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

English Teacher needed for long term cover

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay TBA: Randstad Education Reading...

Primary General Cover Teachers needed

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Year 2 Teachers needed for day to day roles

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Ye...

Year 6 Teachers needed for supply roles

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Ye...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: out of time, polling and immigration and old words

John Rentoul
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past