I fell into watching “Don’t Look Back” last night, the great documentary of Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour through England. Dylan never cared much for the press, even though, as the movie showed, he read the tabloids voraciously and spent a ton to time giving interviews. (He expresses this view in an extended verbal assault on a TIME magazine reporter, arguing that the magazine would get closer to reporting the “truth” if it printed a cut up montage of photographs than the rewritten “facts” that are its usual trade. See the exchange, which is great fun, here.) And in retrospect, the concurrent reporting on Dylan’s early rise was ridiculous. The press struggled mightily to fit Dylan into a box with questions about whether he was “folk” or “rock,” “political” or not, and what his message was for the children. His music was, of course, far bigger, and deeper, than these labels could contain.
Now this may be a stretch, but I remember thinking something similar when I saw Levi Johnston at the Republican National Convention, standing on stage in St. Paul with Republican nominee John McCain and his pregnant girlfriend, Bristol Palin. He was so out of place, like a man who had arrived by time machine from the past, or by light speed from a distant galaxy. His world–rural Alaska, hockey, sex, high school, hunting–had almost nothing to do with the media hot box he had been thrown into. The press, meanwhile, struggled to put Levi into a box: What did he represent? Sex education works? It doesn’t work? Premarital sex is inevitable? Avoidable? Etc. But none of the questions had much to do with Johnston. He was just a kid who got his girlfriend pregnant, and then, inexplicably, became famous for it.
Now here we are, a year later, and Levi Johnston has been transformed from media outsider–who like Dylan once had nothing to do with the press or its story lines–to a parody of himself, the star of his own unsigned reality show, made by and for the media machine. He is just another one of those people who has become famous for being famous. He does talk shows, gets followed by paparazzi, and, in his latest incarnation, gets photographed like a model, and paid (presumably) like a rock star, as a correspondent for Vanity Fair. The conceit of his Vanity Fair piece, which he “writes” for the October issue, is that he is going to spill newsworthy dirt on the family of his child’s mother, an act that is without question dishonorable, but for which we all, from the sidelines, applaud, for the same reason that we slow down when passing car wrecks. For those who have any doubt about what is really going on, Vanity Fair has been kind enough to post a video online in which Johnston talks about the size of his penis and how many leafs it would take to cover his genitals, if they were photographed by Playgirl. (Now I have your attention, right? Sigh.)
He paints the Palin family in a withering light, one that appears based in fact, but is of questionable public value. Does it matter that the Palins may have slept in different beds, or that Sarah Palin did not make dinner, or asked her children to rent her videos from the store, or that she proposed adopting Johnston’s child, or that she seemed depressed after the election and talked about the need to make more money? (Left unmentioned is the sum, which I do not know, that Vanity Fair paid Johnston for these revelations.)
Palin herself, it seems to me, is not in need of any private life take down. She is quickly succumbing to her own worst habits, posting distorted opinion pieces on her Facebook account, and, more recently, advising everyone to watch Glenn Beck, a man who identifies himself as not a reporter or political analyst, but as “the fusion of entertainment and enlightenment.” Says former Governor Palin, “FOX News’ Glenn Beck is doing an extraordinary job this week walking America behind the scenes of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and outlining who is actually running the White House.”
If you want to know more about what Johnston reveals in his Vanity Fair cash cow, Marc Ambinder has additional details. But I cannot really bring myself to care. Johnston could have taught us all something–like Dylan before him–by ignoring the Klieg lights and going on with his life, becoming whoever it is that he should have become. Instead, he became something we have seen before, something to ogle and stare at, something not very interesting at all.