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When the fan becomes the celebrity
From theatre and cinema to music, spectators are channeling a 'main character energy' that is threatening the status quo
Much has been written about the peculiar shift in standards of audience etiquette across the arts since the pandemic. In British theatres, ticket holders have been forcibly removed from auditoriums because of everything from physical scraps and indecent exposure to drunken singing and heckling. In cinemas, viewers have complained of people talking all the way through, shouting, or filming themselves reacting to the screen on their phones.
And barely a week goes by without someone capturing a video of a fan throwing something on stage at a gig – from a phone that hit Bebe Rexha so hard in the face she needed stitches, to a bag of ashes at Pink’s BST Hyde Park Show. Last week a fan threw a drink on Cardi B, who promptly hurled her mic at the person in retaliation.
When it comes to music, this is a particular bizarre moment in fan culture. Why would someone who has paid (no doubt extortionate) prices to see one of their favourite musicians in concert, not to mention turned up early enough to bag a position near the front of the stage, then want to provoke the ire of the person at the centre of such devotion?
Some critics have said this behavioural problem can be chalked up to the pandemic. People spent so long in isolation they lost their manners in public, while young people lost two important years of formative socialising. And there is the question of alcohol: theatres struggling to make money post-Covid have found that encouraging punters to buy drinks is the best way to breakeven.
But for Gen Z, perhaps one of the most interesting things at play is the changing rules of engagement when it comes celebrity – a culture which has become so available, and so accessible, that for many people it has lost its sparkle. Getting a famous person’s autograph has not been valuable for a long time, now even the selfie seems like it has lost its social capital.
Recently, fans have been toying with new, disruptive methods of interaction that guarantee their own moment of fame online: why film a musician from the pit when you could throw your phone on stage and have them film themselves, or take a dazzling selfie with the crowd? Why send them a fan letter in the post when you could hurl a gift at their feet and film their reaction?
Perhaps one of the biggest examples of ‘interactive’ gigs was when Alex from Glasto became a ‘name’ – interviewed by newspapers and snagging his own Boohoo deal – after Dave got him up on the Pyramid stage to rap the lyrics to Thiago Silva in 2019. These days, perhaps because they know it will ensure virality, it’s common for musicians to make fans part of the show, from Chris Brown lap dancing a fan on stage to Lizzo pausing her own dancing to spotlight a fan who had memorised the entire choreography in the pit.
And, disturbingly, if you can’t get a celebrity’s attention through adoration, then why not anger them? They don’t see your DMs, and you’re just one of several thousand loving, blurry faces at their gig, so you throw a drink at them, and they’ll look you dead in the eyes.
When I interviewed the rapper Aitch for my podcast Straight Up, he talked about the unprovoked violent DMs he would receive from male followers, telling him they wanted to beat him up. He said that on a few occasions, the provocation worked, and he replied, asking them when and where they wanted to meet for the fight. Every time, the response was the same: ‘Oh just joking man, I’m a huge fan, I’m coming to your next concert!’
Similarly, I had a friend who, over five years ago, threw a bottle of water over her favourite rapper, having spent hours getting to the front of the stage at a festival. He was, naturally, furious, and she was hurled off by security. Far from boastful about her five seconds of fame, she was mortified – it was a moment of perverse drunken madness that stemmed from a deep need for the attention of the celebrity she idolised.
I do wonder, though, if she had been born a few years later, whether she might have filmed what happened and uploaded it to TikTok, the desire for online clout eclipsing embarrassment, her priority shifting from the celebrity she came to see to becoming her own, temporary celebrity. The phrase used to be that everyone wants their 15 seconds of fame, the difference is that these 15 seconds have never been so attainable.
This all feeds into the general sense of fandoms lately becoming more powerful, and more adjacent to the celebrity they worship, from Taylor Swift fans taking legal action against Ticketmaster to Hailey Bieber stans trolling Selena Gomez against her wishes. It's a power dynamic Donald Glover riffs on in his TV show Swarm, inspired by the Beyhive, in which one stan's obsession with superstar Ni’Jah turns so violent she murders anyone who speaks ill of her, eventually assaulting Ni'Jah herself on stage by biting her deeply in the neck.
Beyond celebrity, there are similar motivations. For many young people consuming big cultural moments – Barbie and Oppenheimer being prime examples – it is no longer enough to be a passive spectator. To be considered ‘interesting’ online, where social hierarchy is now decided, you have to become part of the story.
Responding to someone on Twitter who couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact some people were filming themselves reacting to a film during a screening, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour host Linda Holmes wrote:
“I think there are genuinely people where simply observing or taking in someone else's creative work feels strange. You have to be *part* of the story. You have to be doing something. In order for an experience to be validated, it has to be shareable, and to be shareable, you have to be a character. You can't be an observer. Sitting quietly and watching a movie and then leaving won't work.”
In response, a writer called Keith Edwards posted an interesting hypothesis: “Reverse Stendhal syndrome, where instead of being overcome by a work of art in rapturous awe, you become anxious and enraged by the realization that this art/ creative experience has its own agency beyond your control.”
Of course there are many instances – from pantomime to singing for an artist when they turn the mic to the crowd – in which audience participation is required and encouraged. But I’m interested in Linda’s point about playing “a character” replacing observation.
Linda links it to gaming (the ‘main character’ vs gaming’s ‘non playable character’) though it also made me think about the phrase “main character energy”, which went viral on TikTok in lockdown, inspiring people to take control of a life that felt frighteningly in flux. It seems to have started with one particular video, in which, as a woman sparkles in the sunlight on a beach, a narrator says: “You have to start romanticising your life. You have to start thinking of yourself as the main character. ’Cause if you don’t, life will continue to pass you by.”
Now ‘main character energy’ is used in TikTok videos about confidence and prioritising your needs across everything from friendship to the workplace, as well as a humorous way to comment on a situation in which you may have made yourself the centre of attention.
It is a joke, a meme, but then again in some ways it isn’t a joke at all. Like Linda alludes to in her Twitter thread, it seems like TikTok – which has turned us all into content creators, critics, influencers and celebrities – has also encouraged a deep, performative narcissism. If you go to a concert and you believe you are the main character, then perhaps it makes sense to look at someone in the spotlight and want to disrupt that in some way.
Of course, culture has been ‘reactive’ for a while. When reaction videos became a thing in 2007, it wasn’t enough to watch a video from your favourite musician or play a game, you wanted to watch people reacting to said music video, or playing said game.
Around the same time, newspapers that had migrated online opened up comment sections beneath their articles. Then the comment sections became even more of a spectator sport – you could ‘like’ the ones you agreed with, or comment in response to a comment. A celebrity’s Instagram post, or a writer’s personal essay, could be completely undermined, or overshadowed, by a commenter that gets the most likes – the commenter became the main character. In a way, the power of the ‘commenter’ was one of the building blocks of cancel culture. In Linda’s thread, someone has written: ‘life is now just one big comments section.’
Perhaps there are artists who will find new ways to channel this audience desire for interaction and agency into something positive and controlled. But others have been pulling up drawbridges for a while. Some have disabled their comments sections or left social media altogether. Others have stopped doing press, stopped performing, releasing music, or validating their fans’ affections. Only this month Doja Cat — who has threatened to quit music multiple times — lost fans after she ridiculed some of them for being too obsessed with her online, and questioned their ‘para-social’ relationships. As Gen Z may come to learn, it seems main character energy can get a little exhausting.
This week in links
I've been reading Yellowface, by Rebecca Kuang, a thriller that follows a struggling author based in Washington DC who hits the big time after stealing a masterpiece-in-progress about the Chinese Labour Corps… from her dead by Chinese friend. People describe books as page-turners far too casually but truly, I couldn’t put this down, and even spent a good chunk of a Saturday evening reading in bed, which hasn’t happened in a long time.
The book is also a timely – and sharply satirical – reflection on the culture wars that have divided publishing, with some of its best passages looking at the absurdity of getting ‘cancelled’ on Twitter, where trolls chase their own tail and eventually nobody wins. There are also some very thoughtful reflections on what counts as plagiarism – is it stealing somebody else’s manuscript, or lifting words, conversations, mannerisms from the people around you in real life?
And, Amelia Tait on the cringe-inducing 'chatty marketing' bandwagon that every supermarket vegan brand seems to have jumped on, no doubt inspired by Innocent's cute talking smoothies that felt so fresh a decade ago. Amelia interviews the writer behind THIS's irreverent packaging (which went viral when Florence Pugh shared it on Instagram), who has a very funny story about how it actually came to be. Read it here.
Plus, Tayo Bero's insightful Guardian column on why black rappers - from Kanye to Ice Cube - are aligning themselves to the Right because of shared religious beliefs and bigoted views on gender identity.
I've been listening to the excellent new album from Noname, whose 2016 album Telefone marked her as one of the smartest and most thoughtful rappers around. Braver than most rising stars, she throws shade at everyone from Rihanna to Obama.
I've been watching The Effect by Lucy Prebble. Would you trust someone if they told you they loved you, but were tripping on a powerful antidepressant? That's the crux of Succession and I Hate Suzie writer Lucy Prebble's The Effect, first staged in 2012 starring Billie Piper, now revived with Paapa Essiedu and Taylor Russell (whose rumoured new boyfriend Harry Styles was seen at opening night). It's absorbing, raising difficult questions around ethics and mental health, as well as featuring some gorgeous scenes that completely nail the rush and agony of first love. Running until October 7
I can't stop thinking about this outrageously candid Billie Piper Q&A from 2011 (don't ask me how I got here). She admits to going through a 'throwing animal phase' where she hurled them down the street, and being "so vicious while pregnant with my first son that my husband developed a stammer". Outrageous but...very funny.
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