Viewing entries tagged
celebrity culture

Celebrity Culture

In September 2005, UWS held the 'Celebrity Culture' conference, which brought around 100 speakers to Ayr, Scotland's Riviera (according to Trip Adviser). This March, Dr Philip Drake and I have co-edited a section of Cultural Politics (BERG),  publishing a handful of those papers. You can find more here, but below is the running order. Thanks to all authors for hanging in there with us.

The Cultural Politics of Celebrity

Philip Drake and Andy Miah consider celebrity as a ubiquitous aspect of contemporary culture, mass media, and the Internet that is inextricably linked to developments in media systems that operate within capitalist systems of commodity exchange.

News, Celebrity and Vortextuality: A Study of the Media Coverage of the Michael Jackson Verdict

Gary Whannel examines the transformation of news as a cultural commodity and a social process by the expansion in the range, volume, and circulation speed of media production or what Whannel conceptualizes as 'Vortextuality' with reference to the coverage of the verdict announcement in the trial of Michael Jackson.

Unsolicited Submission

American artist David Levine’s project about unsolicited wannabe celebrity submissions to talent and other cultural agencies is a multidisciplinary and multiyear project of gathering, analysing, and archiving such unsolicited submissions in every field of cultural endeavour.

The 'Public Inquisitor' as Media Celebrity

Michael Higgins looks at the development and utility of celebrity among high-profile political interviewers, offering the revised description of 'public inquisitor' to describe the rise of the political interviewer as a celebrity form.

'As Seen on TV': The Celebrity Expert: How Taste is shaped by Lifestyle Media

Helen Powell and Sylvie Prasad examine how television, print, and advertising contribute to the construction of media stars such as Jamie Oliver whose function is to transfer knowledge of particular lifestyles to the lived experience of ordinary people.

I'm an academic, get me out of here

While programming the conference, we have thought about whether there should be a panel on academic celebrity. Perhaps Germaine Greer's brief appearance in UK Celebrity Big Brother is really at the furthest end of at least one scale and there is surely a lot to discuss about her alone. However, there are other questions, perhaps closer to serious issues for academics that are worthy of debate. For example, does increased stardom for an academic lead to alienation from the academy and colleagues? I have spoken to some colleagues concerned about perceived jealousy from other colleagues, as their 'star' ascends, not that they put it quite like that! For me, it begs the question as to what relationship academics have with the media/public. A lot of my work is about science dissemination and these questions arise a lot. In this area, there seems to be a renewed interest to think through these matters and address public engagment through the media, perhaps as science questions seem more and more serious for the public. Institutions such as The Wellcome Trust and the British Association for the Advancement of Science seem keen to address the public-scientist divide.

The recent RAE statements on broader dissemination, perhaps, urges academics to think about how they relate to the media and communicate their work. Equally, scientists have been criticised for approaching the media, before their findings have been peer reviewed. It seems to me that media scholars play a crucial role in these discussions.

It does not seem satisfactory for academics to remain within their ivory towers, dismissive of wider dissemination. However, I doubt their are few academics in the humanities and, perhaps, the social sciences, who write a press release each time they have a new article published. Admittedly, I am not convinced that they should have to either. Writing press releases can be incredibly dull and is better done by those who have the skills for this sort of task.

Clearly, academics are perhaps not celebrities in a broader sense, though scientists such as Robert Winston, Susan Greenfield and others are certainly in the public eye a great deal.

Live8, g8, Geldof, Bono, and Others

It seems important to blog something about the Live8, G8, Bob Geldof activities. I read this in one of Mick Hume's columns in Sp!ked OnLine, which captures the tensions well i think: "No doubt the pop stars and other celebrities involved in Live 8 and the Long Walk to Justice campaign see themselves as radical troublemakers, holding the politicians' feet to the flames. Yet in a sense they are more like unwitting stooges of the political class, helping to give the politicians more credibility in getting their message across. That is why government ministers and politicians of all parties have been falling over themselves to express support for Live 8. It is why chancellor Brown, not a man one would ever associate with street activism, has called on people to support the mass demonstration in Edinburgh planned to coincide with July's G8 summit of world leaders in Scotland. It is worth recalling that the Commission for Africa, which issued a highly critical report on the international community's attitude to Africa and is now commonly referred to as 'Bob Geldof's Commission', was actually set up by Blair to perform that role." (link to article)

With the G8 protests just around the corner, I doubt this will be the only entry on this subject. We still don't know how easy it will be to get to Edinbrugh on Saturday, though it seems likely that getting to Gleneagles will either be impossible or pointless. There also seems to be considerable confusion about what is happening on each day. The 'Geldof' day of the 6th is unrelated to the 'Make Poverty History' day of the 2nd.

It can be quite difficult to discern how 'important' Live8 and the G8 is for the rest of the world. We have spoken with people in Spain and the USA who have certainly not heard much about 'Make Poverty History' campaign. Over the last few weeks, the multiplex cinemas have been screening a new Orange advert featuring Ewan McGregor and the MPH work. The format is consistent with the recent Orange cinema adverts, where the celebrity makes their film pitch to the Orange funding committee.

How Arnold Won the West

A couple of weeks ago, the local art cinema screened this documentary made by Alex Cooke. There was a brief introduction from a local journalist who was, not suprisingly, a little alarmed at the state of California. The documentary seems to pursue this peculiar charcater, deliberately highlighting its wackiness - somehow it makes sense that The Terminator is Governor here. In fact, in one of the crucial candidate debates, Arnie even throws in a few one liners from his movies. Aside from the prostitute candidate, that guy from Different Strokes, and a range of superheroes who were interviewed for the documentary, this is a really regular film! Actually, it seems a little too gratitutious, as if some commissioning editor has just experienced a Eureka moment when realizing that Arnie might one day become Precident. The celebrity as spectacle finds its paradigmatic case through this film, but it also feels a little like the bottom has dropped out of protest-documentary making, which was disappointing. There is no protest here, message here, except 'weird, huh?'.

I much preferred the Spike Lee short 'We Wuz Robbed', which was 10 times shorter (and not about Arnie's governorship). Watchable, if only to witness how lazy documentary making might become, though I am sure it was not an easy film to assemble.

Manchester Institute for Popular Culture

It's not often that you see an academic conference review in the Guardian, but this week, the meeting at the Manchester Institute for Popular Culture attracted the interest of writer Grace Gent. The article discusses a symposium on The Smiths held at the MIPC. Here's a link to the review.

David Beckham

The conference on David Beckhan, due to take place in the summer of this year at University College Winchester has been cancelled! Andrew Blake, head of cultural studies at UCW is quoted by the Guardian saying: "We were mildly surprised by the lack of interest in our call for papers - we have found it far easier to stimulate interest in conferences on Walter Benjamin and King Arthur, and we don't anticipate problems next year in recruiting for a conference on film violence, or the following year on Sherlock Holmes," (Blake, cited in McLeod, D (2005, April 19) The Guardian,)

Has Beckham really lost it? A couple of years ago, you could not move for conversations about David Beckham. Ellis Cashmore's book 'Beckham' might well have closed the pages on this topic

Jamie Oliver

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver recently launched a new campaign to transform the food system in UK schools. The climax of the campaign came when he had the chance to 'convince' Charles Clarke to add a bit of extra dosh to the school food budget. Ffootage describes Jamie's plight as his life long ambition within the food industry; to make people healthier and cooler through eating ‘pukka’ food (not the pies). I was fortunate enough to catch some of the essential, governmental conversations that took place around this subject. Yet, the meeting with Charles Clarke needs unpacking. Is Labour aligning itself with the simple ideals of a popular celebrity or being made to look subservient to the protests of this peculiar individual? Was it a coincidence that Labour announced its change in lunch plans for children on the same day that Jamie went to Downing Street, or is it useful for Labour to capitalise on this link given the impending election? How is governmental policy shaped by the celebrity activist? What is the role of the docu-film in this process? Many questions.


In the summer of 2004, Lance Armstrong worked his fan-base like no other athlete. He returned to competition, after beating testicular cancer and won another Tour de France. He also launched a charity cancer campaign and published another best selling autobiography. I first came across the LIVESTRONG™ campaign in a Nike town store in San Francisco. At the cash register, the LIVESTRONG™ rubber bands were there in handfuls. They cost only $1 and, at that moment, I thought that this seemed to be an interesting initiative: a charity marketed through the celebrity of someone who had all the characteristics of a hero, accompanied by an attention to style. However, I did not purchase one. Over the course of the summer, LIVESTRONG™ mania caught on around the world. Even a year after they emerged, people can still be seen on the streets wearing them. My next encounter with these rubber bands occurred a month later at the NikeTown store in London, similarly stylish and rubber band aplenty. Accompanying them was a wide range of Lance Armstrong ‘yellow’ clothing. By this point – the end of July – he had won the Tour de France for yet another time. Feeling part of the vibe, I made my purchase proud that I was helping cancer research with my measly £1 (they are a little dearer in the UK, due to the currency conversion). Convincing oneself that cancer research is cool is so much easier when you don’t have to pin a ribbon to your designer jacket, not that I wear such lavish items. But, you see my point; LIVESTRONG™ appeals both on the level of celebrity endorsement and as a sufficiently subtle fashion accessory. Pins are just a little too much of a statement about beliefs, or too much of an inconvenience to wear.

A couple of weeks later, LIVESTRONG™ was most visible from the footage at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, where a number of athletes wore these rubber bands around their wrists, which surely helped to raise the profile of the campaign. Back in the UK, subsequent weeks would demonstrate the aftermath of LIVESTRONG™. Young children could be seen wearing them, along with a range of similarly coloured counterfeits. The press coverage of LIVESTRONG™ had developed its own momentum. For example, Prince William can be seen wearing the band in a range of photographs about his impending adulthood.

An additional consequence, at least within the UK, has been the emergence of many other kinds of rubber band. We have a blue one that represents a stand against bullying, allegedly prohibited from schools because wearers were bullied! There is also a black and white set of bands – two intertwined – which represents opposition to racism (also a Nike initiative). Most recently, UK Prime Minster Tony Blair has been photographed wearing the ‘Make Poverty History’ blue band. The list goes on, to a point where some schools have banned students from wearing them, because children would have an arm full of rubber bands, which, like jewellery, is seen to be risky to wear in schools

Hitler and the Pope

Last night, it was announced that the Pope, John Paul II, was preparing to die. We left the media to play it out, setting the video to record the entire evening, seeking that moment of catastrophe that only the news presenter can now convey to us. It was not clear how much time he had left, but the news would suggest only hours, as they continue to do today. It is now around 6pm and the coverage has become considerably more measured and expectant, though it is likely that he will continue for another night. After setting the video, we proceeded out to the cinema, where we watched the long-awaited German film, The Downfall. It tells the story of Adolf Hitler’s final days, as the war is about to end. As I was watching the portrayal of this historic figure, I could not help but compare the life and character of this man with the contrasting greatness of John Paul II. While a comparison of this kind might appear to be grossly untasteful, there does seem to be something meaningful about their different iconic status. There seems first something terribly interesting about Downfall. The film maintains a dignified encounter with the terror and grade of this figure and one finds compelled by his vision. There also seems something very authentic about its having been made by a German production company, which further reinforces its importance as a statement about how far we have come in dealing with this forgettable past.

To this extent, the fading of the Pope is similarly moving for me, an agnostic at best. One feels the need for people to gather and reclaim some sense of the spiritual and non-trivial celebrity whose character – for better or worse – is based on something sincere and real. This is what they both represent. This is why Hitler’s Downfall is reminiscent of the Pope’s death and both are played-out through their respective fictional spaces - for the Pope BBC News 24, for Hitler, The Downfall.