The superstar you’ve never heard of – at least, not from us
YouTubers have followers in the millions but rarely appear on traditional media’s radar
Something important just happened to the world’s most famous person and nobody noticed because nobody has ever heard of the word’s most famous person. Hang on? That’s crrrrraaaaazeeeee! Bang! Clatter! Bong! My foot is made of sausages.
That’s not really the sort of thing YouTube celebrities say. But it will do as an approximation of middle-aged efforts to understand the phenomenon.
Traditional outlets such as The Irish Times, the BBC and the Daily Telegraph treated news of Felix Kjellberg’s recent embarrassment with a mix of incredulity and bafflement.
Better known as “PewDiePie”, the irreverent Swedish vlogger – who makes about $15 million a year from YouTube – has fallen out with Disney after including anti-Semitic messages in one of his videos. PewDiePie is still out there, but Disney has cut his videos from its digital network Maker Studios.
The financial implications of the decision and the excuses offered for the offense will be much dissected in other places. What concerns us is the near-invisibility of certain massive celebrities in traditional media. If Adele’s label had dropped her for anti-Semitic slurs, the airwaves would have been alive with outrage.
In his recent book 1971: Never a Dull Moment, David Hepworth ponders the death of Jim Morrison. Hepworth explains that the New York Times ran “a small story on an inside page that pointed out to its middle-aged readers that the Doors were a rock group who played loud amplified music”.
Few readers under the age of 40 will understand how assiduously newspapers and primetime television ignored rock music in its early decades. Top of the Pops was just about the only place you could see the musicians move. When, in 1978, Bob Geldof first appeared on the Late Late Show, he was treated as an exotic freak.
The fans grew up. They began commissioning magazine articles and editing evening news programmes. When David Bowie died last year, his face, decorated with sparse, sombre headlines, pushed everything else off the front pages.
During the intervening years, no other class of celebrity gained such power without interesting the traditional media. Until now.
The figures are astounding. Jenna Marbles, who trades in a school of light comic repartee, has more than 16 million YouTube subscribers and boasts more than two billion views. Her first big hit was a video called How to Trick People Into Thinking You’re Good Looking (get contacts, bleach your hair).
The biggest domestic star is Westmeath man Seán William McLoughlin. Vlogging under the name Jacksepticeye, Seán has accumulated six billion hits with his musings on videogames. He is probably the most famous person to emerge from Athlone since Count John McCormack. (That was not a joke.)
PewDiePie is the mightiest of them all. He is the genre’s Elvis, its Louis Armstrong, its JK Rowling, its Jack Nicklaus. Yet, on Wednesday, an archival search on Irishtimes.com registered just six mentions (and this was after the Disney story). Celebrity plumbers gather more attention in the trad media.
Here’s the problem. It is, for people of a certain age, impossible to discuss YouTube celebrities without sounding like the New York Times on Jim Morrison. All reasonable attempts at neutral summary come across like a bemused dad trying to make sense of Marc Bolan in 1971.
Let me get this straight. PewDiePie and Jacksepticeye are best known for recording themselves as they play their way through popular videogames. These videos are known as “Let’s Plays”. Is that a man or a woman? That’s not music. That’s just shouting.
And so on.
If we have learned anything about popular culture over the past 50 years, it is that, once properly successful, it beds in for the duration. The New York Times imagined that Morrison would be forgotten within months. In fact, had he survived, the Lizard King would now be playing in the same enormodomes that accommodate contemporaries such as The Rolling Stones.
The bedding in has already begun. None of the new celebrities mentioned above is a child. PewDiePie and Jacksepticeye are both 27 (the same age as Morrison when he died). Jenna Marbles is 30, for heavens sake. They don’t need to seep into other media – they already dominate the only medium that matters. They will continue. They will prosper. They will eventually be the objects of nostalgic reinvention. And it will all happen online.
Still, it was refreshing to encounter a huge queue of young people outside the O’Connell Street branch of Eason last summer. Who was signing their latest tome? The new YA science-fiction sensation? Somebody from a boyband? Get outta here. It seems that Tanya Burr, a beauty vlogger, had written a cookbook.
The queue stretched all the way to Jervis Street. Yet nobody in my circle had ever heard of her. Good luck to you, Tanya.