August 20, 2003

Get Ready to Wiggle

We recently went on a trip to West Virginia, both to see the area of the state around Seneca Rocks, which I had always been curious about (I ended up thinking it was pretty but not extraordinary, John Denver notwithstanding) and to see a concert by The Wiggles, the Australian quartet of kidvid stars.

My toddler and my wife both like the Wiggles a lot. I found them really odd at first—sort of a queasy mix of catchy songs, non-ironic Pee-Wee Hermanisms, local UHF kiddie-show host amateurism, and Dr. Who-level cheeseball set design. I like them a lot better now, though I still find some of their stuff annoying and some of their songs are horrible mindworms that get in and never leave. They’ve also got a resident pirate character named Captain Feathersword who sort of functions like Worf on Star Trek, as the “go-to” character overexposed in a lot of songs and sketches because he’s the only one with a character schtick more compelling than bland niceness, non-fattening gluttony or narcolepsy.

In any event, the most interesting thing on the trip for me was an up-close look at the everyday landscape of celebrity and fandom in America. I’ve been to science fiction conventions a couple of times, and that’s one sort of fan culture. Science fiction fans are sometimes sometimes kind of skeptically non-slavish in their devotion. I remember being at one convention in Los Angeles when I was a teenager where William Shatner started singing some kind of song about whales and half the auditorium emptied in 16.5 seconds. Or scifi fans are so freakish and peculiar in their fannish attachment to particular celebrities or characters that they’re actually kind of interesting in their own way, and certainly not banal.

What I saw this time with the Wiggles was more dreary and ordinary and depressing, and I can only think of one similar incident in my life. I went to the bar mitzvah of the relative of a friend of mine when I was in junior high school and my friend knew I was a huge fan of Star Trek (the original series). So he dragged me over to meet Walter Koenig, the actor who played Chekov, who apparently also was related to the family and was there as a guest. I acutely remember the politely suppressed but profoundly pained look in his eyes when my buddy started introducing me as a Trekkie, and I just shook his hand and left him alone as hastily as I could.

Since then, I’ve never wanted to meet a celebrity in a public place, or seek an autograph, or even really take note of a celebrity’s presence in any noticeable way. When I was a cook in Connecticut after graduating from college, Dustin Hoffman once walked into my kitchen (apparently without asking, just decided to see what was cooking) and peered into my soup pot. I didn’t even look at him: my co-workers had to tell me later who that guy was.

We were at the same hotel that the Wiggles were staying in. My wife took a walk after we arrived from a 5-hour drive while I hung out with our daughter in the hotel room. It was getting late, and our daughter was in her pajamas. My wife called from the lobby, telling me that she thought the Wiggles were coming back from their evening performance (we had tickets for the next afternoon) and maybe I ought to bring Emma down to see them. Well, ok, I thought, she’d probably think that was neat.

So we go down to the lobby, her in her p.j.s. And there are about four or five other mothers with toddlers hanging around, a couple of whom I gather later live fairly nearby and others of whom are staying in the hotel as well. The toddlers are tired and cranky. It’s pretty late. I'm already feeling a bit uncomfortable with the whole scene. And then I notice a couple of young women who don’t appear to have any toddlers in tow waiting just as eagerly.

Well, Emma starts to get bored and I start to get uneasy. So I take her back up to the room. The next morning Emma and I are walking through the lobby and we see Greg, one of the Wiggles, walking along. Emma doesn’t really take any notice even though she sees him. I don’t look directly at him, but I can see him flinch visibly as he passes us. He’s waiting for the inevitable ambush. I have no desire to ambush him. I just feel sorry for him. Predictably, he gets ambushed just about ten feet later by other parent-toddler duos, and then again and again, and so do the other Wiggles over the day.

I just keep thinking about how much time out of their day gets eaten up by this constant flow of “meet my child”, “take a picture”, “sign this please” and how confined they must feel by it all. More, I keep thinking about the pathos of the two young women who seem to want to meet the Wiggles for other reasons, the women without children. We see them about four or five times during the day, always trying to get the attention of the group. The Wiggles seem pretty patient with them, but also completely uninterested in what they’re apparently offering.

None of this is exactly a secret in our culture. As always, it is a bit different to actually see it up close, grubbier and sadder and more ordinary and just everyday human when it’s just in some industrial town in southern West Virginia on a hot and hazy summer day. I think fandom and celebrity worship are really fun, enjoyable, culturally productive and often creative activities when they’re confined to message boards, fan societies, fan fiction, encyclopedic mastery of the entire opus of a particular actor or writer or genre. Somehow when they translate into a tangible material connection to the everyday lives of the performers themselves rather than the text of the performance, it’s a different story.