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

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant

£12500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This accounting practice is looking for ...

Recruitment Genius: Casual Visitor Experience Assistants

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: To work within the Visitor Experience Departm...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Protesters march with banners during an anti-austerity, anti-Conservative Party protest in May  

Budget 2015: Why do we call social security payments 'benefits'? They are a right, not a reward

Janey Stephenson
Laura Bassett signs autographs for England fans after the quarter-final victory  

Women's World Cup: Despite the England team's tweet, the Lionesses can be mothers and successful football players at the same time

Chloe Hamilton
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy