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Courtesy of Instagram / @Madonna

Welcome to the new, deranged era of celebrity

If the 2010s were defined by celebrities trying to be relatable, the 2020s have seen them enter a new realm of the uncanny. It’s been a long time coming, writes Emma Garland

TextEmma GarlandIllustrationMarija Marc

A certain strangeness has settled over celebrity culture. From Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly consummating their engagement by drinking each other’s blood, to Jack Donoghue of witch house pioneers Salem having a Heineken with Kanye West, Julia Fox, Cam’Ron and Marilyn Manson, there is a fresh wind of chaos and unpredictability afoot. It is ushering us out of the last decade of the “So-And-So Tweeted This And We’re Loving It!” nature of entertainment news, and into a new realm of the uncanny.

The role of celebrity was fraught throughout much of the 2010s. Stan armies to the left of them, to the right: fans and reporters alike hopping on any opportunity to rinse them for being out of touch or “problematic”. Pop feminism dominated the beginning of the decade, ensuring that every new music video was quantified in the terms of its contributions to the advancement of women’s rights. That quickly gave way to the need for everyone in the public eye to be up to speed on social, political and economic injustices. To curry favour in a terminally outraged world, celebrities, in turn, began to strive for relatability, entering a tedious campaign to humanise themselves by talking about their quirky habits and issuing Notes app apologies. As a result, we concluded the decade with a bunch of well-meaning but deluded celebrities trying to lift global spirits during lockdown with a rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine”.

Social media collapsed the wall between celebrities and everyone else, to the point where there is ostensibly very little difference between celebrities, influencers and politicians (as attested by the presence of everyone from AOC to Addison Rae at the Met Gala 2021). Now, that wall is starting to go back up. For the first time in a long time, celebrity culture feels broken off from public opinion.

In some respects, there's a sinister air of provocation about it. Last week’s images and videos of Ye flanked at various points by Madonna, Floyd Mayweather and Marilyn Manson – legacy celebrities who, for wildly varying crimes, some federal, have faced a lion’s share of criticism over the last few years – feel pointed and deliberate, continuing the clumsy points about redemption he shoehorned onto Donda.

In other respects, it’s a welcome change. Against all odds, the pandemic actually produced some banner years for celebrity gossip, particularly when it came to public displays of horniness. Tabloid photos of Ben Affleck’s hands returning to their rightful place – gripping Jennifer Lopez’s arse on a yacht – replaced tabloid photos of Ben Affleck smoking and looking knackered, Kravis helped usher in the return of Hollywood’s hot girl / alt guy alliance, Pete Davidson has become Hollywood’s dirtbag Cassanova, and who knows what else Taika Waititi, Rita Ora and Tessa Thompson shared on that balcony in addition to cigarettes and a kiss.

Shouldn’t (most of) our celebrities be entertaining first and foremost? Shouldn’t they be known for having some ineffable quality that distracts the rest of us from the muck and mire we have to endure? Shouldn’t they be mysterious, unknowable – enviable, even? Did we spend the 2010s insisting that celebrities relate to us, or did we spend the 2010s convinced that we were able to become celebrities ourselves – that, given the privilege and the opportunity, we could do it better?

When celebrities behave as they should, we see very little of ourselves. When confronted by the spectacle of Kanye West and Julia Fox’s date night-cum-Yeezy/GAP/Balenciaga campaign, or Megan Fox gripping Machine Gun Kelly’s belt buckle on the red carpet and stating in baby voice that she wears “Whatever daddy says”, there isn’t much to do other than meme through it the way you would Fyre Fest or an episode of Succession. It’s entertainment as news, but it’s evolving to combine the mess and transparency of the pre-social media 00s, and the naturalistic self-driven PR of the 2010s. And, rather than feeling confined to Page Six or red top newspapers, it’s playing out in the context of life lived online, intentionally cutting across culture at large – encompassing music, fashion, social media trends the way a film or Netflix show is designed to feel like an ‘event’. If the 2010s was defined by the blurring of boundaries between celebrity and the everyday, the 2020s may well be defined by the blurring of boundaries between spectacle and reality.

There’s nothing particularly regenerative about all this, of course. What we’re seeing is, by and large, people who have been in the public eye for a long time going about their business in a way that’s designed to generate news. But perhaps our appetite for its weird edge is reflective of exhaustion with unremarkable relatability and outrage culture more broadly. There’s perhaps even a streak of that running through the current nostalgia for Y2K and indie sleaze, too – a largely apolitical era primarily concerned with cultural dissonance and getting blackout drunk.

After the dull, Chris Pratt-ification of pop culture, it tracks that we’d start craving mess and ambivalence again. We’re due more celebrities who argue with Adam Sandler about the size of their own arse and etch the phrase “I am weed” into the zeitgeist like a hieroglyphic. We need charisma, mythology, narrative. And what better way to build it than through the eternal fascination of whirlwind romance? After all, if there’s a time for us all to welcome the return of ride-or-die relationships and rebounds, of heartbreak and slightly terrifying statements about “surrendering” to love thanks to someone you met two weeks ago, it is now. After many cold-hearted years of girlbossery as self-care and the extreme vigilance of the pandemic, perhaps 2022 will bring about the most needed revival of all: falling recklessly, ill-advisedly in love in a way that will likely be a shambles but make for a really great story. When everything could go to shit on a dime, reject modernity, embrace chaos.