15 October 2009

Celebrity cults

About twenty-five years ago we were driving through the Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo Province), and had just crossed, or were just about the cross the Tropic of Capricorn (where we stopped so our American visitors could take a photo) when we saw a large handpainted sign on an old bed sheet, advertising a concert by Brenda and the Big Dudes at a community hall in some village off the main road.

That was the first time I ever heard of Brenda Fassie.

Over the years I was to hear a lot more of her, and about eight years ago, as we drove over the humps in Tsamaya Avenue, on our way to church in Mamelodi East, there was scarcely a Sunday when the Sunday newspaper placards, tied to every lamppost, did not have a headline about Brenda. If it wasn't Brenda, it was Chico (her boyfriend). And you can bet your bottom Euro that not one of the stories that these headlines referred to had anything to do with her music.

When she died five years ago we thought that we'd see headlines about some of the other topics that sell Sunday newspapers (like "Zombie ate my soap"), but no, Brenda dominated the headlines for the next two years at least. Brenda had ceased being a musician and had become a celeb, and sex, soccer and celebs is what sells Sunday newspapers.

Then when I joined Technorati there used to be a page that showed the top tags in blogs, and the top tags searched for (they no longer have that, so I won't give a link). I found it fascinating that usually at least half of them related to things I had never heard of or had no significance for me. Curiosity made me look some of them up (that was how I discovered Twitter). One that puzzled me was Paris Hilton. Why on earth were so many people blogging about a hotel? Then I discovered that Paris Hilton was a person. That raised a new question -- why would parents name their child after a hotel, even if they did own the hotel? I mean, has anyone ever named their child Tshwane Sheraton? And why would people blog about her? The answer is that she is a celeb. But she wasn't even a musician like Brenda. What makes a hotel owner's daughter a celebrity? The media, that's what.

Over the last few years I've also seen newspaper placards saying that Barbie is doing this or said this or is going to do this and is going on trial. Barbie this, Barbie that, everything about Barbie, as if everyone knows who Barbie is. Barbie? But Barbie's dead. Barbie did indeed enjoy celebrity for a time, but it wasn't fame, it was infamy. I mean, everyone knows about the Barbie trial, don't they? Apparently not the readers of the Pretoria News. Because when the Pretoria News writes about Barbie, they are referring to some lawyer, whose name isn't even Barbie. But they've turned her into a minor celeb, or tried to, because celebs sell newspapers.

So it was refreshing to read the following article, hat-tip to St. Aidan to Abbey Manor: 'A sickening misuse of the gift of life'.

Stop the sick, degrading culture of celebrity | Times Online:
Celebrity culture spreads like a stain. It engulfs even those whose fame is rooted in real achievement or real responsibility. As the empty are valued, so the valuable are emptied. They are treated as if they were as vacuous as pop idols. Scientists, artists and politicians become defined in the collective consciousness not by the serious, complex matters that they deal with or by their real achievements but, increasingly, by their sex lives, their personal traumas, their peccadillos.

If you go into religious bookshops, you can find books that warn about the dangers of "cults", but if you read the books you find they are not actually about cults at all, but just about other religious groups whose theology differs from that of the author of the book. But celebrity cults are far closer to actual cults in the sense of what the word "cult" actually means. And the high priests of the celebrity cults are journalists, and the archbishops, or artmages, or whatever you want to call them, are the accountants of the newspapers that publish the stories. But they don't actually worship at the altars of the celebrities themselves, they just lurk in the back rooms and rake in the cash. Turn the page of your newspaper, and you'll probably find a story about some religious leader who rakes in the cash. Shame!


Yewtree said...

Completely agree with you Steve - the worship of celebrities is a particularly vacuous and irritating facet of modernity.

I wonder what lack in the psyche it assuages?

Jarred said...

I'm with agreement with you. I never understood the obsession with celebrity, myself.

And like, Yewtree, I find myself wondering what lack in the psyche it assuages. Why do people have this burning desire to know about celebrities relationships? Why does anyone care about how many kids Brad and Angelina have adopted? At times, I've wondered if it's a case of merely vicarious living, that people find their own lives so boring that they hope to find excitement by peeking into celebrities' lives. Or is there more to it than that?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure if this is something new, but technology surely enables it to become more than local, quickly. In the "olden days", weren't there favorite gladiators, with their obsessed followers?

Dana Ames

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