Tag Archives: celebrity

The X Factor — cool or cruel?

X-Factor at the O2 London

How the show offers a perverse empowerment

The X Factor has turned into torture porn – that’s the film genre that specializes in exposing audiences to the wilfully cruel and sadistic infliction of pain, suffering and humiliation to others.  I’m exaggerating a bit: torture porn, as exemplified in movies such as Hostel, Vile and the Saw series, is intentionally about hurting people. The films attract audiences who share a taste for watching others in pain. The X Factor, by contrast, is supposed to be a talent contest. But it now seems to appeal to the torture porn sensibility: its viewers might once have been drawn to the singers and allowed themselves the indulgence of laughing at the manner in which the judges expressed their disapproval. But the current series seems vicious: the entertainment value of others’ pain seems to have been foregrounded to the point where the singing is almost supplementary.

A few weeks ago, contestant Hannah Sheares and two friends auditioned as Daisy Chain, a band, only to be told that, Hannah herself was passable, but her friends were useless and would have to be dumped. Presumably forgetting that bands like the Supremes, the Three Degrees and Destiny’s Child all did pretty well with a strong lead and two backing singers, the judges offered Hannah the chance to progress as a solo performer. Amid much crying, she did so and lost her friends. “We don’t talk any more,” Hannah stated the obvious. She was eliminated from the show a couple of few weeks later. When the panel gave the same choice to another band, the trio refused, though a week later, the lead singer mysteriously re-appeared minus her two friends, meaning that she had been persuaded. It’s not the first time the show has made enemies out of friends and it could always be argued that the choice always remains with the contestants. Yet it seems a peculiarly vicious and unnecessary way of filtering out “talent” and, if we are honest, the way in which the camera dwells on the breakups suggests the producers think we enjoy becoming voyeurs. Maybe they are right.

The X Factor is not just a television show, it’s a cultural phenomenon. There has never been anything quite like it in the history of television. Starting in 2004, it has launched the careers of Leona Lewis, Alexandra Burke and, of course, One Direction (about whom I blogged a few weeks ago). It has also given career boosts to panellists, particularly Cheryl Cole, Nicole Scherzinger and Tulisa Contostavlos. Its viewing audience is barely believable. Over the years it has regularly snagged 40% of the total audience share and, even in slumps, draws in 10 million viewers. At its historic high point in 2010, 17.2 million tuned in to watch Matt Cardle triumph – that’s over 27% of the total population of the UK. It’s perfectly in sync with today’s culture, inviting audiences to vote using their phones and to tweet, text and engage fully with social media. In a sense it offers a perfect cultural democracy. But, as the show morphs from a talent contest to an all-purpose entertainment platform, its benign character has changed. It is now a heartless, insensitive and callous psychodrama in which astringent is poured on open wounds.

Like the torture porn filmmakers, the X Factor producers would probably shrug and say, “That’s what the audience wants.” They have a point: no one points a gun to the heads of 10 million telly watchers and demands they stay glued to their screens every Saturday and Sunday anymore than filmgoers are scooped up from the streets, strapped into place and forced to watch people having limbs cut off without anaesthetic.  Viewers not only want to watch, they feel entitled to watch the slaughter and the human response that accompanies it. As the torture porn fan delights in witnessing the pleading, the whimpering and, best of all, the sobbing, the X Factor fan enjoys the privilege of observing human emotion at its most painful. We can identify with the rejected wannabes to whom winning would mean “everything” and this confers its own empathic rewards. Living in celebrity culture makes us realize how fragile hopes of instant fame are popular currency. But the real bonus is that we can also identify with the torturers … I mean, the judges: the power to grant someone’s wildest dreams or consign them to oblivion is something viewers have never had, and probably never will have. But by aligning themselves with Sharon or Louis as they traumatize young hopefuls and reduce them to incoherent losers, they get to identify with the powerful too. And the best bit is this: no one feels bad about this. There may be a brief moment of sorrow as the losing contestant blubs inconsolably and either promises to come back stronger or just go back to stacking shelves at the supermarket, but it passes as soon as the next TalkTalk commercial arrives. The perverse empowerment offered by the show is too good to risk undermining with sympathy.

Now the filmed sequences are over, we are into “live” shows and audiences will bear witness to exhibitions of inconsolable distress as their judges deliver their agonizingly prolonged verdicts (“I’m gonna say … ” followed by a 10-second wait). Years ago, we might have felt uncomfortable and switched channels. Who takes pleasure not just in other people’s distress, but in their shameless, often excruciating public display of that distress? I know the answer to this question. So do you.

@elliscashmore

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrity afterlife

Film immortalizes more surely than human memory. This week sees the release of two films, each dealing with the life of dead people on whom we confer enduring fame. Diana, as we all know, is the already-panned biopic focusing on the last two years of the Princess’s life. Rush is about James Hunt, the F1 champion, who led an epically hedonistic life and died from a heart attack in 1993 at 45. Diana died in 1997 aged 36 after a road accident in Paris. But they both live on in the popular imagination, not in a morbid kind of way, but in a spirit of reverence and, in Diana’s case, adoration. We imagine Diana as everlastingly radiant, not as the 52-year-old she would have been had she lived. And, while Hunt would have been around the same age as Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and Jeff Bridges – all still relevant figures, of course – we think of him as the rakishly handsome roué he was in the 1970s.

Diana and Hunt are not alone: our imaginations are full of famous figures who seem as real and relevant today as they did when they dominated the headlines. There are many, many more famous characters who we think about, not as historical figures, but as contemporary presences. “Our contact with celebrities is so limited that we view them as mirages until the one event that restores them their real physical presence, their deaths, the moment of our greatest intimacy with them,” writes the American scholar Daniel Harris in his 2008 essay “Celebrity deaths.” Harris’s argument is that the death of celebrities is “the ultimate democratic epiphany” in that, in a sudden moment of revelation, it their demise reminds us that, despite their status, they are “as liable to physical misfortunes as the best of us.”

The reaction to death serves to reinforce what Harris calls solidarity, by which I presume he means a unity or harmony that endures long after. Posthumous exposés may lay bare aspects of a celebrity’s life that may change our evaluations, but a dead person can’t actually do anything to alter a bond forged by death. Marilyn Monroe may have set a deplorable example of ostentation and promiscuity in the 1950s, but on her death she was beatified. Indeed, later revelations made her seem more a victim than she ever did in life. Elton John and Bernie Taupin memorably used T. H. White’s 1958 phrase “Candle in the wind” to capture her fragility in their 1973 song; they modified the lyric in 1997 to eulogize Princess Diana, who was also worshipped more in death than in life.

Norma Jeane Mortenson may have died, but Marilyn lived on, making hers the first death to lead to a renewal and, for this reason, the first celebrity death. (James Dean died earlier, in 1955, aged 24, and his image was borne on countless tee-shirts and posters. But his life was never probed and exhibited, and he was respected as much for the postwar rebellious spirit of youth he personified than himself.)

Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies, observes how images of dead celebrities become frozen in time, surrounded with manufactured fantasies, immune from aging. The everlasting image of Marilyn, who like Diana, died aged 36 is of a lucent-eyed, smolderingly vivacious and affectingly shallow blonde. Her depths were plumbed only after her death. Hers was a death that guaranteed immortality. And there were others. Jimi Hendrix (1942-70), Elvis Presley (1935-77), John Lennon (1940-80) and Tupac Shakur (1971-96) were all sanctified in a secular sense. “Any negativity [about their lives] has long been digested by the popular culture – and they’ve stood the test of time,” writes historian Robert Klara.

Helping them stand the test are corporations with interests in resurrecting them via film, music and merchandise. Digital technologies have facilitated their appearance in advertising and, in the cases of Frank Sinatra (1915-98) on stage – in the form of a moving holographic image. All have been subjects of biopics, in Diana’s case several times over. Her death started a cycle of renewal as writers, film makers and corporations revived not just her image, but her existence in any exploitable form. Journalists Ross D. Petty and Denver D’Rozario have produced a cold-hearted analysis of the bonuses offered by departed: “Living celebrities are both expensive and risky … Deceased celebrities have the advantage of being both less expensive and less likely to suddenly lose popularity.”

Exposing our private parts

Keith Lemon thought

Privacy. Has it vanished? Is there part of your life that you jealously protect, don’t want observed or discussed with other people and restrict to yourself and perhaps very close confidantes? Or do you live a life that’s pretty much open to inspection by all and which you’re happy to share with others, even people you don’t know and will probably never meet?

In the 1980s when BBC launched its show Through the Keyhole, it was a daring innovation: the host Lloyd Grossman led viewers into the homes of famous people, scrutinizing the décor and furniture in an effort to disclose aspects of their character. The show was predicated on the intellectually respectable assumption that the physical places in which people live offered a reliable reflection of aspects of their “real” personality rather than the public persona they presented to their audiences. It was a legitimate invasion of privacy and offered viewers a rare sight of the largely hidden side of the rich and famous.

Last Saturday, ITV revived the concept, replacing the vowel-strangling gastronome with “Keith Lemon,” alter ego of Leigh Francis. Unsurprisingly, the show removed any intellectual pretensions or ingenuity. The formula was camped up, but the pleasure it offered viewers was essentially the same.

At the time of the original series, most people would have felt slightly uncomfortable about wandering into the homes of other people and poking around their personal belongings. But only slightly. And when viewed through the filter of television, the whole experience seemed completely wholesome. The beauty of the show was that it effectively turned us into shameless peeping toms.  No one felt guilty about invading others’ privacy.

Since then, we have less respect for other people’s private lives. Celebrity culture is founded on our curiosity: we don’t just want to know about other people’s private lives – we demand they don’t have private lives at all. We insist on having access to all areas of their lives. And, in exchange, we’re prepared to share our own lives. Facebook, twitter and other social media have painlessly removed any semblance of privacy – or perhaps, more accurately, they have turned it inside out. Many people provide minutely detailed logs of their daily lives, complete with accounts of their own views, opinions, feelings, emotions and all kind of personal states that they wouldn’t have dreamt of discussing in public in the 1980s. In recent decades the old-school privacy has receded. Television has both initiated and responded to this. Just look at the Jeremy Kyle Show: people clamour to appear on telly to reveal the most intimately embarrassing details of their lives in front of 1.5 million viewers.

Privacy has been under assault in all sorts of other ways: CCTV cameras surround us, many of your newspapers and magazines are dedicated purely to discovering dirty little secrets, credit card companies store an astonishing amount of detail on us. And we don’t seem to mind; we just accept that today’s society is like a vast panopticon – a circular prison in which prisoners can at all times be observed.

We’re both parts of and creators of a voyeuristic culture: we neither object to be being watched and infiltrated, nor mind admitting that we enjoy watching and infiltrating others.  Ravenous for information on other people, not just celebs, but anyone we care about, we’ve become nosey parkers. If you don’t probe others’ lives, you can’t really care about them at all. No one, it seems, feels embarrassed about tweeting the kind of information that would have made them squirm a few years ago.

The new show is in this sense catches the zeitgeist much more than the original. Back in the 1980s every scene set a question and we, assisted by Grossman and, later, the recently deceased David Frost, were invited to supply an answer. Lemon is less complex. The problem is: does the new show still have the power to surprise? After all, part of the pleasure of the first show lay in the little thrill of penetrating someone else’s private domain. Now we know full well the homes may be owned or rented by someone else, but we also know they are allowing cameras free entry because they have to: they are just filling their side of a bargain. That’s part of the deal in celebrity culture: anyone with aspirations to become a celebrity has to surrender their private life. In a way we all surrender our private lives.

Consumers today insist on a constant stream of information and, if they don’t get it, they lose interest. Once that interest has gone, the celebrity is effectively consigned to oblivion. This is a problem for the new show: it’s going to have a tough time presenting us with anything new; so it can’t really surprise, less still shock us in the way the Grossman show managed. We’re no longer peeping toms who need our pangs of guilt assuaged. We’re inquisitive, intrusive, snooping eavesdroppers and not the least bit embarrassed by our nosiness.

What connects 1D fans with the girls in Peru?

One Direction

Chaos theory concerns connections between seemingly unconnected events: like a temperature rise in the Atlantic initiating a hurricane across the Indian Ocean and a tsunami in the Pacific. 70,000 young people flocked to London’s Leicester Square to catch glimpse members of One Direction as they attended the premiere of the band’s film.  6,000 miles away in Lima, Peru, two 20-year old women attended their first formal hearing after being caught with £1.5million worth of cocaine hidden in their suitcases at the airport. They face up to 25 years in prison, if found guilty. The two events have a common source.

Young people today are fascinated by glamour: the attractive and exciting quality that makes certain people or things seem appealing has never gripped them so tightly. They are enchanted, captivated, thrilled by the glitz and pizzazz they find not just surrounding them but invading their imaginations.

<p class="MsoNormal" Directioners are not dimwits: they love the band, but they know that, in a sense Liam, Harry, Zayn, Niall and Louis are their proxy: after all, the band is a product of The X Factor and its success on the show (3rd place, 2010) was made possible by viewers’  — in other words, their — votes. 1D fans are rightly proprietorial – they behave as if they own the band. So when they see the band enjoying the highlife, appearing in every conceivable media, leaping from one triumph to another, they too experience a strong vicarious gratification.

Michaella Connolly and Melissa Reid may be fans of the band.  Even if they’re not, I’m sure they share with Directioners the craving for what the writer Christopher Lasch called “the good life,” in which there is  “endless novelty, change and excitement [and] the titillation of the senses by available stimulant.” (Check Melissa’s Facebook photos.) Exotic images of luxury, romance and affluence dominate the media that engulfs, not just them but all of us. This is modern consumerism and, whether we like it or not, we are part of it.

Michaella and Melissa are indistinguishable from the thousands who congregated at Leicester Square. They’re products of the same culture, one that emphasizes impulse rather than calculation as the determinant of human conduct. They’ve all learned to spurn traditional values of thrift and self-denial and respond to every new demand our media issues. But young people are not hapless fools. Anything but: they know there is a manipulation going on. When they see the latest smartphone dangled in front of them, they tumble to what’s going on. Use values have been replaced by exchange values, events by images and quality by newness.

Obviously, I can’t know the exact motivation of the young women now awaiting their fate in South America. But I’m pretty sure their ill-starred adventure had its source in the desire to find an alternative to the unendurable settled life they saw lying ahead of them at home. They were prepared to travel thousands of miles to escape their humdrum existences. Their restless ambition and nagging dissatisfaction with things as they were encouraged by an appetite for excitement, glamour and celebrity. In this sense they are connected as if by an invisible chain to the thousands of worshipful young fans of 1D.

Diana’s death fascinates us as much as her life

Princess Diana

Sixteen years after her death, Diana, Princess of Wales, continues to enchant us. A new claim that the Special Air Service (SAS) was involved in her death is being investigated by the Metropolitan Police. In the immediate aftermath of the fateful night of August 31, 1997, everyone struggled to make sense of arguably the most devastating death of the century. The shock and prolonged sense of grief occasioned by Diana’s utterly unexpected death has scarcely a parallel in world events. The deaths of social and political giants such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and cultural icons like John Lennon and Michael Jackson, stunned people the world over. But none of these evoked an emotional response so long and deep as that following Diana’s death.

The response to Diana’s death defined an emblematic moment, one of transferred emotion. In the days leading to her funeral on September 6, over a million people flocked to pay their last respects, many leaving bouquets at her London home at Kensington Palace. Her funeral attracted three million mourners who cast flowers along the entire length of the journey. A global television audience of twenty six million watched the day’s events.

The near-inevitable conspiracy theories surrounding the death were like those about the moon landing, the JFK assassination or 9/11. More rational attributions of blame centered on paparazzi, who pursued her into the tunnel in Paris on that fateful night. “I always believed the press would kill her in the end,” said Diana’s brother, the Earl of Spencer. “Every proprietor and editor of every publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her, encouraging greedy and ruthless individuals to risk everything in pursuit of Diana’s image, has blood on his hands.”

Few wanted to extend that same argument further. If they had, they would have concluded that the paparazzi were motivated by money offered by media corporations that could sell publications in their millions to consumers whose thirst for pictures and stories of Diana seemed unquenchable. In the event, the photographers were cleared of any wrongdoing by a French court in 1999. The fact remains: all parties, from the paparazzi to the fans were connected as if by invisible thread.

Anyone who was aware of Diana — and it’s difficult to imagine anyone who wasn’t — was forced to think about the way in which news values had been subverted by entertainment values. After all, Diana’s greatest triumph was not so much in ushering in world peace, or saving the planet, but in offering so pleasure to so many people. Yet the inspection was momentary. It didn’t bring to an end the gathering interest in figures, who, like Diana, offered pleasure while presenting absolutely nothing that would materially alter their lives or the lives of any other living thing. Then, after a spell of critical evaluation of the media, the interest resumed and theories of skullduggery, connivance and subterfuge began to circulate. It took ten years before an official investigation lasting nearly two years concluded the death had been an accident and there was “no conspiracy to murder the occupants of that car.

Now police are investigating a fresh claim that the SAS was involved in Diana’s death. Like the other theories, this one appears to lack that all-important constituent of a credible theory – evidence. So you might wonder why the latest one has prompted action from Scotland Yard. “The Metropolitan Police Service is scoping information that has recently received,” is the official response. “Scoping” is an unusual choice of verbs: it’s typically used informally for looking at, or scanning something or someone. But the meaning is clear enough: the Yard is taking this seriously enough to look into it.

A few people will suggest a different kind of conspiracy: a new film Diana is shortly to be released to coincide with the anniversary of the Princess’s death. A new theory is bound to be good boxoffice. But it could be just an astonishing coincidence. I suspect this will not be the last theory of this kind we will hear. Diana’s death, like her life, is a subject of endless intrigue. Her singular capacity to lure, charm and draw people of diverse backgrounds has survived her and will probably outlive anyone reading this.

 

The most eagerly awaited birth in history

new-royal-baby-CarmenRodriguez-NaturalHealthStoreUS

“I wonder if one of the midwives will tweet news of the baby before the official announcement on the easel.” My friend, a professional broadcaster, was wondering out loud. Naively, I hadn’t considered the possibility. “You mean subvert the monarchical protocol?” I asked. It would have meant that potentially a half-billion people would have known the sex of the baby before the official announcement. “The tweeter would’ve ended up in the Tower at one time in history.”

Of course, it didn’t happen, but I’ll bet a few anxious people at the Palace were keeping their fingers crossed while the couriers made their way from St Mary’s to the Palace, where the royal easel stands.

This has been the most eagerly awaited birth in history. I can remember 1982 when Princess Diana gave birth to William and, while I can’t remember the anticipation over the birth of Lady Caroline of Monaco in 1958, I understand this too was an international event. But both births were before social media revolutionized the way we communicate – and think.

There has never been a mediated birth on this scale. By mediated, I mean involving intermediate agencies. The traditional press and broadcast media were geared up for William’s birth. But by current standards, they were restrained, if not cautious. Today’s media are less likely to observe procedure, and, as last year’s Leveson Inquiry shows, prepared to go to any lengths, legal or illegal, for a story.

Today’s media are constituent parts of celebrity culture. And, whether she likes it or not, so is the Duchess of Cambridge. The nearest recent contenders in eagerly-awaited-births are Beyoncé’s Blue Ivy and Kim Kardashian’s North; though neither generated the global interest of the new heir to the throne.

Kate, like Diana, is a knowable figure. She has a similar regal aura, but she combines this with ordinariness. People seem to love her, but not in a worshipful way. It’s almost as if they feel they could stand next to her at the Tesco checkout and strike up a conversation: “What did you make of last night’s X Factor?”

In a way, all the royals are more human nowadays. Before Diana, they were remote, inaccessible, godlike creatures. Diana humanized royals: she gave royalty a human character (there’s a biopic due for release later this year, by the way). When she arrived in the public consciousness, celebrity culture was in its infancy. The spread of celebrities means that we are no longer in awe at prominent figures from politics, entertainment and sport: we know they are just like us, with the same kind of weaknesses, imperfections and inadequacies. We know the royals are not exquisitely, sublimely flawless. And we like them all the more for it. We feel a peculiar kind of intimacy with Kate and her new baby. Most of us will never stand within ten miles of either of them. There’s no irony in that: familiarity and distance are no longer related.

The Rihanna narrative

In the mid-1970s, it wasn’t unusual for bands to spit and throw drinks at their audience. Fans felt as if they’d been anointed: conferred divine or holy status by their favoured bands. Or maybe they were just too drunk to care. At any rate, they spat back and hurled drinks, making gigs a kind of ritual exchange of bodily fluids and lager. Fans loved it and, most bands didn’t mind the reciprocal abuse.

Rihanna wouldn’t have enjoyed it one bit. Earlier this week, when mingling among her adoring fans at a concert in Birmingham, she offered her outstretched arm as rock stars often do nowadays. One adorer clung to her arm for a little longer than she would tolerate. Remember: fans like the communion that touching, holding, or being covered in phlegm often brings. Rihanna did not quite … err … grasp this and walloped the clingy fan with her microphone. The video of this incident is right here. Unrepentant, Rihanna explained the strike tersely: “That bitch [the fan] won’t let me go.” There was no apology or hint of remorse.

RiRi is right up there with Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. Still only 25, the Barbadian born Robyn Rihanna Fenty has made eight albums, appeared in four movies and is currently on her fifth tour, the latest a sell-out (a standing ticket at the Birmingham concert would have the fan back £95). Forbes lists at number four in their top global celebrities, estimating her wealth at $53 million (£34.25 million). In common with many female divas, much of her income comes not from music, but from advertising deals. As well as endorsements with the likes of Vita Coco and Nivea, she has her own fragrance, Reb’l Fleur. She has 75.5 million likes on her Facebook page and a twitter following roughly the same size as the total population of Peru (30 million). Her all conquering Diamonds tour stretches over eight months and across all continents. Even before the tour started Rihanna had won 6 Grammy Awards and sold 37 million albums and 146 million digital tracks. If last year belonged to Lady Gaga, 2013 is Rihanna’s year.

A couple of weeks ago, I was called by a Colombian journalist, Sandra Janer, who writes for a Bogotá-based magazine Fucsia. She wanted to know why Rihanna is so popular. Her logic was that Rihanna has been involved in a well-documented abusive relationship with rapper Chris Brown, to whom she has returned, despite, it seems, taking some beatings from him. Sandra Janer’s assumption was that people instantly lose respect for women who take punishment from a man yet forgive him repeatedly.

Actually, I replied, Rihanna’s tumultuous relationship with Brown is exactly what makes her fascinating. Far from being turned off, we become perversely intrigued: why would a fabulously wealthy celebrity who, it would seem, is spoiled for choice when it comes to men, opt for a guy who knocks her about? I was reminded of an argument by cultural historian and film critic Neal Gabler. “Celebrity really isn’t a person. Celebrity is more like a vast, multicharacter show,” he suggests. “Celebrity is narrative, even though we understandably conflate the protagonist of the narrative with the narrative itself and use the terms interchangeably.”

While he doesn’t define what he means by narrative, I presume he refers to an unbroken account, consisting of incidents and people that connect to form an overall story. The story may be a chronicle, or a history to record events and it may incorporate elements of a fable in the sense that it conveys a moral or lesson. Without diminishing RiRi’s vocal talent or the quality of her music, her global popularity is still astonishing. But it makes more sense if we view her less as a person, more as a narrative, a story with a moral. And, of course, the violent relationship with Brown is an integral, perhaps the most important, part of her story. Celebrity culture functions as a kind of drama we stage in our own minds. Our dramatis personae are the actors we see in the popular media and we write our own scripts, according to our own imaginations. It’s impossible to see an image or hear the name of Rihanna without thinking about her turbulent love life.

Where’s the moral in her story? It still isn’t clear.  Some say Rihanna is right to endure cruelty in the pursuit of true love, while others think she is a sucker and that her conduct is typical of a powerful woman who is simultaneously disempowered. That’s the fascination: we debate this endlessly without ever reaching a definite conclusion; the moral of Rihanna’s narrative is indeterminate.