Making up perfection

Perfection is something which is never actually achieved in real life. I was put in mind of this a little while ago when we went to a concert at Symphony Hall in Birmingham. It included Saen-Saens' second piano concerto. We have it on disc. In fact we have two different recordings of it. I like them both and have listened to them quite often. So often, that when I heard it played live, I was only too aware of a few wrong notes. It was not that it was cacophonous or played badly. I think that if I had not been so familiar with the recordings of it I wouldn't even have noticed. The point is that the versions on disc are highly edited and not a single wrong note is allowed to remain.

In the days when Saen-Saens composed it, recordings were in their infancy and so most people only ever heard the piece when it was played live, warts and all. I remember a programme on the radio, featuring the great pianist Artur Rubinstein who admitted that, when touring say, South America in the thirties, he wasn’t too troubled about playing exactly what the composer had written. The audience was unlikely to have recordings of what he was playing and so he could extemporise to some extent if he forgot the precise notes. As long as it sounded right, he took the view that no-one would notice or worry about it.  But now it's quite a shock to hear anything which is other than the perfection we hear on disc or on the radio.

The people we see on the Television and on film are of course usually made up, in all senses of the very apt English phrase. The make-up department is there to remove the blemishes which affect us all and instead we see them as inhabiting a different reality, where they are untouched either by the spots of youth or the lines of age. And we feel the more inadequate for it and, as a country, spend a fortune on cosmetic products and increasingly on plastic surgery in trying to emulate them; to achieve perfection.  This used to relate not only to their looks, but also to their lives.

Nowadays, however, although film stars are still required to be perfect from a looks point of view, their lives do not now have to measure up to the standards which used to be imposed by Hollywood.  Their highly paid publicists are, of course, still on hand to make sure that we only see the aspects of their clients’ lives which will make us think that they are wonderful or help us to sympathise with them, or rejoice with them that they have overcome some major problem, like cellulite. But above all they want to keep them in the public eye and therefore assure their value as a commodity.

In the contemporary world, the idea that scandal is something to be avoided at all costs has long since disappeared.  Indeed, what is scandalous has changed out of recognition.  Going into rehab is now something which is fashionable. It is done in order to overcome addiction of some sort, whether to drink, drugs or, indeed sex. And it is worn as a badge of pride, giving another reason to go on talk-shows. Homosexual male stars used to be made to consort with beautiful female ‘friends’ and no doubt vice versa. But now, marriages are celebrated, whether with same sex partners or partners of the opposite sex. The magazine industry and many television shows depend for their very existence on these relationships and, of course, their subsequent failure. Fortunately, celebrity marriages seem to end in divorce more often than those of the rest of humanity - although that does not stop them having highly remunerative spreads in Hello when the next marriage comes along.

When it's so obvious that all this is happening, why are we so willing to be conned? After all the magazines sell, the chat shows are watched and we follow them on social media.  By our acceptance of it all, we ensure that the stars of stage, screen and football pitch are paid vast amounts of money. And, ultimately, we ordinary people are the ones who pay for their extravagant lifestyles with the money we hand over for those magazines, for the tickets, for the DVD's, the down-loads, the clothing endorsed by them and everything-else that the merchandisers can think of to sell to us.  The Kardashians make a living from having large bottoms and selling clothes and other life-style ‘requirements’ which they have endorsed. The actress Gwyneth Paltrow now spends much of her time with her own empire, selling “cutting-edge wellness advice from doctors, vetted travel recommendations, and a curated shop of clean beauty and fashion”, none of which has any tangible benefit to the buyer, as the Advertising Standards Authority has found on occasion, but is a source of immense income to her.

Does this collective gawping amount to anything more than a hobby? Like collecting stamps or train spotting - only collecting instead sightings of or things associated with celebrities?  It's difficult to say. I have no evidence of the social profile of the people who get so involved in this apparent adulation of the rich and famous. I suspect however that they are living less than satisfying lives. It may be that they think that some part of the good fortune and good looks of their favourite celebs will rub off onto them. 

But this is not I think the whole explanation. That the stars, with all their wealth, go from relationship to relationship, can be regarded as their taking part in a series of melodramatic stories, much like chick-lit fiction, which may sometimes end in tragedy but to which there is usually a happy ending – overcoming addiction or entering into the next relationship.  It seems as though we need to believe that someone-else, someone important, has a life something like ours, one where there are downs, but downs which are almost always followed by ups, so that we can in turn believe that our own dreams might just come true.  

Paul Buckingham

10 November 2019

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