In 2004, while covering the massive tsunami in south-east Asia, US journalist Katie Couric reportedly called in to the CBS newsdesk to ask about Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston’s break-up, an indication of how celebrity-obsessed our society has become. The error in that assumption, argues Tom Payne, is the word ‘become’. In actuality, as he proposes in a cheeky comparison between popular and classical culture, fame has been all the rage since, oh, ancient Greece. And even more important is our often hostile treatment of celebrities. We may worship at a different altar than that of the Athenians, but celebrity culture has become the modern equivalent of ritual sacrifice.
His base point is intriguing. We are most fascinated and satisfied when our idols are in distress – Britney Spears’s spontaneous head-shaving, for example, or more morbidly, Heath Ledger’s overdose – and have
a tendency to build stars up only to turn around and destroy them (see Michael Jackson). But though Payne brings an impressive arsenal of wide-ranging references to support his theory, most of the actual comparisons seem a bit far-fetched. While Spears’s breakdown was certainly compelling, it’s difficult to totally buy into its connection to the ritual haircuts the virgins in Euripides’ Hippolytus underwent.
Still, Payne’s prose is hugely entertaining. If nothing else, Fame is the ultimate justification of pop: though Payne, a prep-school teacher, started his research to get students interested in the classics, the result
is also a call to book nerds everywhere to put down the Iliad for a minute and cue up the next episode of Jersey Shore. After all, it’s our historical duty.