[copied from The Guardian, 17.02.2017]
The consuming narcissism of Beyoncé feels like bathing in a warm milk of permissiveness. Like a malignant twist on Obama’s collectivist cry – “yes we can!” – it signals a licensiousness that allows us to think of ourselves as a madonna. Along the way, it reduces The Madonna and all that signifies to the ephemeral level of tawdry bling. It makes quality accessible – but at the cost of cheapening it to the point of worthlessness. Just pop out and buy the $19.99 madonna headdress.
Don’t get me wrong. I could hardly care less about the integrity of religious iconography. My equally consuming humanism leads me to be entirely indifferent to blasphemy or sacrilege – though mightily concerned about its impact on people. By using and cheapening the pregnant madonna image Beyoncé is fulfilling a pedagogical mission – to reduce the education of her students to settle for a wafer-thin kind of ‘specialness’, rather than striving for and insisting on something more substantive by way of self-belief. Obama’s collectivism dissolves in the superficial ‘oneness’ of all pregnant young women sharing the Madonna experience. ‘Yes, we can….[pretend to be divine]’. What on earth does she think she is doing by aping The Madonna?! Standing on teacher’s table vainly flapping her arms at her students and shouting, “Up! Up to glory!”.
And yet – the bath is filled with warm milk and it feels good.
Trump’s narcissism and licentiousness is of an entirely different order – but no less corrosive. It, too, appeals to us to find an echo in ourselves – to see ourselves in the redemptive image. But that echo is more strident, self-loathing, recriminatory – it is the rebel angel. What is permitted by the brazen display of self-adulation is the kind of bastard self-esteem that is nurtured by the negative. ‘When a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies,” admitted Gore Vidal explaining how scahdenfreude was a force that drove him on. These are the dark forces of greed and self-interest Trump seeks to husband.
There is no scarcity of Beyoncés, though she stands out for the aggression of the business model behind her narcissism – and we are told that she is responsible for all aspects of her performance art. There are, perhaps, fewer Trump-like narcissists in the political realm (though the business world is awash with them – starting, of course, with Richard Branson and Bill Gates – Mark Zuckerberg is still in his pupal stage, but showing signs of a grand display). All American presidents have the disease by degrees, certainly going back to Theodore Roosevelt – and Mao, Stalin, Chavez, Mussolini, Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, Ghandi, Suharto of Indonesia, Bhutto of Pakistan (father and daughter) point to the global epidemiology. But look no further than Margaret Thatcher and her personal obsession with filling the void of political determinism with her domineering personality (“the Lady’s not for turning!”) and we see an evolutionary line – one drawing from that same fetid pool of darkness that breeds greed and self-indulgence.
But in the end Trumps and Thatchers are accountable, and in Britain and the USA it is yet to be proven that such narcissistic ambition can overwhelm democratic institutions. Thatcher had her downfall, and we expect Trump to meet his at the hands of countervailing powers. Beyoncé is not accountable and is, thereby, the more dangerous figure. I am not so despairing as to believe that large numbers of young women are politically and socially labotomised by Beyoncé – that they abandon all sense of judgement and quality control. But nor am I so naïve as to ignore Beyoncé’s origins and nurturing grounds. It is out of that same dark, foreboding pool of hopelessness that emerges the shimmering burnish of her blingness.