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Like Gatsby, Puffy Combs was in hot pursuit of the American dream via the usual accumulation of power and money.

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Puffy Goes Gatsby

by Ana Simo

MAY 15, 2001. A few summers ago, Sean "Puffy" Combs drifted coolly out of social nowhere and bought his palace on the Long Island Sound. He was soon palling about with the likes of C.Z. Guest and Martha Stewart, and annoying his moneyed and parvenu (but not as moneyed or parvenu as him) East Hampton neighbors with parties they could only dream of throwing themselves.

Like Gatsby, Puffy Combs was in hot pursuit of the American dream via the usual accumulation of power and money. Unlike him, Combs was an arbiter of taste. He was oozing with it, and his reserves seemed inexhaustible: he owned the press that printed the style greenbacks, and he owned the plates. His very presence in East Hampton rendered rancid the existing social hierarchies, mores, and esthetics.

While East Egg could snub Gatsby, as it mooched from him, even kill him, East Hampton couldn't touch Puffy. But Puffy could and did touch East Hampton. Cutting-edge popsters like him can turn entire power centers into ghost towns just by being there. Combs was Gatsby's avenging angel forged in the brave, new world of global pop culture.

Rules of the Game
To gauge how pop globalization is changing the rules of the high-stakes social and racial game, compare Combs and Jennifer Lopez to someone like Bill Cosby.

For all its reassuring, watered-down, prime time idealizations, "The Cosby Show," and its star, remained distinctly black. Critics who slammed the show for not being sufficiently black or realistic, or for trying too hard to please white audiences, saw it as an intrinsically black show that was not living up to its racial obligations. Cosby's defenders saw it as a black show whose crossover power, achieved by any means necessary (idealization included), was in itself a great contribution to the advancement of black Americans.

Combs and Lopez, on the other hand, are not black or Puerto Rican icons, but global multicultural megastars. They have crossed over at a new and different point of the imaginary geography—not over the abyss between minority and white America as Cosby did, but at the confluence of corporate-sponsored, multicultural America and the global market (which includes white Americans among its consumers).

Whereas Cosby crossed over by reassuring white Americans that he was just like them, Combs and Lopez have done so by aggressively flaunting their differences, and selling them to white America and the rest of the world as highly desirable style.

Ironically, Cosby remained black, albeit a "nice" black, while Puffy Combs' hyper-realistic gangsta rapper and J.Lo's über-Latina sex-goddess have propelled them beyond the confines of race and ethnicity as they are understood in everyday life. They have become transubstantiated icons, intimately attached to their roots, yet not enslaved by them.

For a brief moment, at least, America's global romance with Puffy and J.Lo has made whiteness cease to be the universal, and brown and black, the particular. The romance may yet sour. The recently acquitted Combs may not fly as high as P.Diddy, his new name, as he did as Puffy and Puff Daddy. Fickle Hollywood may tire of Lopez and her gauzy reptilian dresses. Or perhaps not. It doesn't matter. They're the face of things to come.

By 2059, if the recent census projections prove accurate, whites will be a minority in the United States. Gatsby is having the last laugh.

Related links:

For the official Puff Daddy—FOREVER website.

For J.Lo's official website.

For Sean John Fall 2001, Combs' clothing line, at New York Fashion Week.

For Complete Coverage Race/Class

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Gay Mundo
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