Johann Hari: Celebrity is like sugar - a little is fun, too much is deadly

It's only once you admit that celebrity has a place that you can keep it in its place

Share
Related Topics

The great cliché of our age is that we are sinking into a lobotomised celebrity culture where we worship the worthless. We jabber on about Katie and Peter while carbon emissions soar; we yammer about the X Factor while Afghanistan burns. The a new headline-snatching documentary Starsuckers, released today, expresses this view at great length: the West has been drugged by fame into a brain-coma, where our eyes can only follow the neon lights of Hollywood and the Big Brother house.

But is it true? The two-hour film – with all its haughty polemic – helped me to figure out why I am so queasy about this argument, even though I agree with some of its specific points. Yes, I worry that my young nephews' first question about anyone I mention is: "Are they famous?" Yes, I fret that one of my friends is obsessed with Justin Timberlake, and seems to have a stronger imaginary relationship with him than with anyone she actually knows. Yes, I find the creeping of celebrity gossip into serious news broadcasts disturbing.

But the sweeping, simplistic dismissal of celebrity culture misses some more deeper, tougher truths. Running through Starsuckers – and this wider debate – are two incompatible arguments about celebrity. The first is that this revering of celebrities is a new phenomenon, born with television, and intensified by the internet. With these new technologies, we have fallen under a form of electronic hypnosis. We stare numbly at our screens and imagine we are seeing something real, rather than a photo-shopped fiction.

The second argument is more interesting. It suggests that we are hard-wired to seek out Big Men (or Women) and copy them. Think about the hunter-gatherer tribes that we lived in a few minutes ago (in evolutionary terms). Those ancestors of ours who identified the most powerful or abundant people in their group, worked their way into their entourage, and imitated their ways were obviously more likely to survive. Seeking out celebs had an evolutionary advantage – so they passed this instinct on to us. The people who thought it was dumb to act this way dropped off the human family tree.

This seems more persuasive, because some form of celebrity-worship has always existed. In his terrific new book Fame – From the Bronze Age to Britney, the classicist Tom Payne shows how humans have always told lascivious stories about people they don't know.

The ancient Romans made celebrities out of their gladiators, cheering when they killed and weeping when they died. Later, they made celebrities out of the Christian martyrs who were gored by them. The ancient Greeks gossiped about their gods' love affairs – and far from being wholly mythical, the gods appeared among them all the time. As Payne says: "You could invite gods to dinner. The god Serapis [or rather, somebody posing as him] would hold parties at which he was once 'host and guest'.... You could even have sex with a goddess." The tyrant Pisistratus typically found a gorgeous woman, put her in a chariot, and announced she was the goddess Athene. The crowd howled and whooped like anyone at Wembley.

And just as there has always been fame, there have always been people complaining that these days people get famous for nothing. In St Paul's letters to the Corinthians, he moans that people only become Christian martyrs nowadays "to obtain a corruptible crown" of celebrity. Here's Chaucer, writing in the 14th-century, giving voice to a crowd: "We have done neither that nor this/but spend our lives in idle play./Nonetheless we come to pray/That we should have as good a fame,/and great renown, and well-known name/as those who have done noble deeds." The Queen snaps: "What! Why should I serve/you the good fame you don't deserve/ because you've not achieved a thing?"

If celebrity has always existed, the debate changes. When people jeered at the Japanese game-shows Clive James put on air, where men ate maggots and crawled through shit, he counselled us to remember: a generation before, these young men would have been using the same drive for danger to fly kamikaze planes into Allied warships. He wrote: "Civilisation doesn't eliminate human impulses: it tames them, through changing their means of expression."

Our innate celebrity-instinct used to be directed in really dangerous ways – towards finding revering warriors like Achilles, who killed so many people that Homer ran out of names; or towards fanatics like the Catholic saints who believed God was talking to her. What were the the Jewish prophets, the Muslim martyrs or the Hindu gods but the celebrities of their day? They took this impulse and channelled it towards primitive superstitions, with all their cruelty, and all their backwardness. Compared to them, directing this impulse towards Zac Efron or Beyoncé or Robbie Williams – because they are hot, or sweet, or make pretty sounds – seems positively benign.

Modern celebrity isn't a deterioration from a pristine past; it's a taming of an impulse that was once met in far more harmful ways. Better Madonna than the Madonna. Better the Heat of celebs telling you to buy perfume than the heat of martyrs telling you you'll burn in hell.

It's only once you admit that celebrity has a place that you can keep it in its place. To a culture, celebrity is like sugar: fun in moderation, deadly if it's all you consume. We are letting one impulse – to vicariously enter the Big Man's entourage – over-ride the others, like the desire to enrich our minds. I have seen some of the best minds of my generation focus on nothing but discussing fame in ever more ironic ways, and they are left with a kind of intellectual diabetes. Whenever I see celebrity news bursting beyond its proper boundary, I remember Pauline Kael, the great film critic for the New Yorker and one of the first intellectuals to take trashy films seriously. When she was dying, she gave a final interview, and said sadly: "All that time I was promoting trash culture, I never imagined it would become the only culture we have."

We need an unwritten Celeb Code of Hygiene about what they should do, and how we should respond to them. Celebrities can provide us with pleasure and titillation – within limits. There needs to be privacy rules to stop us stalking celebs to despair or death. Remember – Greta Garbo didn't actually say "I want to be alone." She said "I want to be let alone" – and there's a world of difference.

And we should drop the mad idea that they should provide us with political guidance. The most effective part of Starsuckers is the exposé of how Bob Geldof and Bono hijacked the Make Poverty History campaign, defying the advice of the main aid groups to applaud political charades that later came to nothing. There's a more terrifying vision still in the film: in Lithuania, a "Celebrities' Party" ran for office, and became the second biggest party in government. The host of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire became speaker of the parliament.

We will always have celebrities, and we will – if we are honest – always want them. If we rage against them Starsuckers-style, with an annihilating, snobbish superiority, we will lose the argument. The real struggle instead is to temper our instinct for fame – and stop it sucking up all the cultural oxygen.

Johann Hari will be discussing Starsuckers and other cultural events on Newsnight Review at 11pm on BBC2

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Our media are suffering a new experience: not fear of being called anti-Semitic'  

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices