The way we rate people says a lot about the spirit of our society. Today we have a very strong tendency to rate people according to their fame, their wealth, their media presence. We are fascinated by superstar status. We think that some of the stardust will brush off on us too. This fascination has reached the point where our society morphs into ‘celebrocracy’.
There is some reason and logic to the celebrity phenomenon. It can correspond to contribution, capability, real achievement, and real potential. If a very capable musician becomes famous, then the celebrity label may well be a good guide of quality, and we can go to hear them confident of a good performance. Or if we are organising a musical event, we can be confident that including them in our programme will be likely to fill the hall and cover our costs. Celebrity is then like brand in the marketing of products, a quality label. In a society where there is a myriad of voices clamouring to be heard, celebrity branding makes our choices for us. Following its crowd psyche also ensures us good approval ratings from our peers.
But brand is a very limited and limiting indicator of quality. It is also often a very expensive quality measuring device. It is well known in the example of pharmaceuticals that the generic product is exactly the same as the branded product, and yet comes at a fraction of the cost. This applies to foodstuffs where the cheaper supermarket labelled product is exactly the same as the branded product because it is made by the same manufacturer. Celebrity is a circular self reinforcing phenomenon. Once someone has broken into its charmed inner circle, their audience is guaranteed and self persuaded. The process has taken over from the content, as is often the case in postmodern society.
The media and media technology are essential to the celebrity process and complicit in it. Audience ratings, readership numbers drive the frenzy. Or media manager laziness operates to reach for the same old contributor we always use. In the UK the BBC is particularly guilty, fielding the same safe set of its chosen few. Publishers are the same.
The weakness of celebrity in society is that it is a powerful concentrating force. It exaggerates the status of the few, and diminishes the scope of many other unknown contenders with talent and gift. It is imbalanced. It creates our contemporary gods, but they are false gods. Its huge weakness is that it is exclusive. And what is excluded may be substantial and so represent a substantial loss to society. There are very many equally, or very nearly equally, talented performers and contributors who are consigned to an unknown, unheard, unread, unused life. It’s all or nothing. The winner takes all. It’s possible that this powerful reality deters us from even bothering at all with the development and expression of local and personal gift.
Can we imagine a more diffused expression and engagement of talent? Arranging small scale local events? Programming and publishing unknown contributors? Choosing wider less spectacular events to patronise? Respecting content over celebrity status? All are possible but will require a new energy.
Otherwise we continue to waste a vast range of human gift and capability. Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ cogently expresses the tragedy.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
And waste its sweetness on the desert air