Modern times: where the weird things are

Friday, 27 September 2013 - 6:37am IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
From celebrity ratings to man flu and media mendacity, Dave Gorman runs down his A-to-Z list of life's nonsense.

At 42, I've reached an age where I've started to enjoy my anger. I'm not talking about the youthful fury of someone that wants to change the world; this is the withering anger that helps me to deal with the nonsense of life. And there appears to be so much nonsense.

Take a phrase we read all the time: "A-list celebrity". It's an interesting system, the A and Z list. The media use it constantly, but only to mean two things. In my experience, "A list" is a compliment and anything from B down is an insult, which means, really, we have one level of superstar and 25 degrees of s---, which is a very odd way to talk about other people. When a reality show line-up is announced we say: "I wonder what bunch of B-list celebrities they've got this year."

But often these people are just doing their job. I remember watching something featuring Aggie from How Clean Is Your House? and somebody I was with said: "Oh, I hate her, she's an F-list celeb." But this idea that she's somehow failed only makes sense if you think she set out with the goal of becoming an A-lister.

She's a home economist! By any measure you want to use she's doing pretty damn well for a home economist. If you think she set out on the path of home economy thinking, "Yeah, I'm going to be as big as Tom Cruise" then maybe that says more about your own view of the world than hers. If people have heard of you a little bit then they want to know why they haven't heard of you more. And does anybody really think in such a granular way?

Can anyone go through the entire alphabet, attributing a celebrity to each letter? For my new television series - in which you can see me "finding joy or bewildered outrage in the minutiae of the media that increasingly shape the way we see the world", to quote one reviewer of my live show - we sent a researcher to talk to people on the street. They went through a list of celebrity names being asked whether they were A-list, Z-list or somewhere in between. I just wanted to see if anyone, without being nudged into it, could actually conceive of an M-list celebrity. Most stuck rigidly to the A, B, C or Z categories. The Queen and David Beckham were A-listers, for example.

Ray Winstone was a B. But nobody was a G or an R, until we met one girl who had a letter for everyone. She actually had 26 levels of thought about celebrity. It was remarkable. Ashton Kutcher, for example, was a K. Demi Moore was a P (which in itself was strange, considering that they were once married and Moore's been more films than him). You could offer her any name and she'd only have to think for a split second before coming back with their grade. And there are other phrases, invented by the media, that don't make any sense.

"Man flu" for example, is used in two diametrically opposed ways. Some people use it in relation to a weak-willed bloke who has a mild cold but claims to be at death's door. Others use it to describe a really bad case of flu. If you search for the phrase on Twitter you will find 50 per cent of people who are using it are saying: "I'm really ill. I've got man flu." There is even a range of over-the-counter drugs called Manflu. So now the phrase is meaningless because if someone uses it, you have to work out who they are and what they mean by it before you can understand what they're talking about. Even more baffling is an advert for something called "The Postcode Lottery". To most people, the phrase "postcode lottery" has negative connotations. It's an expression we use to describe a situation in which public services are not shared fairly. If someone said: "My gran's been on the waiting list for a new hip for three years but this woman she plays bingo with has only had to wait two months for hers… it's a bloody postcode lottery," I'd say they were using the phrase correctly.

But now there's an actual Postcode Lottery. A lottery. That awards cash prizes to people based on their postcode. They've got television adverts fronted by the likes of Fiona Phillips and the former Welsh rugby international Scott Quinnell. It's as if they think we'll forget the phrase has any negative connotations if they hear it in a big, booming Welsh baritone. It's like opening a fireplace shop on the high street called "Friendly Fire". Bizarre. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon I've come across was on a restaurant menu in Montreal. It was one of those menus that tries to lend personality to its dishes by giving them quirky names. The chicken wings were divided into seven different levels of spiciness, and the one just shy of the hottest one was called "911". It was meant to be read as "nine-one-one"; as in the North American emergency services telephone number. In other words, it was so hot you were going to need to call a fire engine if you ate it.

But it tells you a lot about our expectations of corporations these days that my friend - who knew full well that 911 was the emergency services number - asked the waitress if he could have "the nine-eleven, please". In his imagination, he was prepared to countenance the idea that a major corporation with a chain of restaurants in Canada would name a chicken dish after a terrorist atrocity and not only that, but that it wouldn't even be the hottest dish on the menu. Just the fact that that made perfect sense to him tells you something about how companies market themselves these days. They do weird things. Why, for example, should we follow a company like Finish, the dishwasher tablet manufacturer, on Twitter or "like" its page on Facebook? Why do other manufacturers think it's essential that they create an iPhone app? No one wants a relationship with a dishwasher tablet manufacturer. All we want to know is what's in the product, how to complain and some information about where to buy their stuff. But these days, big business wants to be our friend.

You see it with all the twee packaging: "Hi. These smoothies are made from the finest grapes and my dad says they're really cool." S-- off! You're not my friend! It's a really confusing time in which people are still trying to establish the rules and what works and what doesn't. Whether or not my new show will clear up some of that confusion, primarily, of course, I'm just trying to make people laugh. But if pointing out a few of the absurdities of modern life also spreads a bit of my "bewildered outrage", then I'll feel doubly satisfied in a job well done.

Dave Gorman's Modern Life is Goodish is on Dave on Tuesdays at 10pm

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