Celebrity democracy

Leo Sayer
We make a deal with celebrities. We provide them with a good living (often an insanely lavish living) and the proper measure of adoration and they promise to lead their lives like Roman Emperors or Mediaeval Popes. They promise beauty, grace and eloquence but also decadence, arrogance and self-hate. They make a very public gift to us of their poor judgement, their indiscretion and their immaturity. And we love it. We soak it up. Celebrities act out the lives we don’t dare live. They make lifelong the infantile fantasies and unreasonable demands that the rest of us set aside as adolescents. And it fucks them up. And we love that too.

But we’re unforgiving. So when our celebrities do what the deal ultimately requires of them and flip out or get busted or lose it over a pair of underpants on a reality TV show we turn on them sharply, revoke the terms of the deal and dump them in the metaphorical gutter. In the demented hyperdemocracy of reality TV, of course, we can act on our disappointment. We can translate our momentary disillusion into a direct statement of our displeasure (at a cost of 25p plus standard network rates: ask bill-payer’s permission) and vote them out. It’s instant retribution, a kind of premium rate climate of revenge. It can’t possibly do us any good and, as a model for the democratic process, it’s rubbish. It’s about instant judgments, brutal summary action and short-term, memoryless culture. If that’s what comes after slow, increasingly irrelevant representative democracy then you can keep it.

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Nike ads and remixes notwithstanding, the passage of time has not been kind to Elvis. Outside of the faithful, he’s still mostly considered a mockery. The problem is that he was never really a rock star. At least not in the post-1960s sense. A crop of early sixties acts (mostly British) changed our definition of the popular musician forever. Before the Stones (and the Beatles and The Who and The Kinks) a musician was an entertainer, an uncomplicated mouthpiece for song-writer, management and record label. Talent. After the Stones, a rock star was a different kind of creature all together: autonomous, self-directed, ironic, important.

Elvis was a working class kid who grew up in the era of the entertainer. He never shook off the limitations of the role and never aspired to exceed them. He never wrote a song, delivered a manifesto, challenged a convention. He never took up the new entitlement of the musical God to scare or affront or challenge. His excesses were all inward-focused, self-destructive, sad (there may have been 14 TV sets in his house but he never tossed one out the window). None of this compromises his brilliance as an artist. His funny, honest, human performance in the 1970 Las Vegas concert performance ‘That’s the Way It Is’ (DVD UK, DVD US, CD UK, CD US) is wonderful. He’s a magnetic, complicated, supremely engaging figure.