OpGaGaRah and the Celebrity Singularity

Paul Raven @ 26-05-2011

There are many reasons I like Ryan “Grumpy Owl” Oakley, but his view of celebrity culture is one of ’em. Here he is invoking the ghost of Guy Debord to ask whether the celebrisphere is contracting toward its very own singularity:

Today, I watched Oprah’s final show then Lady Gaga Live.

They seem to be very different entertainers but they gave the same speech with the same message. Oprah talked about her hard-knock life, told people that if they just loved themselves, their dreams would all come true and nothing could stop them from being happy and successful. Gaga talked about her hard-knock life, told people to follow their dreams and love themselves and nothing could stop them from being famous.

After all, it worked for them, right?

[…]

Right now, in a corporate laboratory, scientists are creating OPGAGARAH. They’ve tried before. Tyra Banks was their most recent failure. But they will get it right.

Then, we shall have one media personality who appeals to every demo/psychographic. A monopoly on all culture. A common goal that tells us to love ourselves and our dreams will all come true. A psychic hegemon to cower before while aspiring to be. Someone that both parent and teenager likes. A beautiful monster that eats life and shits profit.

I hear you, Ryan. For all GaGa’s supposedly transgressive behaviours (and, for the record, I think the most interesting and important thing she’s done is speak out in vocal support of non-heterosexual lifestyles), she’s an accelerating convergence of all the banal pseudotransgressive and titillatory po-mo pop tropes of the last thirty years or so, slowly accreting into a black hole that will hoover in money and attention until it collapses in on itself; like an overclocked Madonna aimed at the dissipating heart of popular culture.

The sad thing is, I don’t think she even realises it; like all the best pop stars, her belief in the independence of her agency is what makes her powerful, but it also blinds her to her own status as a puppet of a dying industry that will sell anything to keep its business model – and the executive carpool, natch – rolling for another few months.

[ Side note: I think the suggestion that GaGa – and others – are starting to sell transhumanist tropes into the mainstream actually supports my argument; last year’s transgression is this year’s coffee-table culture, and they’re running out of more acceptable novelties to peddle. ]


The sheen will fade: the half-life of post-Empire celebrity

Paul Raven @ 04-04-2011

As something of an implicit footnote to Brett Easton Ellis’s diagnosis of post-Empire celebrity, it’s worth remembering that if you’ve relied on the [whatever]sphere to raise you up, then it retains the power to swiftly lower you back down again, and that your fame may not translate from your native medium to all the others as you rush to monetize your moment in the sun. (Your best bet seems to be to attempt to recreate the medium in which you were successful within the confines of your new beachhead.)

Bob Lefsetz has a typically grandstanding analysis of Sheen’s attempts to jump the gap and become a brand/meme independent of the hierarchical Hollywood-and-TV world:

Charlie Sheen made the mistake of thinking the audience was on his side.  This is what happens when you descend from your showbiz perch, step out of the television and enter the realm of the people, you find out we’re all equal.  And that if you don’t give a great presentation, we tear you down from your peak.

[…]

Let this be a lesson.  If you’re one of the privileged, don’t intersect with the public.  Fly private, live behind a gate or a guard, avoid publicity.  Because the throng is there, waiting to pounce on every misstep.

[…]

Don’t equate the initial demand for Charlie Sheen’s live tour with longevity.  It was a stunt, no different from Bobby Riggs playing tennis with Billie Jean King.  To do it again is just creepy.  You made your money, go home.

But someone at Live Nation was only thinking about money.  Connecting fame with theatres.  There was no consideration of show, of value for money, only gross receipts.  That’s how low we’ve sunk.

But the public is not having any of it.

To a certain extent (and to take a very very callous view of things), Sheen was unlucky enough to be upstaged by a media event of quite literally earth-shaking proportions. But even had the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear-crisis combo not rolled in from the outfield and stolen the top slot on the global meme-stack, he’d not have lasted long. A one-trick pony should never try to top the bill.


post-Empire celebrity

Paul Raven @ 14-03-2011

Bret Easton Ellis pops up at The Daily Beast and manages to pull a whole bunch of cultural threads together using almost-overnight memetic sensation and celebrity-carwreck Charlie Sheen as nexus/exemplar.

You’re completely missing the point if you think the Charlie Sheen moment is really a story about drugs. Yeah, they play a part, but they aren’t at the core of what’s happening—or why this particular Sheen moment is so fascinating. I know functioning addicts. They’re not that rare or that interesting. What this moment is about is Sheen solo. It’s about a well-earned midlife crisis played out on CNN instead of in a life coach’s office somewhere in Burbank. The midlife crisis is the moment in a man’s life when he realizes he can’t (or won’t) any longer maintain the pose that he thought was required of him.

[…]

Anyone who’s put up with the fake rigors of celebrity (or suffered from addiction problems) has a kindred spirit here. The new fact is: If you’re punching paparazzi, you look like an old-school loser. If you can’t accept the fact that we’re at the height of an exhibitionistic display culture and that you’re going to be blindsided by TMZ (and humiliated by Harvey Levin, or Chelsea Handler—princess of post-Empire) while stumbling out of a club on Sunset Boulevard at 2 in the morning, then you should be a travel agent instead of a movie star. Being publicly mocked is part of the game, and you’re a fool if you don’t play along. Not showing up to collect your award at the Razzies for that piece of crap you made? So Empire. This is why Sheen seems saner and funnier than any other celebrity right now. He also makes better jokes about his situation than most worried editorialists or late-night comedians. A lot of it is sheer bad-boy bravado—just cursing to see how people react, which is very post-Empire—but a lot of it is pure transparency, and on that level, Sheen is, um, winning.

Transparency! We’ve been talking about its effects at the nation-state and corporation levels for a few years, but the same corrosion is happening down here in the culture trenches; I’m sure you can think of people in your circle of friends, online or off, who are doing a similar “performative fuckuppery” kind of thing, albeit (probably, or rather hopefully) not as intense. (After all, a 7-gram-rocks coke habit isn’t accessible to most income bands, AMIRITES?)

But this is important: Josh Harris may be a bit unhinged, but he realised it way before anyone else: we live in public. You know how when you get a videocam out at a party or bar and there’s always a few folk who immediately start playing it up for the lens? Well, we’re all on camera all the time, metaphorically speaking… and behaving normally does little more than let you fade into the background. This is the same root phenomena that drives comment trolling and those Westboro shitheads, but also the chain of revolutions across the Middle East and the sudden upsurge of protests in the UK and the US. Publicity is a feedback loop, but only now is it fast enough that the feedback can start really amping the signal. Sheen is not an end-case; he’s more of a prototype.

As Ellis points out, we’re in a transition period where Empire and post-Empire celebrity share the stage, but the Empire types don’t understand the landscape that the post-Empires are exploiting to their advantage. For example, here’s a classic Empire project: David Tang’s iCorrect website, where celebrities can correct the false mythologies that have accreted around them in the roiling mediasphere. But why would you want to go and shatter the mystique? They’ll believe whatever they want to believe, anyway; you might as well just play to the peanut gallery. After all, they’re the people who are most likely to spend money on things you do in the future… better to be a carwreck on a busy highway than pulled up carefully on the verge of a backroad.


Batman Incorporated and Kanye West: media homunculi

Paul Raven @ 26-11-2010

Here’s a super bit of cyborg-media-culture-identity riffing from Kevin Lovelace at grinding.be about the power of brands and/or identities (the difference between the two is getting pretty fuzzy) as prosthetic cyborg extensions of our selves. A post that mashes up Grant Morrison’s Batman Inc., Kanye West and open-source umbrella identities like Anonymous – what’s not to love?

By becoming a transmedia brand, the Batman gains the ability to clone itself and sent out its conceptual mind-babies out into the world, doing the work of Batman even in the actual absence of Batman.   Many people “know” Kanye via his body of work and his carefully sculpted public persona – a persona so information rich and media saturated that it can spawn its own meta-narratives.  Kanye West is the puppet of the Illuminati, and we can prove it!  He’s brilliant!  He’s insane!  He’s…  He’s a story.  The Kanye that 99% of the people reading this know is a story about a man who makes music – a narrative crafted largely BY the man who makes that music.  Its is a story with granularity and richness enough to allow many points of entry and engagement, spin-offs, theories and supposition.    The Kanye West we “know” is a prosthetic identity – an interface program that uses media as its computational substrate that exists between “us” the audience and the “real” Kanye (and his PR team) who operate the prosthetic.

Lots of connections to our earlier discussions of the ubiquity of narrative in an altermodern culture… we are all the stories of ourselves, but we can change the plot whenever we like, or even let other people write their own versions. Go read it.


Attention economics, redux: why supermodels are like toxic assets

Paul Raven @ 19-07-2010

Remember me linking to that article that compared the inflationary bubble in the cult of celebrity to the sub-prime mortgage crisis? Well, here’s a similar (and slightly more serious) piece that explains how supermodels are similar to toxic assets [via MetaFilter]:

Coco [Rocha] is what economists would call a winner in a “winner-take all market,” prevalent in culture industries like art and music, where a handful of people reap very lucrative and visible rewards while the bulk of contestants barely scrape by meager livings before they fade into more stable and far less glamorous careers. The presence of such spectacular winners like Coco Rocha raises a great sociological question: how, among the thousands of wannabe models worldwide, is any one 14 year-old able to rise from the pack? What makes Coco Rocha more valuable than the thousands of similar contestants? How, in other words, do winners happen?

The secrets to Coco’s success, and the dozens of girls that have come before and will surely come after her, have much less to do with Coco the person (or the body) than with the social context of an unstable market. There is very little intrinsic value in Coco’s physique that would set her apart from any number of other similarly-built teens—when dealing with symbolic goods like “beauty” and “fashionability,” we would be hard pressed to identify objective measures of worth inherent in the good itself. Rather, social processes are at work in the fashion modeling market to bequeath cultural value onto Coco. The social world of fashion markets reveals how market actors think collectively to make decisions in the face of uncertainty. And this social side of markets, it turns out, is key to understanding how investors could trade securities backed with “toxic” subprime mortgage assets leading us into the 2009 financial crisis.

Well worth a read; it’s interesting to see someone looking at a market in terms of its social construction rather than as a bunch of mathematical abstractions and assumptions. One of the things that has frustrated my research into economics is the way it always seems to be portrayed as a coldly rational science, without any attempt to understand or deconstruct the emergent social consensus that drives it. This is almost ertainly due to me looking in the wrong places, so if anyone has any suggestions for good sources of social and/or behavioural economic literature that won’t baffle an inquisitive layman, please pipe up in the comments.


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