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Celebrity culture 2020 Gal Gadot Kim Kardashian

Did 2020 kill celebrity culture?

From Gal Gadot’s “Imagine” video to Kim K’s private island tweet, the rich and famous struggled to seize the moment online

I’m in a groupchat. It’s mostly just links to posts from Instagram and Twitter. To use a bro-ism: some are cringe, some are based. Someone in the chat claims this is ‘the duality of man.’ Over the course of 2020, the ratio veered cringe. Sometimes I think it may just be a personality type. If scrolling induces nausea from all the cringe, maybe it’s you. Maybe you’re a Hobbesian. People advise “curating who you follow” as a solution. But as the groupchat pointed out: it’s the content that is cringe, not the people. Inside the heart of every man there is some content that is cringe, and some content that is based.

Nobody knows how to post in a crisis. The first question of course is: should you even post at all? The second question is inevitably: should you post about the crisis in question? Its corollary is: if I address it, what tone should my post take? Should I post about how the crisis relates to me? Should I comment on the more visceral relationship friends, family, total strangers have to the crisis? For a crisis of the duration of COVID-19, these questions become even more complex. Even in a long apocalypse, there are moments of levity, even fun. Is it inappropriate to share? 

For the everyday social media user, Close Friends and creative hashtags (#tbt for content of a more recent vintage) have allowed people to navigate the ambiguity of COVID-19 dos and donts with some grace. Though everyone has a few friends whose social media addiction really shone through during pseudo-lockdown. They were determined to ignore safety guidelines and they were dead set on sharing a Story about it. The dopamine hit provided by Instagram’s persuasive design is a hell of a drug. It’s persuaded many an Insta-addict that if they don’t post about a party, it may as well not have happened.

Some posting failures happened on a more massive scale. #BlackoutTuesday was supposed to be a show of solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement, but the flood of black squares functionally deactivated the #blm hashtag, cutting activists off from critical resources during ongoing protests. On my Twitter Timeline, organizers begged people to please stop participating in the blackout, while on ABC’s morning news, corporate media encouraged everyone to please continue, leaving many to wonder: is this an op?

“Celebrity accounts have given us a window into how truly low some people’s levels of self-awareness are”

Celebrity accounts have given us a window into how truly low some people’s levels of self-awareness are. Remember Kim Kardashian’s surprise private island getaway for her birthday? “After 2 weeks of multiple health screens and asking everyone to quarantine, I surprised my closest inner circle with a trip to a private island where we could pretend things were normal just for a brief moment in time.” It was a flex—but one that inspired rage along with jealousy. 

Or who can forget Chrissy Teigen forcing her live-in nurse to dress up like a plague doctor for Halloween. What’s a little hazing between employer and employee? Twitter didn’t seem to think it was so funny. For 24 hours in October, everyone dragged Chrissy for her employment practices and made fun of her house for looking like it was designed in Minecraft. Or as some astute observers noted: the house from last year’s Oscars Best Picture winner, Parasite. (In case anyone forgot, the plot centered on a resentful household staff who scam and eventually murder a wealthy Korean family.) The wall between celebrities and normies was no longer literal, social media had invited us into their homes and rendered it symbolic. As COVID life became more grim, more boring – there was no longer any functional barrier preventing posters from lashing out in resentment.

This year was a sink or swim moment for celebrities. Cut off from stylists, step-and-repeats, hair and make-up, planted paparazzi pics, and crowds of fans, our most praise-addled class – the actors, actresses, musicians, and models who usually get big attention whether or not they try their hand at social media suddenly were barred from relying on extensive staffing to achieve flawless production values. They were all forced onto the great equaliser of our age – the internet – if they wanted their usual dopamine hit. 

“This year was a sink or swim moment for celebrities”

Worse still, the rules had suddenly changed. Chrissy Teigen and Kim Kardashian long ago went digitally native. (If anyone remembers, Chrissy was once a model before becoming Queen of Twitter and Kim conquered reality TV before ascending the throne of Instagram.) Chrissy’s attempts at being relatable and quirky read as tone-deaf and entitled. Kim’s luxe lifestyle didn’t make the masses cream their pants with aspiration or even envy – at best the public’s response could be categorized as enraged. Who were these celebrities, and why did they think the rules didn’t apply to them?

For others, less versed in the rules of life online: the results only got worse. Early on in the pandemic, when people were still trying to spin some silver lining about “discovering our common humanity” out of global disaster, an all-star-ish line-up of actors and actresses thought people would enjoy a poorly edited video of them all singing Imagine by John Lennon. Note Gal Gadot, Sarah Silverman, Will Ferrell, and Kristen Wiig among others are not singers. The video inevitably went viral for all the wrong reasons. It was the meme version of a CEO not knowing how much a gallon of milk costs. Perched in their hillside mansions, celebrities proclaimed that we were all the same. But the view from below was that no, clearly we were not.

It’s been some time coming: celebrities no longer occupy the towering heights of culture. Whether on purpose or by accident, they have demystified themselves. No one wants a baking show where they show you how they make the Eucharist. Some things are best left outside our imagination entirely. There’s an absurdism to the internet that detracts from the appeal of celebrity culture. Post after post sometimes is just total nonsense. It’s amusing, sure. But it’s amusing in the way The Sims is amusing. No one wants to see Anthony Hopkins running into walls, barking in Simlish. It’s unbecoming to his stature.

And yet we were all forced to watch Cameron Diaz struggle to figure out how to pin a comment on her Instagram Live. There’s something about watching an icon stare blankly into cyberspace after rummaging around for her reading glasses, struggling to decipher a print out her daughter had typed up for her. I know, I know, we will all someday get old and be baffled by the next generation of tech. But at the end of the day, we like our celebrities with a strong dose of artifice. We want to escape into their imaginary lives of perfection. 

Granted: even with this demand, it’s hard to stick the landing. Only a few days ago, Cardi B asked her Twitter followers if she should buy an $88K purse. The hellsite replied with what can only be called hellfire. Not only did her fans balk at the absurdity of the price (though Cardi claims she plans to flip the bag for triple the price in three years) they also insisted the accessory in question looked like a chopped up Ugg boot. Cardi, gem that she is, told her followers she would match any donations they made as a mea culpa for flexing on the masses at a time when many are in severe financial distress. These missteps were par for the course in 2020. The controversy to Notes App apologies playbook is so well trodden James Charles had a challenge on his reality show Instant Influencer where contestants practiced how to beg fans’ forgiveness. Being famous is like walking the streets of Paris: you’re going to step in shit.

We don’t want to see celebrities revelling in obscene luxury. We don’t want to see them ignoring safety protocols. We don’t want to see them acting cruelly to their staff. We don’t want to see them fumbling in their home office. The classic line: “celebrities, they're just like us” was clearly meant to be ironic. After a year surrounded by extreme inequality, petty ignorance, casual cruelty, and clumsy incompetence, is it really so much to ask that our entertainment up its game? Give us a little imagination! Give us a little pizzazz! As everyone tries to zone out long enough to make it to the vaccine finish line, what we really want is to be entertained.

Luckily, not all celebrities failed at this task. The rising generation had a preternatural sense of how to navigate the moment. They didn’t need to go digitally native because they were born that way – see Charli XCX inviting her fans into a quarantine album creation process. Despite marketers’ insistence that “Gen Z wants relatable content,” actual Gen Z internet personalities know that is at best a half truth. Follow the analytics: the internet rewards wild and wacky antics – the crazier the better. The audience gets this and so do the creators. “I did it for the clout” is as much the implicit logic behind teens licking ice cream in convenience stores and putting the pints back as Kylie Jenner doing a collab with the Grinch, dressing up in green faux fur and pouting at the camera. Dressing up like a sexy Dr. Seuss character is nonsense – until you realize she did it for the clout. Now it makes sense. Now it’s relatable.

Like his ex-girlfriend, Travis Scott understands that if you want to win big online you need to get creative and sell out in almost comical fashion. You can’t let reality get in the way. His Byredo candle collab, Space Rage immediately sold out. The scent promises to deliver cosmic dust, antimatter particles, starlight, the scent of supernova, atmospheric vapour, and dark nebulae. In other words: nonsense. (I’m pretty sure the vacuum of space would turn your face inside out before you could even catch a whiff.) In addition to his candle, Scott broke the internet at least two additional times with his McDonald’s merch and Fortnite performance.  His custom Cactus Jack burger (which was just a Quarter Pounder with Cheese topped with bacon and lettuce) was released with a fleet of merch. It sold out as quickly as Scott’s Byredo candle and included a Chicken McNugget body pillow. His in-game concert, Astroworld attracted 12.3M viewers to the Battle Royale.

“Travis Scott understands that if you want to win big online you need to get creative and sell out in almost comical fashion”

Lil Nas X followed Scott into the gamerbait space, securing a concert on Roblox (another video game, ask a 12-year-old if you need more info). Other highlights in Lil Nas X’s feed included coming out as a true Barb – he dressed like Nicki Minaj circa “Super Bass” for Halloween and released an image of himself making out with himself in a cyberpunk Santa costume for his new single, “Holiday.”. Of course the drag and homoeroticism attracted homophobia’s Twitter death rattle, but broadly speaking people were engaged – people were entertained.

The next generation of internet personalities were able to thread the needle of 2020’s particular issues because they understand the internet doesn’t have to be so serious. Older celebrities still see a clear division between content and entertainment, life and art. Cut-off from studios and ceremonies they thought they were rising to the occasion by giving fans an improvisational sneak peek into their everyday lives. The resentful response has proven this was not at all what the masses were asking for. No-one wants to watch the A-List make avocado toast.