Oprah Moment. n.
A defining point in time in which a person comes to some sort of revelation or truth about themselves [even if it is a lie prefabricated to sell].

In previous excursions I’ve alluded to the fact that these days a “compelling personal story” in which one has “overcome adversity” is needed to succeed. And, of course, cash in for the big bucks or power (think of politicians). Like the purported Age of Aquarius famous from the musical Hair, the Age of Oprah is insipid sh!te.

Oprah Winfrey seems to be an emblematic figure in this selling of emotional “reality.” She’s been busted before, the “million pieces” memoir-iste James Frey who turned out to have made the whole thing up and whose book went from bestseller to the remainder bin in record time being a very prominent example. James Frey is only a recent example of fraudulent autobiography, which is far from new—the most excellent short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is an excellent parody of a middle aged man’s fantasy life—but what’s interesting about Frey is the fact that he exaggerated not his accomplishments but his utter lack thereof. It was better to be a puking, drug addicted, jailbird than a nobody. Definitely better because it got his book published, though in the end he had to face the Wrath of Oprah when it was revealed to be bantha poodoo.

Of course, Oprah didn’t invent this, though she and her less successful fellow daytime talk show hosts profit from it immensely. (Oprah is the richest self-made woman in the world and the only African-American billionaire.) Instead it taps into a very deep strain of vulgar populism in the American psyche, rooted perhaps in the Protestant tradition of
testifying and the overthrow of nobility in the Revolution. (Or maybe it’s even older and broader spread? The telenovela is all the rage around the world, after all.) In short, I’m not entirely sure where it comes from, but the confessional populism of Oprah and her ilk is definitely with us. It has long since spread to the large quantity of people who like nothing if not a good cry… followed by a cheap happy ending, of course. If James Frey had written a book about his life while still a crackhead, I doubt it would have been so well received. Of course, there’s the get rich quick angle, which Oprah’s been into as well: she seems to have jumped her own couch pimping the newest self-help phenomenon The Secret. There is no secret: it’s just “the power of positive thinking” rehashed for the early 21st Century. Optimism in and of itself is a good thing, but again, taken too far, it becomes insanity.

Here are some other examples:

Celebrity Redemptions Britney “I should have gone into an alternate career in porn, where my name would have been perfect” Spears recent bizarrities, Lindsay “I’ve never seen a substance I didn’t want to abuse” Lohan’s constant trip to rehab, Paris “I’m the picture perfect post-modern star, famous for being famous for being in a homemade porn video released to the internet by my scumbag boyfriend” Hilton doing time, Mel “I’m a drunken bigot who has, at least, made some decent movies in the past” Gibson , etc. Rehab just seems to be part of the personal cost of making millions and millions of bucks.

Presidential Politics Our current president’s liking for a compelling personal story has led him to justify keeping incompetent fools around long past their sell-by date. Of course, his own compelling personal story of “overcoming” addiction (IMO by replacing one with another, but of course your mileage may vary) didn’t hurt him in the 2000 election compared to the relatively wooden Al Gore. Joe Average felt they could sit down and have a beer with GWB, presuming he drank beer anymore, as if that mattered for running a country. (I just don’t see George Washington walking into the local pub and knocking a few back with the boys.) This isn’t a partisan thing: Jimmy Carter pioneered it (in a 1976 interview in Playboy, no less) with his statement about adultery and Bill Clinton, the “Man from Hope [Arkansas]” was probably the recent master of the political confessional.

Motivational Speakers Nobody even vaguely famous ever retires. They just become motivational speakers, who incidentally, cost at minimum $10,000 to speak at your corporate event telling you about their personal struggle or whatever. Just ask their agents about the General of the age Tommy Franks, United States Army (ret.), KBE, and holder of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (a civilian award), or Erin Brockovich. Heck even former Presidents get into it. Both George I of the House of Bush and Bubba charge some tall bucks to grace select groups with their august presences and I’m sure George II will similarly charge tall bucks to talk to whoever is willing to listen to him. (Me? I’d rather hire Jefferson Starship to play my corporate event. I’d look forward to whomever they found to replace the retired Grace Slick wailing “eat your head… eat your head…” while making sure not to dislodge their Depends.) Even the British sailors released from the clutches of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on Easter are selling their life stories (see here for a bit of discussion). I guess if Tommy Franks can get a book deal inspiring us with his dubious wisdom, why not Faye Turney with her lack thereof? Fair is fair, after all and if a ghost writer can spin an interesting enough book, she should go for it. In some senses, I can’t blame Joe Average for seeing his chance at a meal ticket way better than what he would otherwise make, but a guy like Tommy Franks probably doesn’t need the money. He obviously doesn’t care about the dignity.

Certainly there’s virtue to be found in having to struggle personally and that’s what the “compelling personal story” is all about. But when it’s become another currency, ambitious youngsters go through a lot of trouble to pack their resumes with appropriate life enriching experiences. What matters is accomplishment. To the extent that one’s life experiences help inform that, sure, but when struggle and redemption (or, rather, the appearance of struggle and redemption) has become a necessity to further advancement or a way to make a buck, what’s really going on?

When James Frey figures out a way to write a successful memoir about his time making a fraudulent memoir that got plugged by Oprah, we’ll know we have well and truly jumped the couch.