The ABC News web site reports today that, “Justin Bieber brings cheer to typhoon-hit Philippines”. Assuming that the ABC story is not a masterful piece of satire (and it can be read that way - one important goal of his mission to the Philippines was reportedly to play basketball) one might reasonably ask how a singer could be so attractive and popular to people under such dire circumstances.
In apparent confirmation of Bieber’s status as a deity, a friend of mine claims she saw him at her Perth hotel yesterday, and so his apparent ability to be simultaneously in Western Australia and the Philippines is one explanation of his popularity. I’m going to go out on a limb though, and state that I’m a Belieber that Justin is nonetheless a mere human, since psychologists have instead found a number of (in some cases literally) more visceral factors that explain our love of musical celebrities.
More specifically, people’s reactions to famous musicians and other celebrities fall into three categories. ‘Entertainment social’ celebrity worship is the kind of discussion we all have around the office water cooler. The celebrity gives us a common subject for conversation that greases the social wheels. ‘Intense personal’ worship, however, is when someone feels they have a special bond with the celebrity: although the person is not delusional in any way, they also feel that the celebrity is special to them, and feel a link that cannot be described in words. Finally, borderline pathological celebrity worship borders on mental illness, in which the person feels they would be welcome at the celebrity’s house or would receive help from the celebrity in times of need. It is not a surprise that most celebrity stalkers suffer from this kind of borderline pathological type of worship.
Celebrity worship also correlates with personality. Those who score highly on entertainment-social worship are more outgoing. Those who score high on intense-personal worship are more neurotic: it is no surprise that Woody Allen is such a fan of the New York Knicks. There is also evidence that intense-personal worship links with depression and anxiety.
What makes some celebrities such prime candidates for worship? A few years ago I wrote an article based on data from 2800 people looking at some of the factors one might expect to be relevant, based on popular media coverage. Being good looking definitely is a predictor of the extent to which a celebrity is revered, but contrary to popular belief, it seems that death is a bad career move. Although the internet is full of articles noting that dying secures status as ‘a legend’, the data showed that dead celebrities are subject to lower levels of intense personal worship: Obi Wan Kenobi may have become more powerful that you can possibly imagine as a consequence of being struck down, but most celebrities instantly start becoming less influential as soon as fate’s light sabre sends them back to The Force. Perhaps even more interestingly, a celebrity’s moral conduct appears to be unrelated to their popularity so that ‘naughty’ and ‘nice’ celebrities are equally popular: it is incorrect to say that ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’, although a notorious public profile doesn’t seem to be terribly problematic either. I wish we had asked whether playing basketball made celebrities more attractive.