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
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies