This week a little over 1 million people will die. Only one of them was David Bowie. In this episode I look at celebrity worship and the manufactured grief that results when a famous person dies. Why do people want to become celebrities? Why do people worship them? Why do so many celebrities commit suicide? Why do celebrity followers engage in all kinds of hypocrisy and special pleading in response to being reminded that famous people are just people?
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I hate celebrities. Not necessarily on a personal level, though sometimes on a personal level, but generically speaking I hate celebrities. I think celebrity culture truly represents something bad about human beings, its existence demonstrates some of the worst human weaknesses. We can break this into two parts, (1) the celebrities themselves and (2) the people worshipping them.
(1) Who would want to be a celebrity? Because anyone honest would look at that world, weigh up the pros and cons, and decide that fame isn’t worth it. It isn’t worth the loss of personal dignity and privacy. It isn’t worth the inability to know if people are truly your friends. It isn’t worth the expectations people put on you and the tide of media shit you get when you fail to live up to those expectations. It is clearly not the dream life that you’re told it is from the outside.
This is particularly the case with the fame factories, reality TV like the X-Factor. Several major contestants on the X-Factor in this country could have gone on to have relatively successful recording careers making bland, forgettable pop music. But some of them, even winners of the competition, have refused, even got involved in protracted legal struggles to get them out of the iron grip of psychopath ringmaster Simon Cowell.
Admittedly, they have gone to try to become celebrities of sorts, but not within the narrow confines of the contracts they are made to sign so they can go on the show in the first place. By the end of the show, if they do well, they realise that they’ve signed their lives away. But no one says that to them at the beginning, it’s all ‘the opportunity of a lifetime’ and a million other cliches. But no one talks about this. No one interviews an X-Factor reject three years later who everyone knew could sing better than the skinny one but they picked the skinny one because they were skinny. No one interviews the winner who has one shitty album and is them dumped on the sidelines because their public appeal was deemed to be short-term. TV is full of people becoming celebrities. Entirely absent are people who used to be celebrities but aren’t any more.
Meanwhile, famous people regularly die young of drug overdoses, commit suicide or otherwise wind up dead or ruining their lives. And I’m not just talking about the likes of Marilyn Monroe who get murdered by high ranking officials of the government. A cursory glance via a search engine easily turns up the following:
Wikipedia – Category: Actresses who committed suicide
Wikipedia – Category: Actors who committed suicide
And articles with titles like:
Tragic: 40 Stars Who Committed Suicide
30 Child Actors Who Lost Their Lives Way Too Soon
16 Celebrities Whose Children Committed Suicide
If you look on the wikipedia pages you’ll find hundreds of names – many of which were extremely famous, A-list or close to that level. I bring this up to make two points – 1) That a lot of lesser famous people won’t be included because wikipedia is not a complete database and 2) That even being at the top isn’t enough. Curiously, the wiki page on actress who committed suicide doesn’t include Marilyn Monroe, quite rightly but still oddly given that is the official version.
But Tom, I hear you ask, do you have any evidence that celebrities are any more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population? I’m glad you asked, because that is indeed the more important question. I can point you to an article on Business Insider The 13 Careers Where You’re Most Likely To Commit Suicide, which is based on several papers by Steven Stack, a statistician who specialises in suicide numbers. Among the 13 careers they list, celebrities include:
10) Performers like comedians are 1.90 times more likely to commit suicide than average
7) Artists, sculptors and painters are 2.12 times more likely to commit suicide than average
6) Photographers are 2.50 times more likely to commit suicide than average
5) Authors are 2.60 times more likely to commit suicide than average
4) Dancers are 2.67 times more likely to commit suicide than average
3) Actors are 2.80 times more likely to commit suicide than average
2) Musicians are 3.60 times more likely to commit suicide than average
For those of you who are wondering what the top spot is:
1) Dentists are 5.45 times more likely to commit suicide than average
The lesson here is not just don’t become a celebrity, but also don’t become a dentist. Even accepting the limitations of this article, even if in some other studies the numbers might add up differently, I think this is enough to demonstrate that celebrities commit suicide more often than most people. And more worryingly, there is a theory known as the ‘Werther effect’ that suggests that suicides in the normal population increase in the wake of a celebrity suicide, or any suicide that receives a lot of media coverage. This is an odd form of the copycat effect, and worth considering.
Which brings us to (2): Why do people worship celebrities? Especially to the extent that some people even feel more like committing suicide because a celebrity has done so. That’s not something that enters into our discussion about becoming vicariously attached to famous people, but clearly it should be of serious concern given how widespread and popular celebrity culture has become. What other aspects of culture have their own magazines devoted to them? Films. Computer Games. General, generic ‘men’s culture’ or ‘women’s culture’. All of which, despite their failings, are more substantial than celebrity magazines. And yet it is celebrity rags that fill the shelves. Pictures of hideous, saccharine royal marriages and babies glaring out us like the devil with their dead eyes.
One of the reasons is that people generally want someone to symbolically identify with, and this find all sorts of different expressions. The best of these is falling in love, which goes beyond the sort of relationship that’s possible with others, even friends of long standing who you have a lot of affection for. You forgive things in someone you love that you would not forgive in others, and they do the same for you, if you’ve got them well trained. This is a symbolic identification precisely because it’s a little bit of fantasy. The person you fall in love with is not exactly the same as that person is objectively. Like I say, you ignore their faults, but it’s about something more fundamental than that. You project onto them certain fantasies and you’re either lucky or somewhat sensible you’ll find someone who lives up to enough of those fantasies for it to all be worth it. This can and does happen all the time, and is perhaps the best thing about human relationships. And the worst when it breaks your heart and leaves you sobbing on the floor. So it goes.
At the other end of the scale you have Stalinism – cult of personality leadership enabling a brutal killing machine. People identified with Stalin, without knowing him or even having seen him in the flesh, because of what he symbolised to them. And of course, he symbolised different things to different people, but they all projected their fantasies onto him and because they had no true interaction with him he never failed to live up to their fantasies. Without that, he could not have taken Russia into WW2, or ordered the deaths of millions of people in Soviet satellite states or any number of other things. You could say the same about Hitler. You let your audience dream and as long as nothing interrupts the dream they will be happy, because deep down all they want to do is dream.
In our postmodern heavily mediated reality where we spend more time being fed carefully crafted fantasies than at any previous time in human history, politicians cannot satisfy this as well as they once could. For a long time people believe in monarchs, kings and queens who deserved to rule because they were a better class of person. They believed that if things were good then it was because of the wise benefaction of the king. In turn, the king was the manifestation of God’s will on earth, so if things are good then it is because of the wise benefaction of God as manifested in the king.
As kings gradually got abandoned and replaced with elective democracies and systems of that nature, and as people had access to more media because of mass newspapers and then radio and then television, political leaders had to have a bit of the king about them in order to last more than a few years. The symbolic relationship that people had to the king and thus to God was replaced with a relationship with elected leaders and thus to systemic philosophies – liberal, socialist, fascist and so on. So-called ‘great men of history’ represented so-called ‘visions of a better world’, and thus if things are good then the man and the vision must be good.
As those grand ideologies, that grand teleologies, grand narratives with happy endings for loyal adherents, as they became less convincing, as they failed to deliver on their promises, people became alienated and individualised. A condition of anomie, a sense of there being no great historical purpose, no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, set in. Dreams of a better society for all gave way to a culture of better for me and mine, as soon as possible. Political leaders no longer serve as valid icons with whom the symbolic relationship works effectively. The abstract ideal, the fantasy to which they are a conduit in the mind of the public, no longer captures people’s imaginations like it once did.
Into their place come celebrities. In some ways celebrities have always existed, but for the last several thousand years of civilisation you actually had to do something to become famous. Today all you need is the willingness to do whatever is necessary to gain and maintain fame, and to convince people with the skills to make it happen. Because fame is always manufactured in our society. Talent is no longer discovered, it is selected like a cheese from a deli counter in the supermarket. And often talent isn’t what matters, but whether someone has the perceived qualities that are considered marketable, and has the willingness to say all kinds of dishonest things to make people like them.
Bringing us full circle. Anyone who would want to be famous in the present day culture is clearly suffering from outrageous intellectual delinquency, or is desperately trying to compensate for some psychological problem. The handful who make the mistake and walk through the door and then walk back out again – I think they are actually quite decent people. One example I like is Zayn Malik from the manufactured boy band Wand Erection. He always seemed out of place, not only because he was the token brown skinned member of the band but also because he seemed a bit shy and not really into being famous. He left the band and thus caused them to split up not long after, he well and truly suicide bombed Wand Erection and for that we can all be thankful. But he’s also the only member of that band that I’d actually be interested in talking to, because I think he realised the price of fame is too much. And fuck it, he made a good sized pile of money and bought his mum a house, he’s done pretty well out of it all things considered so despite my hatred of celebrities I say good luck to him.
Getting back to why people worship celebrities – like politicians symbolising the promise of a better world, celebrities symbolise the promise of a better life. Celebrities always seem to be doing exciting things and wearing exciting clothes and having lots of attention paid to them and lots of people saying they like them. From the outside, and because our conversation about celebrities is completely unrealistic, that seems like a really nice life to lead. But clearly it isn’t, because they’re offing themselves at a faster rate than crack addicts.
In our individualised culture of commodified pleasures, when the dream of a better world for all is replaced by the fantasy of a better world for me, celebrities are the new locus for the symbolic, fantasising relationship. The symbolic relationship that people had to the king and thus to God was replaced with a relationship with elected leaders and thus to systemic philosophies, which in turn has been replaced by the relationship with celebrities and thus to ideal lifestyles.
As a consequence, celebrities have higher and more durable approval ratings than political leaders, larger and more loyal followings, and in most of the ways that matter more influence over them. They often last longer in the limelight. And if anything, their political views are more important than those of most politicians. If Lady Gaga says that gay rights in the military is not just an important issue but one that she’s taking a strong position on (for reasons best explained by focus group data), then her loyal twitter followers will not question that. No politician inspires the same fascination and lack of criticism. A celebrity talking about politics is more likely to get coverage than a politician talking about politics. Let alone a politician talking about celebrities.
So what are the common factors here – perhaps the most important one is that it is a relationship with someone that you never truly interact with. In each case it is a person playing a role – kings, politicians, celebrities, they are never truly themselves in public. They are allowing you to project your fantasies onto them, and thus enable you to use them as a conduit to imagine getting closer to your ideal lifestyle. We envision them living the life, with us alongside, and it’s happy all the time. Just as people saw closeness to the king as closeness to God, and fealty to the King as loyalty to God, and then saw loyalty to a politician as a means of making the political utopia more likely, they now see loyalty and fidelity to a celebrity as making it more likely that they will obtain their ideal lifestyle.
These days the easiest, most predictable and reliable route to money and attention without any discernable talent is becoming a celebrity. Reality TV offers endless opportunities for people to try to enter into the elite world of ‘the famous’. People then go on these shows and emulate the attention-seeking behaviour they see on TV, thinking it is their passport to everything they want. And some make it. Usually young women willing to use their sexuality in exchange for money and fame. They are always in demand, and increasingly they are in supply.
But most do not make it. Most are stuck in a state of arrested development of simply watching the spectacle of celebrity without ever becoming it. Teenage girls protesting with each other about who truly ‘knows’ some guy on the front cover of a magazine that neither of them have met or spoken to or in any way had contact with. Music stars are the best for this because you can go to a gig and feel that you have had contact with them. What we’re never shown is that to them you’re just one face in a sea of hundreds if not thousands that is the fifth audience they’ve sung to that week. You don’t mean a damn thing to them, except that you’ve paid your money and turned up and contributed to the cult of personality that exists around each individual celebrity. Every celebrity is a cult in itself, and you’re just another member.
Think of the similarity between a modern outdoor gig and those huge political rallies held by the Nazis. You are penned into specific areas, you can only get so close before a fence or a hefty guy in black stops you. The idea is to get as close as physically possible to the icon, whether it be Hitler or Justin Bieber, the Hitler of music. The closer you get, the more excited you’re allowed to be when you tell your friend how great it was. But you have to tell them it was great. You cannot for one moment say ‘I was standing in a cold field, the band were 30 minutes late and the lead singer didn’t look at me once’. Even if that’s exactly what happened. You don’t really have permission to say it was shit.
Why is that? It is partly because of the reassuring nature of large numbers of people saying the same things as you. There is safety in numbers. In fact there isn’t, large crowds of people are actually quite dangerous things to be in the middle of, but people think there are. And in looking around for something to believe in, this is the most popular thing. Pop culture is the most popular thing in the world. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Crowds draw crowds.
This was amply demonstrated by something that happened in Brixton, where Bowie was from, when a crowd gathered to pay tribute, singing Star Man and some other songs. Now this is quite sweet and essentially harmless, but in glancing at the media coverage of this several things became clear:
– A good proportion of the people there were kids, people who don’t have a fucking clue who Bowie was and definitely did not grow up listening to his music.
– Almost everyone there was white, so probably not actual Brixton locals. Not that it makes a lot of odds, just an observation.
– Some of the photos were clearly staged – ‘can you just stare off into the distance and look mournful for me, yes, great, thank you’.
– The media coverage is of the ‘outpouring of public grief’, thus encouraging it in the here and now but also giving permission to people to go even crazier the next time. It’s also a little bit of reality TV in itself – ‘if I go out and publicly make a show of my grief for Bowie then maybe I’ll get on the news, or my picture will get in the paper, or my tweet will get read out’.
– The videos I have seen of this little tribute to Bowie show the nice bit – the crowd singing. It does not show what happened at the end, when these people shuffled off into the night, not entirely sure what had just happened and why.
Idolise the person, idealise the lifestyle. That is the recipe for modern symbolic relationships with celebrities. They are a vehicle through which we fantasise about a better life for ourselves, just as politicians and kings were before them. We tell ourselves lies about how talented they are, because the more talented they are, we convince ourselves, the better the lifestyle they deserve. Then finally, we imagine how great it must have been to be them. And thus, we come to the hard truth. Just as anyone who wants to become a celebrity is compensating for some perceived or real flaw, so is anyone who worships a celebrity. A small part of them, or in some cases a big part of them, wants to be that person. It’s a way of dealing with feelings of inadequacy or having failed with your own life. Which are feelings a lot of people have. They shouldn’t have those feelings, because in my experience non-famous people are a lot nicer than famous people, they are more fundamentally decent and grounded in the real world.
I’m sure by now most of you know what this has to do with the death of David Bowie but it is worth being explicit. As with a lot of recent celebrity deaths, Robin Williams being another example, Bowie’s death saw an outpouring of grief on social media. I say ‘grief’ but the emotions are pretty shallow, because none of these people actually knew the man. Indeed, most of them will have had no interaction even with his music in months or even years before this. And they can still listen to his music, nothing is stopping them doing that. So what are they missing? What are they grieving for?
It isn’t simply a matter of me not feeling the same way – I admit, I do not really care that Bowie is dead. It makes no difference to my life at all. He was a very talented songwriter who wrote some great music but the music still exists and I don’t really see what difference it makes to anything. He is simply another person who has died, no more and no less. But it is about more than that – I actively feel that this behaviour is unhealthy. It doesn’t make people happy, not in the long run.
So, having observed a day’s respectful silence on the subject I opted to post a little something on facebook. I quickly scratched up a meme with a picture of Bowie doing a Nazi salutes and some quotes from him where he talked about Britain needing a fascist government. I put this up with the description, ‘This one goes out to everyone who expressed more sadness when Bowie died than they did for their own relatives…’
Naturally, this will have pissed some people off and made them think I’m an asshole. I’m cool with people thinking I’m an asshole, particularly if they are the sort of person who will mealy mouth and talk around the fact that Bowie was full of cocaine and proclaiming himself the new Hitler. Because what I did is nowhere near as bad as what he did, yet they’ll find reasons to forgive him and make out like I’m the bad guy. That’s so fucked up, morally speaking, that I cannot give it the time of day.
Some of the responses I got were, naturally, a bit critical. A common theme is that Bowie isn’t a politician. As though if a politician said these things it matters but if a much more famous and idolised person with far less critical followers says it then it’s trivial. In fact it’s worse. It has a more detrimental effect. It was a stupid and irresponsible thing to do. That was one point I was trying to make, that however talented a songwriter Bowie was, he wasn’t a great role model. Sleeping with underage girls and getting coked out of your head and praising fascism isn’t good behaviour no matter how beautiful your voice is. He was not the god or more commonly these days the ‘legend’ that people want to make out he was.
Nor is he the demon some people will no doubt claim. He did renounce these comments which is to his credit but the point for me is that he never would have made them if it he didn’t become really famous. Fame goes to people’s heads, like a drug, and they can feel invincible and flawless. We turn them into Gods and they start thinking they are Gods. In reality they are people, some of whom are a lot more talented than others and Bowie was one of the most talented ones. That is worth respecting. But it should not be idolised. It isn’t good for the celebrities or for the people worshipping them.
Trying to get through to people on this is not easy. My post on facebook was quite blunt, a form of shock therapy for anyone who saw it who wasn’t already aware of Bowie’s fascist past. But it is primarily a form of iconoclasm, which I think is a very good thing. It won’t make the idolisers happy, but neither does their idolatry, they just think it does. You could achieve the same effect with small but regular doses of MDMA. But this is an important topic, because celebrities have become such important people. Or not even people – symbols, icons. Just like kings and politicians, Gods and ideologies before them, celebrities will fall and something else will replace them. But I think it would be good to hasten that process, however much it might upset people in the short term.
There is one final dimension to this that I would like to lay out for your consideration. Reality TV, the means by which people can get a glimpse and very occasionally a passage into the realm of fame, has rapidly become the most common genre of TV. It literally did not exist 20 years ago. There are various factors behind this, too many to get into at this moment, but one of them is undoubtedly the support of the Pentagon. Reading both the older Entertainment Liaison Office reports and the more recent ones the majority of TV productions the Pentagon assists are not military-themed at all, but are reality TV. They are clearly in favour of this broad cultural trend and are helping it become more influential, consistently supporting it in various forms, from Survivor to Food Truck Face Off.
An aspect to the Pentagon’s entertainment industry operations that has not been explored in much depth is the notion of a cultural subsidy. This is not a financial subsidy – the producers reimburse the Pentagon for their immediate costs, but something more important. In essence, the Pentagon is enabling culture producers to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. And this is quite explicit in the DOD instruction on liaising with the entertainment industry – they say they are not allowed to provide services already being provided by private companies. There is some overlap, but the fact remains that what the Pentagon has to offer is unique, you just can’t get the same thing elsewhere. Thus, the hundreds if not thousands of times they have subsidised reality TV culture, giving it a little something extra, adds up to a big chunk of support for this emerging and dominating genre of television, and thus to the whole celebrity culture and the philosophical and psychological dynamics I’ve been discussing today.