• Adam Whittaker

Social Media has killed the icon

Did you catch that programme recently, the one with a typical format, Joe Public votes for their favourite, the one with the most votes gets put through to the next round and then there is the grand final and ultimately the greatest of all the entrants is crowned. No it wasn’t some D list celebrity dancing extravaganza or survival telethon but BBC’s Icons – The Greatest Person of the 20th Century.

In many ways it was a sound principal, pitching one sports star against another, writers and artists against their peers and so on and so forth. The final however was less than straightforward with Bowie, Ali and Mandela in the pot with Shackleton, Turing and Picasso. How on earth such luminaries of their profession or calling could be compared in any way with their ‘rivals’ was somewhat beyond me. (No spoiler alert here just in case you haven’t seen it yet). However, it wasn’t necessarily the premise of the programme that troubled me but the loss it represented. These icons represent the last of their type as now there clearly is no such thing.

From these finalists I adore Ali and my admiration of Turing and Mandela knows no bounds. Add to this those who didn’t make it to this particular final  – Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr (in fact the whole Rat Pack), James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Neil Armstrong, Pele, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd…the list is indeed endless. These music, movie and historical greats represented not only talent and passion but power, mystique and marvel. They were revered worldwide, admired from afar, set upon a lofty pedestal that no movie goer in vinyl buyer could ever wish to scale. As we now know from biographies and biopics, all were mere mortals, some burdened with failings and misery, many besieged by demons and dark sides that played constant companion to their celebrity.

But we didn’t really know them – which made them iconic. Ali’s illustrious career was initially played out via a crackling radio and the early editions of the newspaper. The tragedies of Monroe and Dean were subject of gossip and rumour rather than fact. The racist suffering of Davis Jnr and the alleged sinister underworld of Sinatra have been played out and explored in great detail in the years since their demise but at the time were either completely ignored in the case of the former or glossed over with the latter.

Now unfortunately, with the majority of our ‘stars’, we know what they’ve had for breakfast, every after show party they attend, ‘who’ they are wearing and their political viewpoint. Within minutes of the sad passing of someone ‘famous’, the man or woman on the street probably knows about it before members of their extended family. Reading an exclusive interview with an A Lister in a Sunday supplement is no longer revelatory as we have already long known the object of their affections or their guilty pleasure via Twitter.

Social media gets bad press for many things that quite frankly it shouldn’t, however the loss of enigma and the death of the icon is one for which it should take responsibility.