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Touching from a Distance [4]

by Ko Banerjea
10 Jun 2007 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Commons

Something unusual happened yesterday in a city built largely on the artifice of celebrity. Millionaire heiress and ‘Simple Life’ star, Paris Hilton was led screaming from an LA courtroom to an uncertain future and the possibility of actually completing her 45 day jail sentence for driving offences and contempt of court violations. ‘Star’ might be a little excessive to describe Hilton’s invariably hapless efforts on the said TV programme to forego the umbilical comforts of a mobile phone and credit cards for the ’simple’ pleasures of an honest day’s work. What sticks in the mind, though, especially in the light of everything that’s happened since, is the flagrantly staged nature of her encounters with everyday folk and their work and home lives. The knowing smirk behind each frame gently reminds us, in case we’d forgotten, that this is just a game, the latest sitcom to feed off the carrion of ‘reality TV’. And like all games, it only carries on for as long as the players want to play – hence the cut, the commercial break, diverting out-take sequences and the media filtered knowledge of Ms Hilton’s ubiquitous presence on the not so pedestrian global party circuit.

The not so simple life from Cannes to Copacabana, and most places in between. Famous, in other words, simply for being there, smirk in hand, a rumour from the high life circulating amongst the common people. Jarvis Cocker would have been proud. So to describe her fall from grace as schadenfreude doesn’t even begin to cover it. It’s a long way from a private suite at the Waldorf Astoria to County lock up but it’s even further from the myth of untouchability to that other everyday, the dread insistence of rules, regulations, recess, restrictions. The simplest life of all, stripped of character, assigned instead with a number. Orange boilersuit, 23 hour lockdown, but still largely a sham. Paris Hilton, no more enemy combatant than evening runway model, and that smirk, briefly dissolving into tears, ready to make a triumphant return once her shadow boxing with the common people is over. And as with all rumours, lost to the ether once the complications of celebrity unmask their latest casualty.

Wafting across the Pacific breeze the echo of another age, the barbed wisdom of culture’s failed promises, still the sharpest comment on our decline into high ranking trivia or rather our deference to a certain cult of celebrity. John Lydon, these days an anonymous LA resident, but in an earlier incarnation, Johnny Rotten, famously signed off as frontman for the Sex Pistols with a characteristic, ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ This came at the end of a particularly unhappy tour of the States in 1978, with the band descending into nihilism, madness and a certain melancholia. Sid Vicious – the band’s bass player – bore the legend ‘Gimme A Fix’ carved on his chest, the band hated each other, and Lydon hated everyone – where once they’d imagined destroying show biz, it turned out that show biz was all they had. After their last gig, in January 1978 at the Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, Lydon had $20 in his pocket, no credit card, no plan and no future. He even lost the name ‘Rotten’, ownership of which was claimed for years after by the band’s svengali manager, Malcolm McClaren.

The Sex Pistols, in the 26 months of their public existence, while they were busy scaring the English public and being described as a ‘bigger threat to our way of life than Russian communism’ all still lived at home with their mums except for one who lived in a rehearsal space with no hot water. ‘God Save the Queen’ might have been written in Lydon’s mum’s kitchen but it drew on its everyday surroundings for punk’s viral energy – a rejection of the poorly paid, mind numbing work actually available to young people in the UK of the 1970s. But also of the unquestioned nature of authority and of the idea that the rebellions of previous generations could somehow be fed back to the young as a new kind of pleasure industry. Adorno without the handwringing. Here’s Lydon again, in his first major interview with the band. ‘I hate shit, I hate hippies and what they stand for. I hate long hair. I hate pub bands. I want people to go out and start something, to see us and start something, or else i’m just wasting my time.’ No credit card, no name, just a trademark sneer and the legacy of a cultural stance. Yet more than three decades later this is also the double bind of Paris Hilton’s current predicament. Perhaps the biggest distinction, for there are many, lies in the journey, to riff on Rakim ‘where you’re from to where you’re at’. Cocking a cultural snook – half devil, half camp – is the natural byproduct of the truly creative – the moment when any innovator looks at their invention with a mixture of awe and mistrust. By the same token, being the beneficiary of a culture of consumption ill prepares anyone for the banal pleasures and everyday horrors of the ’simple’ life. Where once people made things – cars, ships, music – it now looks as though they are content to simply make ‘headlines’ until they realise those stories too have a life of their own. In the manner of this deconstructed dance of fascination, Paris Hilton has now flirted with the U.S prison system about as seriously as her earlier dalliance with the music industry, or with the world of everyday work – socialite, star, rebel. It maybe that the greatest fault lies with a culture, a zeitgeist, that indulges such self-delusion, rewards it with syndication, press coverage, the oxygen of a particular kind of publicity.

If it’s truly about ‘where you’re at’ then it’s hard to imagine Hilton foregoing ‘where she’s from’. And whilst it’s a memorable lyric from a benchmark tune, it’s of diminishing relevance to the world we actually live in. LA’s jails, in common with the rest of the U.S, are saturated with inmates from mainly poor and/or black communities, and very few people outside of the neocon circuit, would claim there’s no link between lack of opportunities on the outside and the increased possibility of being inside. Where you’re from it seems directly impacts on where you’re at, whatever the voices of the black, white and any other kind of bourgeoisie might tell you. Oddly enough, as is often the way with these things, a more honest appraisal is found in the classic line ‘Everybody wants to be bourgie bourgie’ drawn from that most disparaged of musical forms, disco/soul. It’s where we look least that the finest pearls of wisdom are usually uncovered. Hard, too, to see Hilton offering the kind of rasping proto punk analysis of her stage-managed descent into a bubble-wrapped LA penal colony that Lydon effortlessly conjured out of the dramatic irony of the Sex Pistols’ induction into a Rock and Roll Hall of fame last year. ‘No i don’t know my place, and nobody’s going to tell me what it is either, i’ll work that out for myself, thankyou. I’ve got a brain. Yes, i’ve got a shovel, but i’ve got a brain too, and i’d like to use it. Still shoveling shit though, really. Inducted!? That’s what you do to central heating pipes. It’s the music industry perpetuating the penguin suit and dickey bow, and it’s unacceptable. It’s not free-form. It’s us versus them, and us will win. ‘Us’ as in U.S.’

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