Gods of the 21st Century

The ancient world used to worship idols of wood and stone. Now we do it with performing artists of the stage, screen and football field. Nothing has really changed in thousands of years.

Making the Stars

The vast majority of performing artists are holding down full-time or part-time jobs, doing their artistic work in their spare time, by going round pubs and clubs in the evenings, or whatever is appropriate for their type of creative talent. Most of them do it because they enjoy it, and they hope to make a bit of spare cash after covering expenses such as transport, props and equipment. Many of them, probably most of them, dream that one day they might hit the big time, which means getting propelled into stardom so that everyone knows their name and they start to earn really big money. But unlike the celestial sky, there isn't enough room on TV for millions of stars. There is only room for a few hundred at the most, otherwise we would all forget their names and they wouldn't be stars any more.

The ancient world also had its stars. They carved images out of wood and stone, representing Zeus, Neptune, Hermes, Kronus, and all the rest of them. They read poems, sang songs, and performed drama in honour of their gods, remembering their deeds, and many of these were undoubtedly embellished tales of the heroism and valour of their deceased kings. Some cultures, for example the Egyptians, used to believe that the stars in the celestial sky were the spirits of their kings, so the modern-day concept of a show-business "star" is not far removed from ancient mythology.

The influence of Christianity, for many centuries, has caused people to believe in the One True God, maker of Heaven and Earth, denouncing all other gods as superstition, yet within humanity there seems to be a desire for a pantheon of gods, and our fertile imagination has to be fulfilled, even if it means re-inventing the gods outside of organised religion.

How do you describe the so-called "Beckham phenomenon" where he gets pursued by the papparazi and thousands of fans as he arrives in Madrid for nothing more than a routine medical check-up? His wife "Posh" was equally propelled to stardom as a member of a girl band called the "Spice Girls", where none of them could play an instrument but they looked good prancing around to backing tapes. Somehow they met the needs of the marketing industry and their mugshots appeared on commercial products everywhere, raking in huge profits for their sponsors. When Posh and Becks got married, they were propelled to even bigger stardom because together they were a greater phenomenon than either of them by themselves.

How do you describe the "JK Rowling phenomenon" where a single mother was propelled to stardom because of her books about Harry Potter? She doesn't make so many personal appearances, not like other celebrities, but her name is continually mentioned on TV in association with her books. She didn't become a celebrity overnight, and even when her first book "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" was finished, it took a year to get it published. A few months later an American publisher bought the rights to the book, for enough money to enable her to give up her teaching job, and then the god-making process began. Somehow, because of TV, everyone knew about the Harry Potter books and she became a star.

Many of us can sympathise with the JK Rowling phenomenon, as a rags to riches story, but how many of us can identify the point at which the god-making process begins, and why does it happen? There are many celebrities who have stories about years of hard work, followed by sudden and unexpected propulsion to stardom. Very few of them can explain why they have been invited to join the assembly of the gods while their companions from a former life are still going around pubs and clubs in a state of relative oblivion.

Does it Matter?

I never really thought much about whether or not it mattered, until something happened that made me feel very unimportant. I went to the North-East of England, 270 miles away, to take my Dad into hospital for a cataract operation. About ten minutes before we were about to leave the house and go to the hospital, the phone rang. My Mum took the call and they told her the operation was cancelled because the weather was too hot and they couldn't control the temperature in the operating theatre. The doctor was about to go on holiday and we wouldn't get another appointment for at least another two weeks. My Mum explained to them, I had come all the way from Surrey, because she needed my help to look after Dad, but it didn't make any difference, there was nothing they could do. I had to go all the way back, a total of 540 miles altogether. I decided that next time I go there, I will have to make local arrangements to get my Dad to hospital, and I would have my bags packed, but I wouldn't set off until I get a phone call saying he is actually in the operating theatre and the anaesthetic has been applied. Getting him to hospital is the easy bit, anyone can do it, but I would be needed for the after-care.

In reality, the operation was cancelled, not because of the weather, but because of the National Health Service. It's a state-run service funded by the taxpayer, and it used to be quite good but now it's so run down it's just a matter of chance whether or not you get any treatment. It isn't run down because of lack of funds. Loads of cash is being poured into it, but nobody seems to know where it's going. It's totally different in private hospitals. They don't cancel operations for non-medical reasons because they would lose money, so somehow they organise themselves and get things right. If you want to be sure of getting treatment, you have to pay for it to be done privately, but that means you pay twice because you have already paid for the NHS.

So, I went back home, 270 miles, feeling that the people who take our money consider us to be worthless scum, only good for paying taxes, and any inconvenience that we suffer means nothing to them. When I got back home I couldn't turn on the TV because all those celebrities staring out at us from the box are so much more important than us, especially the newsreader who says there is "good news for the housing market" because house prices have gone up (meaning their big posh houses, not the house that one of my kids might hope to aquire as a first-time buyer). When I eventually turned it on, I looked for a specialist channel, perhaps something that serves a minority interest where there would be no big-name celebrities, but I was disappointed. There are celebrities everywhere because nobody has the imagination to get rid of them and bring in somebody else before they get too rich and famous.

Then I began to wonder. Why have I spent so much time sitting in front of the box watching one big-name celebrity after another appearing on the screen? Why do we have to make a few people into mega-stars when all of us can be stars in a much smaller way. Probably none of us know why we do it, but we know how we do it. We are creating mega-stars by giving them our time and money, just as our predecessors used to offer their devotion to the pantheon of their gods. Nothing has really changed in thousands of years.

Copyright 2003

Mike Gascoigne
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