Susan Boyle, and how to become a celebrity
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.
[ 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.
[ 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.
[ 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.
[ 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- 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.
[ 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 ).
[ 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.