Sunday, 22 March 2009
I Might Be Wrong #1 - Jade Goody and the media
“The planet itself is becoming it's own dustbin...” - Jean Baudrillard
Ostensibly this is a music blog, but I felt compelled to concrete my thoughts on today's news into words. I was genuinely saddened by the death of Jade Goody. The manner of her passing from cervical cancer, it's untimely nature and the fact that she left behind a young family were all deeply unsettling elements to the story.
What does the exposure given to this story say about Britain? It reinforces our mortality and fear of death, providing a reminder that we can be taken at any time, and this was surely one facet of the media's fascination with Goody's illness and this humanistic element will prolong the longevity of interest in it for the forthcoming weeks, months and maybe years. Who knows – the media's attention span is like that of a schizophrenic five year old, constantly wavering and uncertain. She was just a year older than myself, and died just seven months after being diagnosed with cancer while on Big Boss, the Indian version of Big Brother, so it certainly connects with myself on this level. But beyond this lies a darker, more unsettling tone, that of our almost hysterical epistemological desire to know everything about the lives and inner workings of celebrity. And I don't mean a celebrity in the singular sense, but that of the construct, the artifice itself. Jade Goody's adult life was lived in front of TV camera crews and paparazzi, which for an unremarkable woman from Essex whose sole achievements were giving a public blowjob and making racist remarks, both on the 'normal' and 'celebrity' versions of reality TV show Big Brother, was a remarkable achievement in itself.
Contrast this thirst for knowledge on celebrity and it's nature with the gradual narrowing of the media's range and depth – 24 hour news coverage has weakened our response to news, with the rolling bulletins which aim to cover every angle instead providing a fractal and dissolute image of the news. We as a nation are becoming slowly more depoliticised – reality TV shows, and the depressing advent of the return of 70s style variety programmes such as Britain's Got Talent are becoming opiates for the masses. The level of critical inquest into anything is embarrassingly and intolerably low in most quarters, with vast swathes of the media seem content for the viewer to be dispassionate observers. News broadcasts become a cut and paste job of white teeth, hair, personality, Brit murdered abroad, human interest story – blurred and unfocused images that add up to a distorted and inconsequential whole. Truly symbolic and important events are sidetracked by commodification. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised – whatever the tourist board tells us Britain is a nation of service stations, transport cafés, dirty canals, and abandoned gasworks as much as it one of sun dappled waterways, cathedrals, castles and prehistoric ruins.
We don't innately need these 'stars', but have constructed them anyway. Jade Goody was constructed by the media, which made a star of her personality alone. From inauspiciuous beginnings (she was much hated after her first appearance on Big Brother) she somehow became a figurehead for England. But she went wrong, one of many white contestants who racially abused Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty on the celebrity version of Big Brother. She had strayed from the script so the press completed a hatchet job on her and she became bigoted Jade from Essex again. Only when near to death does a different portrayal arrive, that of the loving mother and wife. This new portrayal was lovingly orchestrated by Max Clifford, a process that Goody wilfully participated in. Realising early on that she was “famous for nothing”, she utilised our seemingly insatiable appetite for insight into the lives of celebrities in order to sell the rights to her recent wedding to fiancé Jack Tweed in order to raise funds for her family after her death. So, in true post-structuralist terms, the media has been misled, waylaid, misrouted by an apparent desire for knowledge on celebrity and the depiction of reality that our quest for a perceived notion of reality becomes a fruitless quest for a paper tiger.
You get the media you deserve, they are there to provide an outlet for the populace. I'm not proposing a return to a didactic delivery of news, but proposing that newsgathering should continue to be wide and varied. Rather than telling us what to think (or not to think, as is the current vogue) we should be invited to think for ourselves. And I don't mean in an ITV News style "text in if you've got an opinion on the banking crisis" bollocks way. Jade Goody's legacy, such that it is, will be a greater acknowledgement of the threat of cancer to the young. But it could also provide a clarion call to the media, a chance to realise the puerility of it's output, and it's treatment of the reality 'stars' it creates.