‘Our culture has become so obsessed with celebrity that it’s easy to confuse fame with success. They are not the same thing.’ – Daniel Rodriguez, Rise: A Soldier, a Dream, and a Promise Kept.
‘Celebrity’ or ‘fast track publicity’ has become an unquestioned and unaccountable part of our society. We trade in it, we perpetuate it, we operate within its narrative and therefore our lives are governed by it. Yet it’s banality has little value to us.
Like sub prime mortgages, many celebrities are the products of ‘spin’. They have done little to warrant their so-called ‘celebrity’ status, thereby changing the norms of what is celebrated and revered…nominally ‘whatever goes’ to get onto the red carpet, or more recently, The White House.
So while banks wrapping up sub prime mortgages caused 2008’s financial apocalypse, adding faulty wheels to a denial economy, the ‘sub prime’ celebrity promises a cultural, socio-economic crash. It may not entail the theatre of Lehman Brothers’ revolving doors; it will be more subliminal, more destructive. Nevertheless, we are heading for a bruising, driven by misguided populism and our delusional conflation of fame with success.
Sure, ‘court intrigue’ is nothing new. For centuries people have eagerly snooped into the lives of the rich and famous, indulging in their other-worldly fortunes and misfortunes.
But what is concerning is the changing definition of celebrity and its function as a central tenet of our society. It is the changing definition of what we ‘celebrate’ and revere that sews the seeds for our cultural decline. No longer a glamorous ‘exception’ or ‘achiever’ but a cult and existence upon which our social, digital pulse is predicated.
It has become the medium through which the press communicates to the public. ‘Generation Daily Mail Showbiz’ are loath to understand language that is not ‘celebrity’. They worship or desire the dressings of fame – ‘all the handbags, none of the work please, we’re all celebrities now.’
So, imagine a culture and economy increasingly hinged on sub-prime celebrity, blindly worshipping the banal – the trappings of success minus the substance; sleepwalking into a cultural crisis.
But what made sub prime celebrity become desirable?
Our relentless infatuation with the inane; reality TV relationships and bikini’d bars-of-shame begins as irony. And irony’s subtle nature ensures it eventually yarns itself into fact, habit and acceptability. We normalise it, unwittingly because it’s funny/appeals to our low brow appetite.
It is in this complex process that we see educated, high achievers delve into mundane celebrity driven conversation, which is great, until…
The anti-stars become the stars, the empty fascination at these characters becomes a fixation, a humorous addiction and suddenly a legitimate one because you can join in on office lunch discussions. Reluctance to participate is regarded as an inflated sense of pride: keeping behind with the Kardashians’.
A new upstairs-downstairs psyche is coming into play, reinforced by a meritocratic facade…. ‘we’re one of you’.
The feudal ‘wealthy’ vs ‘us normal folk’ was swept away by the red carpet long ago. Celebrities are the new ‘upper class’ and like always in history, they tend to indulge in more hypocrisy than their predecessors. ‘Struggle’ philosophy and charity dinners morally cement their place at the top – think Trump/Alan Sugar/Simon Cowell. It’s a stronghold, so why would any 15 year old bother applying to be a doctor when they can sign up to Channel 4’s latest gig?
Who’s to blame?
It is hard to tell if the media is simply giving us what we desire, or if we are blindly consuming the information they give us, carving out our appetites. Regardless, the monster can’t be tamed, and they continue to feed it in blind frenzy, just like those greedy banks before the crash. Newspaper journalists relentlessly codify celebrity culture, lacing articles with ‘us normal folk’, ‘civilians’ and ‘back on planet earth’. They’re getting the hits, the SEO, the pat on the back but over a damned system.
Christopher Hitchens aptly refers to the process as ‘the systematic, massified cretinization of the major media’.
‘If you denounce the excess coverage, you are yourself adding to the excess. If you show even a slight knowledge of the topic, you betray an interest in something that you wish to denounce as unimportant or irrelevant.’
It’s a lose lose. Most journalists, unless celebrities themselves now need a celebrity stamp to send their article on its way. There’d be more value in a degree from Heat Magazine over any Red Brick.
And the internet has only catalysed the process, smothering us in this ‘sub-prime celebrity’, granting dependency and even monopolisation of people’s attention. It helps users ‘choose‘ what they’d like to read through a glut of content and algorithm directive. It’s unimaginative to quote Marx but ‘The production of too many useless things can result in the production of too many useless people’ transcends the factory floor.
Online’s demand for hits guarantees a daily diet of inane, SEO and ‘likes-over-content’ fuelled trash. The aggression in the online forum to market articles erodes the content until there’s little to market. It’s a Faustian dynamic which sees quality of news give way to a vulgar appetite for celebrity snippets.
And who can help it when our capitalist system demands a celebrity endorsement prop, with companies’ products or services considered futile before a reality TV star assures an unwitting population of their necessity.
Even the global police force, the UN, seems to only get its wheels in motion when it hires a celebrity who’s decided to turn their hand to charity after some formative years of self-focus. It is a damning and maybe accurate indictment on our society, that a cause or charity must be sexed up by actors and actresses to make it palatable to the international audience? The TV drama, Black Mirror, is not far away – we already qualify and rate fellow humans through the superficial labyrinth of social media.
HOW BAD HAS ARE WE TALKING…?
School children now see social media and You Tube as a fast track option for realising this culturally prescribed dream. Sweat and endeavour are reserved for stupid people – a relic of the pre-www. past. They’ve invested their hopes and dreams in this sub-prime celebrity society.
Now, most newspaper columns and travel reviews are written by celebrities – the trained and experienced writers who chose Journalism, not acting or ‘modelling’, for their career no longer yield enough ‘likes’ or followings.
Now, the only theatre productions that sell out are the ones where celebrities are placed like gimmicks on the posters and into the top role, with half the audience remembering to Instagram before the play starts yet not the name of the play.
Ed Balls exemplifies this perfectly, jumping desperately on to the sub prime celebrity bandwagon. He saw the value of winning over ‘the people’ by prancing around on television, harnessing the aforementioned irony, praying that it would winnow into affinity. The political tap dance exemplifies our ‘how many likes’ culture over analysing substance or exercising accountability. ‘Cover’ over content. ‘Brand’ ‘over competence.
But glasshouses. I fill precious hours reading about insta-stars and watching crap television while eating something some celebrity ‘nutritionist’ demanded I eat. We all like a bit of junk to dilute the daily excel sheets, but have we reached saturation point? Is this calibre of celebrity now just fuelling an impending cultural ‘crash’. Can we sort this or should we just fasten our seat belts?
Regardless of political allegiances, a pithy line in Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party conference this year neatly hit on this sub prime celebrity culture. May asserted that ‘politics is about doing something not being someone.’ A strange idea that achievement may precede vanity? That you’d want to make a difference rather than get high from seeing your face on a billboard or a fancy table plan.
Progression is in substance, not in costume, no matter how glamorous it may be and how symbiotic the two concept may be considered. We all seem to be trying to be someone in this sub prime celebrity paradigm, at the loss of doing anything outside it. It would be recklessly idealistic and hypocritical to try and turn the whole system around. But let’s start championing genuine achievement, albeit scientific, academic, sport and choosing our celebrities a little more carefully as, for better or worse, they set the tone and future direction of our increasingly global culture.