6 November 2015

Today’s pop idols are more idolised than ever


To say that Adele’s comeback single is a hit is a bit like saying that Cristiano Ronaldo knows his way around a football pitch. ‘Hello’ is a monster: the first single to be downloaded more than a million times in a week; more than a quarter of a billion views on YouTube; the best US sales figures since ‘Candle in the Wind’.

‘Hello’ is, obviously, a very good song, and Adele is a very good singer and songwriter. Yet the focus of much of the coverage – not just among fans, but on grown-up news sites, too – hasn’t so much been on Adele’s brillance as an artist, but as a human being.

This, indeed, is one of the most fascinating things about how we treat our celebrities these days. We’ve always had a tendency to idolise our idols (the clue’s in the word). But recently, uncritical adulation appears to have become the default setting. Journalists gush over how Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran are BFFs, how they send each other the cutest little text messages. When a writer for the Sun reveals that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson of One Direction haven’t been on speaking terms for years, it isn’t enough to say he’s exaggerating – clips must be scoured for evidence that Harry and Louis and the rest of the band’s members are BROTHERS FOREVER.

Anyone who remembers artists of the past will know that this behaviour is nothing new: there have always been armies of handlers devoted to ensuring that the image presented to the fans is one of polished perfection, whatever the behind-the-scenes ructions. But there’s something more interesting going on here.

There’s long been a belief that the press are there to tear down celebrities, from insider stories of drug-taking to magazines showing shocking pics of megastars without their make-up.

But the shift to social media has changed that. People share the stories that generate emotional reactions – which means that you can get as much, if not more, traffic from being uplifting as frightening, from inducing the warm fuzzies as shivers down the spine.

Hence a new mini-genre of celebrity journalism: the reporting of absolutely anything done by Bill Murray, Taylor Swift, Tom Hanks, Adele or a laundry list of other celebs as further proof that he/she/they are creatures of such radiant goodness that the rest of us are lucky just to share the same planet with them. Such coverage is reinforced by the various celebrities’ armies of online fans: again, not a new phenomenon, but one turbo-charged by the internet.

In this new environment, the most powerful celebrities – Beyonce, for instance – can refuse to engage with the media entirely, safe in the knowledge that the carefully curated image of their own lives which they (or their people) put out will be distributed far and wide. Via Instagram or Twitter accounts, we get the illusion of intimacy, but the reality is further away than ever.

The result of all this is a mood that is love/hate in the most literal sense: public figures are presented either as wholly good or, when the mood flips, wholly evil (see, for instance, the reaction to Germaine Greer’s unfortunate comments about transgender people).

The interesting thing, of course, is that this analysis applies far beyond celebrities. Much of popular culture is based on this kind of fandom: there’s a fascinating Tumblr called Fandometrics which keeps a running tally of the strength of various tribes – counting how many people are searching for, posting about or creating content based on various celebrities, TV shows and computer games.

And it also applies, of course, to politics. When people talked about the ‘Milifandom’ during the UK general election, it was with a certain sense of ironic distance – even the teenage girls proclaiming their love for Ed Miliband, were aware that this was (or was seen as) a slightly ridiculous thing to do. But it’s not just Ed. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters have talked about building a movement. But what he, or Donald Trump, or even Nicola Sturgeon, have developed is just as much a fandom – certainly judging by the worryingly besotted behaviour of many of their adherents on Twitter.

The irony is that this kind of blind, passionate, almost adolescent worship does our idols themselves no favours. Either they buy into the publicity, or they retreat from it. But whatever their approach, it leaves no space for the human being at the heart of the myth. In a fascinating interview this week, Adele talks about being frightened by fame, about feeling like she’d lost control of her life, about how celebrities are ‘pitted against’ each other. (She also swears a lot.)

The fandom culture is unlikely to die out any time soon. We all need something, or someone, to believe in – and social media allows us to express, cultivate and reinforce that belief more effectively than ever. But having so many people put on pedestals does end up giving you a right old pain in the neck.

Robert Colvile was comment editor at the Telegraph and UK news director at BuzzFeed. He now writes on politics and technology.