Can we improve the cult of celebrity?

Sarah Byrne

At best it seems meaningless, at worst sinister. The world of celebrity gets a bad rap from many, but others remain compelled by its glamour. Condemning it won’t kill it, says Sarah Byrne. Could we improve our idols instead?

We live in a celebrity-obsessed society.

The mainstream media thrives by positioning the misdemeanours of a handful of famous people as more important, more thrilling, than global issues such as environmental disasters and financial crises.

In one sense, we can’t blame them. Our minds are unhelpfully wired to be drawn to the bitesize format of celebrity news. Reading about the antics of the seemingly high and mighty makes us feel better about our own lives; it can be cathartic. Media outlets have merely adjusted their business plans accordingly.

That said, many would agree that the energy and time invested in creating and consuming celebrity news could be more productively spent elsewhere.

But getting het up about this impasse, and about the popularity of celebrity culture in general, is counterproductive. If we want to divert people’s interest towards more important issues en masse, we cannot simply eliminate celebrity culture. Nor can we ignore the natural human impulse to seek out heroes.

Celebrities are only considered inappropriate role models because our sometimes fickle moral compass can be tricked. We can be led to believe that mimicking their sometimes insalubrious behaviour – drug taking, spending sprees and the like – will more likely lead to fame and fortune than destitution. Even as adults, we aren’t 100 per cent resistant to a bit of vicarious reinforcement.

Could their fans become a positive force, galvanised to make a difference in the world?

The solution, though, is not to remove celebrities altogether, but to learn from them and the methods celebrity culture uses to get us hooked.

A large factor at play in the success of this culture comes in the form of charm; we are charmed into caring about things that don’t affect our daily lives. One timeless medium for the delivery of this charm is through pop music and pop stars – a highly coveted and financially lucrative type of celebrity.

Pop music is a near flawless medium for communicating ideas and messages on a mass scale. For starters, the ideas are compressed into three-minute aural bursts. They also have repetition on their side. We become hooked on songs’ messages and, in turn, on the individuals communicating them.

Pop stars sell out arenas that can hold tens of thousands of people. They are like high priests for whom the audience would make huge sacrifices, and stages are their altars. In some cases this can have a negative effect but, in others, pop stars have proved powerful motivators for change. Stars such as Taylor Swift and Beyoncé have arguably done much for female empowerment, for example.

Either way, these glittery idols are effective masters of collective euphoria. If we replaced their lyrics of love and devotion with answers to life’s most agonising questions, could their fans become a positive force, galvanised to make a difference in the world? A better kind of celebrity would be someone who embodies a particular virtue especially well – the person who commits the most random acts of kindness; or the one who is most hopeful and resilient in the face of adversity; or perhaps the person who is the most empathetic, and who can most imaginatively connect with the sufferings and experiences of others.

We should avoid mocking celebrities and instead, respectfully recognise the influential role they have to play in society. We should encourage them to create shared moments of deep emotion to investigate inequality, to bring about change. These celebrities could create a new dialogue, setting solutions to important global issues as the background music to our lives.

A better kind of celebrity would be someone who embodies a particular virtue

Sarah Byrne is a writer at The School of Life, an organisation that aims to develop emotional intelligence through philosophy, literature, art and culture

Image: Sam Edwards/Getty

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