Tuesday 25 December 2007

Acceptable in the 80s

In the absence of anything else decent on TV last night, I was predestined by the iron laws of historical necessity to view Channel Five's Most Shocking Celebrity Moments of The 1980s. I've always been something of a nostalgia freak, so I welcome anything that helps take me back to the fuzzy warmth of childhood memories.

Of the featured skits, Culture Club's debut on Top of the Pops in 1982 is a firm favourite. When I was a wee five year-old I can remember my astonishment when my mum told me Boy George was, well, a boy. At around the same age I found it difficult to believe when she told me John Belushi, of my beloved Blues Brothers, had died "of drugs". How could he be when he was there on the family Betamax, busy snogging Carrie Fisher, singing with Elwood, and getting his ass hunted down by the Illinois law enforcement community? And when I was older, what of poor old Frank Bough? Many a Sunday afternoon was spent round Nana and Grandad's laughing at the salacious gossip in Murdoch's scandal rag, The News of the World.

Most Shocking, like all list programmes, is interesting for a number of reasons aside from the dose of nostalgia they deliver up. The moments selected for rebroadcast and comment conform to a contrived version of the 80s. In this case, Five's version of the 80s is positioned as the moment where (post)modern celebrity emerged. Forget about the titanic social conflicts that exposed the reality of class power in Britain (though Sam Fox crossing the Wapping picket lines in an armoured car got a feature), this above all is the decade of artifice. The real was written out, history was increasingly made under circumstances of the media's choosing. The processes that gradually undermined sexism, racism, homophobia, and changed sexuality in the 80s, of which 'significant' media moments are a symptom, are turned on their head by the narrative assumptions of Most Shocking. Rock Hudson succumbing to AIDS, Larry Blackmon's infamous red codpiece, Madonna's multiple dalliances with sexual controversy undoubtedly helped normalise what was previously considered taboo; but Most Shocking says nothing about how or why the social body was more receptive than had hitherto been the case.

Leaving behind crass media reductionism, another interesting characteristic of programmes of this stripe is their charting of the changing nature of the celebrity aura. Not wanting to overstate the case (gossip columns and muckraking have always been a feature of the press), nevertheless celebrity changed in the 80s. Most Shocking's clips featuring It's a Royal Knockout, Michael Fagan's visit to HM's boudoir, Rob Lowe's sex tape, Boy George's heroin problems, Drew Barrymore's childhood meltdown, and the debacle of Brits '89, all helped lay the foundation for an altered reception of celebrity, one where these would-be immortals are knocked off their pedestals and shown to be flawed human beings like the rest of us, albeit ones who appear on our TV screens and in the papers. Fast forwarding to 2007, to the point where this demystification of the celebrity aura has and continues to play itself out, the perversity of this has become ever more apparent. As celebrities become more normal, the aura of celebrity has had its revenge by becoming even more seductive. While it is true the trappings of fame have always been an object of desire, the avenues to celebrity status have never been as open, while at the same time being a celebrity has never been as precarious. The glossies, the press, gossip websites have conspired to redefine celebrity solely in terms of fame for fame's sake. For example, Pete Doherty's and Amy Winehouse's route into celebrity was via the dialectic of artistic achievement and the public display of their personal lives. Now they have made it, their music is almost incidental to the position they occupy in the public eye. In this sense, all celebrities are completely interchangeable fodder: they have moved from valued to disposable entertainment commodities. But at the same time, living life in the public eye appears to be its own reward: people fall at your feet, designers bombard you with the latest fashions free of charge, and ludicrous sums can be made from idle chats with reporters. It may be life in a goldfish bowl, but it is one that is undoubtedly attractive to millions of atomised people.

It is fitting a programme like Most Shocking covers the fall and interchangeability of celebrity, as there is none more interchangeable than this format itself. Regardless of the theme: best songs, funniest films, sexiest moments; all recycle an endless procession of clips already endlessly recycled on other list programmes. When Most Shocking of the 90s and 00s are screened tonight and tomorrow, will there by any real differences other than the way they decorate the absence and impossibility of originality?


John Gilheaney said...


I read the comment you left on Leanne Wood, the Plaid Cymru AM's blog re: post office closure.

I've set up a blog to help save my local post office, could I use what you wrote on Leanne's site as a blog entry, it would be a fine warning to the people of Llantrisant as to what fate might befall them.

Here's my blog address: www.savellantrisantpostoffice.blogspot.com

I hope to hear from you soon.

Thank you

Best wishes


Madam Miaow said...

Did Sam Fox have anything to say about Wapping? She's had all sorts of other epiphanies regarding her exploitation and her sexuality, I wondered if this was an area where she's had a change of heart.

Phil said...

Re: John, yes, please feel free to use my comments. I camn elaborate further if you wish.

@MM, yes, Sam Fox claims her employers fooled her into thinking she was going along to cheer the pickets up. Obviously, she wasn't very bright then. So, what was your moment of the 80s?

Louisefeminista said...

"And when I was older, what of poor old Frank Bough?"

Oh yes, naughty old Frank....who woulda believed it. An institution like old Frank!! Tut tut

Madam Miaow said...

High point was the miners' strike. Low point: big hair, wide shoulders, synth music. All things Thatcher.

Louisefeminista said...

And Phil....that pic of David Hasselhoff is traumatising me. Oh, the inhumanity! My eyes! My eyes! The paaaiiinnnnn

Phil said...

Go on, admit it, that photo really wants to make you go hassle The Hoff!

blackstone said...

The Hasselhoff picture has got to go!!!!