When the first British series of Big Brother aired in the early 2000s, the commentariat fell over each other’s Hush Puppies to condemn this storming of the cultural gatekeepers by Essex girls and Scouser boys intent on fame at any cost. As the Observer’s TV critic at the time, I was among these Cassandras, all of us reaching into our grab-bag of quotations to pull out the same, shopworn one by Warhol: “In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” We decried the way Peter Bazalgette, the boss of Endemol, the production company that had developed the format, was severing notoriety from renown once and for all so that the talentless could take their place on the winners’ podium. Those of us who had wasted our youth on cultural theory went further, calling our readers’ attention to Guy Debord’s characterisation of “spectacular fame” in his collection of Marxist-Zen koans The Society of the Spectacle.
Writing in the late 1960s with uncanny prescience, Debord described an overlit realm of mediatisation, within which politicians wish to be known for their jokes and the political opinions of comedians are accorded great reverence. For Debord, so-called “spectacular” notoriety was the logical consequence of late capitalism’s relentless drive to commoditisation: the spectacular celebrity is a brand with a product line of one: themselves. Which brings us, fairly logically, to Stacey Solomon. I confess, I wasn’t overly familiar with Ms Solomon before I decided to write about her, but I’d noticed her popping up on television screens in the periphery of my vision – and what struck me about her was quite simply this: what a lovely young woman.
She is witty, self-deprecating and obviously smart in an offbeat way, something she transforms into charm with ditsyness, so as to neutralise those inclined to dismiss young, working-class women out of hand. She is also very attractive – although, again, in an unconventional way, resembling as she does one of the Supermarionation dolls used in Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s popular TV series Thunderbirds. This likeness has a further significance: Solomon seems to have been fashioned by a creator with a specifically television-cum-pop career role for her in mind. Debord was a snob and a narcissist; he claimed to be one of the last people alive to possess “non-spectacular” fame. Since his suicide in 1994 he has been known chiefly as a sort of intellectual stylist, supplying hipsters with off-the-peg ideas they in turn pass off as bespoke.
By contrast, Solomon may appear to be just another oxymoronic television personality, but the truth is that she is an exemplar of a new kind of crowdsourced fame, whereby talented young people who would never otherwise get the breaks end up occupying the commanding heights of the entertainment industry. Some people regard Bazalgette’s suzerainity of the Arts Council as a grotesque solecism but, for my money (and let’s face it, “money” is the operative word here), he deserves the sinecure for his pioneering work on novel notoriety.
Solomon came third in the sixth series of The X-Factor (or possibly sixth in the third series); either way, she achieved this because she can actually sing; but she probably never would have got the breaks as a performer in a music industry where the loss of recording revenue has utterly transformed the conventional methods of recruitment. Her fame was further compounded in 2010 by winning the popular testicle-munching tournament I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here – once again, it is unlikely she’d ever have been allowed her own dressing room (complete with locking door) in that innocent era when Jimmy Savile was the face of British light entertainment.
In the early days of reality television the Great British Public had yet to grasp fully what was required of them. Telephone voting systems were at once crude and subject to mass feverishness. Early “reality stars” such as Jade Goody and “Nasty” Nick were rough prototypes of the Stacey Solomons to come. Yes, yes, I know Solomon advertises the supermarket chain Iceland, and hosts such cosmic clunkers as Top Dog Model, but you’ve only to see her being interviewed by typically “talented” TV presenters such as Jonathan Ross and Eamonn Holmes to appreciate the difference. If these folk have any ability at all, it’s for simulating the very naturalness that is Solomon’s birthright – she is the single mother from Dagenham they’re all trying desperately to be. Figuratively speaking, that is.
There’s an argument that the sort of criticism-by-committee afforded by the new, bidirectional digital media is inimical to the cultivation of the high arts. No doubt Á la recherche du temps perdu would be unlikely to garner that many Amazon five-star reviews were it to appear now in ebook form. But television presenting is a quite different skill from modernist novel-writing – in the latter, validation is achieved through posterity; in the former, by ephemerality. Of course Solomon’s shtick will seem dated in a decade’s time, but that is only the way it should be. Besides, as we grow older, the go-round of popular culture seems to revolve faster and faster. I, for one, would collapse through giddiness, were it not for my occasionally spending a few minutes with the evanescently down-to-earth Stacey.