One of the major changes that’s happened in my lifetime is the burgeoning of the culture of celebrity. When I was a kid, famous people were famous for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they were great beauties, skilled footballers, brilliant scientists or tortured artists.
In the 21st Century, we have a culture where fame is a goal in itself rather than a by-product of achieving something significant. Look at all the worldwide docusoaps like Big Brother, Popstars and Castaway. Here, entirely unexceptional people become celebrities due to being on telly for a couple of months. That’s their only achievement. They’re not on telly cos they’re famous, they’re famous cos they’ve been on telly.
Maybe you could argue that this a great democratisation of culture and that it’s finally bringing Warhol’s dull “famous for fifteen minutes” prediction to fruition.
I reckon that’s bollocks.
What we have now is a media culture that’s so bloated and lazy, so venal and dim that the mundane becomes magnificent. What does it take to get in a music paper? Contacts and not much else. It helps enormously if your band features one or two ex-music journalists or at least flatmates of journalists. Then, no matter how much like watery shit your music is, you can be guaranteed media exposure. And inevitably with publicity comes sales. Hey, with today’s mass media, if you spread your net far enough *someone* will buy your stuff.
Where we’re at in 2001 is a junction, a phase transition. The old mass media is vainly trying to stretch itself as far as possible, seeping through the shiny new channels of satellite tv and internet webshites. But in the process, it ceases to be mass media and instead becomes that difficult cheese pony, niche media. Goodbye common culture, goodbye swapping opinions on soap operas watched by millions, hello audiences of less than a thousand.
Hell, I’m part of this transition myself. On my Bzangy site, I post up my reviews and rants and if I get forty or fifty hits a day, I consider that good. Figure that out – a daily audience of *fifty*! Somehow I don’t think Rupert Murdoch is quaking in his snakeskin boots. The only reason I carry on is that the majority of the music I review isn’t covered by the British mass media. They may catch up a year or two later, maybe. That’s what happens when you have a stagnant media, they offer you nothing new, nothing you don’t already know about.
This is the sleepy media that feeds on manufactured celebrity. It can’t be arsed to dig up genuine greatness so it promotes mediocrity. Half the “hot new tips” on TV chat shows and ‘yoof’ programmes are direct from major labels or feature mates of the presenters/producer. The media is eating itself and then vomiting the result into our faces.
Of course, this isn’t only armchair philosophy on my behalf. I myself was unjustifiably famous for about two weeks back in ’97 because of a song that had managed to slip past the media police and onto Radio One, thanks only to Mark Radcliffe’s fearless DJ-ing. This song had previously been rejected by *all* the major labels. The week my song went number one, my life exploded into a confused, dreamlike TV-movie.
It’s a peculiar process to watch your music and ultimately your life being turned into a media spectacle. My story was light relief, a kind of ‘fat bloke has shock hit’ item to tag onto the end of a bulletin or somewhere around page four but the impact on me was huge.
Television vans camped outside my little house, reporters shouted through my letterbox at my girlfriend. Tabloids sent reporters round Derby pubs, trying to dig up stories, which might have worked if I wasn’t a teetotaller. Things got curiouser and curiouser, people I didn’t even know ended up on national bloody TV talking about *me*! Why the hell was any of this that important? I’d only had *one* hit song!
Most of the hyper-coverage happened cos I refused to do most media – I wasn’t even in my own video apart from incidentally. This is because I’ve never wanted to be famous, just rich and unknown. So, cos I treated them mean, the media became extra keen. They had to have an angle so overnight I became a ‘computer nerd’ who’d had a hit record out of the blue. Never mind that I’d been releasing records for seven years! Nerd?? I’m a geek, goddammit! And damn proud of it.
Then the email started flooding in. Is it true you’re gay? A transsexual? A woman? A white guy living in London? Too fat to leave your house? A goddamn limey faggot?
That’s the other thing about celebrity. Previously, the people who’d written or emailed me about White Town were dedicated music weirdos, nice geeks. They had to be on the periphery or else they wouldn’t have heard of my tiny, unimportant band. Now, suddenly, the mainstream media bought mainstream interest, some of it from homophobes and racists. My little home project was now out in the big, bad world, blinking fearfully in the spotlights. I couldn’t even go shopping in Sainsburys any more because people would start whistling my song at me. Or were they? After a while, I couldn’t tell where the reality ended and the paranoia began. Everything changed.
Musicians who’d previously told me all my stuff was crap, to my face, now glad-handed me and offered to go on Top Of The Pops with me. Very big of them. Very strangely, girls who wouldn’t even talk to a bloater like me before were suddenly more interested in me, now I was a famous, very rich bloater.
Inevitably, I went barmy. My role models were Howard Hughes and Brian Wilson. I stayed in the house for weeks, growing a beard, ordering in pizzas and playing Goldeneye on the N64. I played it so much that I used to dream I was in the temple, bouncing grenades round corners. But in the dream, Oddjob would run up to me singing that bloody melody from ‘Your Woman’ and waving an autograph book. Not for him, of course, but his girlfriend, Dennis.
I’d had so much over-exposure in such a short time that it scalded me. That’s modern media culture. In truth, I didn’t deserve that huge, slavering coverage. Okay, I’d written a good song that a lot of people liked but the way the media pounced on me you’d think I’d cured cancer. And then, a week later I was old news (thank God). That’s the modern media world. Attention spans are attenuated to the nanosecond level by 800 channels of adverts. People want stuff NOW! and then they’re bored and BANG! they want the next thing. On the big media side, game over. But meanwhile, Derby being a small city, I was still a pretty big, disturbed fish.
Then a strange thing happened. I went on holiday to a different city, a city where I wasn’t a local boy done good, where I was a stranger.
Sweet, sweet anonymity. Unless you’ve been famous, you’ve no idea how beautiful it is to amble around a city centre, just buying CDs and flicking through magazines, without being recognised. The joy of being no-one, the nirvana of indifference.
Now, after the EMI blip, I’m back full-circle. I’m writing and recording at home, releasing records on small labels I can trust and working with people who don’t pong of brimstone. I’ll never trouble the charts again and so the mass media will never trouble me again. I like that deal. I’ve joined that most select of clubs, one-hit wonders and I’m *delighted*.
I’m looking forward to a magnificently unremarkable future.