courts, pools, and racing tracks. The stars themselves serve as tour guides, show us only what they want us to see, then kick us out. And away we go, ready to admire someone else's fleet of Benzes.
Of course, this being MTV, nobody seems to have a ghost of an idea that excess on such a scale might be--como se dice?--a waste, an embarrassment, an orgy of bad manners, or what the Greeks used to call hubris. Morality may be the only dirty word on this show. Admittedly, with homeowners as narrators we are spared the loathsome Robin Leach, oozing servility and condescension in equal measure over these, you know, arrivistes.
Not that they couldn't use some class. Anyone wanting to indulge democratic your-taste-is-as-good-as-mine fancies will be sorely tested by décor that proudly features home arcades (oft-injured Suns guard Penny Hardaway), a giant chrome tricycle (rapper Xzibit), and enough garish wall art to employ a thousand Leroy Neimans. Even the quieter spots can't contain the spirit of overkill: Pamela Anderson has counterfeited an amazingly coherent Martha Stewart fantasy for herself, complete with gazebo hot tub, picnic lawn, and croquet field. Britpop star Robbie Williams, going her one better, has occupied an actual castle, complete with drinking buddies installed on benches in the kitchen like some medieval labor force.
So on the one hand we behold the last remnants of what is looking more and more like the latest installment of speculative-bubble culture--even if you're going to be famous for only fifteen minutes, and rich for five, why not flaunt it? If a recession does take hold, will we actually consent to sit still for yet another (sometimes) talented, and generally morally, socially, and intellectually limited, young'un bragging about his ability to squander unimaginable amounts of cash on what even he admits is playtime? (The permanently wealthy hardly treat their money in a more dignified fashion: Most fifth-generation socialites with hyphenated last names and dubious royal titles in Lichtenstein would give the family's bichon frisé to place their Park Avenue palace in a Town & Country spread. And these people have never done a day of work as strenuous as lip-synching in the blinding heat of an MTV Spring Break appearance.)
Former NBA star and quote machine Jayson Williams has an animal farm, and an indoor pool that he guesses he has used perhaps three times in five years. Backstreet Boy AJ McLean has put up a home theater; has-been metallist Bret Michaels enjoys kick-ass dune buggies. Neither do their elders role-model effectively: Professional OG Ice-T has even built himself a shark tank, since he loves James Bond movies. (Shouldn't someone alert to irony point out that the sharks always end up doing in the bad guys who own them? Not that this would occur to anyone at MTV.)
Perhaps in a few months we can watch a retooled Where Are They Now? focusing on celebrity repossessions, as well as such vexing questions as how a fire pole in your living room (TLC's Lisa Lopes) affects its resale value. Much as I would like to think that MTV has lodged a tongue somewhere near a cheek in this program, that would be a mistake (unless we're talking about ass-kissing). Nowhere does Cribs entertain any notion of guilt or abashment, any hint that the cost of even one of those high-end pinball machines could feed the hungry or fight AIDS.
This is hardly a surprise, since from its inception MTV has made clear its willingness to toss aside performers, musical styles, and VJs the very second that their buzz subsides, without pondering the consequences for a second. (That's for VH1, which has sneakily become almost country-music in its persistent adoration of failure, substance abuse, and redemption.) But what's scary is that this show unwittingly testifies to how thoroughly the rest of our culture has come around to the everything-is-disposable MTV worldview--we would all be touring the beyond-posh mansions of Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and national little-league commissioner Dubya if MTV could just finagle a way in.
On the other hand, no matter the PR calculus that arranged for the camera crew's invasion (stars are alleged to request almost three weeks' lead time, the better to clean, spray, and de-drug their homes), astounding and touching little bits of humanity keep leaking through. R&B singer K-Ci thumbs through his DVD collection, which includes videogame Madden NFL 2001 ("You got to have that!") and Man in the Moon, the Andy Kaufman biopic, then concludes, with what looks very much like sincerity, "I can't thank God enough for blessing us with such a lovely, lovely home." Robbie Williams pelvic-thrusts his bed from an assortment of angles, then admits that he spends most of his time there sleeping, alone. Snoop Dogg, sober family man (when he's not overseeing porn shoots, that is, or draining the fridge full of Cristal), makes sure we don't track dirt into the kitchen and that we use coasters in the living room. Poor kids like Silkk the Shocker, Master P, and Ozzy Osbourne rejoice that they've escaped from the inner city or steeltown that took most of their friends. And who could begrudge Silkk his desire to live next to a golf course, if it means he's safe?
The result is, frankly, an aesthetic and racial-political mess. You can, and probably should, find appalling the dissipation and surfeit that Cribs celebrates. You can also, and probably should, admit that Cribs showcases dreams that the disenfranchised and impoverished deserve to live as much as everyone else. I can't work this one out myself. But I would love to see some signs that the culture at large at least recognizes the force of these contradictions--before these temples to the "new economy" go up in flames.