When I heard that Heidi Montag sold only 658 copies of her new album, Superficial, in the first week, I thought, Who are those 658 people? CIA agents who blast songs to get dictators to surrender? Heidi Montag 658 times? As a journalist, I had the responsibility to find out. Or to go to Haiti. I can never keep those straight.
Montag, for those of you who want to pretend you don't know, is one of the most important reality-show stars of our time. To promote her album, the 23-year-old star of MTV's The Hills agreed to appear on a People magazine cover to show off all the plastic surgery she's gotten. She posed in Playboy, started her own fashion line and declared that as a celebrity she should not have to endure staying on the show I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me out of Here! She is the Paris Hilton of our time.
But while 658 sounds like a lot of sales for an album by someone who can't sing, it is nevertheless a dangerous sign for our economy. You can chart GDP or housing starts, but I can't, so the way I know we are in deep trouble is when celebrities can't persuade us to buy their crap. In the America I grew up in, we order perfume by the quart just because it's made by Ernest Borgnine's fifth wife. We are almost as eager to buy stuff from celebrities as Borgnine is to get married.
I needed to talk to Montag's biggest fans to figure out what was going on. True, finding them would be like finding a needle in a haystack and then persuading the needle to talk to a national magazine about something really embarrassing the needle did. But by using classic journalistic techniques, I got my Twitter followers to deliver three Superficial buyers. While three may not sound like a representative sample, it is the statistical equivalent of interviewing 500,000 people who bought Thriller.
First I called 16-year-old Joseph Mendoza in Reno, Nev. Mendoza, who has a graphic-design company and was paid $28 to design the fan site Heidi-Pratt.com says he is not disappointed by Montag's album, though he adds, "I generally like all albums." He loves the way Montag portrays a villain on The Hills and in interviews and probably when she's all alone. But he really admires her husband Spencer Pratt, whom he sees as a Svengali. "You know how Paris Hilton seemed before she appeared on her new show and showed people she's smart? I think Heidi is like that but without the brains," he explains. Clearly, Mendoza is the person Montag should have hired to write her lyrics.
Shannon Carney, a 22-year-old assistant producer for National Geographic's science show Known Universe, has been equally impressed by Montag's willingness to entertain, but the album, plus Montag's extreme plastic surgery, has made her less of a fan. "The world was her stage, and her life was a show," Carney says. "Unfortunately, it looks like she bought tickets to her own show." Carney thinks it's highly unlikely that Montag's music career will continue: "All 658 of us are not going to rally to go to a Heidi Montag concert." If they did, it would be sad because there would be nobody at home to read their live blog of it.
Carney just found out that she knows another Superficial buyer her friend David Esquivel. Actually, Esquivel, 23, hates Montag but bought the album to review on his music blog, PopOnandOn.com However, he couldn't find anything on the album worth blogging about. Let me repeat that: He couldn't find anything worth blogging about.
Superficial buyers, I discovered, are young, hard-core pop-culture geeks who still don't realize that being a star is different from being a celebrity. Anyone who has been to high school knows that talent and popularity are unrelated, especially if they went to my high school and read my work in the literary magazine Reflections.
What I learned from not listening to Superficial is that the nature of celebrity hasn't changed; celebrity is just more than ever its own industry. We've found a group of people who are hot, rich and narcissistic to entertain us with their lives and another group to entertain us with their work. Back when promotional outlets were limited to billboards and Johnny Carson, being a celebrity could move product. But now that there's an infinite number of ways for everybody to get your attention, celebrity cannot achieve much more than product awareness.
All of which would seem to prove that fame is no longer worth anything. But it really just shows that selling stuff is a waste of time. I don't want you to read this in the print version of TIME because TIME gets more money that way; I want you to read it here because there are two photos of me on this page. If they find a way to fit a third one in, I'll start writing for free.