Celebrity isnt just harmless fun its the smiling face of the corporate machine | George Monbiot

Our failure to understand the link between fame and big business made the rise of Trump inevitable

Now that a reality TV staris preparing to become president of the United States, can we agree that celebrity culture is more than just harmless fun thatit might, in fact, bean essential component of the systems that govern our lives?

The rise of celebrity culture did nothappen by itself. It has long been cultivated by advertisers, marketers andthe media. And it has a function. The more distant and impersonal corporations become, the more they relyon other peoples faces to connectthem to their customers.

Corporation means body; capital means head. But corporate capital has neither head nor body. It is hard for people to attach themselves to a homogenised franchise owned by a hedge fund whose corporate identity consists of a filing cabinet in Panama City. So the machine needs a mask. It must wear the face of someone we see as often as we see our next-door neighbours. It is pointless to ask what Kim Kardashian does to earn her living:her role is to exist in our minds. By playing our virtual neighbour, she induces a click of recognition on behalfof whatever grey monolith sits behind her this week.

An obsession with celebrity does notlie quietly beside the other things wevalue; it takes their place. A study published in the journal Cyberpsychology reveals that an extraordinary shift appears to have taken place between 1997 and 2007 in the US. In 1997, the dominant values (asjudged by an adult audience) expressed by the shows mostpopular among nine- to 11 year-olds were community feeling, followed by benevolence. Fame came 15th out of the16 values tested. By 2007, when shows such as Hannah Montana prevailed, fame came first, followed by achievement, image, popularity and financial success. Community feeling had fallen to 11th, benevolence to 12th.

A paper in the International JournalofCultural Studies found that, among the people it surveyed in the UK, those who follow celebrity gossip most closely are three times less likely than people interested in other forms of news to be involved in local organisations, and half as likely to volunteer. Virtual neighbours replace real ones.

The blander and more homogenised the product, the more distinctive the mask it needs to wear. This is why Iggy Pop was used to promote motor insurance and Benicio del Toro is used to sell Heineken. The role of such people is to suggest that there is something more exciting behind the logo than office blocks and spreadsheets. They transfer their edginess to the company they represent. As soon they take the cheque that buys their identity, they become as processed and meaningless as the item they are promoting.

The celebrities you see most often arethe most lucrative products, extruded through a willing media by a marketing industry whose power no one seeks to check. This is why actors and models now receive such disproportionate attention, capturing much of the space once occupied by people with their own ideas: their expertise lies in channelling other peoples visions.

A database search by the anthropologist Grant McCracken revealsthat in the US actors received 17% of the cultural attention accorded tofamous people between 1900 and 1910: slightly less than physicists, chemists and biologists combined. Filmdirectors received 6% and writers 11%. Between 1900 and 1950, actors had24% of the coverage, and writers 9%. By 2010, actors accounted for 37% (over four times the attention natural scientists received), while the proportion allocated to both film directors and writers fell to 3%.

You dont have to read or watch many interviews to see that the principal qualities now sought in a celebrity are vapidity, vacuity and physical beauty. They can be used as a blank screen on to which anything can be projected. With a few exceptions, those who have least to say are granted the greatest number of platforms on which to say it.

This helps to explain the mass delusion among young people that they have a reasonable chance of becoming famous. A survey of 16-year-olds in theUK revealed that 54% of them intendto become celebrities.

As soon as celebrities forget their allotted role, the hounds of hell are let loose upon them. Lily Allen was the medias darling when she was advertising John Lewis. Gary Lineker couldnt put a foot wrong when he stuck to selling junk food to children. But when they expressed sympathy for refugees, they were torn to shreds. When you take the corporate shilling, you are supposed to stop thinking for yourself.

Celebrity has a second major role: asaweapon of mass distraction. Thesurvey published in the IJCS I mentioned earlier also revealsthat people who are the most interested in celebrity are the least engaged in politics, the least likely to protest and the least likely to vote. Thisappears to shatter the medias frequent, self-justifying claim that celebrities connect us to public life.

The survey found that people fixated by celebrity watch the news on average as much as others do, but they appear to exist in a state of permanent diversion. If you want people to remain quiescent and unengaged, show them the faces of Taylor Swift, Shia LaBeouf and Cara Delevingne several times a day.

In Trump we see a perfect fusion ofthe two main uses of celebrity culture: corporate personification andmass distraction. His celebrity became a mask for his own chaotic, outsourced and unscrupulous business empire. His public image was the perfectinversion of everything he and his companies represent. As presenter of the US version of The Apprentice, this spoilt heir to humongous wealth became the face of enterprise and social mobility. During the presidential elections, his noisy persona distracted people from the intellectual void behind the mask, a void now filled by <a href=”https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/nov/30/donald-trump-george-monbiot-misinformation” title=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>more lucid representatives of global capital.

Celebrities might inhabit your life, butthey are not your friends. Regardlessof the intentions of those onwhom it is bequeathed, celebrity is the lieutenant of exploitation. Lets turnour neighbours back into our neighbours, and turn our backs on thosewho impersonate them.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/20/celebrity-corporate-machine-fame-big-business-donald-trump-kim-kardashian

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