by Mike Vinti

Popular culture today is dominated by one thing — the celebrity. Be they actors, musicians, reality TV stars, or vloggers, celebrities are the most visible benchmark of our culture. Yet it seems we don’t really know what to do with them. We proclaim them as role models in the media yet the same outlets feast on their personal failures; we attack them for squandering their platform, yet criticise those who use it for some perceived good. They symbolise both everything we love and everything we hate about late capitalist society.

Celebrities are by no means a new phenomenon and since the birth of popular music, celebrity status has been part of the territory for successful musicians. Yet with the ever pervasive influence of the internet, more and more people are becoming celebrities, so maybe it’s time we had a conversation about their role in society?

From Audrey Hepburn to Bono, there’s always a celebrity lending their name and face to some cause or other, sometimes to great effect. As a society we know that much of the advocacy these celebrities do genuinely helps people, yet we can’t shake the feeling that a lot of them are in it for the wrong reasons, seeking to promote their brand as celebrities as much as to help those in need.

These anxieties stem from the post-modern conception of the celebrity itself. The celebrity in the 21st century is a crystallisation of our desire to be remembered and our desire to help, two goals which, under current socio-economic conditions, are rarely synonymous.

As a society, we project our insecurities onto celebrities — our prejudices surrounding gender and race, our confused social values, and sometimes even our role in foreign affairs are understood, to some degree or another, through celebrities.  Our morality manifests in the idea of ‘role models’, where those in the spotlight are placed under enormous pressure to  justify their fame by being model citizens and adhering to values they never professed to hold. In place of myths and morality tales we have paparazzi scoops and sex tapes.

Recently it was reported that Tony Iommi, guitarist of metal legends Black Sabbath, had penned an appeal to the president of Indonesia, hoping to prevent the execution of two Australians found guilty of drug trafficking. This is the kind of celebrity intervention into politics we’re used to and the one that is most often lambasted by both the general public and the media.

In place of myths and morality tales we have paparazzi scoops and sex tapes.

(© bravewords)

The argument goes that Tony Iommi, being from Birmingham rather than Australia or Indonesia, doesn’t really have the legitimacy to advocate on behalf of these men and can be read as a textbook case of cultural imperialism; the west riding on its white, or in this case black, horse to challenge a non-western society’s values. However Iommi’s involvement in this particular case becomes more complex considering the fact that the president of Indonesia, one Joko Widodo, is a huge fan of heavy metal.

The music we listen to plays a huge role in shaping our values and the metal community in particular holds ideas of fraternity in high regard. Until my late teens I was an active member of the metal scene and found it to be incredibly welcoming of people from all walks of life. Figures like Iommi are demi-gods to those seriously into metal and represent an alternative form of celebrity; one in which they are respected and placed on a pedestal but as musicians rather than individuals. Their lives are not scrutinised in the same fashion as say, Kim Kardashian or Beyoncé.

The music we listen to plays a huge role in shaping our values and the metal community in particular holds ideas of fraternity in high regard.

Iommi is not alone in appealing to the president either.  Barney Greenway, frontman of grindcore pioneers Napalm Death, also wrote a letter to Widodo appealing for the two men’s release.  Widodo’s self-proclaimed fandom of both Napalm Death and Sabbath means that this is not just case of celebrities inserting themselves into politics for good PR, but one in which musical taste has taken on a political relevance and, if the president were to reverse his decision, literally saved lives. Iommi and Greenway’s appeals to the President of Indonesia, represent an alternative model of celebrity.

(© billboard)

Iommi and Greenway’s appeals to the President of Indonesia, represent an alternative model of celebrity.

The significance of their letters to Widodo will not be that they’re rich or glamorous, Napalm Death being as far from glamorous as you can probably ever get, but that he respects them as creators and artists. They’re individuals that through their music have helped shape his values in some way or another and provided a lens through which to understand life’s complexities.

Similarly, Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Robert Del Nadja of Massive Attack recently scored the new documentary The UK Gold. Their compositions are inspired by the world of tax avoidance and corruption exposed in the film itself and Yorke has come out in the press criticising our current government many times. Both Radiohead and Massive Attack are hugely important bands and Yorke is undeniably a celebrity, but both groups have consistently shied away from the ‘rock star’ status afforded to their contemporaries; preferring instead to use their fame to push the boundaries between music, politics, and other forms of art.

Celebrities show no sign of going anywhere and there are those out there that prove that the status afforded to them can help break down boundaries between art and politics. Instead of focusing on them as individuals, we should think about what the cultural figure we give celebrity status say about us as a society. If we truly want moral, politically nuanced figureheads in popular culture, then why is so much of celebrity culture deliberately the opposite?

If we truly want moral, politically nuanced figureheads in popular culture, then why is so much of celebrity culture deliberately the opposite?

Our obsession with the grizzly details of celebrities’ personal lives has distracted us from the wider issue which is that the whole idea of celebrity has become more important than the art itself. In a culture that promotes fame as a career path, those with the resources to live the celebrity lifestyle become the celebrities and those without are left behind. Their values and viewpoint on the world with them.

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