Where were you and what were you doing when you heard that Anna Nicole Smith had died? Philip Kennicott led off one of his hugely portentous big-think pieces for The Washington Post’s Style section—“The Fantasy of Happily Ever After: Anna Nicole Smith Stripped Marriage of Its Illusions” as the headline writer put it with happy absurdity—by calling this an office joke, but the joke was on him. That is, it wasn’t a joke at all. People really will remember getting the news the way they remember the moment when they first heard that President Kennedy or Martin Luther King had been shot—or, I like to think, the way I remember the moment when it first dawned on me that the popular celebrity culture, having been quietly buying up shares in the hitherto dominant and supposedly serious media culture, had successfully launched its takeover bid.

It was one day in January of 1994, not long after I...


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