Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Fame Monsters

I chanced upon Urban's The Art of the Tease issue while passing by the free browsing area inside Hong Kong Cafe last week. In it, it talks about today's internet and reality TV stars like Xiaxue, Dawn Yang, Paris Hilton and Lady GaGa, as well as home-grown reality portals such as and RazorTV.

I thought it was a well-written and timely article. While objectively reporting on the fame and reality TV scene in Singapore, one might say that there were some very subtle nuances in there that indicated how the writers felt about it, while at the same time giving little away. That's high level journalism in a place where opinions are fiercely attacked and/or are regarded as politically incorrect.

But anyway, this issue of Urban tackles the recent phenomenon of fame and reality TV. This phenomenon has blossomed into a huge culture of its own, particularly in the US when shows like American Idol began airing back in 2002, giving birth to a whole new type of superstar. More recently, Singapore has picked up on it, gaining a boost by latching on to the internet as a very fertile medium.

The rules of superstardom have been redefined in the process. Now, famous people are far more personal and in the flesh, and they can come from anywhere. Reality TV has provided the channels for all kinds of people to have a shot at fame. Urban discusses how the trend has hit Singapore, and no doubt a huge part of it has to do with western media influence, particularly from the US, coupled with a burgeoning internet-savvy generation.

The internet culture has a huge part to play in shaping modern attitudes towards attention and privacy. What is essentially different about reality TV is that what is personal and mundane is now fascinating. The internet plays that up many times over, with sites like Youtube and Facebook providing channels for anybody to be seen in a public virtual sphere. These have enabled ordinary people to have their own personal programmes that are followed by many. Ideas have flourished with such boundary-breaking platforms, but at the same time what used to be sacred and private are now commodities to be demanded and supplied. This creates a market where fame becomes a currency, or an end in itself.

But even then, such a phenomenon wouldn't have went the mile if not for one last important ingredient, which is the implicit question that Urban asks. What makes a person fame hungry?

Without all these fame-seeking people clamouring desperately to get on board the fame bandwagon, as well as many people out there who (voyeuristically) desire to idolize and follow them, the reality TV industry would be lukewarm at most.

What could possibly motivate somebody to sell one's privacy and, if I might make the stretch, dignity for attention in return? Money might be one of the things fame monsters, in Lady GaGa's words, seek but I don't think that's all of it. I believe money simply justifies the exchange, but fundamentally the desire to seek attention is at the crux of the matter.

I think there are a few layers to why a person would do anything for the sake of fame, rather than acquiring fame only as a byproduct of your talents. Firstly, I think there are generally two kinds of people, and for convenience's sake, I would define one group of people as having 'ego' and the other as not having this 'ego'.

(Here my definition of ego is more loose and not exactly the same ego that most people might know of in the negative, male entitlement sense.)

People who are egoistic in this manner both tend to desire attention and tend to get attention. Because egoistic people might already tend to have a higher sense of self worth, they might be more inclined to do things and establish themselves in roles of leadership, thus gaining statuses and reputations along the way. For example, my ego might motivate me to want to be an outstanding footballer (i.e. better than others at football), so I spend hours practicing and, because I relish to prove myself, I'm willing to boldly take on opponents. Whether I succeed or not, it is more likely that I would have earned a higher reputation and garnered more attention for it compared to somebody else who wasn't even motivated to do anything in the first place.

So with that, people who tend to have more of an ego might have had their needs for attention satisfied in healthy doses, because they might have something to show for it. The reputation comes along with achievements, and so fame is a byproduct of one's efforts towards some other end. Those egoistic ones who were fortunate enough to have had a healthy diet of reputation and attention since young would be more likely to know when enough is enough.

However, if one is of the egoistic sort, but yet at the same time has in some way or other failed to gain the reputation and status that would normally have bestowed positive attention upon him or her, a craving for attention might develop.

So while the dynamic of desiring attention and getting attention might be circular/chicken-egg, if the thirst for attention isn't quenched, it might be possible that the need to deal with one's lack of attention from others becomes an obsession in itself. The desire for fame, status and reputation, normally (and healthily) a byproduct of some other ends, now becomes an end in itself. And when that happens, people can do all sorts of things to get that attention, such as changing the way one looks, becoming notorious because bad attention is still attention afterall, or taking up whatever role there is available just to get into the limelight.

There are all sorts of things that can fall into the black hole of, for lack of a better term, less desirable ends. For example, this also actually calls to mind the pick-up artist community and gaming (the industry of female seduction). The obsession with picking up women as a game of quantity afflicts AFCs (a pick-up artist society term for 'average frustrated chumps') because they lacked the desired social validation from getting women and needed to prove themselves. In my own biased way, I think money is another black hole of less desirable ends. When what you strive to achieve isn't something grounded, like being a good teacher, cleaner doctor, footballer, musician or engineer, there is always the possibility that the paths to getting there can be so general that it involves all kinds of means, including bad ones.

Or maybe another way to look at it also is when one considers a person who has lived a life of poverty all his life. When a million bucks falls into his lap one day, he might not know what to do with the money.

I don't think this psychological issue of craving attention is a particularly recent occurrence. People have been self-obsessed or attention-seeking since time immemorial. However, given the proliferation of reality TV and other channels where fame can be easily attained for a portion of your privacy, dignity or soul, together with an ever-increasing population of internet-generation youths, those who crave attention can finally have their day. It comes as little surprise then that this culture marks the new vibe of the new generation of fame and superstardom.

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