The Saturday Essay: Why millions strive to escape reality, and thousands want to capture it.

me1511172Every human’s desire to live the dream is steadily turning the physical world into a nightmare. But scientists are, at the same time, engaged in an intensely complex array of research projects to try and define what reality is. Respective success and failure in these attempts at flight and find will push the human race into an evolutionary siding. They are discussed in turn today and tomorrow at The Slog.

I just finished reading the F Scott Fitzgerald classic The Great Gatsby. Previously, I had only ever seen the 1960s movie – a terrible dog’s dinner of bad casting and vaselined lenses with Robert Redford desperately miscast as the elusive Jay Gatsby. Not only is the book much better (in 1926, most critics panned it) read today rather than in 1969 it is more powerful.

For it depicts a New York and environs world of crooked bootlegging and financialised bubbles, before the Wall Street Crash, disturbingly similar to our own: one in which a new class of super-rich glitterati has arisen, most of whom are fool’s gold. And a world in which the realities of life can be kept at a distance almost indefinitely.

But not forever: Jay Gatsby – a self-made and self-invented anti hero – is eventually destroyed, ensuring his return to Earth in a coffin as plain Jewish boy Jimmy Gatz, who began the journey of escape on his return from the Great War.

All of us are an invention to a greater or lesser extent, and all of us act roles in which we feel most comfortable. This is true of actors far more than most, who entertain us by portraying the unreal – an excellent reason in and of itself for ignoring their political views and virtue-signalling actions, which are just another lead role as hero….another attempt, in fact to gain approval and universal adoration.

In a more balanced sense, many humans have aspirations to change the realities of poverty, squalor, poor housing, criminality and so forth into something less anti-social and unpleasant. One can argue that this is a compassionate desire to change society for the better, or a pointless attempt to deny the inevitability of injustice. Depending on the personality psychographics involved, it’s usually a mixture of the two: existentialists would argue that to spend a life on Earth, know things are “wrong”, and do nothing is the ultimate waste of a life – and I have a lot of sympathy with that philosophy.

____________________________________________________________________________________________However, what we have developing in the 21st century West is beyond such mixed motives: it is something far more dangerously insidious. It is an undiscerning, clueless admiration for everyone famous…..coupled with the replacement of an unfulfilled personal reality with a dream that is preposterous, lacking as it does any of the genius, talent or application required to achieve it.

Media talent shows mindlessly encourage this farce of pretention, as do the pressure groups and politicians desperate to force proud identity onto those with little or nothing to be proud of beyond the ethnicity, religion or sexuality with which they were born.

It has become, in fact, the replacement of crafted, breathtaking beauty by ugly, banal and above all self obsessed mediocrity.

Many years ago during the closing evening of a particularly dire client sales conference, I was instructed by my Group Account Director to “stop being such a f**king misery and enter the Karaoke contest”.

At the time, I knew almost nothing about Karaoke beyond the basic idea of singing along to the backing track on a hit song. So I duly signed up to do a turn, and was given a list of titles still available. I chose Keep on Runnin’ by the Spencer Davis Group – a song I knew by heart, being a big fan of Stevie Winwood.

My turn came and – bolstered by a deep breath plus a large Bacardi and Coke – I launched into a performance of credible timing and soul-rock vocals. It was greeted throughout by open-mouthed silence, and honoured at the end with thin, half-hearted pockets of applause.

Returning to my seat with a sense of puzzled humiliation, the final accolade came from the Account Director.

“You just don’t get it do you?” he suggested rhetorically.

It wasn’t until many years later that a close friend told me, “Wardy, the idea of Karaoke is that you have to be absolutely crap”. Karaoke, he explained, is the working class equivalent of Schadenfreude.

At the time, this revelation set various hares going in my brain. Was this, I wondered, a dictatorship of the tone deaf? Was it yet further evidence of our acceptance of the mediocre? But they were all submerged by a thousand immediate thoughts of irrelevant importance.

Forty years on, here I am in a place where Karaoke is bigger than Jesus in Italy. Two weeks ago, I read that in Japan (where it started) they now have high street booths so that Karaokists can indulge their need for a fix at a moment’s notice. And my friend was right: the whole point is that people who have a worse singing voice than Lee Marvin can fantasise about being talented, make a complete exhibition of themselves – and still get the applause they crave.

Exhibitionism, self-obsession, fame fantasies, mememememememeeee….it’s all part of a continuum. Now phones have largely morphed into androids, their equally robotic owners cannot stop taking selfies.

Everyone must feel they have talent and deserve to be in the public eye. It doesn’t matter if they’re transsexual, activist, very small, can’t dance a step, lacking in creativity and barely able to string a sentence together: they deserve to be watched and heard because they’re worth it. It works for footballers, MPs, politically “aware” celebs and the acts on Britain’s Got Talent – so why not for them?

Homo sapiens is dying out, and being almost imperceptibly replaced by Homo narcissus. Look at my tattoos, watch me dance, see me celebrate that goal and do a silly dance round the corner flag, read this awful abuse I’m getting on Twitter, get a load of my flash new 4-wheel drive on Facebook, and there’s me with Jeremy Corbyn.

Simon Cowell is an evil genius, but his genius is not in doubt. He saw how the lachrymose mass kitsch of “the talent contest” could be turned into every thickie’s fame-dream come true: he designed it, he milked it….and he spotted the growing obsession with celebrity before almost everyone with the exception of the equally evil Rupert Murdoch.

Cowell spotted it because he spends a lot of time looking in the mirror to ensure his teeth are white and level, his pecs firm, his waistline under control and his bum pert. He apparently recalls hearing Victoria Beckham telling Michael Parkinson that she “just wanted to be famous, it didn’t matter what for” and it set bells ringing in his head.
But he didn’t create it; he merely packaged it into a near-perfect format.

How and why did the growth in self-worship and celebrity fantasy get started?
It’s existence is nothing new: but in earlier times, with less developed forms of media – and most celebrities wisely keeping their distance from the information end of the spectrum – the fantasy aspirations of the masses were rarely if ever fed. Movie, stage, variety, art and literary stars were seen as a distant élite, and Royal families were infinitely more discreet – having setttled down by then into their constitutional niche of neo-deified role models.

But then television arrived, and over thirty years literally trebled the number of celebrities. Some of them were presenters or news anchors, zoologists, scientists, handymen, comics, impressionists, gardeners, decorators and chefs. Almost overnight, fame was democratised.

The British Royals abandoned protocol in the 1970s, allowing unidirectional mics and fly-on-the-wall documentaries into Buckingham Palace and Sandingham. Almost immediately, every newspaper and TV channel had to have a Royal Correspondent. Over the next thirty years, royal news went tabloid, looking into every unwise marriage in aggressive detail. An entire new magazine sector was spawned – Hello, OK, Heat etc – and every ordinary wannabe consumed them with voracious regularity.

Enter “reality” television to prove that not only could utterly dysfunctional and feckless Underclass sociopaths be seen on the telly, they could be stars for a week. Enter Simon Cowell and the industrialisation of creating temporary silk purses out off sows’ ears for perhaps even as long as a year.

The internet, blogging and social media have, in the last twenty years, completed the process. For a time, political bloggers followed celebrity chefs as the new rock n roll. YouTube and Twitter stars like Pat Condell and Tommy Robinson gather huge followings even today. There are league tables of bloggers, tweeters and Youtubers everywhere right across the world.

Internet downloading and ubiquitous digital recording software destroyed not just the model of news gathering: it annihilated the structure of the music business, and opened yet further floodgates to self-publicising amateur musicians.

And now, the near completion of the mobile internet means the chance for fame purely by taking a shot of a fire or a Tsunami, and then piping the images (plus the de rigueur selfie) into the news bulletins at Sky, CNN, and the BBC. Earlier, of course, photoshop and digital cropping had turned every monkey with a camera phone into David Bailey.

All in all, the digital media explosion off the last forty years has changed everything when it comes to fame: it is no longer a distant pipe-dream: you too could become the next rock star, movie phenomenon, news celeb, or member of the Royal Family. “Does my bum look big in this?” is no longer just micro-vanity: it is the desire to look good in macro digital reproduction….because the fame that was so far is potentially so near.

The key word for me in the analysis above is reality.

The term “reality television” sums it up: it may be somebody somewhere’s reality, but it sure as hell isn’t mine – or that of any of my eclectic social, international and professional friends and acquaintances. For the vast majority of people over fifty, it’s an altered reality.

I am a retired amateur commentator, lucky enough to have spent well-paid years in market research and media. Perhaps this is why, more than most, I sense the biggest single trend of the second half of my life has been the mass escape of citizens from reality. Not necessarily into “virtual” reality, but into Facebook “friends” and “spaces” and magazines and exotic hen parties and eccentric weddings and unproductive jobs and texts and Iphones and bedrooms where there is private access to a world devoid of family, society or community.

Online social media have not only given a voice (and access) to very disturbed people. They have also made isolated hermitage normal by creating a virtual society that is unreal in every sense of the word.

I lay the vast majority of blame upon herd education, the neoliberal glorification  of material wealth, the political and economic Establishments that dilute the citizen’s power to either shape destiny or feel fulfilled by their jobs, and the readership/ratings obsession of tabloid media that present the falsehood of fame as an admirable aspiration.

And yet, the very ethereal nature of the reality from which so many seek to escape is the subject of billions of dollars of investment in trying to lasso it.

Might the latter one day reverse the former? Don’t miss Part II in tomorrow’s Slog

Part II is now available to be viewed here