The week of October 18, 2015

Famous to 15 people for 15 minutes

By Jesse Hicks

“In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes,” goes the dictum attributed to Andy Warhol. In characteristically populist fashion, Warhol believed that everyone could be famous—that there was nothing inherently different between, say, the matinee idols and the audience members who sat in darkened theaters to watch them. He imagined global attention as a roving spotlight, ready to land on anyone, anywhere, anytime—and then move on just as quickly.

Warhol’s statement so perfectly captured the idea of fleeting, ephemeral “fame” that it’s become part of our shared idiom. But the idea was also a product of its time: the late 1960s, when the avenues to becoming “world-famous” were fewer, and carefully controlled. By the late 1990s (maybe, the attribution being suitably murkier here) someone on the Internet had supplied the rejoinder: “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people.” With new, hyperefficient means of production and distribution, it became easier than ever to be “famous”—and just as Warhol’s pop-art production lines challenged easy definitions of “art,” the proliferating varieties of recognition put the definition of “fame” up for grabs.

Call it “the long-tailing of fame,” if you like, or stick with the “famous for 15 people.” The point is that it’s easier than ever to become famous today, and harder to say what that fame actually means. In this issue of the Kernel, we’re looking at how the fame game is played today, in the age of social media.

It’s easier than ever to become famous today, and harder to say what that fame actually means.

Andrew McMillen profiles Gerry Phillips, a 55-year-old man from suburban Michigan who’s traveled the world amazing audiences with his ability to play famous songs using only his hands. He simply cups them together, squeezes, and produces, per McMillen “a sound best described as flatulent.” He’s been doing it for more than 40 years; with his simple instruments he can squeeze out classic-rock staples like “Stairway to Heaven,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “You Shook Me All Night Long.” He started posting his feats on YouTube, which brought him an audience; eventually, Jimmy Kimmel came calling. Gerry began to get a taste of the fame already well known to his musician idols. Today his videos have almost 30 million views, but there’s one kind of recognition that still eludes him.

Roisin Kiberd turns a critical eye on another YouTube phenomenon: the “my morning routine” video, in which a typically teenage or 20-something woman guides a camera through her first waking moments. “She gets out of bed to let the dog out,” Kiberd writes, “then she puts on a pot of coffee and prepares a pious breakfast invariably including chia seeds.” The videos—which number in the thousands—seem inoffensively banal. But as Kiberd argues, in their conformist domesticity they reinforce a narrow, Stepford Wives-esque vision of female life that leads her to label them “aspirational normcore.”

Finally, Anna Denejkina profiles Australian-American artist Jesse Willesee, who places himself in the Warholian tradition of questioning the definition of “art.” He produces works and events optimized for virality, forcing his way into the social media streams of people who wouldn’t otherwise know him. He tweaks our notion of stable identities at a time when anyone can refashion themselves through social media; brazen and intentionally controversial, he once staged what he calls an “art-protest” in support of liberalizing Australia’s marijuana laws. His arrest, then, became part of the art, and the police became less-than-willing participants in the Jesse Willesee show. His art—can you call it that? why or why not?—draws attention to our already blurred lines between fame and infamy.

Enjoy the issue.

Photos via Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) and Anthony Quintano/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed