Sat | Jan 20, 2018

Daniel Thwaites | Unfashionable thoughts

Published:Sunday | July 3, 2016 | 12:00 AM

I have always had a grudging respect for the defiantly unfashionable, even though, because it takes equally as much work to be resolutely unfashionable as it does to be always trendy, I can't claim to be among their esteemed ranks.

Regarding clothing fashion, my goal is simpler. I intend to be like my Uncle 'Cutta' McKenley, who was at the top of the style food chain in the 1960s and 1970s - inna him big-heel boot an' him bell-foot pants - then fell into deep unfashionability without a care, till the boots and bell-bottoms came back into fashion four decades later. Men like this don't too join the world. The world spins along its merry axis until it comes back around to rejoin them.

As in clothing, so, too, in thought, where the world is in a funny (as in peculiar) place right now.

This all came to mind when I read about Caribbean Fashionweek, which is honouring Prince in this year's celebration ( social/20160617/cfw-ready-bask-purple...).

Nowadays we think of ourselves as so much more advanced than our forebears. We are enlightened, godless, secular, and rational. And truthfully, because we are able to manipulate nature with technology, in that sense we obviously are more advanced. But in other ways, it seems that we're the same emotional, irrational creatures, with a deep need to worship, and prone to behaving quite similarly to supposedly less enlightened folk.

Consider the religious ecstasy and outpouring of grief that followed the death of Prince Rogers Nelson, at 57, from an opiate overdose, or AIDS, or some combination of both. After an epic bender that lasted days, his emaciated 80lb body gave up the purple ghost.

He himself was a Jehovah's Witness - certainly not a thing I understand easily - having converted shortly after partying past 1999. It's not clear whether he felt embarrassment about the previous artistic output for which he is mostly celebrated, but he did stop performing the raunchiest songs. Hence he was not as cynical, for example, as Madonna, who confesses that she wouldn't allow her children to ever watch the trash she produces for other people's children.

Speaking of fashion, the 57-year-old Madonna recently lashed critics of her hideous, half-naked, shrivelled-rump-revealing dress that she had "worn" to the Met Gala. Critics were, she said, "ageist" and "sexist". Nowadays there is no vulgarity that cannot be excused by an appeal to identity politics. But you have to respect the strength of mind in the celebrity who knows to stay focused on feeding the lower classes whatever it takes to make the moolah.

But to my main point: It's a common observation that celebrity worship is replacing religious belief. In fact, studies have shown that less intense religious conviction correlates with celebrity worship. Conversely, a lack of interest in celebrities correlates with strong religious beliefs. Furthermore, who could doubt that the intense desire for fame and celebrity is, in itself, some kind of discount version of the religious hope for immortality or union with the Infinite?


A phenomenon


Prince was a phenomenon. I listened to his music as an adolescent, although, neither then, nor since, did I feel it necessary to go whole-hog and get the purple underwear. And when I inquired of my children if they knew about him, they stared blankly. I know this is perhaps a testament to poor parenting, but they have their own interests that don't include Prince. Fame is indeed fleeting.

Celebrities are the secular saints of our time. Their deaths precipitate an avalanche of emotion from the devotees who promise to bear witness to their memories forever. The disciples then take to public places, or if they're far away, to their Facebook pages, to build little shrines of commemoration.

Like ancient scholars poring over sacred parchment, the supplicants know and study the albums far better than any monk reciting Psalms, and horde memorabilia like the missionary cherishes relics.

Prince was just the latest. Remember MJ? Michael Jackson was a very talented guy, but it didn't take much perspicacity to see that he was a man with demons at his heels. Upon his death, a massive tsunami of grief gathered. That he was a drug-addled pederast scarcely seemed to warrant a second thought. He had made some banging tunes, and that was that.

How about Diana? Following her death, British philosopher Anthony O'Hear inveighed against the outsize weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth as grotesque. The British had, he said, evidently abandoned themselves to cheap sentimentality, mob grief, self-indulgence and hollow emotion above clear thinking, reality and restraint.


Ordinary mortals


You see, we teasingly remind the religious that they believe in a 'special friend' in the sky who gives their lives meaning. But so many also happen to have their own special immaterial projection or two giving life meaning. More often, it's a pantheon, like Michael, Diana and Prince.

The saints were admired for exemplifying certain virtues that we ordinary mortals couldn't quite achieve. Now we reinvent the admiration with a different story for ourselves, celebrating the behaviour of the guy with creamed hair, high heels, and trousers with his buttocks on display, like an ancestral primate spreading arse-musk. We ordinary mortals can't quite be him, but perhaps we can cream the hair a little.

All of this, according to the gimcrack religion of our time, isn't merely change, but moral advance. At least, we comfort ourselves, we're adulating a man we theoretically could meet ... except his guards won't admit us into his mansion. And except that he's dead.

One could conclude that celebrity worship, like so many of modern man's other behaviours, is slightly ridiculous. Or, even more unfashionably, all the purple might remind you that perhaps Blaise Pascal was on to something when he spoke of the God-shaped hole in the human soul.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to