A history of fame

A history of fame

Lead Review

Fame, From The Bronze Age to Britney
Tom Payne
2009, pp 288

When Madonna lost her virginity to her boyfriend at high school, it was — she later claimed — a “career move”. For Tom Payne, in Fame, it was something rather more complicated: She was “sacrificing something for fame itself”. So was Britney Spears, when she marched into Esther Tognozzi’s hair salon in Tarzana, California, and shaved her own head (watched by a stunned crowd outside, some of whom captured the moment on camera). So was Jade Goody, when she decided to die in public. So, for Payne, was Jesus Christ: He skips over the theological complexities to portray the crucifixion as a classic case of a sacrificial victim not only acquiring fame, but actually being transformed into a God.

Payne sees modern celebrity culture as a new version of the sacrifice to the Gods of animals, and even occasionally human beings. Put simply, Britney and the others have more in common with “a cow or a goat in an Athenian temple” on their way to ritual slaughter than you might ever have imagined.

Using a pot pourri of ancient texts, modern theories of sacrifice, from Sir James Frazer on, and nuggets drawn from his undergraduate lectures (Payne once studied classics and generously acknowledges his lecturers), he takes us through all the various similarities between sacrificial rituals and the world of Hello and Grazia. When Britney sacrificed her hair, was it not like some ancient “rite of passage” in which virgins cut off their locks before marriage (as you find mentioned in Euripides’s play, ‘Hippolytus’)? And when Britney’s hair ended up on eBay, was that not in fact a “new kind of public site of worship”? When we collude to raise, or destroy, a celebrity career (or a ‘Big Brother’ housemate), are we not also enjoying the bonding power of sacrifice for the congregation — in much the same way as the ancient audience was drawn together by “the shock and thrill of death”? Of course, it can be more than just the career of a celebrity that is killed off. The deaths of Kurt Cobain, Michael Hutchence and Janis Joplin (and we might now add, since Payne wrote, Michael Jackson) probably take us right back to that grisly primitive world, before animals had been substituted for the original human victims. Celebrity deaths are the modern form of human sacrifice.

Payne explains these and other ideas with tremendous gusto, humour and many flashes of self-knowing irony. (It’s never quite clear how much he believes of all this.) There is also something strangely satisfying in seeing the theories of learned classicists used to explain the fate of rock stars and other assorted pin-ups of popular culture. “Maybe he didn’t have Janis Joplin in mind,” Payne concedes at one point of austere, almost septuagenarian Swiss-based scholar Walter Burkert — in what, for anyone who knows Burkert, is a hilarious understatement. Fame is a good read.

The only trouble with the book — and it’s a big one — is that many of the comparisons with the ancient world that Payne suggests (with ancient sacrifice, religion more generally, or politics) simply don’t add up. They are at best zany, at worst silly, and probably have very little to tell us about how we might understand the modern cult of celebrity. This is a common classicist’s failing. Most of us are very keen to come up with parallels in Greece and Rome for almost any aspect of our own world; rather less keen to think carefully about exactly how useful they are. Occasionally comparisons can be eye-opening. But sadly Payne doesn’t have the knack of finding the eye-openers.

He has, for example, some sharp observations on the mass voting that leads to evictions from the ‘Big Brother’ house (and on local government minister Nick Raynsford’s desperate idea of extending the system to British local elections). But he only muddies the waters by comparing this to the classical Athenian system of ostracism. True, ostracism did involve a democratic vote to send a leading citizen into evxile for 10 years.

But it was not generally used against those whom the people particularly disliked or those they thought had got above themselves (the celebrities of their day). It was instead a solution to irreconcilable difference of opinion. That is to say, if there was a political impasse because the people were split between the policies advocated by Citizen A and those advocated by Citizen B, the last resort was to break the impasse simply by sending either A or B away for 10 years. That is about as different from the ‘Big Brother’ evictions as you can get.

There are similar problems in those seductive comparisons with rituals of sacrifice. Britney Spears was not undergoing a traditional rite of passage at the salon, she was going for a photo opportunity (on which elsewhere Payne has some good observations). As for the idea of human sacrifice as a model of our sadistic treatment of celebs, there is no firm evidence that human sacrifice was ever carried out in primitive Greece. Despite the inventive theories of Burkert, it was almost certainly as much a grisly fantasy for the Greeks as it was for us — but fantasy only.

Fame left me with a strong sense of diminishing returns in the classical parallels. That is a pity, because Payne has some smart things to say about the modern culture of celebrity.

So why did he feel the need to spoil some good arguments by dragging in the Greeks and Romans?

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