History Through Pop: Barenaked Ladies’ “Celebrity”

The Barenaked Ladies crafted yet another great album in their 2003 release Everything to Everyone. The singles selection (“Another Postcard” and “Testing 1,2,3”) wasn’t the best; “Unfinished” and “War on Drugs” are my favorite tracks. And then there’s the opening track, “Celebrity,” which starts with this little gem of a lyric:

Don’t call me a zero
I’m gonna be a hero
Like Phil Esposito or the Kennedys

Phil EspositoLike so many of their tunes, BNL packs a lot into these few lines. Phil Esposito–of course–is Philip Anthony Esposito, the celebrated center for the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, and New York Rangers. “Espo” began his pro career in 1964, and during his 18 years in the NHL, racked up 6 Art Ross trophies (league leading scorer), 2 Hart Memorial Trophies (most valuable player), and 2 Stanley Cub championships. According to the disembodied, dispassionate, passive-voice wisdom of Wikipedia, Esposito “is considered to be one of the best [hockey players? centers? Canadians?] to have ever played in the National Hockey League.” BAM! Hockey history in your face!

KennedysThe Kennedys can claim no such hockey greatness, but they nevertheless deserve our attention for the influence they have exercised on American politics and culture. The Kennedys made their first appearance in American history in the form of businessman/politician Patrick Joseph Kennedy and his son, businessman/politician Joseph Patrick Kennedy (and no, I’m not just mixing up the first and middle names), who married Rose Fitzpatrick, daughter of Democratic party boss and Boston mayor John F. Fitzgerald. Put these power genes together and you get the Kennedy boys: John, Bobby, and Ted.

John F. Kennedy: WWII torpedo boat captain and 35th president, gunned down three years into his term. Generally regarded as the US’s most handsome president, although Andrew Jackson must surely run a close second. Gets credit for the Peace Corps, Project Apollo, and proposing what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But he’s also accountable for some less savory moments in presidential history: lying about the deal he struck with Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, thus putting his successor, LBJ, in the unfortunate position of having to show his own toughness against the Communists in Vietnam (as Eric Alterman argues). Robert Dean contends that Kennedy contributed to a cult of masculinity–an “imperial brotherhood”–that adopted the always popular dick-swinging school of foreign policy.

Robert F. Kennedy: His older brother’s attorney general, US Senator from New York, and Democratic presidential candidate in 1968, when he was assassinated. As attorney general, he went after the Teamsters; running for president in 1968, he spoke a psuedo-populist message, touring Appalachia and focusing on urban poverty. Like his brother, he left a long and sometimes depressing series of “what if?” questions for historians and Democrats–perhaps the last chance for unity and broad electoral success the Democratic party had for the rest of the 20th century.

Edward Kennedy: Best known as the senior senator from Massachusetts (serving in that capacity since 1962), Ted also made a run for the presidency in 1980, losing the nomination to Jimmy Carter, who then got mowed down by Reagan in the general election. Nevertheless, he has remained an active and effective senator, putting his mark on all manner of legislation, from immigration (in 1965 and 2007) to a bill honoring Johnny Carson.

There are other Kennedys, too: JFK’s son (JFK Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1999) and daughter (Caroline, who recently published a book on Christmas traditions); Ted’s son Patrick J. Kennedy (US congressman); Bobby’s son Robert Jr. (environmentalist, author, and falconer); and on and on and on.

It’s an amazing web of fame and power, and one wonders to what degree it is deserved. BNL suggest that celebrity is in large part facade for nothingness:

“I’ll be imitated
And overrated, but that doesn’t bother me”

and

“All that you will see is a celebrity
All that’s left of me is my celebrity”

Whether JFK, RFK, and the rest of the clan are overrated is a question I’m not equipped to answer (I’ve been working on this post for a few days, and I’m frankly sick of it). But the importance of celebrity in American history is unquestionable, and the Kennedys are an excellent example.

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One thought on “History Through Pop: Barenaked Ladies’ “Celebrity”

  1. Pingback: History Through Pop: Eminem’s “I Love the Way You Lie” « The Academy's Bench Warmer

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