REPRINT: A STAR IS BORN

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How global activism, pop culture and social media merge to shape the next generation of superstars.

If you want to know how famous somebody is, google it. Now, this is certainly not anything new and the ability to attract and direct attention has constituted the very definition of celebrity from the start. Fame is beholden to three main factors: influence, visibility and relevancy, and of the three, relevancy is the kingmaker. It is the essential compo-nent in superstardom and the catalyst that drives fame. Maintaining it is, and always has been, everything. How to keep that wheel rolling, however, has changed drastically in the last decade. In 2010 Facebook made the epochal shift from “private by default” to “public by default,” and in doing so, flooded the information landscape. At the same time, Instagram was born, and just prior to that, Twitter introduced the retweet. All at once, everyone and everything was everywhere. With the technology to create, proliferate, and consume content at our fingertips, the effect was wholesale. Anyone could make it if they wanted to, and make it big. In 1968 Andy Warhol prophesied that in the future, everyone would be world-famous for 15 minutes. A half century later, those clairvoyant words have never rung so true. Warhol understood humankind’s obsession with the fleeting and ephemeral and saw the breakdown of traditional hierarchies of representa-tion. Though he would never live to see it, viral video and meme culture have indeed brought a contingent of overnight superstars to life. As we wade into the age of total recollection, outliving that hallowed 15 minutes requires more work than ever. When it all hinges on the direction you swipe, it is curious that the megastars of the 20s do not appear precari-ous but rather unassail-able, and seem to have achieved an unparalleled level of stardom. Social media is by nature gladia-torial, but a select few are showing that they can hold our collective gaze beyond those 15 minutes by owning it and reflecting it back in their image.

Fame –
is beholden to three
main factors:
INFLUENCE, VISIBILITY and RELEVANCY,

and of the three,
Relevancy
is the Kingmaker.

 

In 2012, there was a short-lived TV show called Internet Icon, the premise was simple: YouTubers would compete in an X Factor-style gauntlet to see who could win our views. The project was doomed to failure as the content was outdated from the outset and the show was a misunderstanding of our consumption of entertainment in the digital age. But it serves as a good example of the difference between the old fame and the new. The fact is, even though technology has made fame seem moreattainable, only a select few have been able to hold our attention over time.

WELCOME to the attention economy:
Where fame is fickle, except when it’s not.

In a media- and informa-tion-saturated world, many platforms such as Instagram and TikTok are actively aggregated to promote and facilitate nothing more than a quick glance at content, making attention even harder to gain. Still, entering this new decade, there are three names at the tip of everyone’s tongue: BILLIE EILISH, KYLIE JENNER, and GRETA THUNBERG. These three young women are undoubtedly the most famous and successful people in their respective fields right now. Of the three, only Jenner was born before the year 2000. What they share, is the secret to their fame: authenticity and relatability. Welcome to the attention economy: where fame is fickle, except when it’s not. Kylie Jenner became the world’s youngest billionaire at the age of 21, and though she certainly got a leg-up from her place in the Kardashian-Jenner dynasty, she actually built her own company and made her vast wealth in cosmetics. In November 2019, Kylie sold 51% of Kylie Cosmetics to industry giant Coty for $600 million. Upon closing the deal, Coty Chairman Peter Harf declared, “Kylie is a modern-day icon, with an incredible sense of the beauty consumer.” It is that sense which is key to her success. Kylie cap-tured the attention of an entire generation through her long and personal Instagram captions. Aged 17, Billie Eilish swept the board at this year’s Grammy awards. She ran away with Best New Artist, Best Song, Best Record, and Best Album practically unop-posed, becoming the first woman ever to take home the Big Four in one swoop, and the second artist ever to achieve that. What’s more, the teenage sensation will add these accolades to a bedroom shelf already buckling under the weight of thirteen platinum records and three gold ones to boot. Though it feels like she cropped up over-night, Billie has been an active singer/songwriter for the last four years and garnered her con-siderable audience outside of the main-stream, on Soundcloud, where she competed with names such as Lil Peep and Juice WRLD. Like Kylie, it is on social media that Billie became the world’s biggest popstar. For many across the globe, she is the archetypal anti-star, and if her social media feeds read like the journal of a teenage girl, that’s because it is. Then there is Greta. At just 16, the Swedish activist was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. Greta’s skolstrejk för klimatet was respon-sible for the mobilization of millions of young people around the globe. The urgency with which people have rallied to her call is frankly unprece-dented, and only compa-rable to the waves of mass protest that came to define the 1960s. Barely one and a half years since she first sat down, alone, outside the Swedish parliament with a cardboard sign and a granite scowl, Greta has locked horns with the president of the United States and addressed the World Economic Forum, armed with only the courage of youth, not to mention over four million voices in solidarity.

What is interesting is how the new generation of GLOBAL SUPERSTARS is able to capture and maintain ATTENTION given the information climate that we live in, and the key to this is in each individual’s ability to create and own their own image.

She has succeeded in doing what no other person has ever been able to do – calling out the world’s elite on rights and responsibilities. She has been memed to high hell in the process, her message has been co-opted, tangentialized, repurposed and transformed, but she has risen above, and she has done so – of all places – on Twitter. If focusing on acco-lades, awards and cold hard cash seems very old fame, then that’s because it is. It is not so much that these three women strad-dle two worlds in an era of turbulent handover of significance from old to new, but rather that these institutions latch on to them in the hope that by showering them in riches, they, too, might be taken along for the ride. Greta Thunberg is to Time Magazine what the aeroplane is to the horse – exponential in their worlds apart. Old celebrity, of the Time Magazine ilk, is broadly separable into three categories. There is the ascribed, which is inherited from famous parents or relatives. The achieved, become famous solely on the basis of their talent. And, finally, the attributed, or those who garner vast swathes of media or public attention. The culture born from these strata is at once
a commodity system, an industry, and a narrative, as well as a participatory culture, in which the commodity at stake is embodied attention. What is interesting is how the new generation of global superstars is able to capture and maintain attention given the nformation climate that we live in, and the key to this is in each individual’s ability to create and own their own image. For the most part, celebrities in the past had little control over their public persona. Gossip magazines were created to give a glimpse of the private lives of stars which audiences craved, much in the way that Instagram influencers do today. These representations of celebrity ‘real’ life were, and are, predominantly scripted. Keeping Up with the Kardashians is staged, and Kylie earns upwards of $1 million for each spon-sored Instagram post. The difference comes in our perception of vulnerability when the words appear to come directly from the horse’s mouth. On both TV and Instagram, Kylie displays a stylized pastiche of real-life anxi-ety. And… anxiety sells. Similarly, Billie the anti- hero and Greta, whose Aspergers syndrome is often linked to her steely resolve, show us that it is imperfection rather than perfection that gets our approval in these most capricious of times.

THE SECRET to their fame: authenticity and relatability

People’s social media identities are constructed much like a theatrical performance, with careful-ly chosen scenes and costumes to project a desired impression and drive a certain narrative. In social media, this ‘front stage’ behavior is what initially draws the audience in. But where you become relatable is when you take them backstage – it is the show of authenticity which establishes credibility, creates engagement and an emotional connection with the audience, and generates loyalty to the content creator. Backstage behavior provides the perception of access to a glimpse of personal life through staged intimacy. Yet it would be disin-genuous to disparage the successes of these three young ladies as branding exercises since they are all, to some extent, self-made icons who achieved their fame through hard work and determination. Kylie is by far the wealthi-est member of her family and her business is her own. Billie is a genuinely talented young singer whose post-genre inter-pretation of pop music was made in her bedroom and struck a chord with hun-dreds of thousands of young people before she was picked up by a major label. Greta – who got what every young person wants: the attention of adults – has always been at pains to remove herself from the story of climate change as much as the media has been at pains to keep her at the center of it. At its best, social media fulfills its initial function of allowing people to speak their minds and all three do, independently of whether it also drives a PR machine. When Kylie broadcasts her joy of being a mother or anxiety over two-year-old Stormi to the world, you would have to be deeply cynical to believe that no part of that is true. In our totally digital age, it is the blemishes that distinguish the new stars from the old and help us to identify with them. Warhol saw the art in the everyday, and in capturing the mundane, turned us onto certain truths about society. This is where a new generation of young stars may succeed – in speaking their own truth, and truth to power. This is how authenticity and relatability can drive digital celebrity and lead us out of apathy. Activism and celebrity pack a powerful punch. Though clicktivism has long been a buzzword for lazy and half-hearted virtue signaling, there is no denying that online activ-ism was instrumental in driving Fridays for Future and the recent student demonstrations in Hong Kong. There is a real honesty in what Greta does that translates to the streets, just as Billie’s music resonates most strongly in the hearts and minds of a disaffected generation. We would do well to heed the message, not harsh on the media.

ANXIETY SELLS.

 

 

Text by Damien Cummings
This is taken from our S/S 2020 issue on ‚Birth‘ 

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