Tuesday, 6 July 2010

In the gutter, gazing at the stars

In the last couple of days there have been a couple of interesting articles about modern celebrity in two very different papers. Although the tone, style and approach are as dissimilar as Jodie Marsh's breasts, the underlying message is hard to miss - the world of celebrity is in crisis.

Writing for the Guardian, Aditya Chakrabortty argues that the influx of "low-grade stars has thrown the celebrity world into a sub-prime crisis" - drawing a clever, but not entirely convincing, parallel with the financial meltdown that occurred in the US because the regulators were asleep on the job.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail published its own attack on modern fame, courtesy of Lisa Norris, a 'celebrity booker' who seems to have worked on every lousy TV show that was ever commissioned. In amongst the breathtaking revelations of imperiousness (Anne Diamond) or egotism (Paul McCartney), Norris manages to contradict herself several times.

One minute she's lamenting the sleazy nonentities who have "hijacked the status of star" - the next she's bitching about the fact that genuine A-listers are filled with their own self-importance. Missing the irony, she even finishes her rant with a plug for her forthcoming book, "The title? What else but I'm A Celebrity Booker . . . Get Me Out of Here!" She's not so much biting the hand that feeds her as chewing her way up to the elbow.

Back in the broadsheets, Chakrabortty argues that the concept of fame-seeking is nothing new, and holds Byron up as the quintessential example of a 19th century 'popular idol'. Rather than being a minority pursuit "taken up only by those with grotesque character deformations", celebrity is now a feasible goal for countless millions of people.

So what's changed, and why should we care? Chakrabortty believes that it's not celebrity that has evolved, more our perspective on it: "If you define fame as being known by strangers, then newspapers, cinema and especially TV have always driven the spread of celebrity... the public used to look up to their stars; now they are minded to look down."

Name-checking such talent-adjacent column-fillers as Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and Kelly Osbourne, Chakrabortty reminds us that they make for "frankly ropey" celebrities and gravely warns that the entire fame industry is set for a massive implosion. But he never actually addresses our fascination with people we look down upon.

So why do people like this maintain such premium real-estate in our minds? The classic Hollywood stars of yesteryear depended on talent, determination and a work ethic that would make Bob Cratchit feel like a layabout to make the grade. But having worked so hard to attain their success, they became distant, remote and untouchable.

The instant-win nature of modern celebrity is very different. There are no eligibility requirements, no rules of admission, and no basic codes of conduct. In essence, fame is an all-too-accessible members' club. It's tantalisingly within our grasp - we're just waiting for our keys to the changing room.

Any resentment or innate superiority we feel towards this new generation of 'celebrity' has nothing to do with the diminishing status of the word itself. Instead, it's linked to the fact that we feel a sense of entitlement - we deserve what they've got, since they did nothing to earn it in the first place. As Morrissey once sang, "We hate it when our friends become successful."

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