We teamed with Brussels-based collective Kiss Kiss Gang Bang for our breakthrough 101. Not only did they do a great job staging and capturing the essence of ambition driven fame hungry wannabes, they even threw in some kick-ass behind the scenes videos. Below are the making-of segments of our rock band, politician and artist du jour shoot as well as the piece we ran in the Breakthrough Issue, featuring extra pictures.
What does it take these days to hype yourself through to breakthrough point? We ask four industry insiders to give us the skinny on making it in music, politics, art and the tabloid press.
Writer Hettie Judah + Anonymous, photography and video KKGB
Behind most hot new stars there’s a breakthrough story – a discovery myth packed with coincidence, lucky breaks and raw talent. The juicy waitress, whose polyester-clad charms catch the eye of a Hollywood producer as she passes cherry pie across the counter. The uncompromising band that storm into the office of the label head with their demo tapes and get signed on the spot for sheer audacity. The publicity-shy artist, discovered near starvation in his garret, who has his entire portfolio snapped up by a major collector. The fearless politician prepared to risk his party career for a cause he truly believes in.
There are few things that keep the celebrity-loving public dreaming more effectively than the notion that you can miraculously become famous and successful without needing to do anything so undignified as try. In part, it’s because we all get to share in the myth – every waitress can dream of being spotted, every pub band hold onto the belief that one day, they too will be rewarded for staying true to their roots. The breakthrough myth allows us to ignore the machinery that keeps us so well fed with next big things and makes sure that we’re always ready for more. Magazines from Grazia to Time depend on a steady stream of new stories – be that the latest young designer, an artfully concocted piece of celebrity gossip or a political scoop – to fill their pages every week. Journalists, scouts and talent hunters are on a constant heat-seeking mission, ears cocked for a tell-tale buzz that will lead them to the next breakthrough.
Catch them when they’re tired, cynical, and fatigued insiders from every industry will disclose the well-trodden path that will carry someone from struggling obscurity to next-big-thingitude. The common line is that no-one knows anything – whether in the art world or the music industry, it seems that an astonishing number of the supposed front-line taste makers are guided by herd instinct rather than taste or intelligence. One music industry correspondent scathingly described the entire A&R world as a flock of sheep, incapable of independent opinions and always ready to stampede towards whatever new act the herd had managed to hype up within its ranks.
Looking and acting the part is the first step to breakthrough, whether that means airing your stroppy good looks in the right Berlin bars to send shivers round the art world, or rolling up your shirt sleeves and growing your hair long enough to be anointed a crusading political maverick. The perfect embodiment of style over substance is the now familiar breed of indeterminate female celebrities that keep the popular press so well supplied with fleshy front-page snaps. Qualifications for this kind of breakthrough include the ability to get photographed falling out of doll-sized clothes, the willingness to undergo major surgery in order to stay on the front pages, and a ruthlessness about your personal life that can translate the most intimate encounters into headline news.
Celebrity is infectious, and grows exponentially with every connection – whether you’re a young designer of questionable talent who becomes best friends forever with the top model of the moment, an aspiring TV presenter who buys herself credibility and column inches dating the singer of an indie band, or an ageing pin-up who boosts her recording career by marrying a high profile politician. Hanging out with famous people is one of the easiest ways to generate buzz for your breakthrough. Being admitted into the circle of fame acts as an endorsement: if the famous people think that you’re good enough to be famous, well, who are the rest of us to argue? For all our desire for discovery myths, part of us knows that we’re being sold to, and our enthusiasm for novelty can quickly become tainted by suspicion. We purify ourselves through our tendency to yank new stars off their pedestals as fast as we put them up there. Breakthrough may be easy, but to stay hot you need people to like you – the ruthless aggression, arrogant posturing and flexible morals that propelled you to fame are not necessarily well suited to maintaining your position in the public affection.
The alternatives are to genuinely become that thing that you’re pretending to be – a talented artist, a real actress, a musician who can write – or to have such control over the relevant sectors of the press that you can effectively manufacture and maintain an entirely fictional public persona. For a musician, model or artist it helps to start dating the editor of a magazine, in politics you can control the flow of information to selected journalists (unless you’re in Italian politics, in which case you can buy the newspaper and threaten any journalist who steps out of line with actual bodily harm.) For an illustration of how fragile fame is after a successful breakthrough, try leafing through a few out-of-date magazines and see how many names stay the course. It makes you think, really, whether it might not be more noble to dream of being a flash in the pan or a one-hit wonder than to put all the tiresome effort into actually making it for real. Better a speedy breakthrough and even speedier retreat, perhaps, than hanging around to remind everyone that you’re yesterday’s news.
The hot new band
To make a buzz band you need to look the part: emaciated to the point of collapse in jeans as skinny as drinking straws, your hair weighs more than your head and is so directional in cut that you must become accustomed to viewing the world through one eye. On the feet – Converse or beaten up brogues. Over the t-shirt – a leather jacket held together by ambition alone. One member must be of semi-aristocratic heritage with a monthly allowance to fund your start up (and pay for your drugs). You’ll also need a manager (to pay for your drugs when the monthly allowance dries up), and a handful of hazy long-haired Bambi-limbed girls to follow you everywhere, have sex with occasionally (and pay for your drugs). Lurk around Shoreditch on a daily and nightly basis creating a ‘scene’. (‘Scenes’ are what A&R men care about. None of them would know a half decent band if it stood up in their pint). Creating a scene couldn’t be easier. Affiliate yourself with another band: perhaps you could share a drummer or a bass player: as long as there is a skein of a recognisable sonic hook to your output then voila, you have your scene. Next, make a record on an obscure label and coerce the next Gavin Turk or Jake Chapman to make a video that will cost twice as much as was budgeted for, take light years to edit, you will hate and no one will ever see. And now we come to our nirvana – the launch party. Cultivate some contacts in the world of fashion. The Holy Grail in this world is Alexa Chung. Get someone who knows someone who is a friend of her make-up artists to invite her to your launch party. If she, oh hallelujah, actually turns up, manoeuvre her near the sound system and get her to press a button and then you can say that Alexa Chung DJ’d at your launch party and honey, you have arrived. (“Lady Parker”)
The celebrity politician
“If you are not on television or radio” the head of a big research group said to me the other day, “you are dead.” Nowhere is this stomach-churning bullshit more true than in the political world. At party conferences old school friends have begged me to put them on the television, offering to say or do pretty much anything so they can to get 15 seconds of face time on the magic lantern. The media you need to deal with are of course changing fast; the two biggest recent hits from the Palace of Nonentities – the European Parliament – were YouTube sensations; both of them Europhobes. Dan Hannan and Nigel Farage delivered speeches and soundbites perfectly suited to a three minute attention span. Being media savvy and media friendly is however a necessary but not sufficient condition for political success. It really does help if you are clever. Not too clever. Too smart and you quickly receive the kiss-of-death label ‘wonkish’ or ‘nerdy’ (see: British Foreign Secretary David Milliband, oh-so-yesterday’s man). But to get to the top you need to know the basics of contemporary history, politics and economics. Nobody else does, but some smart-alec journalist will catch you out pretty fast if you don’t (see: Sarah Palin). Finally, to make it – and here we are talking about the big time, not about time-serving in the Assemblee Nationale or getting a peachy number in the Food Standards Agency – you need to be mad. Not so much that people are concerned for their safety when you are around, but mad so that you are ready to sacrifice everything, everything – your family, your health, every last scrap of dignity – in pursuit of high office. In 1993 Nicolas Sarkozy, then mayor of a prosperous suburb of Paris, walked into a school where an explosives laden lunatic had taken a bunch of children hostage and negotiated the releases of the boys and girls. That’s the kind of madness you should aspire to. So, ask yourself, as you step up to the base of the greasy pole, do you feel lucky, punk? (“Deep Vote”)
There’s a scene in Basquiat (1996), Julian Schnabel’s brilliantly cornball biopic, where the doomed artist asks his slacker pal how long it takes to get famous. “Four years,” is the reply. Nowadays, particularly if you want the short, meteoric career, you can do it in two. First, get noticed: be tall, good-looking (artworld people are, on average, 68 percent prettier than anywhere outside of fashion, not that all of them are outside of fashion), and have a weird, striking name (hello, Tris Vonna-Michell) and exotically mixed heritage. If possible, be an ex-model (Matthew Barney, Rosson Crow). Make your art comfortingly retro, yet complicatedly so, e.g. paintings that recall Paris in 1919 crossed with New York in 1958, or films that look like ‘60s documentaries but don’t make any sense. If you haven’t been tapped by a hot, youth-obsessed gallery like New York’s Team or London’s Herald Street at your MA degree show (oops!), forget sending jpegs and begging letters. Instead, move to Berlin – it’s losing its edge, but you’ll probably discover which low-rent enclave artists are decamping to next – and hug the bar in Keyser Soze until loudmouth bragging about your radically dematerialised aesthetic strategy and/or willingness to stand drinks for anyone who resembles a curator (thick square glasses or, if you’re curatorial kingpin Hans Ulrich Obrist, Mekon forehead) puts you in a biennale and gets you written about in frieze or Kaleidoscope. Then, keep making the same artwork over and over. Be the fill-in-the-blank guy/girl; defend your corner. Hire young, hungry assistants, who’ll not only make your work but have the ideas too. (You’ll have stolen your first, fame-creating idea from someone smarter but uglier.) Finally, when you feel your moment fading, announce you’re making a feature film with your new pals James Franco and Courtney Love. Two years? At most. (“Gaston de Latour”)