Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Rhythm Of Cruelty


There are few more relentlessly tragic and depressing stories in the history of showbusiness than that of Lena Zavaroni. Born and raised in Rothesay, a town on the Western Isle of Bute in Scotland, and a star as soon as she entered her teens, she would die alone at the age of 35 in a council flat in Hoddesdon, a claimant of disability allowance, plagued with a neurological illness that defied all attempts at diagnosis and cure.

Zavaroni’s career began, ominously enough, when in 1973, at the age of ten years old, she won "Opportunity Knocks", the premium television talent show of the day, hosted by Hughie Green, a man who made the likes of Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh appear comparatively mild. Green was probably the most psychotic individual in the history of post-war British entertainment (and believe me, there’s some stiff competition there) after himself suffering a traumatised youth as a deeply reluctant child star. Green’s appeal largely consisted in professing his sincerity in the grotesque tones of an American huckster, an act that went down oddly well in an era before the emergence of irony as the dominant national sentiment. Unfortunately he was also something of a jinx, and spent his adult life both wittingly and unwittingly destroying all those around him.



The following year, Lena had her first top ten hit with "Ma, He’s Making Eyes At Me", and was the youngest person to ever appear on Top Of The Pops. Over the next five years, her career as a wholesome light entertainer was spectacularly successful, with her own TV shows, international tours, and even an opportunity to sing before the US President, Gerald Ford. By 1977, having moved to London to join the Italia Conti stage school, she was estimated to be Scotland’s richest teenager.

In 1979 she spent her 16th birthday in Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital, complaining of stomach upset and listlessness, the early signs of the anorexia with which she would battle over the next two decades. Lena herself was convinced that her problems were neurological, and referred to the overall complex of symptoms, which also included agoraphobia and chronic depression, as "static". Throughout the 1980’s she would vacillate between futile attempts to restart her career, attempts to live a "normal" life (such as a short-lived marriage to a computer programmer) and inevitable regressions back into her illness. Numerous family tragedies, including the suicide of her mother, would also take their toll. Her rare television appearances were memorable chiefly for the shocking impact her appearance had on the audience, especially as her most appealing trait, her genuine sweetness, was all too apparent. Despite dogged efforts from herself and on the part of others to effect a cure, she died of pneumonia in 1999, having stated "I feel as though I’ve given away my soul, I don’t have it any more, I’m dead inside."



Ultimately what Lena Zavaroni lacked was what Wilhelm Reich called "character armour". For Reich, character armour was the tell-tale posturing and formation of the body that a person accumulated over their life both to protect themselves from external emotional threats and the expression of culturally inappropriate internal desires. Reich considered all character armouring to be psychologically unhealthy - the distorted signature of repression. For him, Western culture created an excessive amount of armouring from the moment a baby left the comfort of the womb to the alien hands of the nurse and the sealed isolation of the incubator, and it was Reich’s (often physically) shocking approach to the breaking of his patients’ armour that would lead to his disastrous encounters with the authorities.

However, in a culture as impersonal and hard-driving as that of the West, to be one of the few who is without such armour can make one extremely vulnerable indeed. For Zavaroni, who claimed never to have seen traffic lights or escalators before visiting London, full exposure to the insistent demands of an entertainment world that was in itself evolving into an ever-slicker, ever-crueller spectacle was unbearable. Lena Zavaroni, like Karen Carpenter, was an anachronism, their careers flowering at a time when showbusiness could still pretend to support such tender blooms. Nowadays such an illusion can no longer be maintained.

All dying civilisations have their theatres of cruelty, and ours is the media matrix of digital radio, satellite television and the internet. Celebrities are the gladiators of our age, and the most elite corps of these warriors are female vocalists. Artists like Rihanna, Cheryl Cole, Beyonce and Lady Gaga must be some of the psychologically toughest people who have ever lived. Nominally in competition with each other (because of course Capitalism mandates competition) their real opponent is the vicious contemporary superego that subjects them to 24-7 surveillance and mercilessly punishes any display of weakness. Make no mistake, the concentrated venom that tabloid newspapers, gossip magazines and 24-hour infotainment channels can direct against you is lethal. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can give you bulimia.

With these women, with their physiques sculpted like a centurion’s breastplate and their sexuality projected like a mailed fist, the Reichian character armour is explicit. The model for this new type of woman (and occasional man) was of course Madonna, the first megastar to intuit that the secret to survival in the age of New Media lay in disciplining the body; that the shape you were in was an outward manifestation of The Will. And of course it is the body that the media superego is always seeking to attack, searching for patches of cellulite as though searching for chinks in the armour, exactly because they are chinks in the armour; the first sign of a lapse in willpower, of potential psychic confusion, of the opportunity for a story.



Protection is also afforded by the channeling of events through choreographed rituals. Splits with dim, unreliable boyfriends are coordinated during transatlantic flights, so that the tipped hat and mascara-covering Jackie O sunglasses, symbolic of "heartbreak", can yield the requisite photo-op on touchdown. Disputes with their svengalis, often the Senators who first raised their thumbs to them in the talent show arenas, can provide reliable storm-in-a-teacup coverage, with both disputants invariably returning to their prior dependent relationship. These ritualised dramas are effective in dissipating superego pressure by providing a media narrative that ends in satisfying closure.

In its death phase, Western culture has constructed an entertainment culture populated by individuals in the mould of one of it’s prime symbols; beings with the soulless invulnerability of an Apache helicopter, both equally dependent on a complex technostructure that has no future.

27 comments:

W. Kasper said...

Back in town, and on form!

That was a haunter, I must say. I remember her uncomfortable TV appearances after she got ill. Zavaroni's story was one of those small losses of innocence for me at the time.

Jack Crow said...

Christ, Mr. Knight, you and Mr. Kasper are on fire, lately. Shiny good piece.

The use of Rihanna...Gaga to illustrate armoring is skilled and compelling.

Phil Knight said...

Thanks gents. Yeah, it was a shame about Lena, she was a nice person.

It's funny but after spending decades cultivating a blunt psychological hardness, I'm trying to become a softer person again. The problem with everyone being "tough" is that life just becomes an endless series of interpersonal knocks.

slim jim said...

there's no apostrophe in the possessive "its"

Phil Knight said...

I view the above comment as a manifestation of Tao.

Greyhoos said...

Chiming in to agree with Jack. Brilliant and fascinating breakdown in the latter stretch especially. Very incisive.

W. Kasper said...

"The problem with everyone being "tough" is that life just becomes an endless series of interpersonal knocks."

I think this is having a big impact on how people behave today. Levels of depression and mental illness are a symptom of this. People I know who suffer the above often have this sense of collapsing under everyday "toughness". Maintaining it for themselves or dealing everyone else's just gets too much - in work, school, relationships, even as a customer. Unless you're prepared to be an egotistical misanthrope (ahem) you can crumble. It's wearing to maintain 'toughness' all day.

Back when I worked in bars, I'd sense this with drunks (not extreme alcoholics). It was clear a lot were just sensitive, sociable types who wanted to meet people and needed environments where this is more acceptable. They probably started young, drinking to 'break the ice' cos that's what everyone does, and the awkwardness of sobriety was too alienating. Then after years of only being able to socialise when drunk, they'd be lost - still trying to strike up conversations with strangers, keeping to a little circle of fellow drunks, with puzzled looks over why no-one's being friendly (especially since people actually are getting less friendly). They'd have a much more 'emotional' attitude to the staff too.

Anonymous said...

Wilhelm Reich was a quack. You mentioned Wilhelm Reich. Therefore, your arguments are invalid and I need neither change myself nor expend effort. If the status quo isn't right, why is it so easy to defend?

Phil Knight said...

The thing about Tao of course is that it's relentless.

Wayne - yeah I understand what you mean. Look at contemporary role models like Alan Sugar and Simon Cowell - people who are all character armour and nothing inside. This is what we're supposed to "aspire" to.

Peter said...

A beautifully written piece. I remember despising Ms Zavaroni in the mid to late 70s (we're more or less the same age) and then a few years later feeling terribly guilty that I'd done so as each sunday's tabloids brought more grim voyeuristic accounts of her fall from 'grace'...

Oliver said...

Someone in recent years who seemed to wear no character armour was Pete Doherty. Funny that he got with someone who was very much "all character armour and nothing inside" - Kate Moss. But maybe instead of character armour he just cloaked himself in myth (which makes his junkiedom appropriate). Unfortunately for him, myth can be rather drafty.

Now I can't stop thinking about people who haven't any armour. I think I found the winner: David Kelly.

Kev Moore said...

Insightful, and brilliantly written.
Zavaroni is a lesson all too few have heeded. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that those who have heeded, and girded themselves against the tide of media malice are ultimately, like Lena, also robbed of their souls.

PEDRO said...

Once again I could not help posting this insightful and informative post onto metafilter and once again some called you pretentious, which in this case I believe indicates they don't get it. Good discussion of Z occurring over there still.

I think you might be remiss in not mentioning Taylor Swift though, who's both a current counterexample and the epitome of potential fame poisoning. Her last album lashed out at everyone who hurt her on her way up, from Kanye to John Mayer to some random blogger who said she looked like a horse.

She needs armor or amour or just plain philanthropos, lest she turn into Eminem--his personal life mined out for tragedy, he descends into the self-parody his critics always wanted him to be, and his talent eats itself into prescription oblivion.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. All I knew about her was that,apparently, Fujiya and miyagi saw her ghost...

W. Kasper said...

An interesting fusion-droid is Pink - all tuffness, fist-waving and muscle, while endlessly whining about her parents and journalists who don't like her. Character armour with stains for decoration's sake.

Greyhoos said...

Re: Tao. Really, what's with the trolls all of a sudden?

Phil Knight said...

Thanks everyone for comments. Maybe we should do a list of the most and least armoured celebs and see if we can use that to predict their future career trajectories e.g. Simonus Cowellus, first Caesar of the UK.

Pedro - thanks for the posting. I'm quite happy for people to think I'm pretentious, which of course is very unpretentious of me. I haven't really followed the Taylor Swift saga, alas, so wasn't aware of how significant she was.

Greyhoos - trolls are at the cutting edge of the superego, of course.

nick said...

Great analysis Phil. The stuff about the present endtimes cruelties seemed spot on. Also always good to hear Reich's name come up. I'm glad you mentioned him.

Anonymous said...

Get real! why don't you? Anorexia afects non famous people too you know! Lena died at 35 for the same reason thousands of others died young from this curse.

Anonymous said...

Great piece Phil. Matt Woebot.

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You have a new follower, this is such an insightful article. Thank you.

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