Sunday, March 29, 2009

Celebrities: it’s not them, it’s us

Do you ever, while reading something, think ‘ah, but such-and-such’ only to find, a few paragraphs on, the writer making exactly that point?

I guess it might deflate you just a little to find that your moment of inspiration wasn’t original and that you haven’t outwitted the writer, but I find it’s actually a nice experience to find yourself thinking along the same lines as someone else – far more so than when you read something and merely nod along with it.

It’s the nearest reading gets to feeling like an interaction, and I think it’s a mark of a good writer that you can lead readers not just to accept your conclusion but even to expect it.

I just had that experience with Danny Finkelstein’s piece ‘Why did we pay to watch Jade Goody?’ He writes:

When someone sells you a hamburger, you consume it. You pay a small amount of money to take possession of the hamburger and you enjoy it alone. That is, you are the only person who can benefit from the item once you have paid for it.
A superstar sportsman is enjoyed differently. You might be willing to pay only the same amount to watch a top sports star that you are prepared to pay for a hamburger. But when you enjoy the sportsman you do not reduce anyone else's enjoyment. Other people can enjoy him at the same time.

Upon which I thought: ‘ah, but it’s more than that – the viewer’s pleasure is actually increased by the fact that they’re part of a mass audience’.

And, sure enough, a couple of paragraphs later:

Not only does one person's consumption of a superstar's talent not reduce another’s enjoyment of it, it actually enhances that enjoyment. One of the things we are paying for is the ability to gossip about stars, shake our heads over their antics, marvel at their clothes and laugh at their choice of partner. And for this enjoyment the talent of the star doesn't really matter all that much.
No one will pay to read a story about an individual no one has heard of or few remember. But if, by a process, perhaps, of chaotic accident, one person becomes emblazoned on the public mind, then that person's behaviour becomes suddenly worth paying for. If they are talentless then we can all have fun discussing the fact that they are talentless.

But this raises another point.

I mostly loathe celebrity culture, and this loathing is something above and beyond the low opinion I hold of most celebrities themselves. It dulls the senses and promotes selfish individualism.

But: the flip side is that by giving us some human stories (however confected) that we can all talk about, celebrity culture provides a little glue that can bring us together and get us talking – at first about Jade Goody or whomever, but then about, well, anything. We get closer to each other by talking about them.

As such, celebrities are – in an inadvertent, synthetic and limited sense, to be sure – creators of social capital. I don’t think that this fully offsets the negative side of celebrity culture, but it’s something.

1 comment:

Richard T said...

There is a simple question to ask about the promotion of the celebrity culture. Lenin's 'Who; Whom?' fits pretty well. Who benefits from whom and at whose cost?