Celebrity obsession a symptom of powerlessness

Surely there is something wrong when a rock band guitarist falls out of a tree, gets a headache and it’s a leading news item for several days.

It would be nice to think this was just human interest in the welfare of a fellow human. But of course its not. The last time I got a headache there were no journalists camped outside, no headlines, no TV pictures and barely a word of sympathy from my nearest and dearest.

It has nothing to do with sympathy but everything to do with our so-called “celebrity culture”.

Tiger Woods makes an appearance in a rally car and officials and the media are fawning over him. Kate Moss snorts a line of cocaine and a minor frenzy of infotainment breaks out. Tom Cruise attends the birth of one of his children and says it’s a fantastic experience. There is nothing new here for the millions of men who have attended the birth of their own children but somehow it is elevated to prime time news and flashed around the globe.

It’s the same with our local celebrities. I won’t name any for fear of massaging over-inflated egos or giving a nasty blow to the fragile self esteem of those I leave out.

It’s hard not to mention Rodney Hide though. He normally dances to a Business Roundtable tune but this time he is apparently one of the “stars” in Dancing with the Stars. It’s cringe time. I think the people of Epsom deserve to have him as their MP.

The worst thing about celebrity culture is that it sells. What used to occupy the gossip columns of tawdry tabloids and the social pages of the Monday newspaper now finds itself frequently on the front pages and leading the news. By all accounts we buy more magazines when a celebrity is pictured on the cover, we turn up the TV volume to catch their actual words and we avidly read the gossip columns. And by all accounts interest in the private lives of the rich and famous and the local wannabes is increasing.

Are our lives really so boring or pathetic that we have to live them vicariously through the lives of others? Is our collective self image so poor we think less of our own lives and dreams than we do of the mindless trivia that fills the lives of the rich and famous?

Some 2000 years ago a Roman writer called Juvenal made the well known observation that “Only two things does he (the modern citizen) anxiously wish for – bread and circuses”

Is this true? Is “Dancing with the Stars” just our latest circus? It’s true that we delight in celebrities when they are on top but are merciless when they fall from grace. Is it just the same as the thumbs up or down given by the crowds at the colosseum to indicate if they wanted a gladiator or slave to be killed once they had been beaten? Probably. Watch out Rodney.

I’m no psychologist but it seems clear our celebrity obsession is a form of escapism. We live pressured, frenetic lives and when we have a break we take a lazy escape as voyeurs on the lives of others whom we assume live the kind of lives we wish for ourselves. Celebrity culture plays to our own insecurities and foibles.

Why more so now than earlier generations?  I think it parallels wider political and economic changes. We work longer hours now on average rates of pay which are 20% lower than they were 20 years ago. Most of us work for companies owned overseas who have no loyalty to New Zealand or New Zealanders and we in turn have only a functional loyalty to them through local managers. Increasingly we feel we are foreigners in our own country.

We didn’t vote for any of this. In fact we voted in 5 successive elections, from 1984 to 1996, for governments which promised one thing and delivered the other. The “other” was the unbridled free market which sees us not as citizens of a democratic community but as consumers and clients in the marketplace with little power to effect change in our lives.

We have been told, by politicians and the wealthy elite, until we are blue in the face that “there is no alternative” to the free-market. That’s rubbish of course.

We will emerge from celebrity culture when we gain the confidence to see that we can build a genuine democracy at all levels of our lives. With that kind of freedom kiwis will dance to our own tunes and dancing with the stars will be a bad memory from a bygone era.