Icon Inflation

We have a tendency, as a society, to overstate or overrate famous and accomplished people.  Once upon a time, it was a pretty big thing for a singer or an actor to be a “star.”  Now, that seems like a piddling description – something you’d only call someone whose name comes after the title in a movie, for example.  Now, we seem to feel some perverse need to call such people “superstars.”  These days, if someone acts in one successful movie, has one hit song, or hits a home run in an important game, we label them “superstars.”

The same is true of our use of the word “icon.”  Nowadays, it seems as if anyone or anything that’s well known is called an “icon.”  The Curmudgeon noticed this a few months ago, began collecting examples, and did some simple research to find a few more.  Now, presented for your reading pleasure, are some especially egregious examples of what he believes is serious “icon inflation.”

And when people are no longer surprised at the sudden death of a 40-something icon of pro football, then something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

This description comes to us from a May 3 article on the philly.com web site about the suicide of Junior Seau, a very good former professional football player who fell more than a little short of meriting “icon” status.

On behalf of the Namibia Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the entire Namibian business fraternity, we express our deepest sorrow and enormous sense of loss in the passing on of an illustrious son of the soil and a distinguished business icon, Mr. Harold Pupkewitz or simply Uncle Harold as most of us fondly called him.

This was on the web site of the Namibian Economist on May 3.  While it may not be reasonable for Americans to know the late, lamented Uncle Harold, how likely do you think the man on the street in Namibia would be to refer to him as an icon?

Music will abound on local stages this weekend starting with folk icon and social activist Peter Yarrow — of the multi-Grammy trio Peter, Paul & Mary — performing in Rockport on Friday night and a mosaic of jazz in a special concert on Manchester’s Village Green at the newly restored 200-year-old First Parish meetinghouse.

This is from the web site of the Gloucester Times, also on May 3.  It just so happens that The Curmudgeon is a big fan of Peter, Paul & Mary and absolutely loves Mr. Yarrow’s mellow singing voice and doesn’t even begrudge the singer that he once dated one of The Curmudgeon’s old girlfriends, but icon?  Really?  He’s not exactly Bob Dylan.

But as a politician, the sports icon fostered what state auditors would describe as “a toxic culture of entitlement’ while he ran the state Department of Agriculture.

The icon in question is Richie Farmer, who played basketball at the University of Kentucky, and he’s described in this manner in a May 3 Associated Press report on the Fox News web site.  Is Mr. Farmer truly an icon?  Have you ever even HEARD of Richie Farmer?

The parade, the festival’s oldest event, has marched every year since 1956.  This year, pop icon Cyndi Lauper serves as grand marshal and will perform a set before the parade begins.

We’re still in Kentucky – this time, the Louisville Courier Journal, which is describing a parade that precedes the running of the Kentucky Derby.  Ms. Lauper was once a helluva singer, but that was more than twenty years ago, and most of what we’ve seen of her lately was that she was a real pain in the ass on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice.  Prima donna?  Perhaps.  Icon?  Nyet.

By many measures, its reach seems phenomenal.  Worldwide, Facebook counted 901 million ‘monthly active users’ in March, meaning that they had visited or done something related to the site, such as clicking Facebook’s iconic ‘Like’ button.

This is from the May 24 Philadelphia Inquirer and an article about why the Facebook IPO was not the overwhelming success that lazy business reporters suggested it would be.  The Curmudgeon is sorry, but eight years is not long enough to give Facebook’s “Like” button iconic status.  Get back to him in another thirty years or so, however, and he’ll be happy to reconsider the question.

And while it’s never quite clear if he’s basing his stage persona on the character or the character was written to be Offerman’s alter ego, it’s definitely clear that Offerman knows that any crowd he attracts for his stage show (which usually tours college campuses) is really seeking an audience with the cult icon Swanson.

This is a reference to Ron Swanson, an actor who appears on NBC’s Parks and Recreation program.  This bit of hyperbole comes to us courtesy of the Austin Chronicle’s web site, on May 3.  Quick:  Have you ever seen Parks & Recreation?  Do you know who its star is?  ‘Nuff said; Mr. Swanson may be a fine actor, but he’s no icon.

It’s such an iconic city.

Rapper JayZ, as reported in the May 14 Philadelphia Inquirer, when asked why he was performing and promoting a Labor Day concert in Philadelphia.  The Curmudgeon is a native Philadelphian who lived in that city for forty-six years, but even the occasionally rose-colored glasses through which he sometimes views his hometown don’t deceive him into believing it deserves icon status.

Every presidential campaign produces its share of iconic images, but never before have we been able to see trail life in so many shades, vintages, and fetishistic detail.

From the “Opening Shot” feature of the May/June 2012 edition of the Columbia Journalism review.  (Note:  The Curmudgeon has read this sentence dozens of times, and just when he thinks he’s starting to understand it, “fetishistic detail” evokes images in his mind of Bob Woodward in thigh-highs and a bustier and he needs to walk away.)  The Curmudgeon defies you to recall even a single “iconic image” from the Bush-Kerry race.

Thought it is really Sunoco’s pipeline affiliate that he covets, Kelcy L. Warren, the chief executive of the Texas pipeline company that is buying Sunoco, Inc. for $5.3 billion, says he is ‘very comfortable’ owning the iconic gasoline brand that has been a Philadelphia fixture for more than a century.

The Philadelphia Inquirer gushed this linguistic mess on May 20.  Let’s start with the idea that there is no such thing – no such thing at all, ever, anywhere, under any circumstances – as an “iconic gasoline brand.”  Gasoline is gasoline and there’s no difference from brand to brand.  People may fall into the habit of frequenting one particular service station, but it’s usually a matter of convenience, not brand loyalty.  If the gas station a half-mile down the road starts selling gasoline for two cents a gallon less, followers of the “iconic brand” will drop it like a hot branding icon.  Back in the days of yore, many gasoline stations also had working garages and people would be loyal to their mechanic and buy their gasoline wherever their mechanic worked.  If the mechanic moved, the customer moved with him – sort of like with women and their hairdressers; the iconic brand didn’t matter as much as a guy who knew how to adjust your carburetor just right.  But gasoline stations got out of the auto service business a long time ago – Sunoco among them – because they discovered it was easier to make a buck selling their customers Diet Coke and Kit Kat bars than it was to swindle them with repairs they didn’t really need.

This season, stakes are higher and decisions tougher as Bob and Susie judge teams led by Food Network icons.

This pearl comes from the web site of Bravo TV, where hyperbole is always the order of the day, and the section of its site devoted to its Next Food Network Star program.  With all due respect for Bobby Flay, Alton Brown, and Giada De Laurentiis – not that they’ve really earned that respect – none of these people are icons.  They’re not even really stars.  They are, like Emeril Lagasse before them, completely disposable and replaceable television personalities that the brains – and The Curmudgeon uses the word “brains” lightly when it comes to Food Network executives, as regular readers have seen in the past – at the Food Network will not hesitate to throw out in the trash, never to be seen again, the day their ratings dip more than a little.

Matthew Maratea jumped at the chance to transfer to the new Acme in Bryn Mawr. As a 25-year veteran of the iconic but stressed supermarket chain, the longtime produce manager hadn’t seen a new store open in four years.

This is from the June 7, 2012 Philadelphia Inquirer and an article about the Acme Market supermarket chain.  Icon means more than old; it means revered and loved.  When you’re an ancient supermarket chain that customers are abandoning in droves because you’ve managed the neat trick of offering limited selection at especially high prices, you’re not an icon; you’re a has-been that’s just steps away from disappearing entirely.

Some administration officials privately acknowledge that she would be the presumptive front runner, only 69 in November 2016 and more iconic than ever.

So the New York Times magazine described Hillary Clinton on July 1, 2012.  It took The Curmudgeon a long time to come around to Mrs. Clinton, based on what he still believes were very legitimate concerns about her ability to function effectively in public office, but come around he most certainly has:  he voted for her in the Democratic presidential primary in 2008 and would love to see her try again in 2016 if she remains in good health and can find a way to shut up her mess of a husband.  With that said, though, and even with millions of Americans who’ve closed their eyes to her outstanding performance as secretary of state still hating her with irrational fury, even The Curmudgeon would not consider Mrs. Clinton truly iconic.

In Wildwood, iconic theater faces curtains again

So screamed the July 23, 2012 headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer about a sixty-eight-seat movie theater that was about to close.  Beloved by a few people?  Perhaps.  An “iconic theater?”  Hardly.

 Iconic barn to survive with help of Moorestown community.

So the Philadelphia Inquirer told its readers on July 31 when it reported about a barn about which its own reporter conceded that “No one famous lived there and nothing of historic importance took place there.  The building of Jersey sandstone on Westfield Road in Moorestown isn’t even particularly attractive.  But generations of township residents have looked on it affectionately as a symbol of the community’s farming heritage – and a simpler time.”  The Curmudgeon was prepared to write this one off as the work of an over-enthusiastic headline writer, but then the article went on to say that “Now, thanks to the community’s help, the iconic building should be around for snapshots and good times to come.”  It’s a building – not even a building.  It’s a barn.  Not even a barn.  It’s a shell of a barn.  It is not an icon.

There will be no question on the Nov. 6 ballot about whether the city should keep its iconic inverted pyramid.

So reported the August 3 Tampa Bay Times in an article about the future of a shopping pier in St. Petersburg, Florida.  It just so happens that The Curmudgeon has visited this pier, and believe him, it ain’t no icon.  Aging?  Perhaps?  Distinctive?  Definitely.  But an icon?  No way, Jose.

Robert Klein – Iconic Comedian & Actor.

So says an ad in the August 10 Philadelphia Inquirer.  The Curmudgeon is a big Robert Klein fan, but iconic?  Maybe ironic, maybe sardonic, possibly even laconic (well, not really, but The Curmudgeon can seldom resist a good rhyme), but most certainly not iconic.

Turns out, there might be one:  an apartment house on Columbus Boulevard, planned for the empty site next to the Ben Franklin Bridge’s iconic stone abutment.

According to this August 10 Philadelphia Inquirer article, a new apartment building may rise next to a bridge.  The bridge’s abutment on the Philadelphia side – The Curmudgeon has never noticed it on the Camden, New Jersey side but assumes it’s the same – is a massive stone edifice.  It’s stone.  STONE.  Can you think of anything iconic about a plain stone wall built in the twentieth century?  We’re not exactly talking about the Wailing Wall or the Great Wall of China here.

And finally, this bit of tid:

I mean this is purely a semantic issue,’ he said.  ‘Let me finalize this issue as follows:  to say that Usain Bolt is an active performance legend, he is an icon, he is the best sprinter of all time.

These are the words of International Olympic Committee president Jacques Bogge, describing Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world du jour.  Alas, what Bogge was really trying to say is that Usain is not an icon, that winning the races he has won over consecutive Olympics makes him a truly great runner, perhaps the greatest runner ever, but that you can’t really be an icon when you’re still performing.  Alas, Rogge suffered from acute fumblemouth and called Bolt an icon anyway.

So in conclusion, when you come across a movie you feel compelled to see four times or a CD you want to listen to over and over again, by all means, enjoy to your heart’s content – but please exercise a little restraint and common sense before you go ahead and burden your heart’s content with the misused label of “icon.”

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  • Scott  On September 11, 2012 at 12:08 pm

    How can a column on “icons” not include mention of iconic business magnate Carl Icahn? Just sayin’….

    • foureyedcurmudgeon  On September 11, 2012 at 12:15 pm

      Of course: Icahn the icon! How foolish of me to overlook him. I’ll have to save this for “Icon Inflation: The Next Generation.”


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