On Wednesday, January 16th, the story broke that the girlfriend who Manti Te'o talked about so much had never existed.
The next day, Oprah's interview with Lance Armstrong aired, with Lance admitting to having doped before and during each of his seven Tour de France victories, after years of denying those very activities.
Four days after that, Beyonce "performed" at President Obama's second inauguration, her rendition of the national anthem widely praised until it was leaked that she was, possibly, lip syncing.
That's a pretty solid stretch of American exceptionalism.
As much attention as has been paid to the fall-out from each of these stories, there seems to be an equal number of inquiring minds who'd like to know "Why do I care about this? Why do they? Should any of us?"
In this context, "should's" have relatively little relevance. "Should" implies some moral, normative judgment attached to caring about cheating and/or lying and/or faking it. Of the three fakers outed this week, only Lance's cheating approaches the territory of value propositions; many of us would agree that people should not cheat to win, although the argument is complicated by the response that "everyone else" was doing it, too. The Manti hoax has no bearing on his past football performances or future professional aspirations, and Beyonce's rumored pre-recording doesn't seem to have a direct connection with her ranking on the Billboard Top 100.
That philosophical aspect of these controversies is a separate debate. Our collective reaction to the stories themselves, grounded in our perspective as consumers, sparks a conversation that is just as rich.
I can understand the people who scoff at the car-crash nature of each of these incidents. We all already "knew" that Lance was cheating, we watch football players because they play football and not because they have dating issues, and we can't honestly pretend to believe that every "live performance" is, actually, "live." You're right, guys. You are.
Our relationship with popular entertainment is complicated. We are a country of electronic voyeurs, expecting access to the intimicies of our Facebook "friends," our Twitter "followings" and our "reality" stars. We demand authenticity from the lives we invite into ours, and then we trade witty, edited banter and staged, filtered photographs. We want the real stuff, but we want it in a pretty, polished, perfect package.
Maybe that's unfair, and maybe that triggers double-standards and inconsistencies. But it is the new marketplace of ideas, the new common ground, the new quid pro quo. And in the defense of us consumers, the golden rule here can be boiled down to a fairly simple, if challenging, maxim: if you want us to adore you, be as awesome as you can be, but you'd better actually be it.
We fell in love with Lance because he was the ultimate hero. He beat cancer, defied medical and sporting odds, parlayed his professional success into a humanitarian crusade, and ran shirtless with Matthew McConaughey. We got swept up in the back-story Manti helped perpetuate because it demonstrated a strength of purpose and a dedication to team, institution and faith that made football seem like something more than just football. We adore Beyonce because, in the age of auto-tune and gimmickry, she is the standard-bearer for artists who can, you know, really sing.
Maybe our standards for winning our attention are too high, and maybe our appetite for details about our celebrities' lives is too rapacious. Maybe it's our fault that being good at something isn't enough to become famous for being good at it. Maybe we're the reason the road to success is paved with banned substances, soap-operatic side shows, and large microphones that mask pantomiming lips.
If we create the game and if we set the bar, then that means we also are allowed to cry foul. If what we're after is a story or a performance or a life to put on a pedestal because it is so inspirational that it becomes aspirational, then that means we can also express disappointment when an idol proves unworthy of the status. If we want proof that life is, or can be, beautiful, then we can be let down by further evidence of its ugliness.
I care that Lance doped because Lance accepted and then exploited his role as The Phenom who could beat not just death, but also all those other men in tights. I care because he was the symbol of what the human body can do until he became the symbol of how the human body can cheat. I care because, even in finally admitting to his lies, it seems there is some ulterior, selfish motive at play, and that Lance hasn't actually learned the lesson he's trying to convince us that he has.
I care about Manti's fake girlfriend because Manti so desperately wanted me to care that he had a real girlfriend. I care because of all the athletes in all the relationships with all the challenges that there are, Manti singularly fed the media machine with the romance and the heartache, with his bended-knee on-field meditations and his willing performance as the Heart-Wounded Warrior. I care because he fed a football image that coexisted with, maybe even depended on, his boyfriend image.
I care about whether Beyonce lip-synced because I thought she was better than that. I care because she was standing still on what was the world's biggest stage on that day. I care because Kelly Clarkson, that by-product of the American Idol machine, stood up and sang her song live, but Beyonce, that reigning American idol queen, wasn't ready or couldn't do it.
I care because when someone is elevated to exalted status for being the best version of what we have to offer on that surface or in that medium or for that role, I expect them to be performing in a manner befitting that exultation. I am weak and of marginal talent and exist in mediocrity, which is why I work in a cubicle and wonder when I'll be able to afford a garage. Lance and Manti and Beyonce have gotten to play in a rarefied space that my adoration and respect, and yours, carves out for them. They can come back and join me down here in every-day life, or they can prove, every day, that they belong on that podium or that stage or that income bracket. For real.
Maybe it takes two to tango, but I, for one, get mad when my dance partner starts slamming on my toes.
Image via vh1.com.