The concept of fame is a vague one. While sixty years ago no one would doubt the stardom status of The Beatles, now it is clear that there are no other stars than those sparkling celestial bodies up in the sky. With further fragmentation of the society (and human minds) affected by the Internet, similar processes continue in the realm of the music business. What is considered as successful and popular by one, can be seen as obscure to the others. The former universal perception of fame split into multiple versions.
Last week, innovative electronic musician Kieran Hebden aka Four Tet shared a story which serves as evidence of his healthy self-ironic attitude as well as current idea of fame. Following his last-minute performance at Coachella with fellow artists Skrillex and Fred Again, the musician was praised on social media as the one achieving what he deserved. Ironically, the set that turned out to be pivotal in his career started with Four Tet looping the intro of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, by the you-know-which band that had famously become idols of MTV pantheon in the 90s. One of the clips showing the bit of the performance went viral on Tik Tok and other platforms.
Talking to The Guardian, Hebden expressed an alternative opinion on this successful live appearance. “That concept was coming at me after Coachella – ‘He’s finally getting the success he deserves’ – but it didn’t really feel like that.”
He continues: “I did Coachella and the next gig was a three-and-a-half-hour set at my daughter’s 13th birthday party to 20 teenage girls, who I felt looked at me deeply unimpressed the whole time.”
In this statement, Hebden, whose contribution to electronic music is, indeed, remarkable, seemingly ruminates on the 15 minutes of fame theory. Actually, the phrase initially invented in reference to Andy Warhol’s exhibition in Stockholm was inspired by the “nine days’ wonder” expression coming from the Elizabethan era. Over a few centuries, the time frame of stardom has been shrinking, being directly proportional to the decreasing attention span and concentration.
Although social media is the birthplace of hype, it is certainly where long-term fame has been converted into fleeting bursts of popularity. However, beyond the changing perception of stardom, perhaps, lies another reason – people don’t need long-lasting phenomena anymore. The changing sensations serve as an antidote to doom scrolling. That’s why the institution of fandom has been gradually becoming obsolete (though it doesn’t mean fans will cease to exist). The more triggers for anxiety they find the more neutralising agents are needed. Does it mean that there are exceptional phenomenal charismatic talents that would be equal to those achieving the status of world-dominating pop icons in the past? Not at all. Yet, the priorities changed. Still, many look at the phenomenon of stardom with nostalgia applying this concept to the current situation. The Four Tet story is a clear example.
Another problem with success these days is that it cannot be measured any longer. With such means as streaming services, one can see the impact of a particular song on Spotify or a video on TikTok. Although numbers on social media do not indicate the ultimate popularity, A&R label representatives rely on these statistics when seeking new talent. In their brilliant piece from 2022, The Spectator specified that this imposed need for social media presence killed off “the alienness of pop stars”. It is hard not to agree with this. “These days, musicians’ behaviour and statements are scanned – for signs of being a wrong’un, for mental health problems, for anything wrong”, writes Michael Hann. “Were a musician today to behave publicly as Bowie did in the mid-1970s, for example – starving himself by living off cocaine, milk and peppers, keeping his urine in the fridge, giving Nazi salutes at Victoria station – Twitter would be awash with people wanting them to seek help and sort themselves out”.
While many people manipulate their followers on social media by distorting their public image, artists lose their mysterious quality by following the beaten path and posting images that would help them to create a bond with the audience. While the majority of spectators/listeners have lost a spark of a true fan, a huge proportion of artists don’t dare to be mysterious and distance themselves from the public.