Who is the next copycat in the new world of celebrity?

'I am struck by how dependent contemporary journalism is on what you might call "copyworms" - those self-replicating verbal organisms that generate from edition to edition'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Plunging back into newsprint after a two-week break, I am struck by how dependent contemporary journalism is on what you might call "copyworms" - those self-replicating verbal organisms that generate from edition to edition, effortlessly adapting to local conditions.

Plunging back into newsprint after a two-week break, I am struck by how dependent contemporary journalism is on what you might call "copyworms" - those self-replicating verbal organisms that generate from edition to edition, effortlessly adapting to local conditions.

It's possible that this is a mild case of tunnel vision; part of my holiday reading was EO Wilson's Consilience, an unabashed attempt to sketch out a means by which scientific method might conquer all fields of human knowledge, including traditional white-coat no-go areas such as the arts and politics.

As a result, I've been looking at the world through a microscope ever since. But there's no question that there are strange forms of life swirling about there under the lens.

One good example of such creatures would be the phrase "X is the new Y", in which X represents a newcomer and Y an established celebrity. This particular form of algebraic phrase construction first emerged on the fashion pages, an ecology perfectly fitted for an organism that needs rapidly moving water.

It wasn't very long, however, before the copyworm had expanded its habitat into the field of celebrity.

This strikes me as a troubling advance. An abstraction such as "black" is unlikely to be troubled by the revelation that "taupe" has replaced it as the foundation for the working woman's wardrobe. Surely black is secure enough in its sartorial niche to know that the churning of the seasons will eventually exhaust all the options - though there are signs that fashion writers aren't going to limit themselves to the visible spectrum. Recently a Sun headline declared: "Burberry is the new black."

But what must Cormac McCarthy make of the phrase "the next Cormac McCarthy", blazoned across an ad for a James Carlos Blake novel in this week's New Yorker? Wouldn't he be inclined to protest that the current one hasn't actually gone yet?

And what premonitionsmust quiver through David Attenborough's mind when he sees the masthead tagline "Is this woman the new David Attenborough?", alerting Guardian readers to an interview with the BBC's new wildlife presenter Charlotte Uhlenbroek. (Charlotte is exceptionally good value for money, it seems, since inside she is also described as "the new Charlie Dimmock".)

"Next" is a tiny bit more depressing than "new", I imagine - it carries a faint echo of that verbal hatchet with which Broadway producers traditionally execute a young performer's dreams of stardom. Just as in an audition room, it implies a great queue of potential substitutes winding away down the stairs. A powerful odour of replacability hangs in the air.

But "new" isn't much better - since it doesn't make sense without the unspoken antithesis "old", a word that can be applied to paintings and wine without risk, but which doesn't suit TV presenters. Jamie Oliver could be forgiven for feeling, if he saw a recent description of Allegra McEvedy as "the new Jamie Oliver", that there was still plenty of life in the old one.

There are those who would argue that this is simply a short-cut to understanding, a parasitical exploitation of the reader's established cultural savvy.

Others might suggest that both the old and the new Jamie Oliver will happily coexist until Allegra herself has become transformed from an X into a Y. But I don't think they're thinking scientifically. If that were the case, variant forms - such as "Y is the old X" or "Y was an 18th-century X"- would be common, rather than extremely rare.

The fieldwork makes it clear: this particular beast is an organism that thrives on novelty, not clarity - and it has found its ideal home in the daily papers.

* sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

Comments