IN POPULAR REPRESENTATIONS OF STARDOM/ CELEBRITY, THE STAGING OF ‘REVELATIONS’ SETS UP THE PROMISE OF ESTABLISHING THE STAR’S AUTHENTICITY BEYOND THEIR PUBLIC IMAGE.’ WHY IS THE SEARCH FOR ‘THE AUTHENTIC’ CULTURALLY SIGNIFICANT?
The matter of authenticity in our so called post-modern society is of great interest, in that it cuts through a number of satellite issues: in a media saturated age, it relates to art, audience reception, democracy, accessibility to information, education, politics and so on. The point is that with the rising importance of Fourth Estate, in its dialectics with ideology, it becomes harder and harder to discern the fake from the real, the authentic from the manufactured.
In what follows, I will introduce modern ideas on culture and technology, with the purpose of setting the background for a discussion of the role of stars in the economy of cultural production.
After a brief discussion of the ordinary/ extra-ordinary dichotomy, I will move on to two examples that will illustrate how staged revelations work to establish the star’s alleged authenticity.
I will then consider the latest developments TV content, which will bring me to my conclusion, where I intend to draw a map of the cultural significance of such quest for authenticity.
To talk of stars in contemporary culture we need to address the fundamental characteristics of the field in which stardom as a system operates: the media.
Walter Benjamin, in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, introduces the concept of ‘aura’ in order to discuss its decay in contemporary times. Because of the ease with which work of art can be reproduced due to significant technological improvements, he comes to a conclusion on which, sadly, I have to agree, on a general level. In the age of mechanical reproduction of works of art, “the greater the decrease in the social significance of an art form, the sharper the distinction between criticism and enjoyment by the public. The conventional is uncritically enjoyed, and the truly new is criticised with aversion” (Benjamin: 1999, 227). Adorno makes a similar argument, even though the two are critical of each other. In The Culture Industry, he talks of an art production system that is holds extensive similarities to a Fordist system, where avant-garde art is the only hope for original and authentic outputs. Let us take this as our starting critical analysis.
From the ‘50s onwards, the media were expanding ever so rapidly and became more accessible to the population. Their influence therefore grew stronger in all strata of Western society, and it manifestly helped to shape the changes in which we perceive our world.
The media are definitely no exception to capitalistic rule – especially being born out of technology and as one of its major instruments of self-perpetuation.
Stars, the visual core of media intervention, are treated like no other than one more for of labour, with the purpose of further capital accumulation. As McDonals (2000) suggests, are therefore one more capitalistic tool to increase their sales by presenting a glitzy and glamorous world that, through a promotion of a specific ideology, makes the audience strive to become part of the star elite. It is for this reason that it is of major importance that every aspect of a star’s public life is staged to perfection.
Andy Warhol, the pop artist par excellence, conceptualised this with his famous statements that everybody can have their 15 minutes of fame. As Gamson, quoting an article hat appeared in the most authoritative American music magazine, Rolling Stone, puts forward, “no self-respecting modern person should be without 15 minutes’ worth of the props, costumes and condiments that are vital to the maintenance of fame.” (Gamson: 1994, 49). This image of the achievability of stardom, Dyer suggests, finds a parallel in the utopia (arguably) of the American Dream, “organised around the themes of consumption, success and ordinariness.” (Dyer: 1998, 35)
It can be argued without too much concern for disagreement, that the media have become able to build fantasy worlds and make them look real. And like in the real world, stars have to be made look real, in that they “represent the ideological values of wealth, freedom and individualism on which a consumer economy is built.” (McDonald: 2000, 56)
As Rojek suggest in Celebrity (2001), the media can facilitate three stages in a star’s life: elevation, descent (where the audience is offered with the pleasure of seeing a star being eroded) and, eventually, redemption. To the purpose of our discussion, we will here be concerned mainly with the elevation process.
This scheme of the motivations and workings of the media should start to shed some light on the question of authenticity.
In order to take a star through Rojek’s suggested stages, the media need some tools, one of them being the staging of revelations. Whilst such revelations can be of a dual nature (to either elevate the star or ignite his/her descent), and both, I argue, are part of the system itself: in order to make an audience want something really eagerly, the media need to make the audience aware that it can also go away.
Talking about the developments of the staging of authenticity, Gamson suggests that revelations served so that “The public could discover and make famous certain people because it (with the help of the magazines) could see through the publicity-generated, artificial self to the real, deserving, special self. The distrust of public fronts was undercut by the promise of the private life exposed. The story of celebrity as a natural phenomenon rewarding the deserving was joined – quite shakily – with the story of celebrity as an artificial product.” (Gamson: 1994, 34)
The press and publicity industry that satellites around the celebrity will make try sure that revelations are staged to the advantage of the business. Such staging will imply that the revelations (it does not matter whether true or false) will boost the star’s authentic image, and this will be achieved through the “use of markers that indicate lack of control, lack of premeditation and privacy” (Gledhill: 1991, 137)
To understand the varying extent of such form of lack, let us think of the process as a sound mixing machine: the buttons will be moved up or down accordingly to what stage the star is at in his/her professional life.
The main buttons are those of the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘extra-ordinary’. Stars are obviously in an extra-ordinary position, but to sustain their performance they have to engage in ordinariness. Rojek talks of the modern ideology of the ‘common man’ that has taken the place of kingship and religion,
A great example of the dialectics I just pointed out is Jennifer Lopez’s latest film release campaign. Lopez is to many extents the best achieved embodiment of a contemporary star: a dancer, a singer, an actress, a face for numerous cosmetics, and owns her own clothing label. She sings at the Grammys, a few weeks presents an Oscar, she on the cover of a number of magazines simultaneously, she is fashion icon and always makes sure she has an ‘interesting’ personal life to fill up the celebrity press.
Not long before the release of her latest film, Maid in Manhattan, Lopez released her latest single, titled I’m Real. The search for authenticity could not be more straightforward than that. The lyrics tell of a simple girl from Harlem, who believed in her (American) dream and made it – but most importantly, while she became part of an extraordinary elite, she stayed ‘grounded’ in her ordinary, humble origins. A perfect cross-promotion for the film story of a maid in Manhattan for whom another dream becomes reality: falling in love with a rich man. Such thematic and biographical associations are part of the movie industry’s strive to stereotype its stars (Gledhill: 1991, 40). The ultimate goal being the establishment of Lopez’s authenticity, we ought to bear in mind that such stereotyping is not fixed, rather a changing style that can ignite contradictions, which will eventually constantly revamp her image.
Another example of a media personality in the process of becoming a star is Kelly Osbourne, who, from the start of the MTV hit series The Osbournes, has enjoyed an unprecedented media attention. The show was a great launch platform for her music career – being filmed with her family in their home, reality TV style. Whilst therefore giving the greatest feeling of authenticity, we need to bear in mind that firstly, the Osbourne family knew of the cameras and certainly played up to whatever image they wanted to come across, and secondly that the show was edited to further that image – and the contract the Osbournes drew with MTV allowed them to have a final say on each show before it was aired.
We are presented here with a clear example of ‘manufactured authenticity’, which, as argued by most theorists of stardom, is the only type of authenticity that can be achieved in contemporary celebrity culture.
Heat magazine (29 March – 4 April 2003 issue) features a 4 pages interview with Kelly, titled ‘I got dumped on Valentine’s Day – it completely broke my heart’; opposite the title, a full page picture of her wearing a pink sweatshirt and melancholic, looking out of a window. The juxtaposition of the two obviously serves to make the readers empathise with her, and the authenticity of her feelings, which are certainly true, but the constructed form they come in has to deserve our significant attention.
To round up my discussion on manufactured/ mediated authenticity, and before moving on to a critical assessment of its cultural significance, I want to develop a little further the discourse on reality TV. The latest media phenomenon, reality TV has pushed the dialectics of private/ public and ordinary/extraordinary to yet another extreme.
The list of reality TV shows all over the Western world is consistent: Big Brother, The Salon, The club, to cite but a few. These shows are built up on two motives: giving the audience the illusion that truly everybody can become famous, just for being that ‘common man’, for being ordinary, and achieving the maximum degree of authenticity. With Celebrity Big Brother, the already known stars give up completely their private life to jump into the public arena for a week, in a way that seems contradictory, in that it cancels out one of the postulates of celebrity status, i.e. the very dialectics of private/public, and maximises the intrusion of cameras into people’s lives. Advertised as all for a good cause (raising money for charity) nonetheless, the show makes great profit, viewers call in paying a higher cost for their calls, and advertisers love it. The capitalist business cycle continues.
Coming towards a conclusion, we have already pointed out the issues of greater cultural significance in the search for authenticity. But let us now recapitulate and expand them briefly.
We have seen how establishing a sense of the star’s authenticity serves to attract the audience and make them feel like they can relate better to the star, with the industry’s ultimate goal of promoting their product to purely increase sales. Being the star a form of capital, it is important that his/her image is solidly built not only at times of releases, but throughout his/her entire career span, in order to keep her market value high, job of the PR and publicity team. It is important that the star’s public image is not completely disconnected from his/her personal life, or his/her roles will not suscitate enough interest. As Dyer expresses it, the star needs to intervene “between the authenticity of his own life, of his own self and its past as known to himself (and as known or assumed at least in part to the audience) and the authenticated life of the character he is playing” (Dyer: 1998, 20)
Also, in such ‘society of the spectacle’ (to borrow from Guy Debord), it is fundamental that the star gains as much exposure as possible, in order to fight competition.
The fact that these personas are completely manufactured and mediated is a significant characteristic that relates to the spirit of our age, of which Benjamin and Adorno, as we pointed out earlier, were some predominant critics. In such age, even authenticity has taken a different shade of meaning if mediated, bringing forward a further contradiction: “Just as the media are constructed as the very antithesis of sincerity and authenticity, they are the source for the presentation of the epitome of those qualities, the true star” (Dyer in Gledhill: 1991, 135)
Also, the idea of the allegedly democratic rise and fall of celebrities corresponds the notion of ‘uncertainty’ of the postmodern era, where rationally we can strive for the American Dream but opinion forces can then destroy it. The star system therefore comes across as totally manufactured, as embodying dreams and events that are unreal and manufactured, with the ultimate goal of selling the audience marketed commodities, which fits conventions on Postmodernity that see rationality (or its illusion) as both technical and economic, pragmatically harsh, a power-strive to succeed without wastage of any sort.
I would like to conclude with a passage from Dyer’s Stars (1989: 17-18), which I feel sums up what discussed throughout this piece.
“Stars represent typical ways of behaving, feeling and thinking in contemporary society, ways that have been socially, culturally and historically constructed.
Much of the ideological investment of the star phenomenon is in the stars seen as individuals, their qualities seen as natural. I do not wish to deny that there are individuals, nor that they are grounded in the given facts of the human body. But I do wish to say that what makes them interesting is the way in which they articulate the business of being an individual, something that is, paradoxically, typical, common, since we all, in Western society, have to make sense of their lives, and indeed through which we make our lives – categories of class, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and so on.”
McDonald, Paul The Star System (London : Wallflower, 2000)
Rojek, Chris Celebrity (London: Reaktion, 2001)
Dyer, Richard Stars
Dyer, Richard Heavenly Bodies
Gamson, Joshua Claims to Fame (California: University of California Press, 1994)
Gledhill, Christine Stardom Industry of Desire (London: Routledge, 1991)
Heat (29 March – 4 April 2003 issue)