"Tivo-ifies the web" Paul Kedrosky

Susan Boyle, and how to become a celebrity

susan boyle

Susan Boyle’s Performance.

One candidate for a people’s hero for this recession is Susan Boyle, an unassuming looking, 47 year old, unemployed, charity worker who has never been kissed. Since the weekend, her Diva performance on ‘Britains’s Got Talent’, (Simon Cowell’s UK franchise of ‘America’s Got Talent’) has been viewed more than 7 10 million times on Youtube, appeared in over 600 newspapers and caused Demi Moore to burst into tears – and tell everyone, via Twitter.

Silk-suited movie stars like Greta Garbo prospered during the Great Depression as epic catastrophe required epic escapism. The icons of the time were rich, well-groomed, beautiful people. Hollywood knows this and that is why this year’s movie, Watchmen, was two and a half hours long. The movie execs have it wrong, however. Seventy years later, the era’s single most powerful image is a picture of a poor, ragged, migrant mother taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936. It took decades for the ordinary to permeate the subconscious of a nation.

garbo

[ Poster for the movie Camille, released the same year as the symbol of the Depression, Migrant Mother, was photographed. Garbo was at the height of her career and won an Oscar for her role. The Migrant Mother image below, is far more 'famous' today. ]

There was no reality TV in 1929, there was no Youtube , Facebook, Twitter, Perez Hilton, I Can Has Cheezburger or American Idol. From suburban cat lovers to fart lighting frat boys, Internet Land looks like the antithesis of glamor, and TV with its globally franchised reality shows looks like synthetic sincerity or Jerry Springer in disguise. Yet the combination of big channel reality TV and the hyper-networked, filament strands of the web, provide the infrastructure to feed a 21st Century Migrant Mother into millions of minds within days.

migrant mother

[ The Image of the Depression, Florence Owens Thompson. More recognizable today than Garbo. ]

This velocity is the function of a new type of media, one that is more networked and more transient. But it is part of the evolutionary trend of broadcast technology. Within a few years of the Invention of movies, Rudolf Valentino was more famous than any theater actor in history. 100,000 people lined the streets at his funeral in 1926 and the reason was the power of the network. More people could see Valentino than could attend any one theater. But there was something else about this network that was new – it was democratic. A billionaire would pay the same to see Valentino as a factory worker and the net purchasing power of the more numerous workers than millionaires meant that a movie could take more money than an opera house. This single fact defined popular culture, and its particularly American flavor. It allowed Capitalism to give greater prosperity to the masses than Communism and by accident.

movies

[ For the same price, a factory worker could see the same movie as a millionaire - and there were more workers. The purchasing power of the masses was greater than the elite, and popular culture was born. ]

The Internet is even more networked than broadcast media, consisting of many-to-many rather than one-to-many connections that provide infinite channels and a self-emergent quality in the creation of content. If networked culture, from mass produced Ford cars to Hollywood movies created the potential for a more democratic culture through consumption, then inter-networked culture creates a more democratic culture through production. Everyone has their own channel.

People in the Internet industry don’t like to talk about it in terms of mass market fame. They often talk about the long tail out of self interest, to deny the stark reality that the Internet is all about celebrity and the generation of massive hits rather worthy niches. The reason why fame works on the Internet, why half a million people follow Shaquille O’Neal on Twitter, is that it gives the people in the long tail (the followers) the illusion of being closer to Shaq, or to the elixir of fame.

Sure, the niches get supplied on the Internet, but there is a finite number of them and very few hits in each, globally. That great blues record store in Chicago may go bust because of one in Los Angeles and purchases through its web site.

long tail

[ The illusion of the benign long tail is destroyed by the fact that each niche within the long tail has a graph like this one, where the winners take all. The graph is self-similar at all scales. A few entities on the left side mop up nearly all the market and there are a finite number of markets because people's attention is finite. ]

The internet focuses primal instincts into fostering celebrity for its own sake as the equation of supply and demand reverses and people who can consume whatever they want butt up against the finite limits of attention. The difference is that celebrity can be briefer as well as more meritocratic. A star of the Internet age can come from anywhere and be nowhere tomorrow. But in theory, it is people powered celebrity.

Susan Boyle is what authentic people powered celebrity should surely look like. On a show that manufactures reality, Boyle looks genuine. Someone that looked so plain and frumpy that people made fun of her before her performance, but gave her a standing ovation after. Someone who has a voice from within that destroys all exterior appearances. This is what people want in a Depression, a giant in ordinary shoes.

But the reality is more complicated. Britain’s Got Talent’s 2007 winner, before the shit hit the financial fan, was a broken toothed cellphone salesman who belted out Nessun Dorma. He was also an ordinary looking person with and extraordinary, but not unrivaled, voice. De Facto, this is a formula. Someone who looks like Demi Moore would ironically be less likely to win Britain or America’s Got Talent than someone with equivalent vocal skills but less obvious visual appeal.

paul potts

[ Paul Potts- the previous 'People's Hero' winner of Britain's Got Talent ]

But it almost doesn’t matter if the mechanism for fame is corrupted. Susan Boyle is genuinely deserving of the fame she has earned and her performance nearly moved me to tears. But I wouldn’t want to think that my tears were being jerked by Simon Cowell’s production company. I, like everyone else, want to believe, but can’t help thinking that I’m being bilked.

chomsky

[ Noam Chomsky warned of manufactured consent, or what used to be called propaganda - a democracy hijacked by media tricksters - as he himself demonstrates here under ambush by Sasha Baron Cohen ]

Like the hijacking of the power of broadcast media through manufactured consent, the process of People’s Media can be hijacked. The firehose of broadcast channels and ‘reality television’ can be concentrated to fabricate the meritocratic process of ordinary people becoming famous for producing something genuinely good. Viral propagation through the Internet can be carefully orchestrated by an army of digitally savvy PR flacks ( I cant embed the Susan Boyle clip because its not allowed, this is a controlled delivery ).

allison

[ Not all Internet fame is a meritocracy. Famous for 15 minutes micro-celebrity, Julia Allison, was manufactured largely by Gawker ]

This is not all fake, like most things the truth is somewhere in the middle. Susan Boyle is a real star and may become an iconic hope story of Depression 2, the UK Guardian newspaper is already saying so. But its too soon to draw any conclusions, lasting fame is more difficult to judge today, because of the transient nature of an interconnected world.

One thing is certain, however. Migrant Mother 2 will come from the web.

Susan Boyle’s Performance.

memes

21 comments on “Susan Boyle, and how to become a celebrity

  1. jana says:

    I was caught completely by surprise when I listened to Ms. Boyle sing. That voice coming out of the package she presented was exhilarating. I suppose it’s a sign of the cynical times we live in that I began to think she was simply too perfectly “unpackaged”. Her stage mannerisms were polished and her control of her voice seemed to be that of a trained professional. I would hate to think she’s a “plant” by the production company and we’re being manipulated. If that’s the case an awful lot of people will feel betrayed because her performance was so stirring. What does she do for an encore?

  2. Bane says:

    Yes, my first thought was also that it’s a plant. But somehow I don’t mind if it is. Imagine the genius behind it, if indeed it was.

  3. Lloyd says:

    Kate Smith redux. If Susan Boyle gets a career out of this, the pitch will forever be “Who would have guessed?” There is a niche for this kind of act. Over the weekend I watched Kevin James’ movie Paul Blart, Mall Cop. Throughout the (thoroughly unfunny) movie the same theme was repeated: Fat, sweaty, homely guy = loser. But he triumphed in the end. Against everyone’s expectations. His reward? He got the pretty girl. (Talk about confusing messages.)
    I am reminded too of Chris Farley. A genuinely talented comic actor. Reduced to being the butt of fat loser jokes. I’m sure everyone has seen the SNL skit in which he auditions for the Chippendales. The first time I saw it I laughed. After he died of a drug overdose, I watched it again. Not so funny.

  4. Stephen O'Brien says:

    “Someone who looks like Demi Moore would ironically be less likely to win Britain or America’s Got Talent than someone with equivalent vocal skills but less obvious visual appeal.”

    This is key. What irks me most is that her voice isn’t that good: listen again to the her high notes midway into the performance. While she’s obviously trained, she’s just not THAT good.

    The enthusiastic reception is because the Britain’s Got Talent audience and judges prejudged her by her looks/age/manner (as they were instructed to do by the production treatment); then floundered, realising they got it wrong; ergo she’s a fantastic singer. The emotional response is waiting, pre-packaged, to come out. The crowd claps and cheers instantly, people are crying, before even hearing her sing (check the video, I swear!), because “this is Paul Pott’s all over again”.

    Paul Potts was exposed to be a fraud, he’d tried unsuccessfully to be an opera singer, participating even in some minor productions. He just wasn’t good enough—at singing opera—to make it.

  5. ivana says:

    I never watch those stupid shows, their equivents here in the US, or TV at all for that matter. Yes, before her performance the cynicism was overplayed, and the camera only panned on the most exaggerated demonstrations.

    But Stephen: So what if she was trained. It takes a lot of work to achieve that level of ability. As for her voice, if you are expecting Britney Spears that’s your thing. Many aspects of her treatment of the song (though I can only speak from one musician’s perspective) were pretty sophisticated.
    She wasn’t a professional singer, now I guess she is. That it will be over-analyzed, over and over, is already tiresome. Here’s one – we neatly package our culture’s proclivity to be superficial judgemental lappers up of commercially prescribed taste with a “gee I guess we were wrong”; and then make a one-time purchase. Duh.

  6. Stephen O'Brien says:

    You know what Ivana, I’ve actually come around to her voice (well a little bit, at least) on hearing the charity CD she made a long while ago. I agree that it’s a lovely story, and I’m glad she’s the hero because she seems lovely too, but I still feel a bit uneasy about the overblown stock emotional responses. Kind of reminds me, oddly, of the whole grief lit porn phenomenon.

  7. Tom Foremski says:

    The Susan Boyle “event” simply reminds us of the great pleasure in having our prejudices overturned and our humanity returned to us. The whole premise of the Simon Cowell production is that we all secretly believe that fat, ugly people have little or no talent. If they show some talent then we will laud them, as we would do with a monkey juggling kittens.

    I have no idea why the Susan Boyle performance would inspire Davd to write an essay about celebrity and the impact of the Internet. Nothing much has changed, celebrity continues to be defined by mass culture because celebrity is a function of popularity. YouTube or Johnny Carson show, you need to access large numbers of people and that’s what Simon Cowell’s production team does very well. If Susan Boyle had won fame from a self-produced YouTube performance that would have been impressive. But she didn’t, her fame was won the old-fashioned way, via a TV show. And the packaging was old and very familiar: the ugly duckling. Nothing new here… No new paradigm to explore.

  8. Dan Westlake says:

    The whole phenomenon is pathetic hyperbole reinforcing one of the great capitalist myths; that by hard work, talent and just a little luck you too could be famous – slyly reinforcing, as it is taken as a *given*, the idea that fame is something to aspire to. I’m surprised how many relatively intelligent people have fallen for this trite re-staging of ugly duckling fable – the broadsheets in the UK are full of it (I’m also shocked by how many people apparently watch this crap). Hold the front page: ‘Woman who is not much to look at has decent voice’ (yawn).

    westlake

  9. admin says:

    @Tom “Nothing much has changed, celebrity continues to be defined by mass culture because celebrity is a function of popularity”.

    I think a lot has changed about celebrity, because of the Internet – you can see it with Twitter at the moment, the nodes went from being local celebrity san Francisco tech people at South by Southwest to actual Hollywood celebrities, but Twitter, is a microcosm (hell macrocosm) of the Internet itself, a celebrity driven social network.

    I think that something will change out of this, we are cycling through every possible mutation of what it means to be a celebrity, including anti-glam celebrities like Susan Royle. One every perverse take on it is saturated then perhaps there will be room for the antithesis – liking people or things independently of what other people think.

    The normally revolting, NY Post has the only decent piece on the Royle hysteria: http://www.nypost.com/seven/04182009/postopinion/opedcolumnists/fairytale_ending_165066.htm

    This is an underdog, winning against odds story, compressed into the length of a TV commercial.

  10. admin says:

    @Stephen.

    You are spot on. Royle’s voice is great but not unrivaled. The point about her story is surely that it should not matter what you look like. But it does, because the media attention is mostly because of what she looks like, not because of her voice, even if the voice is sweet.

    The obsession with Royle is partly a lie, ironically reinforcing the stereotype that looks matter, while claiming the opposite.

    There lies hypocrisy.

  11. admin says:

    @Dan

    Again, I agree with you. Celebrity should be a byproduct of talent. There is possibly a connection to celebrity and capitalism in that desirability (celebrity) without necessary utility (talent) is the holy grail of advertising.

    However, there are plenty of, power via charisma, demagogues that aren’t capitalists.

  12. admin says:

    @Tom

    Realized your specific objection was here:

    “If Susan Boyle had won fame from a self-produced YouTube performance that would have been impressive. But she didn’t, her fame was won the old-fashioned way, via a TV show. And the packaging was old and very familiar: the ugly duckling. Nothing new here… No new paradigm to explore.”

    1. Reality TV is a phenomenon that has grown at the same time as the Internet, I don’t believe this is co-incidence.

    2. Nothing new with the ugly duckling story, sure. The memes are the same but the way they propagate is different. The medium is the message.

    3. The Royle story crossed the Atlantic via the Internet, not TV, and the number of people that have watched the ‘Royle variety performance’ is of the order of a Superbowl commercial (40M).

    4. The Internet is becoming like TV without the programs. i.e. just the commercials. The Royle thing is a great example of what this is going to look like – the TV guys know how the age old formula works, and they are the best people to compress it and inject it into the veins of the Internet.

  13. Phoebe says:

    The Susan Boyle performance is inspiring, and who doesn’t love an underdog story? Whether it’s a sign of pop culture changing, though, or just an exception that proves the rule – I’m not so sure.

  14. Dan Westlake says:

    Charlie Brooker pretty much summoned the whole phenomena up, if a little cruelly, in his mock headlines section introduction to this weeks newswipe:

    “Banal footage of frumpy singing women astounds imbeciles wold wide”

    westlake

  15. massaminia says:

    "For the same price, a factory worker could see the same movie as a millionaire – and there were more workers. The purchasing power of the masses was greater than the elite, and popular culture was born."

    This is rather over-simplified and problematic. For one, the fraction of the factory worker's salary that "same price" represents is vastly different from the fraction it represents of a wealthy person's salary. All are paying the same price to see Valentino, but the amount that same price represents to each is not the same. Secondly, this paints two incredibly broad strokes of "the masses" and "the elite" as if these are discreet, monolithic units of measurement.

    I suppose it's a sort of pithy way to put it, which perhaps is necessitated by the medium of a telly blog, but it certainly isn't very good analysis. This raises the question if telly blogs, or pop culture blogs in general, are really the place for tackling such topics.

    Let's be pithy again: "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

    1. David Galbraith says:

      "This is rather over-simplified and problematic."

      There is a difference between simple and simplistic. Yes, a one line statement is simple, but that does not make it wrong. The summary of all human knowledge of physical systems can be summed up in a 4 line equation representing the standard model, but that does not make it wrong.

      "the fraction of the factory worker's salary that "same price" represents is vastly different from the fraction it represents of a wealthy person's salary. All are paying the same price to see Valentino, but the amount that same price represents to each is not the same."

      So what? Movie tickets don't cost $200,000 for billionaires, and $500 Opera tickets net less than $12 movie tickets, across a national market. The relative price of a ticket to salary is irrelevant in the this context, that is exactly the premise of the argument.

      "Secondly, this paints two incredibly broad strokes of "the masses" and "the elite" as if these are discreet, monolithic units of measurement. "

      When it comes to purchasing power, the measurement of the 'masses' and the 'elite' are quantifiable. It is possible to measure the market for Spiderman III vs. Wings of Desire, and people do. To say that all coarse grained categorization is purely relative is nihilistic.

      "This raises the question if telly blogs, or pop culture blogs in general, are really the place for tackling such topics. "

      That's quite a pompous and elitist allegation.

      "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

      Indeed

      1. massaminia says:

        I was not suggesting that all coarse-grained categorization is purely relative. Rather, that it is reductive, and calls for closer and more careful examination. Reductive here being simply diagnostic and not necessarily pejorative. It can, however, often be glib. Glib being certainly pejorative. Coarse-grained categorization can have its place, but when (mis)used, glibly, in place of more careful and granular analysis on a topic as important and complicated as the "birth" of popular culture, it does a disservice to serious inquiry. Pure relativism is not at all the same as close, careful analysis of the fascinating cross-currents and interpenetrations of broad categories and also what such notions represent and how and why they are employed rhetorically (being, after all, rhetorical approximations).

        Using the markets for Spiderman III vs. the market for Wings of Desire as stand-ins for "the masses" and "the elite" is once again simplistic and problematic. It would suggest that none of the so-called elite might go see Spiderman III and again creates neat and tidy segments out of nothing. Such market measurements may in fact be carried out all the time, but that all sounds very applied, very MBA, and not at all serious.

        The fact that the elites were making the movies that the masses were supposedly exercising their power by seeing complicates the equation much further.

        1. divadwg says:

          It took me a while to translate this to:

          "I was not suggesting all categorization is relative but that it is a process of categorization. Categorization is a tool, so not always bad, but if it is superficial, i.e. badly done, it is bad. Categorization is useful, but when done superficially on an important topic like the birth of popular culture, it is bad. Relativism is not the same as categorization and its use in arguments, ultimately being relative."

          As you can see, it doesn't mean anything, repeats itself and is written in a style that emulates Literary Criticism when plain English would have been better. I recommend two things to read: George Orwell's writing tips and Alan Sokal's Intellectual Impostures.

          Good luck with your studies.

          Full translation below:

          "I was not suggesting that all coarse-grained categorization is purely relative. Rather, that it is reductive, and calls for closer and more careful examination."

          'The process of reduction and categorization are the same in this context, but not all reductive processes require closer examination – this is a non sequitur i.e. re-written in plain English:

          "I was not suggesting all categorization is relative but that it is a process of categorization. "

          "Reductive here being simply diagnostic and not necessarily pejorative. It can, however, often be glib. Glib being certainly pejorative."

          Why say Pejorative when you could say bad. George Orwell is good on this type of thing.

          We now have:

          "I was not suggesting all categorization is relative but that it is a process of categorization. Categorization is a tool, so not always bad, but if it is superficial, i.e. badly done, it is bad."

          You then say:

          "Coarse-grained categorization can have its place, but when (mis)used, glibly, in place of more careful and granular analysis on a topic as important and complicated as the "birth" of popular culture, it does a disservice to serious inquiry."

          i.e. Categorization is useful, but when done superficially on an important topic like the birth of popular culture, it is bad.

          Giving:

          "I was not suggesting all categorization is relative but that it is a process of categorization. Categorization is a tool, so not always bad, but if it is superficial, i.e. badly done, it is bad. Categorization is useful, but when done superficially on an important topic like the birth of popular culture, it is bad.

          The next sentence is a gem:

          "Pure relativism is not at all the same as close, careful analysis of the fascinating cross-currents and interpenetrations of broad categories and also what such notions represent and how and why they are employed rhetorically (being, after all, rhetorical approximations)."

          It takes a while to translate to:

          "Relativism is not the same as categorization and its use in arguments, ultimately being relative."

  16. Karen Seitan says:

    Who authored this essay? It's very good and I"d like to know before I forward it. Thanks!

  17. massaminia says:

    It also sidesteps the fact that the purchasing power of "the masses" at that time could only be applied to the products available. Who was making the movies in which Valentino starred? Studio executives. A.K.A. "The elite." Therefore, it's not really so neat and tidy as saying that "the masses" had more buying power than "the elite" when it was "the elite" creating the entertainment in the first place. Add to that the fact that "the elite" and "the masses" are not neat and tidy categories to begin with, and yes, this is a very simplistic view of how popular culture was "born."

Comments are closed.