The meritocracy whispered its secrets, but I was wearing headphones
Words © Paul Ransom / Author image thanks to Simone Oula
Back in 1988 someone yelled a question on the dancefloor. When will I be famous?1 I boogied along in hi-NRG time, all the while thinking, yeah…when will I get my picture in the paper? Answer: never. (Or rather, even when your ugly mug does make it into the Murdoch press, it won’t map out as fame.)
In the universe of permanently streaming meritocracy, the plaudits are public and pluripotent, while the price of not acquiring sufficient profile is a patronising ‘there, there’ and a lifetime of unfavorable comparison with the elite darlings of celebrity cachet. After all, aren’t the stars more beautiful? More worthy? Didn’t they believe in themselves and work hard and never give up? Not like you; you ordinary looking, nowhere near committed enough wannabe.
All of which raises another question. If fame is truly earned are the rest of us merely the recipients of cultural welfare? The dole bludgers of success? Or are we simply the holders of losing lottery tickets?
I pray it’s the latter – not just because it lets me off the hook but because I don’t like the idea that the 10, 000 hours I put into mastering my craft resulted in little more than exhausted amateurism.
Moreover, it would irk me to concede that the same might be true for so many of my hard-working and passionate friends. Songwriters and choreographers, philosophers and entrepreneurs, designers and chefs; some of whom, like me, can legitimately call themselves award winning. 2
Indeed, between us, we have published books, released records, run dance companies, edited magazines, got our pictures in various papers and chopped sundry vegetables for master chefs who now appear in prime-time kitchen sink dramas. Net result: still not famous.
Oh well, whatever, never mind.3
Though we try to be adult and remain stoic about the mismatch between our efforts and our status, the megaphone messaging of mainstream mediated culture continually reinforces the correlation between merit and visibility. The story arc of triumph is clear, unfolding with all the manifest destiny of a Disney heart warmer. In the biopic of our dreams, we channel our smallness and adversity into big vision, told-you-so happy endings – even if we occasionally stoop to the use of a helping hand.
Then, upon waking, we wipe the stardust from our weepy eyes and satisfy ourselves with smug and cautionary tales of fame gone bad. We remember Kurt and Diana. We cite the crass, cosmetically altered spectacle of smack thin models and fat lipped Reality sisters. Fuck fame, we think…it’s sooo trashy. Thank God we’re nobodies.
- For another perspective on anonymity, see Confessions Of An Insignificant Background Character elsewhere on this site.
But that’s before we log into the socials or switch on the telly, where people who don’t seem any more deserving or talented reaps millions and get themselves retweeted as experts. Are we just being jealous, or is there really something wrong with the much-vaunted Self Belief + Hard Work = Success equation? I mean, why the hell do the gods of meritocracy appear to be ignoring us?
This is where we usually insert conspiracy theories, identity politics and other narratives of unfairness, or simply plain old bitterness – none of which appeal to me.
Ultimately, it’s not anyone else’s fault I’m not famous. Nor is it entirely mine. (Like I said, 10, 000 hours and all that.) In fact, back in the year 2000, when I was the director of a one-off film festival4 in Adelaide, Australia, I briefly made news. The local Murdoch tabloid interviewed me outside the festival venue, and their photographer snapped me in what he insisted was an appropriately ‘funky’ pose. That I looked ridiculous, and the featured films screened to largely empty auditoriums, was somewhat deflating at the time, though of little consequence now. If I once imagined myself as a budding festival AD, I soon got over it.
This hard-earned equanimity is due in part to the fact that, since 1992, I have worked in the media as an arts writer and critic, a gig that has involved me interviewing (and sometimes playing pool with) countless celebrities. Isabel Allende, David Suzuki, the drummer from Radiohead, et al. Rare exceptions aside, they have all been…well, kinda normal. By which I mean pleasant and polite. Sometimes smarter than average, at others more energetic and charismatic, but not…oh my God, wow.
What this shows is that the divide between their fame and my Dictaphone is not so great. Even the meritorious get hayfever and wonder if their work is any good. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you’d swear they were just like you.
The sales figures for my books5 are…let’s just say glacial and minimal; and my social media marketing campaign is not exactly trending. Likewise, this blog goes largely unclicked and entirely unsyndicated. (You, dear reader, are a rare breed.)
However, aside from the hilariously First World problem of not being rich and famous, there is a genuine issue here. We are told that if we act/think/network in certain ways results will flow. Reward for effort and so on. The if/then mechanism of work/get is baked into human cultures. It operates in everything from hyper-capitalism to indigenous cosmology. We imbibe it as kids. Be good, get treat. Reap what you sow. You know how it goes.
Except when it doesn’t…
Shedloads of if. Not so much when.
See the mortgaged multi-millions working for their rainy day, summer bay pay-off. Hear the kids practising in the garage for the gig no one will attend. Remember the soldier who put life and sanity on the line for the ideology that forgot to give a shit about them when the tour was done. Visit the octogenarian relative whose reward for decades of tax paying slog is to be left in a corner with a wet patch for company.
Work hard, be law abiding, say no to certain drugs – and if that doesn’t deliver, pray a little harder. Beyond that, there’s always begging.
- Rather than trumpet mere cynicism, my point here is that the fracture between brand promise and end-product is not something we can blithely dismiss with a meritocratic shrug and an invocation to put said shoulder even more solidly to the wheel. If a culture/economy/worldview is seen not to deliver, or to handicap a significant chunk of its citizens with a sense of not being good enough, problems of buy-in will occur. The ruled will no longer consent to be ruled if the rules do not give them a reasonable chance of snatching an occasional win. Whatever justice is, just let it be seen. Or failing that, make it plausible for us to feel that it will soon become visible, like the distant galaxy whose light finally reaches us after billions of years traversing interstellar space.
In a way, the ‘when will I be famous?’ conundrum is the shiny floor, airhead cousin of deeper questions about incentive, fairness and entitlement – and deeper still, the cause/effect coupling we rarely find time to examine.
After all, I turned up, did the hours, got the marketing advice and sent the pressers out. But in the end, who cared? Thus far, close to no one.
Was I not good enough? Did I use the wrong skincare brand? Invest in the wrong crypto? Fuck it, is there a goddam reason for this?
Oh yeah, that’s right. I was too busy doing other things. I couldn’t seem to fit genuine merit into my otherwise heavy schedule. Or maybe I just forgot to be famous – like going to the supermarket for coconut water and coming home with disinfectant and eight packets of half price biscuits.
But at least my conscience is clean…and I can work off the cookie calories later, when I finish typing.
1: When Will I Be Famous? – a now not-so-famous pop hit by UK outfit Bros. I could paste a link to the official video right here, but…on second thoughts…
2: Unheralded though I remain, I did once make a 52-minute art film that won an award at a small and now defunct film festival. Curious? Watch our obscure 2011, Barossa Film Fest ‘Best Romance’ winner here.
3: From the resoundingly famous Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana, 1991.
4: The Coretext Cinema Festival – a week of classic films related to the required reading lists and core subjects of Year 11 & 12 students. Funded by public money, sponsored by Murdoch and screening at a high-profile city venue. You remember it, don’t you?
5: My marketing buddies tell me I should paste links to my publisher’s buy portal. To that end, you can purchase a copy – on paper or in pixels – of either The Pointless Revolution (2019) or The Last Summer of Hair (2021). Though your purchase is unlikely to propel me towards celebrity, nor enable me to open secret accounts in one of the world’s many tax havens, there is some chance it will help to assuage my crushing sense of inadequacy and briefly bolster my faltering ego. Surely there’s merit in that.