I wanna live forever,
I wanna learn how to fly…high!
What makes fame such an attractive prospect?
Perhaps our egos are allured by the chance for immortality as our names are written in the stars. Or we learn to believe it’s a golden ticket to an easy life, creating access to luxuries, riches and doting entourages. Whatever we might feel about fame and the people we have coined the famous, they are topics on which most of us will carry a strong point of view: eliciting either the groans of deep desire or cynicism.
There was a time before our every attention was sought by incessant screens and we didn’t treat our identities as personal design projects to be publicly displayed across social media. In this nostalgic time, our every waking moment was not filled with idealised images of others. If we chose to bring images into our house they tended to be icons of our chosen religion or valued works of art.
Pictorial fame is largely a modern invention; the famous of the past known primarily via their words, deeds or myths. As such, their presence in our days would have been very different to the modern famous, who ride on a number of confusing paradoxes: ubiquitous yet exclusive, real people abstracted into commodities.
Nowadays it is difficult to avoid some form of interaction with fame before we leave the house each morning: incessant social media feeds where we foster our own fame and reflect on others’; news of the famous and their deeds or misdeeds stream from the clock radio, television or online news feeds.
Once outside, the advertising world encroaches ever more aggressively on our daily sight-lines, ensuring we remain addicted to the material world and their iconic sales-people Through sheer persistence if nothing else, the famous are a class of people we cannot be free of – and, in truth, most of us wouldn’t wish to be.
For where else can we locate today’s moral compass? Their scandals and vices allow us to touch our dark fantasies without ever needing to live them out ourselves – or getting the necessary justification to do so. Their generous deeds and stories of charity allow us to feel a connection to the good being done in the world, encouraging us either to join them or allowing the guilt surrounding our privilege to be cleared out for a time.
This compass used to be located elsewhere: in lessons handed out by older members of tightly-knit communities; in morals inherited from the nuclear family; and in obedient reading of religious books. But as the interconnectivity of individuals to their immediate communities and traditions wain for myriad reasons relating to urbanisation, migration and work culture, our frames of reference have shifted towards the mass media.
Screens which flicker advertisements sit where shrines to holy deities once did. We have learned to become materially aspirational. Like it or not, the cult of the famous arrived for a reason; it has become the religion of our time.
But why desire fame for ourselves?
Visibility is arguably a foundational element of our identities. As poet David Whyte declares, to be human is to become visible. Visibility relates to the ways in which the world perceives and permits our presence as unique individuals rather than as troubled guests. Simply put, if you are not seen you cannot be in dialogue and if you are not in dialogue then, as Mary Oliver notes, how will you hear the world announcing your place in the family of things? Visibility fundamentally matters to us and the famous are the most visible of us.
But with seven billion individuals vying for the finite amount of attention available, achieving our visibility through the spectacles of fame is part of an unrealistic and potentially tragic narrative of what our life should be. Failure and disappointment must consume the majority of those who chase visibility this way – it’s mathematically impossible to be otherwise.
And even if we were to get the 15-minutes Warhol predicted for each of us, what of the millions of other minutes that constitute our life? Should we be more concerned with fostering our long-term visibility, or is right to pin it on a short-lived, climactic flash?
With such long-odds, the dangled carrot becomes ever more alluring and prized. The famous become even more desirable: a special breed worthy of our attention and critique. We see how they are afforded a different way of living and particularly as we experience our typical quotidian besiegement, that other world in the stars looks awful tempting. It’s its scarcity and its exclusivity which make us want it more.
So what would we be willing to do for fame?
The idealistic amongst us may stalwartly state that it is only a meritocratic fame we desire – one built on the foundations of skills we have worked hard to master. This is fame we feel unquestionably deserving of and for which we can feel justifiably special.
But for this to happen, certain ingredients must synchronise. First we must cultivate our skills to the point of expertise, (the 10,000 hours hypothesis made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s in The Tipping Point), and then those skills must be relevant to and revered by our current culture.
Our individual excellence alone is not enough. It must also combine with some greater desire in the wider society. Many posthumously famous artists had unfortunately poor timing and died in poverty. Now we say they were ‘before their time’ as if would bring solace to their needless, already lived, plight.
But what if we are to be suddenly shoved into the limelight undeservedly or even unwillingly, thrust out of the crowd mainly by luck or chance. In the era of YouTube, where our fame is measured in video hits and anonymous likes, a dose of fame is as likely to come in ways we’d rather not be made visible.
The obscure skill, the quintessential example of stupidity or the unwittingly-recorded natural reaction (have you seen the sneezing panda?) are all contemporary routes to the most available and particularly one-dimensional type of fame. In it we become devoid of our complexities as unique human beings – we are just that guy who did that stupid / unusual / hilarious thing.
Yet despite this potential for reduction, if we could become famous this way, would we still go along with it willingly?
Well, that partly depends on what we wish fame to bring us. This type of fame is unlikely to lead us to either live forever (be remembered) or fly very high at all (become exclusive). It is more likely to last the duration of a typical crowd-surf, poignantly ending either in the dirt below the stage, back in the forgettable masses or in the rough grasp of righteous authorities. I’m not sure this is the type of fame Irene Cara or the cast of Fame were getting so excited about.
If living forever is a fundamental attraction of fame then it may be worth noting how others have achieved it. Whether we see the following as advice will depend greatly on whether our priority is just being remembered or being remembered in an exclusively positive light.
You see the infamous are remembered far better than the famous, because at the root of infamy is a moral lesson. The infamous have typically acted outside of an accepted moral compass and this causes them to be remembered as both a referential frame for behaviour and as an irrefutable fascination in the forbidden. The infamous are held up as models of how not to act and they are remembered in order for us to retain this learning.
Another difference is how the infamous are duly punished. Ironically, this is is the making of their infamy. It is a paradox of our relationship to infamy: we may not wish to glamourise their actions yet there is a necessity to make them memorable enough so as to act as a suitable deterrent. Yet the result of making the infamous infamous is that they become the barometers of their society’s moral values.
Outliving the famous, the infamous, who we choose to separate as the most reprehensible of us, are thus ironically more likely to be the representatives of our society that we send into the future. Our recall of despots is far better than the comparably good leaders of their time. While we try and remember our heroes, our villains linger on more willingly. An unfortunate twist on the song lyrics, huh?
So do we really want to live forever? I suppose the answer for each of us will depend on how.
I’m gonna live forever,
Baby, remember my name.