STARS OF MEDIA CULTURE
Media culture exists due to its patterns, models, values, symbols, beliefs, approaches and preferences established and approved by the public, who is not only a consumer, but also a creator, not only an object of influence and manipulation by the media but also it itself influences and manipulates the media, and particularly those which use informational telecommunications and web technologies. Television, cinema, radio, newspapers and the Internet in the last 15 years, became a major factor of culture, without which the realization of the modern personality in the free time would not be possible. Without media our whole realization, experience and survival would be unthinkable. Well, at least to the extent that nowadays media culture is a major compass in the personal and professional orientation of people, guaranteeing the necessary range of knowledge and information to their development and prosperity. What is the relationship between the most popular people of our time, the so-called “stars” and “celebrities” on one side, and media culture, on the other? What are the nature, dynamics and controversies of the famous?
1. Fetishism of publicity
Media culture has its contemporary heroes and the latter are namely so due only to the media culture. Today, it is not virtually possible for people to make a name for themselves, their works and images without the involvement - actively and systematically - of mass communications. Stereotypes and similar models, which are fostered by media culture and particularly true for popular and famous people, for the “Stars”, “Faces”, “Big names”, or simply - the fetishes of publicity.
When asked the question “Which has been your greatest success so far?” Pierre Cardin replies: “My becoming world famous!” (Stoykov 2000: 177). Possibly, the same answer would have been given by lots of designers and top models, movie stars and sports stars, TV broadcasters, pop singers and showmen, even intellectuals and leaders of the public opinion. Yet, what is popularity? How can we define the meaning of the famous - the celebrities and the stars? How are they constructed and metamorphosed by journalism and mass media? What is involved in its dynamics? What are its modern controversies, its dark and sad sides?
Popularity is a precious capital, after which are striving politicians and statesmen, creators and showmen, journalists and sports people, actors and artists, designers and top models. The different techniques and tactics for achieving success on the way to glory, which are substantiated by examples from the lives of the most powerful and popular people on the planet are discussed in a great number of editions, researches and publications of all sorts. (Snead, Stratte-McClure 2004; The most 1997, etc). However, we would not be able to define popularity without looking into the psychological, social-psychological and cultural profiles of the star, or the so-called celebrity. We could not be able to understand the changes and development in the phenomenon “publicity”, if we do not take into consideration the changing role of mass media, journalism as an incredible power and good, which is exerting a great influence on the society, but is also dependent upon this society; which forms a considerable informational market, but is also dependent on this market and the money-stock exchange. It is also important to look into the nature of charisma and the charismatic, as well as into the phenomenon of “argument culture”, into the academic explanations of “scandal” and “scandalous behaviour” (Guilfoyle 2004; Tannen 2002 and others).
The paragon of all ideal (idealized by or though the cooperation of media) personalities-fetishes is the “hero”. We can differentiate between 5 classic types of hero, which survived in the millennia: hero-conqueror, hero-liberator, hero-vindicator, hero-benefactor and hero-martyr (Klapp 1972: 45). However, the information era gave fame and popularity a unique role and value and cannot be replaced and substituted by any other values. There is no analogy for them, although the last might sound paradoxical. In world and in BG culture, dynamics of celebrities follows a regular trend - the direction is from theatrical and film stars, composers, men of letters and thinkers (of recent and further past) towards show stars, pop musicians, sportsmen, TV broadcasters and journalists, top models, designers, cooks, pastors and on-line preachers, fortune-tellers and other media prophets (in present and post-modern culture). An explanation for this dynamics can be found in the methamophoses that culture experiences under the influence of media and also those of media under the impact of culture. Nowadays, it is more and more difficult to speak of mass culture because it seems that other culture does not exist; today it is becoming difficult to comment on the entertainment sphere, because others do not seem to be existing. Concepts as “infotainment”, “reality show”, and “media star” are among the keys to this dynamics, and such is also the increasing necessity of people to entertain themselves and to expect the most serious piece of information or knowledge to be offered to them in an attractive, fresh and extraordinary way.
Popularity, an absolute synonym of which is “glory” is an ancient phenomenon, summarizing the acknowledgement, admiration/awe or fetishism of many people for a certain personality. Popularity (the group of celebrities) has amassed a number of relevant concepts: “prominent” personality in Germany... “celebrities” in USA and UK, “newsmakers”, or the elite, who are often featuring in the news, “stars”, etc. (Petrov 2005: 120). This phenomenon in the Gutenberg epoch and particularly in the times of TV, Internet and the new media has been radically changed and its meaning has increased considerably - to such an extent that today popularity is the only substance of the concept “great”. Different charts modeled after the chart of the BBC broadcast “The Great British men” show that incongruous names of different rank are often equally classified as “grand”, and they are taking it for granted that they should be mixing high culture with low quality, high and low, serious and funny. A good media analysis should be based on the meaning of “grand”, as well as on the hypothesis that it is namely under the influence of media reality that the great is given equal stand with popularity. If centuries ago “great” was only a rare word in the critical aesthetical instrumentarium, in the mid XX century it became rooted in the public language as a typical subproduct of the mass media. Cultural research shows that after he went to the USA, the conductor Arturo Toscanini was one of the first people whose name was boldly and outside the political context, referred to as “great”. Probably the first strategy makers of PR and marketing inspire the mania for compilations and sequences of the type “The Great Composers”, “The Greatest Hits”, “The Greatest Novels.” Definitions such as “great”, “top”, “record”, “unique”, “super”, “the top”, and “the best” became favourite media words because they create the illusions of exclusivity in the most economic way.
A curious look into the theme of famous people and their relationship with media is the increasing interest of the public in the private life of stars and the seemingly decreasing interest for the serious, the real professional in their life. It is for that reason that there is an abundance of lifestyle, worldly and yellow magazines, such as the world famous “People”, “Hello”, “Gala”, “ٲOla!”. “Paris match” and others. The world PR lists have long now contained information on the honoraries of the stars and famous people who should be able, upon request, to come to whichever place on the planet, star in a party, meeting, special event, or just dinner, of course, in return for the respective fee, which for pop and movie stars, sports idols and prominent politicians ranges from several to hundreds of thousands of dollars. The fee for starring in private parties of some famous pop singers and bands is an illustration of the great financial requirement of the stars. Bob Dylan and Aerosmith - 2 million US dollars, Jennifer Lopez - 700 000 US dollars, Robbie Williams - 300 000 US dollars, etc. What makes the hosts of such events pay such an incredible amount in order to “rub off” the celebrities. And what makes the stars of media culture let such “rubbing off” happen to them. Although the answer to the latter is clear - everything in this world can be bought with money and what cannot be bought with money can be purchased with loads of money, the first question requires more reflection, a look into the potential of feelings such as awe, ecstasy, bigotry, fetishism, vanity, etc.
Why are glory and fame so desirable and precious? Can we, and in what way, combine popularity with the other magnets of natural human aspirations such as power and sex? Gretchen Craft Rubin -professor in law and management at Yale University and Columbia University claims: “Glory makes any achievement much more enjoyable and very often it is glory which makes that real. The approval of glory makes your achievements unique and it is through it that you receive the attention and acknowledgement to which you are entitled. The combination of money and glory gives you an industrial or commercial empire. The combination of sex and glory gives you glamour” (Rubin 2003: 210). The insight into the nature of the popular personalities, their strengths and weaknesses, progress and fall, tricks and techniques for acquiring unique social power also helps clarify the nature of popularity, or rather, of celebrity.
The nature of celebrity involves not only the economical, nominal and direct, but also the irrational. As the cultural expert, David Marschall, Director of the Center for Cultural Studies at the University in Queensland in Australia says: “The historical appearance of the celebrity is connected with the historical movement towards governing “the irrational” mass in the Western democratic systems. The public personalities generally express the direct relationship between the famous and the ordinary. In a way, the celebrity outwits the other structures of power with its direct approach. The celebrity articulates a sort of tension between the meaning offered by the domineering culture, which promotes certain individuals, and readings or repeated articulations of these meanings by various collective formations in their collective perception of the public representations.” (Marschall 2003: 11). The media are to blame for this outwitting, bordering even on cheekiness, with which the celebrities achieve what they want - the media, thanks to their nature, manage to help the audience identify with their favourites and idols, or vice versa - enjoy their demystification and demythologization, take sadistic enjoyment in the scandal, crash and failure in which the stars end up.
Who are the most famous people today? Which are the stars of contemporary media culture? What is the relationship between popularity and media? Different ratings, surveys and polls are being carried out around the world on which the celebrities of today are. A survey among the British people, on which the favourites of today are, shows that the first top positions are taken by David Beckham, Brad Pitt, Justin Timberlake, Michael Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Robbie Williams. Scholars from Lester University have found out that the politician with the highest rating is Nelson Mandela, but even so, he takes only the 14th position, well after the sports and pop music stars. It is curious and in some way exotic that Jesus Christ and George Bush share the same place. Dr. Adrian North, head of the researchers’ team in Lester draws the conclusion that the top positions in the list are taken by representatives of show business, as for the audience the appearance of the celebrities is of greater importance than the intellectual capacity. A similar explanation could be expanded in the direction of the mystical opportunities of non-verbal communication and body language in the contemporary culture, and it also can be looking for the answer to why today’s star becomes more and more dependent on the skills of designers and coiffeurs, styling specialists, make-up artists and conceptual consultants and image makers of public appearance, behaviour and performance.
In order to consider the characteristics and phenomenology of the artificial stars, we should look into the quaser nature, and in general, in the promoted in the public space pseudo popularity. It is because we cannot guarantee that the stars are worth of their prestige. On the basis of this theoretical prelude, not conclusive in the least and without eliminating the role, place and importance of public personalities and their popularity, we can sum up at least two actual profiles - which are the result of the clashes between media and popularity - quasers and victimized celebrities.
The classical genesis of popularity of a person presupposes his/her fulfilled realization and sublimation, in the form of some extraordinary achievement in culture and science, sport and pop music, martial arts and business, etc. This means setting up a record, achieving extraordinary success thanks to the talent, wisdom, ability, will and striving after a considerable goal. Who would dare contend the achievements of great, world famous people like Aristotle, Alexander Makedonski, Caesar, Michelangelo, Napoleon, Beethoven, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Mahatma Ghandi, Charlie Chaplin, Merylin Monroe, Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong, The Beatles, Madonna, Larry King, Oprah Winfrey, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. According to a rule, set in the millennia, the most famous should be the most able, successful, bravest, most dignified. It is namely those who inspire in the public respect, joy and admiration, because they are heroes and definitely positive personalities, who with their charisma and extraordinary success are an example to be emulated for others. Yet, as a result of the dynamic change in values and the radical change in the idea of the popular people and the great personalities, the situation in nowadays’ culture is much different. Mass media are the reason for this change because they have the confidence and power to impose the new emblems, icons and heroes of the day, make them famous, raise them to heavens and make them crash. This is clear and nobody is contending it. Yet, where is the controversy and why is it that the most popular and famous people are not usually the most talented and able ones?
A very good insight into pseudo celebrities is provided by the analysis of James Monaco in his book “Celebrity” (quotation by: Marschall 2003: 33-34). He places the public personalities into three categories - hero, that is, a really famous person who achieves something significant, stars - actors and politicians who are trying to act as active characters in front of the public and their constituents and the lowest category of celebrities - the so-called quasers. According to Monaco, quasers are the most interesting type because these people do not have control over their image.
“Not what they are and what they do, but what we think of them, is what is important to us and captures us.” (Marschall 2003: 33). Pseudo popularity is one of the biggest paradoxes of today’s culture and media cannot be relieved from the responsibility for it. But it would just be simple thinking to reproach them that they underestimate and do not distinguish between the fake and artificial in the images of the public personalities.
Quasers or pseudo star characters in the public space most frequently come from the world of show business, TV broadcasts, neo folk and, more restrictively from pop music, politics, business, etc. The maxim “they are famous for being famous” holds true for them. What is common between them is that they try to sell to the audience their ridiculous and dubious in respect of their depth and value reflections and problems, by attributing artificial value to them. With their helplessness they function as parasites on the already achieved by others, who are really gifted, or parody (not always successfully) our and world classics in literature, cinema, music and theatre. Another thing which brings them closer and relates them is their excessive, bordering on the absurd, narcissism and hyper interest for their own, or rather, their public “Ego”. They not only refuse to be interviewed by the media, but also inspire (and thus overexpose) their appearance on the TV, radio and press. They are also made a bad favour by their paid “PR consultants” and “image makers” for whom the best proof of quality of publications, feedback and interviews (on and of their clients) is their quantity.
The “reality TV” and “reality shows”, which are such a huge success are real incubators for quasers. They very quickly mediatize the absolutely unknown person, popularize his/her name, image and behaviour and can make him/her an immediate “star”. But does this last long? According to Jean-Jacque Simar, Professor from Lavalle University (Quebec, Canada) the promises that glory is achieved so easily are fake ones, because after the show is over, the participants have to return to their daily routine. People believe in these absurd promises and hope to be able to appear on the TV screen just like that and become famous, but this just does not happen (Beaucher, 2004). However, we should admit that quasers have well acquired some of the fast working techniques for achieving fame: scandalous behaviour, organizing of pseudo events, extravagant and unusual appearance, designing and promoting of myths, or rather “myths” about themselves and their “exclusive” activity. They are ready to do everything: undress in the direct and metaphorical sense, even do activities in breach of social rules, for example: do something scandalous without no reason, insult and behave arrogantly with police officers or use the public space (typical of some yellow TV shows), use abusive language, epithets and qualifications, bordering on vulgarity and showing verbal obscenity.
3. The revenge of fame
Is it really that everybody strives after fame? Does everybody want to be a celebrity, their name to be mentioned in hundreds of thousands and millions of editions, or their face to be shown in the TV broadcasts with the highest rating, on billboards and posters - is this the dream of most people, and particularly of new generations? And if this is so, do they take into consideration the negative side of fame or the so-called revenge of fame? What does “victimized celebrity” mean?
The victimized celebrity is often the victim and affected of the so-called “revenge of fame”. Generally, this revenge works in three directions. The first one is related to the terrible state, in which most celebrities find themselves, when people start referring to them in the past tense or - which is even more unpleasant - stop talking of them and banish them to total oblivion: “It is far more unpleasant to be an ex-Somebody, rather than never to have been Somebody” (Rubin 2003: 214). Nobody is insured against oblivion and if today’s stars are familiar with the classic postulate about transience of fame, then they would hardly turn into sufferers or martyrs, when nobody will be remembering them, when even they themselves forget who they were. The philosophy that people should not take themselves seriously and that the nature of fame is unfaithful and treacherous, perishable and delusive, is an effective antidote against the consequences of the inevitable “public amnesia” in relation to stars, celebrities and popular people.
The second direction, in which we should be looking for the negative aspect of popularity, is its excessive burden, which can be hardly endured by most of today’s heroes of mass media. Once somebody becomes a celebrity, they enter the scheme of many responsibilities, roles, behaviour clichés, etc. There are numberless arguments supporting the thesis that glory and popularity lead people to self-oblivion. But what is most exciting in the popularity of a person?
This excitement, also-called self-oblivion, comes from the excess of confidence “granted” to the stars and heroes of today’s culture. Their exquisite publicity is a privilege for them - they are the subject of compliments and flattery, gifts and gestures of various kind, they are the favourites of those in power - they get easy access to the most inaccessible places, they receive everything on a gold platter, and it seems that everything is allowed to them. But this is only on the surface. Self-oblivion is the result of a particular form of enchantment and impossibility to comprehend the illusionary and transience of being “somebody”. The most frequent traces of such self-oblivion are high-flown reactions such as: “Do you know who I am?”, “Didn’t you recognize me?”, “Do you know I am...”. Yet, if all these examples of self-oblivion are more of a parvenu nature, there are some other, particularly rude and edifying cases, when artists, singers and various other celebrities, enchanted by their own fame and popularity, begin breaking professional rules and relying on past glory. Consequently, they are doomed to failure, and as a logical result media move their focus from them and the audience become amnesic to everything they have done and the “stars” turn into tragic characters.
The inability of people to deal with their popularity and the star status is an excellent indication and criterion for the fact that they do not have all the qualities necessary for a person not only to be famous but also to bear everything that is a concurrent with popularity - both good and bad, comfort and discomfort. A logical question arises: is it worth to be a star when you cannot handle this role - when you cannot deal with responsibility, stress, tension, temptation and agitation?
The third trend in the focus on the revenge of fame is the extremely tragic and sad denouement to the fate of the star, the celebrity. We constantly learn of assaults and attacks against the famous of the world of sport and show business, politics and art. Fame works with direct revenge - physical violence and criminal attacks against the star personality on the one hand, and on the other - negative and depressive states of mass media heroes such as alcoholism, drug-addictiveness, nervous breakdown, suicidal attempts and successful suicides. Why did John Lennon get shot? Which was the motive for the killing of Gianni Versace and the wife of Roman Polanski - the actress Sharon Tate? What are the reasons that turned Sylvester Stallone, Steven Spielberg, Madonna and Princess Caroline into subjects of attack and aggression?
Simple reflections on the latter would have drawn the hasty conclusion that the fans of one or another media star cherish only positive feelings for him/her. However, an in-depth look will show that it is actually a mixed feeling: it is admiration on one hand, and on the other - negative attitude towards the celebrity, resulting from his/her total impact and the inability to communicate freely and fulfillingly with him/her. Gretchen Rubin rightly stresses this particular aspect by mentioning that people at the same time can have a desire for the attention of the stars and hatred for the influence of the latter on them. The negative emotions, which can be provoked by a celebrity in his/her followers, can be dissatisfaction, jealousy, and hatred. These are all a product of the fact that “ordinary” people do not get the necessary attention and time that they expect celebrities to give them (Rubin 2003: 278-279). A number of academic researches and analyses show “the reverse side of the medal” - i.e the bad sides of popularity. Many other analysts claim, for example, that while becoming famous, people also get the tendency to shut themselves in their own world, fall into depression and become alcoholics or drug-addicts. Very few of the celebrities and media stars have warm relationships with their relatives. They are trying to deal with the feeling of loneliness, resulting from the isolation that they have themselves imposed on themselves and attract the attention to themselves by doing extraordinary things. However, it is well known that the “ordinary” people are often interested far more in the failures or illnesses of stars, than in their positive deeds and professionalism.
Glory has its revenge on those who are not treating it with respect or underestimate the risks accompanying popular people, today’s celebrities. Some of the best cures for “star illness” are self-criticism and self-irony, the sensible approach to agitated flattery, awards and all sorts of acknowledgement. A preventive measure against addicting to popularity is the philosophical comfort contained within the Latin proverb “Sic transit Gloria mundi!”
This quick look into the nature and dynamics of stars of media culture shows the following:
Beaucher 2004: Beaucher, Serge. La télé-réalité: Vérité? Mensonge? La télé-réalité envahit nos écrans. Comment expliquer cet engouement? Quatre professeurs analysent le phénomène. // Contact. Le magazine des diplômés et des partenaires de l’Université Laval. Hiver, 2004 <http://www.scom.ulaval.ca/contact/hiver04/telerealite.html> (15.02.2007).
Klapp 1972: Klapp, O. E. The Hero as a Social Type. New York, 1972, p. 45.
People 1998: People Yearbook. The Year in Review: 1997. New York: People books, 1998.
Snead, Stratte-McClure 2004: Snead, E., Stratte-McClure, J. How To Be A Successful Celebrity In Four Easy Steps. // Fashion Wire Daily, Oct 22, 2004.
The most 1997: The most intriguing people of the century. New York: People, 1997.
Гилфойл 2004: Гилфойл, Дезмънд. Харизмата и нейните ефекти. София: Кръгозор, 2004.
Маршъл 2003: Маршъл, Дейвид. Власт и известност: Звездите в съвременната култура. София: ЛИК, 2003.
Петров 2005: Петров, Милко. Персоналният имидж. Изграждане, контрол, рецепция. 2 прераб. и доп. изд. София: Атлантис-медия; ФЖМК на СУ, 2005, 312 с.
Рубин 2003: Рубин, Гретхен К. Власт, пари, слава, секс. София: Кръгозор, 2003.
Стойков 2000: Стойков, Любомир. Световната мода. Ч. 1: Англия и Франция. София: От игла до конец, 2000.
Танен 2002: Танен, Дебора. Кавгаджийската култура. София: ЛИК, 2002.
© Lubomir Stoykov