Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Formulas For Fame
Blame it on Marilyn Manson. Without the slightest shame or attempt to hide his calculation, the singer took two cultural properties -- glamour girl Marilyn Monroe and cult murderer Charles Manson -- and made a freakish, highly saleable hybrid encapsulating the high and low points of the American dream, its most cherished fantasy and its biggest nightmare.
I've already noted in these columns (Cosmopolitan Sophisticates) the way Bob Dylan seemed to create his persona in a similar way, melding Woody Guthrie with James Dean, and wondered whether all breakthroughs to celebrity might contain elements of cunning Zeligism.
To put it another way, scratch every successful celebrity and you'll find an astute sociologist, able to pinpoint the most mythical roles available to the culture they wish to conquer. When Ginsberg became Gainsbourg (Boris Vian + Salvador Dali, name from English painter Thomas Gainsborough), when Zimmerman became Dylan (Woody Guthrie + James Dean, name from boho Welsh poet Dylan Thomas) or David Jones became David Bowie (name from the Bowie knife, as well as David Bowman, the astronaut in Kubrick's '2001: A Space Oddyssy') they added to the Dr Frankenstein-like ability to piece together the most mythical parts of legendary corpses a singular talent for mimicry.
I need hardly add that being Jewish helps enormously here. Outsiders and immigrants often see a culture more clearly, and can latch onto its legends more precisely. Unburdened by supposedly real roots in a culture, forced to submit to its machineries of socialisation and assimilation, they have a golden opportunity to cherry-pick their adopted society's most juicy and suggestive identities.
I would also note that satire and assimilation can be a lot closer than people often realise. Being able to skit, mock or parody a culture is essentially the same as the ability to blend in, assimilate. Market traders born in Bengal can sound more Cockney than those born in Bow: parodists or partisans? The only difference is one of attitude, or perceived attitude. I mean, is Marilyn Manson a parody of American values or a glorification? He can be either, antichrist or superstar, depending on which way the wind is blowing, whether the nation is being traversed in any given week by Hurricane Marilyn or Hurricane Manson.
Freud = Moses + Sherlock Holmes
So, to recap, if you want to succeed you must combine the following talents. You must be:
* An astute sociologist, quick to pick up on the important myths of the society you wish to seduce.
* A Dr Frankenstein, selecting and sewing together two important (and sometimes contradictory) mythical figures.
* A chameleon-like impressionist, able to animate, conjure or channel the departed legends of your choice.
It's fascinating to watch celebrities in their early days, experimenting with roles, mimicking a whole series of figures before stumbling (by accident or design) on a combination which inflames the public imagination. David Bowie, for instance, messed around on the fringes of showbiz for several years making the following ineffective combinations:
Roger Daltry -- Leadbelly
Tommy Steele -- Tony Newley
Donovan -- Marc Bolan
Lou Reed -- Greta Garbo
It isn't just singers, though. Kafka could be seen as an amalgam of Gogol and Kierkegaard. Freud seems to have broken through by transforming himself into a combination of Moses and Sherlock Holmes. Like David Bowie, Freud used cocaine in copious quantities, which highlights an interesting side effect of such cases of possession: if, in your quest for attention, for mindshare, for fame, you are willing to change your name and your identity, what remains of the 'true you'? Once you're a successful encapsulation of the dreams and nightmares of a society, rich, famous and coked to the nines, what else is left to you but a kind of restless vampirism?
That's what we've seen in David Bowie for the last twenty years. In an endless, less-than-successful attempt to stay mythical, aspirational and relevant he has been there at the birth of every new art movement, every new pop talent, every technological advance, fangs drawn, thirsty for new blood. We must assume that the desiccated old mantis long ago felt the last drops of his own blood dry up in the white light and white heat of his fame, and has since been preying on others. And long may he continue to do so. Personally, I would be pleased to donate a little blood to this worthy cause.
What, then, is the formula for Momus?
I'm not quite sure, which is probably one reason I'm not that famous.
I mean, it could be:
Wendy Carlos + Tom Lehrer
Alexander Pope + Serge Gainsbourg
Cole Porter + Theodor Adorno
Or how about this: Momus = David Bowie + Sigmund Freud.
Now there's a scary thought. An amalgam of amalgams, a simulacrum of simulacra. And yet, in a world of surfaces, borrowings, references and allusions, a world where all heroes are hybrids, there might even be some sort of convoluted sincerity in there somewhere.