New Gods I: Celebrity, cultural imperialism, and the activist influencer

On the business of being yourself.

The concept of celebrity - and who we choose to idolize, who we ignore, who we lionize, and who we ignore has been on my mind for a few months. There’s no denying that social media has made it easier than ever to tune in to every moment of a celebrity’s life, to aspire to power, ostentatious parties, and Birkin bags. That dream feels exceptionally hollow when even survival feels like a fantasy, and when celebrities dare to issue messages of “we’re just like you!” from inside their multi-million dollar mansions.

Among the social impacts of the coronavirus is its swift dismantling of the cult of celebrity. The famous are ambassadors of the meritocracy; they represent the American pursuit of wealth through talent, charm and hard work. But the dream of class mobility dissipates when society locks down, the economy stalls, the death count mounts and everyone’s future is frozen inside their own crowded apartment or palatial mansion. The difference between the two has never been more obvious. The #guillotine2020 hashtag is jumping. As grocery aisles turn bare, some have suggested that perhaps they ought to eat the rich.

– “Celebrity Culture is Burning,” via the New York Times

Perhaps, at their core - it’s not the idea of celebrity that’s never made sense to me — it’s the idea of parasocial relationships. All social media did was democratize who we can be in a parasocial relationship with – whether it’s an influencer or a semi-notable journalist with a verified badge. Personally, I don’t think influencers are celebrities necessarily: I think they’re regular people with more privilege and access than us: a modern-day socialite if you will.

The reason that celebrities feel lost in this time, crooning “Imagine,” when no one asked for it is because celebrities have never really been in the business of being themselves the way an influencer or a Kardashian has. Celebrities are used to being manicured, told what to do; they’re used to being seen as heroes, rather than consumed by voyeurs 24/7. Perhaps it’s less celebrity itself that’s changed – maybe it’s our framework and our expectations.

The way that these “real people” build incredible empires is fascinating – Zoe Scaman writes about it at length in her newsletter, particularly in how she sees the concept of fandoms and how they enable different forms of connection and commerce. Creators and celebrities need audiences to survive. One creates the other - the relationship is symbiotic.

“We have to examine celebrity culture and consumer society as a tennis fan watches a match: constantly switching focus from one to the other. One can’t exist without the other any more than a tennis player can play against herself.” – Ellis Cashmore, Celebrity/Culture

To elaborate on this thinking, I invited my friend Aloiso Wilmoth, a cultural critic and memer & Anastasia Kārkliņa, a cultural analyst, to discuss what influence, celebrity, and the idea of being an icon even mean anymore.

Over a few installments, we’ll share our thoughts on anything ranging from the Kardashians to Lil Miquela to cultural imperialism.

Aloiso Wilmoth: My name is Aloiso Wilmoth. I'm a techno DJ/cultural critic. I just kind of practice in those two realms to navigate what I think about culture and the world in general, and try to connect it with whether it be history, politics. So just kind of general cultural criticism, I suppose. I also run the page @moma.ps5 on
Instagram.

Anastasia Kārkliņa: I think you sent it to me, right? I checked it out also. I'm Anastasia. I'm super excited to be here. I am surviving the sixth year of academia trying to finish my PhD and slowly trying to get out. So it's really nice to talk to people who are not academics and who think about things more expansively and open in terms of contemporary culture rather than in terms of field formation, all of these things. And so I do American cultural studies and black studies and feminist theory. So specifically thinking about race and gender.

Nikita Walia: I'll get right into it. Does the idea of celebrity really appeal to you? Has it ever?

For me, I think growing up there was a very limited time range that I was really
into celebrities probably between seven, eight, nine to eleven years old. And
then after that, I just kind of hit this point where I was, "These are just real
people."

And for some reason, we find them extraordinary for better or for worse.
Obviously someone like Beyoncé I think, deserves to be famous.

But some of the other people that I see just don't and I think slowly as I got older and continue to get older, celebrities just feel less and less relevant to me and my life. Especially this year trying to make it through to the next day. I'm not really concerned with what the Kardashians are doing or even the new class of TikTok celebs are doing. I've just never really formed parasocial relationships like that. How about you guys?

AW: Yeah, I guess for me it's always kind of been just a neutral tone because, I mean,
even when I was a kid or teenager, I was never really interested in celebs.
Rather, I was always interested in the people behind them or what goes into
making the art. So even just in encountering them, it's just, "Okay, you're just a
regular person." I don't understand the mysticism. I guess when you understand
the mysticism early on it allows you to cut immediately to the quality of art.

NW: Yeah, absolutely. And I think as I started working in marketing, I just got more
and more jaded and even with some celebrities that people are, "Oh, she
creative directed this or whatever."

I'm always saying, "No, she didn't... She has a team of 50 people. And then she signed off on a moodboard they made. She did nothing besides say yes."

AK: I think I'm with you all here on that. And I also think it's as we think about,
I guess, exporting ideas to other parts of the world, probably everyone knows
who Beyoncé is, or a least a large part of people abroad. For me growing up in
Eastern Europe, I didn't come to the United States until I was 18. So a lot of my
own experience with celebrity was of kind of confusion when I arrived here. As a
teenager, or I guess in my late teens, I would say that growing up in another
part of the world in the nineties, celebrity culture was not as kind of ingrained,
especially when you're a teenager, the way I imagine kind of American culture,
rewards certain aspiration [inaudible] or thinkers, right? But I do remember
going up even in Eastern Europe, in the nineties and then being very much into
Britney Spears.

There was growing up some kind of attachment to celebrity, but I think for me
personally, it was attachment to Western culture. We were just transitioning out of collapse of the Soviet Union. So there was some kind of aspiration for I guess looking towards celebrity, but more so, "Oh, it's Western culture, so it's cool." But yeah, as I moved here, I think similarly to you all, it was kind of not relating as much to the culture and sort of, not really following a lot of celebrities.

AW: It's interesting, your perspective as a person from Eastern Europe, does it feel like a sort of cultural imperialism in some ways? This constant exporting of western values, culture, music, whatever, does it feel kind of thrown into your face?

AK: I do, in some sense, think so. And it's also kind of internal when you are, I guess, as someone who was growing up in Eastern Europe, it is interesting the way that cultural imperialism, I like that phrasing, kind of gets adopted, but also gets kind of reproduced in the local culture. So my background is Russian, and so we actually can look at Russian popular music in a way that hip-hop actually is taken on by Russian rappers. Right?

And all of the aesthetics and kind of fusing in with local culture. And so it is both a kind of, I think, export of these ideas, but then, because of globalization and I guess ideas about what the West is. There is a kind of willingness in terms of adopting these ideas. And so it's actually very interesting to think about how even kind of the idea... It's called celebrity, but a certain lifestyle that is perceived around hip-hop culture gets adopted in Russia where you kind of have Russian celebrities trying to recreate that aesthetic, which has other layers to it.

NW: I saw this TikTok the other night that was drill music, but around the world and they were Polish drill rappers and all of these other, former Soviet bloc countries. And it was so crazy to me that, what does drill music have to do with Poland at all? It's just adopting an aesthetic and taking it on and then layering a separate cultural message on top of it.

AW: Fascinating. Yeah. It is in hindsight, it is kind of interesting seeing the drill get exported. I mean, I'm from the region where it was born. So seeing become something and then get exported to Europe and rest of the world and it grow completely stripped from its birthplace and context, it's really wild. I guess as a DJ, I'm so constantly in tune with music, studying intensely where stuff comes from. I draw similar perspectives to celebrities and attaching things to this broader spider web and seeing how culture works.

NW: Considering the rise of right-wing nationalism all over the world, and the general sense of tumult…
Do celebrities even feel relevant, do they feel frivolous?

For me, celebrities have just felt so frivolous the last four years. So many of them are, "Oh, I'm anti-Trump," or "I'm anti-this" and I'm, "Why do I care? Why do you think I care what you think? You're rich, you'll be fine. You're a rich, white woman in Beverly Hills? Who cares what you think about Trump? You're benefiting from his policies." Do you guys feel similarly?

AW: Yeah. Culture and politics getting exported so hard and fast everywhere, you can see a class consciousness emerging. You see it so much on TikTok by Gen Z: I guess people become so politically engaged on social media. Because obviously there's a lot of critiques to be had against hollow gestures like the celebs do, but to see people connecting dots in those ways and railing against celebrities, I'm like "Wow. Maybe the playing field is becoming level."

They see through the facade because we aren’t distracted as much due to the pandemic locking all of us in. Maybe the pandemic accelerated this in many ways or tighted that gap, maybe the falseness of it, the falsehood of it, really. The pretense is gone.

NW: I think you and I, and all of us kind of sit at a different vantage point. I remember leading up to the election, a lot of the Kardashians were posting "Vote" and people were like, "For who?" Or some of them were posting "Vote Kanye" and whatever. So you have that being held up against the fact that Kylie Jenner put "Swipe up to register to vote" on her story and drove millions and millions of signatures and registrations.

How do you hold those two separate ideas together?

AK: I also think it's fascinating to think about the limit of politics that celebrity allows, right? Or the kind of... I mean, a lot of the messages, I think a lot of engagement with politics that we see in terms of celebrities, I would argue are apolitical, right?

In terms of thinking about radical politics or something that goes beyond just kind of the liberal narratives, voting or being engaged in your community, right? Or be an ally. Right. Is there a celebrity culture, the way that it has been showing up allow for kind of pushing those boundaries, right?

And that's something that I think it's a great point thinking about TikTok and kind of the rise, all of this influencer class, or even just increased presence of affirming young voices on the platform in the ways that are actually pushing these boundaries where we now see prison abolition as something that I can learn about on TikTok. Right? And ACAB, those kinds of radical politics is not something that I have encountered when engaging with celebrities who are supposedly thinking about politics.

I think there's some kind of pushing of ideological boundaries of what becomes acceptable, right? I don't know if that resonates with you all.

AW: I like that you brought up all the radical ideas from prison abolition, because if you look at post-Obama/post-Occupy Wall Street, I think with the advent of maybe more...

I mean, because everybody was on social media in 2008 but it wasn't to this extremity. So with the addition of Twitter and all that. Slowly, the thing I noticed for the last five or six years is you start seeing people pushing past this idea of engaging politically past electoral politics. The problem with celebrity culture is they're only able to talk about stuff.

They think that everyone's political responsibility is relegated to a one day vote every four years and it’s lazy. With the uprising, TikTok or whatnot, you see people, they're, "Okay, we can think outside of this framework." They're asking, "How can we influence the status quo and whatnot?" It's really crazy and a cool way of interrogating reality.

NW: Yeah. I think for better or for worse, the amount that we're on social media and the conversations that are on social media have widened the scope for who has a voice and when they think it's relevant.

And I think, Trump-ism made a lot of people more politically engaged, and resistance became an aesthetic.

I think about this a lot too, especially with the rise of all of those infographics that were circulating this summer, aestheticizing real suffering. I don't think you should throw a sans serif pink background on someone about to be executed. That just doesn't sit right with my spirit, personally.

AW: I agree. I always think of those kinds of gestures. It reminds me of t-shirts or stickers, the early 2000s, when you would go to Hot Topic and buy a sticker or button or logo t-shirt, signifying that you're a communist or anarchist. someone who exists in a subculture. And in some ways, I feel Instagram infographics are the natural evolution of that.

Because you make a gesture. It's wearing a Che Guevara shirt, people post it and they'll be like, "Okay, my political work here is done." There's this gap. In some ways, I think it's stripped from actual material reality. It’s a quick gesture like a Coexist bumper sticker. Boom, and keep it moving.

AK: Yeah. I think... Sorry. I'm so glad you mentioned that, because that was exactly the thing I was going to say. I think part of it is thinking about this transformation of celebrity or against the rise of influencer culture and kind of, I guess the gates are now open for more people to be part of this conversation.

But I think it's thinking about the complexity of that, the benefits of that, what is gained and what is lost in these kinds of transformations, such that we have social media where we now can tweet out where the protest that's happening, right? Or maybe elevate and kind of circulate a certain campaign that was not previously known, right? That in the past, you probably would have to harass a celebrity to talk about it or shed light on it or give a platform to it.

Now it's expanded. And yet at the same time, I wonder what is lost in that process, right? Where a lot of it, or some of it becomes a kind of performance of online presence, right? And I think that even as we're thinking about kind of this political expansion or more political possibilities that we're now discussing, I think there is still a kind of piece on social media that is about performance and not necessarily in a negative sense, but it becomes the infographics, the posts, the names, the images.

We saw white liberals go out in the streets and take photos at protests, right? How much of that becomes also a performance of something that we... Yeah. The desire or something that, or in the way that we want to be desired by our audiences?

NW: I see this all the time in media, someone will post one semi-political message and then suddenly publications pick up on them and they're, "Meet the activist and writer that's doing this." And most of these people are just being decent. They're not really activists.

AK: The bar is so low, right?

AW: It's funny you bring up the performance aspect.

Maybe the reason why in some ways the whole idea of a celebrity is being challenged because when you look at the North American landscape, activists are the new celebs.

You know what I mean? You get a book deal, you look at people like DeRay McKesson or Shaun King. If you say a variation of the right thing, activists become celebs. You get famous because you're saying the right kind of politically charged things timed perfectly. In some ways they're playing the role of an actor or celebrity traditionally looked at as a hero of the people via social media.

AK: And I think that point actually goes to my previous point about ideological constraint. I think that's such an excellent point. Someone like McKesson is going through the White House, right, with, I forget the prison reform campaign.

And then we saw the activist community released the abolition campaign as a counter, while his campaign was getting mainstream attention because it was around reform.

NW: I think the idea that celebrities are just completely dead in the water and not relevant is an opinion really informed by being in the part of either the New York media class or working in an academic setting or just observing culture.

How do you feel about the internet and how it's democratized who can be famous?

AW: Democratization, it ties back to the original inception of the internet, it was supposed to be this broad libertarian wild west, all of that. Decentralized Anarchy, in some ways. But the advent of big tech stopped all of that and monopolized what we see.

The problem with that democracy, it just speeds up things. The flavor of the month isn't even flavor of the month anymore, it's flavor of the day, flavor of the second. so people are more inclined pushing to extremes to kind of gain relevancy with the algorithm and whatnot. That's what I notice. It's just so bad. You can barely keep up. Yet the algorithm rewards this immediacy.

AK: Yeah. I was really interested in thinking about that question. And I think, again, I guess my own take is it's kind of both ... It's not either/or, both/and, in the sense that I think there have been possibilities unleashed where we have ... I've been thinking about our conversation. We have this new influencer class on TikTok, elderly people, right? Who are now gaining these followers, not only in terms of the value it's added to their life, because a lot of them are recording their day-to-day life. They're kind of seen as very wholesome and kind of cute by their audiences, right? But some influencers that I see on TikTok who are either middle-aged or older aged are providing a kind of emotional support to young queer people who are being turned away by families, etc. And so I think there is kind of this expansion, right? We are having these totally new conversations, but also new kinds of visual communities. And we wouldn't expect Gen Z to form a kind of parasocial relationship or otherwise with an 80-year-old man from Kentucky. I don't know, I'm making this up.

But at the same time, I'm interested in thinking about influencer culture is always already kind of connected or indebted to celebrity culture, right? And I think we can really ... It is a product of celebrity culture, and so we can't divorce it from the kind of ideological imperative of celebrity.

And I think if we think about celebrity and its function in culture as a kind of class ideology that begins after the Industrial Revolution around the early 20th century, where there is an expansion of the middle class and celebrity provides this narrative of, well, everyone can succeed, right? You can be talented, you can work hard, and you can become that, right? And so we see emerging ideas around celebrity around this time. This is also when the feminist movement, white feminist movement, particularly, is getting kind of expanded and developed around suffrage movement, right?

And so as we trace back to the 20th century, I think there is a specific kind of pull yourself by the bootstraps ideology around celebrity, in terms of this cultural function in making us believe that talent is what gets you ahead in America, and you can be talented, and you can become that thing. And so I think it's very hard to divorce that from the influencer culture, because I think that assumption, ideological cultural assumption, is already embedded influencer, the way we think about influencer class or culture. Well, now, anyone can become an influencer. And I guess when I think about that, my followup question, like, "Is that necessarily true?"

But I think in the notes I dropped some ideas around, okay, when we actually look at the data of who is most influential travel couple on Instagram, they're predominantly white, financially privileged people who are able to go and travel around the world, pre-COVID, and take all of these amazing pictures, and then sell that illusion to other people by selling their Instagram course, online course, how to build your brand, right? By selling the idea.

NW: Yeah. I think to some extent, it's a false democratization, and influencer culture and celebrity culture reflect back onto us what our society is.

So if you went into the top earning influencers in travel, like you said, I'm pretty sure the majority of them would be cis-gendered heterosexual white couples that are monetizing their channels just the way that they are. And maybe there are narrow windows of opportunity for flukes to happen that are this bootstraps narrative that you're talking about where, yes someone outside the mainstream could make it through through the magic of the algorithm.

AW: There's this theory by Cornel West – called the normative gaze in which we view every bit of success through a Eurocentric lens that provides just everything, what we view as constructed. And from my own personal experience running various pages and whatnot or even just kind of navigating music, like Nikita's point, it's a very, very narrow window, as being a Black dude. So for me, I'm always kind of looking toward those windows.

Those in-between points. I guess a majority of my experience kind of theorizing or navigating spaces has been that. I think about this all the time, the fact that, man, I literally just managed to make it through a narrow window, as opposed to if I was a white dude or whatever, I could probably just get away with being not even half as good. It always often feels like you have to be 10 or 5 steps ahead. It's almost like playing chess with the algorithm. That algorithm, it definitely rewards a very specific subset of influencers.

AK: I think that's so true. And just to add to that, I'm also interested in thinking about that narrow window and how that even shape is by what we find desirable, right?
I'm interested in thinking about even like, okay, but in that narrow window, who makes it, right? People who look a certain way.

Probably people who are able-bodied, people who are thin or are, if they're curvy, so to say, they're probably are coded as attractive in their curviness or in their body type, specific body type. And so, yeah, I think there's something for me coming out around the influencer culture and desires, whether those are kind of psychosocial desires or sexual desires for who we find attractive and who we want to aspire to be like, or whose content we are propelled or moved by?

That’s all for today. Tune in next time for our thoughts on “selling out” and the inflection point of success.