A Point of View: A disease called fame

Fans screaming Image copyright Thinkstock

Ours is a fame-obsessed culture, writes Sarah Dunant, but is it really a goal worth chasing?

Years ago, when I was mildly famous for presenting a television arts programme, I was asked to do one of those instant magazine interviews, giving snappy answers to a mix of trivial and profound questions. I don't remember much of what I said. But one response sticks in my mind: In an alternative life what would I have been? My answer - a backing singer for Bob Dylan.

Like many dreams, it was a poignant one. Dylan usually only employs black singers and anyway I can't hold a note.

I was reminded of this last week when I watched 20 Feet From Stardom, the film that just scooped best documentary at the Oscars. As the title implies, it celebrates the men and women - but mostly women and nearly all black - whose voices and musical talent were a vital ingredient in the creation of the greatest popular music of the last half century, but who as backing singers were never the stars.

Some of the names you will know. Darlene Love was the voice for many of the Crystals hits. Judith Hill sang at Michael Jackson's funeral. Others will be familiar only to aficionados - Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer. But anyone who's seen the Rolling Stones play over the years will remember the vocal chemistry between Clayton, Lennear, Fischer and Mick Jagger - that shiver-down-the-spine sound of Gimme Shelter ("Rape, murder... its just a shot away").

Many of these women had voices as fine as any lead singer, and some went on to try solo careers. In most cases it didn't work. Not surprisingly given the moment, there were issues of gender and race. "Seems there was only room for one Aretha Franklin," says Love. Others accept that they didn't have the character to handle the pressure, the endless self-promotion: "If I'd been a star I wouldn't be here now talking to you."

But the viciousness of the business was not the only reason. As Lisa Fischer says, "some people will do anything to become famous. Others just want to sing."

The film will go down in the annals of music. But it's a comment on cultural history in another way. For many years now we have been living in the grip of a disease called Fame - the idea that whoever you are, whatever is, or is not, your talent, the greatest achievement in life you can aspire to is to become famous. A star. A celebrity. And that in our culture that is somehow not only desirable, but possible. Andy Warhol, with his 15 minutes of fame, has turned out to be a prophet as much as an artist.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Oscar-winning film 20 Feet From Stardom highlights the work of backing singers

Of course, the music business played its part here. Before the '60s, the main road to stardom was Hollywood and the movies - looks, talent, luck, (we could argue about the order). But while few were called, even fewer were chosen. With the new buying power of youth, and the explosion of rock'n'roll, all that changed - especially in Britain. If you were young, could afford a guitar and were happy to lock yourself in your room for years listening to records and practising, you could form a band and regardless of class, upbringing, education, you might find yourself en route not just to success, but superstardom.

Some managed it. The majority didn't. Now, however, it seems that for many of us only the spotlight will do. How did this happen? Well, the ingredients are fascinating. Over the years a growing economy and an aspirational culture has perfected ways of selling us things - both things we need and increasingly things we don't. The techniques differ from "Only this can make you attractive/happy" to "Because you're worth it, you deserve it". It was, in effect, a way of marketing dreams. And stardom - with its promise of wealth, attention and admiration - is surely the greatest dream of all.

As popular media expanded, what had once been limited to the few, suddenly seemed a possibility for the many. By the early '90s, the music business had taken to manufacturing as much as finding stars (and yes, I do think The Spice Girls were the beginning of the end here). Then television weighed in.

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Image caption The Spice Girls: The beginning of the end for the music business?

Trumpeted by its apologists as anti-elitist, reality TV hit the culture like a freight train. It coincided with deregulation, which brought more competition and many more hours to fill. Reality TV was cheap, populist and very soon everywhere. Where once, through the likes of game shows, a tiny fraction of people might have had their five minutes of attention, now - as long as you didn't mind your behaviour being edited to ratchet up the conflict (reality - never has a word been so misused) you might find yourself instantly famous - talked about at the watercooler and at the pub, your picture in the paper.

Big Brother - Orwell's vision of a future was a boot stamping on the human face forever. You can decide for yourself how far the TV show was aptly named. Then there were the talent shows - so you wanna be the next top model, singer, businessman, chef - whatever. The Faustian pact was largely the same - you want fame, we want ratings, which means larger-than-life characters, nasty judges, the adrenaline of competition, tantrums, tears and a dose of humiliation - all on camera. Those who made it, joined a growing community of sporting and entertainment figures whose public lives were becoming our off-screen soap operas.

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Image caption Reality TV star Rylan Clarke wins Celebrity Big Brother 2013

Along the way some good programmes were made and some genuinely talented people discovered. But is there anybody out there who really believes that celebrity culture hasn't done more damage than good? That it hasn't made us a crueller, more voyeuristic, more self-obsessed society?

For the celebrities themselves, the oxygen of publicity - a necessity to stay in the public eye - comes at a price. Once in the news, they become the news, fodder for a growing freebee press. In lieu of a private life there's either Hello platitudes about a new house or a new relationship, or at the lower end, the cruelty of endless paparazzi shots and gossip - too fat, too thin, new breasts, exploding lips, trouble with sex, trouble with drugs, trouble with life. And when there are too many celebrities, we cull them by pitting them against each other, sending them into the jungle to eat worms. Proof, if ever it was needed, that they are a subspecies - like us, but not us. As captive animals in the media zoo, they are there for our entertainment, so we can enjoy their pain, as well as their triumph. Celebrity culture has made train-wreck watchers of us all.

Meanwhile, at the same time as we were all being sold dreams, we were also being deprived of the way to pay for them. It's telling that the beginnings of celebrity culture coincide with the period when real wages start to stagnate against the cost of living, and to make sure we still had money to keep on buying, we had to be sold something else. Credit. Or rather debt. From a new bedroom to shots of Botox - whatever you wanted but couldn't afford, you went into debt to get it. Back to that word "reality" and how little we seem to be in contact with it.

But it's not just about money. One of the most powerful things to come out of 20 Feet From Stardom is that there is more to life than being famous. Almost every one of these astonishing women says the same thing. In the end they did what they did, not because of any chance of stardom, but because they were born with a talent and a passion and it was the most exquisite pleasure - indeed almost a duty - to use it. To quote Lisa Fischer: "I love the reaction on people's faces - the artist and the audience. I'm there to bring joy to all of them. And that brings joy to me."

Her comment brings back my early teenage years - the hours spent ironing my hair, walking up and down the landing in bare feet, murdering Sandie Shaw tracks, while the boys stood strumming tennis rackets in front of wardrobe mirrors, the shaving mirror perched on the side to catch the TV close-ups. While it was fun being wannabes, most of us knew deep down that we didn't have what it took to make it. But, oh my God, it was just so wonderful to be part of the moment, the musical revolution around us. In the end being the fan or in the audience was more than enough.

Image copyright Getty Images

In a world where everyone wants to be the lead singer, who is left to swell the sound? Or more importantly to appreciate it? I know you're expecting me to end with a Dylan quote. I leave you instead with a mangled and misquoted bit of John Milton: "They also serve who only stand and listen."

A Point of View is broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 GMT. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

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