This is going to be a difficult post to get right, I think. Damon Albarn, of Blur and Gorillaz fame, has said that the culture of celebrity needed to be dismantled. And he has an interesting point – fame is now being sought as an end in itself rather than being a result of hard work and innate talent. In particular he advocates that the X-Factor talent show be wound up.
Of course the argument sounds seductive, but is it just the familiar fight between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, or even Albarn misunderstanding the accelerated way in which fame works, as modern media evolves faster than it ever has before? At first glance his argument seems haughty – X-Factor and its Pop Idol predecessor have both unexpectedly found acts who hadn’t yet discovered means of breaking through. Will Young and Leona Lewis had both been around for years before winning their own contests, the former’s popularity essentially undiminished since 2001, and both of them breaking sales records. Because people genuinely like them, it’s entirely unfair to dismiss their successes. The work they both needed to achieve their victories was enormous, and Young in particular had to fight very hard to justify his continuing popularity. Pop Idol winner the following year – Michelle McManus – failed to follow in his footsteps in large measure because she didn’t learn his lessons, but it was also because she couldn’t (wasn’t allowed to?) put together a narrative which the media and public could attach themselves to. Young in contrast was a master at it long before his victory, and despite some fundamental missteps since, seems still to understand this.
Of course even having to set up a narrative is a post-modern thing like no other. Blur and Gorillaz it could be argued defined a generation of popular culture, but it was in and of themselves. Where Young and Lewis are caught in the tension between genuine talent and the ‘culture makers’ (I’ll get to this), Albarn’s success came old-style – through hard work and original ideas. Even then, making that succeed in the mass market still needed the involvement of ‘culture makers’, be they producers, video directors or record executives. Perhaps Albarn and the talent show winners merely occupy different ends of the popular culture industry to which they are all beholden?
Theodor Adorno would probably think so. It’s likely that he would in turn criticise Albarn as having been duped by the culture industry and the ‘culture makers’ who define all popular culture. Whilst Albarn believes he sits somewhere in ‘high’ art, and essentially on the same page as Adorno, Adorno would suggest that Blur or Gorillaz were both variations on the same theme running through all popular culture.
The reality is without doubt more complex. Adorno and Albarn share a snobbery towards ‘low’ culture, Adorno believing it’s being cultivated by the ‘culture makers’ for the mass market to subdue them and rob them of critical thought in the days of high capitalism, Albarn believing it’s the acceleration of its creation that’s harmful. It’s not just critical thought which the population is being robbed of, it’s now an ignorance of music itself – even producing popular, mass produced music isn’t the commodity any more – it’s fame itself! Adorno came at this from a socialist perspective, Albarn however seemingly from a position of ignorance. I’m no fan of Steve Brookstein, nor of Shayne Ward, but even the public who voted them winners seem far more adept at balancing the equation out. The seekers of fame as an end in itself, a perfectly fine end for executives like Simon Cowell (the ultimate ‘culture maker’) admittedly keen to manipulate the masses for their own personal gain, may gain their victory through programmes like X-Factor, but without a) genuine talent or b) qualities which really are desired by a mass audience, it tends to be short lived.