Fantasies of Maniacs: ‘Starlust’ (12/85)

Fred and Judy Vermorel, Starlust: The Secret Life of Fans, 253 pp.

This book is “at first glance full of the fantasies of maniacs,” Pete Townshend says in his introduction to Starlust, an enthralling, sometimes sickening compendium of interviews, diaries, and fan letters to pop stars—at last glance, too. Anyone who has ever been a true fan of any pop figure will find a queasy self-recognition here. Starlust is about commonplace responses to singers, but it can speak for the sphere of film stars or even authors. The book never loses its maniacal tinge. After a hundred pages you might think you’ve come to be almost at home in the cathedrals of blocked desire and impossible hope built by everyday housewives in tribute to Barry Manilow—and then a wish so awful, so ugly in its dissociation from anything close to reality, sends you running for your life. It might be a particularly pornographic fantasy; it might be a simple weekly exchange of what’s-new letters between 30ish Manilovers. The response will be the same: give me air!

The state of fandom that people fall into in their teens and 20s begins to seem at once like a disease and a marketplace of hysteria commercially promoted for sound commercial reasons: a commercially promoted disease. What if you discovered a cure for a disease spread by a virus that had yet to infect human beings? Why, you’d set about infecting people, to create a market for your product. But what if, once disseminated among human beings, the disease proved not fatal, but simultaneously disabling and pleasurable? Well, on the one hand, pleasure sells—but fear sells better, so you go back to work intensifying the disease. After reading Starlust you might think the proper regulatory agency for pop music is not some ad hoc group demanding warning labels but the Food and Drug Administration and the Surgeon General.Starlust is an inescapably fascinating treatise-by-example on culture as perceived not as a comprehensible continuum of works but as a wholly unpredictable series of visitations by magical beings: celebrities with the power to turn ordinary men and women into nonentities, into entities who exist only in terms of their imagined relationships with celebrities. The book makes you wonder why, so far, Mark Chapman is a unique figure. As Fred Vermorel writes in his afterword, “It is hardly surprising, when stars offer themselves so lavishly for consumption, that some fans will take the invitation literally… After all, one plausible way to ‘consume’ people is to annihilate them.” Taken to its extreme—the extreme that supports and eroticizes both stardom and spectatorship—fandom is cannibalism. Since most often the star is out of reach, fandom becomes schizophrenia: a cannibalism of the self. But what if not even schizophrenia is adequate—what if, given the process of celebrity, which draws nutrients from the fans, the self can no longer sustain the alienated self which wants to eat it? Some people leave the table and go on to live real lives, perhaps invigorated by a lust for what they cannot have, perhaps crippled by it. Some gnaw at the table legs. In Starlust, they all speak.

Artforum, December 1985

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