Friday, 20 June 2014

20/06/14 - Dark Ages

Is it just me, or have you noticed that a lot of famous people are dying these days? 2014 has been a particularly productive year for the Reaper so far – January began with Portuguese footballing legend Eusébio heading for the great changing room in the sky, closely followed by Disney-monikered Israeli warbag Ariel Sharon and Roger ‘Trigger’ Lloyd-Pack. Philip Seymour Hoffman overdosed in early February, and Shirley Temple went a week later. March saw the passing of Tony Benn and Frankie Knuckles, while April consumed Mickey Rooney, the Ultimate Warrior, Sue Townsend, Gabriel García Márquez and Bob Hoskins. May was also unkind, taking Jack Brabham and Maya Angelou, and June was the final chapter for Spot the Dog creator Eric Hill, ’Allo ’Allo’s Sam Kelly and, much to everybody’s surprise and extreme sadness, Rik Mayall.
That’s just a random sample, of course, there have been plenty of other famous people finding themselves M.I.A. this year. (Don’t panic, that’s just a narrative construct – rapper M.I.A. is still alive and well, as far as I know.) And 2013 was a real horrorshow, taking away Richard Griffiths, Deanna Durbin, Mel Smith, JJ Cale, David Frost, Tom Clancy, Margaret Thatcher, Lou Reed, Paul Walker, Nelson Mandela, Peter O’Toole and many others. It’s all very bleak.

The nature of celebrity has always been a contentious and tricky area, and in recent times it’s become rather diluted, its essence exponentially altered as the culture for creating famous people becomes more widespread, easier, and less meaningful. Indeed, being famous for fame’s sake is commonplace these days – the number of career celebs who are well known simply because they know the right people, wear the right clothes, go to the right parties is ever-swelling, and it’s a self-perpetuating career path; they’re famous, so people will keep paying them money to do things because other people will be taking a vague interest.
The twin guns of social media and reality TV make all of this easier – cast your mind back to the first series of Big Brother and you’ll see a load of people hitherto unknown who then spent years chasing photoshoots and media tie-ins; this continued and expanded throughout the ensuing series. What was Jade Goody famous for – hamming up a lack of intelligence, being a bit of a racist? Kinda, but she was basically famous because she was famous – she was beamed into everyone’s homes for a few weeks, and suddenly she was a known face, always able to take money from magazines, getting papped on holiday and what-have-you. When she died – tragically young and in horrible circumstances back in 2009 – the outpouring of grief almost reached Princess Diana levels. ‘Forever in our hearts,’ read the banners.

A whole reality TV culture has spawned from this era, as media moguls have spotted that it’s actually quite easy to make people give you loads of money via phone-ins in return for making a load of nobodies famous for a bit. Whether or not their celebrity endures depends largely upon which publicist they hire after the show’s over, but even those who go back to being nobodies will still always be able to secure column inches in the gossip mags. There might be more famous people now than ever before. Fame is just a different thing.

Of course, to return to the original point, none of those people that we’ve lost this year were created by the reality/social media machine. They were just people who (with a couple of exceptions) got old and died; they also happened to be well-known for being good at what they did (or, at least, noteworthy), existing in the public eye but – oh, cruel fate – turning out to be human after all. But again, there seems to be a lot more of this happening these days. Is it because we’re more aware of famous people dying now, just because it used to be the case that the story would appear on the evening news and people would discuss it at work the next day, whereas in 2014 a celeb death will be met with a relentless outpouring of ‘I liked that person, here’s my favourite video clip/quote/article/photo/etc of them, RIP’ status updates? Is it not that there’s more death, but that it’s more interactive? Have we entered the era of Social Death?
…or are there actually more famous people around these days? Let’s say the average first-world life expectancy is about 80 years – that means that the people born in the mid-1930s who became famous for whatever reason will start to fade away round about now – Raymond Briggs, Tom Baker, John Surtees, Barry Humphries… they all seem to be flourishing now, but Richard Briers, Diana Wynne Jones and John Barry all died in recent years, sort of making the point. Look out Yoko Ono, inevitability is not on your side. And of course, there will always be people dying at a younger-than-average age. We’ve got decades of famous folk stacked up and ready to go.
If, child stars aside, people born in the mid-thirties started getting famous in the mid-fifties, can we assume that the last sixty-odd years have been a sort of unstoppable snowball of fame, rolling up ever-greater percentages of the human race? Will we reach critical mass in a few decades’ time when pretty much everybody in the world is ‘famous’ for something?

Perhaps we’re there already. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. I can’t wrap my mind around it, I’m still completely gutted about Rik Mayall.

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