In May, Jason Derulo cracked his front teeth while attempting to eat an ear of corn that was attached to a power drill—the latest in his ongoing campaign to create content and participate in “challenges” that proliferated on 2020's star app, TikTok. In the same month, I watched as the pop star and former CAT succeeded in putting on a pair of pants by jumping into them from a great distance, taking a flying leap from some feet away and making it into the proffered Nike sweatpants, to the amazement of the sad souls conscripted into this ask. Derulo is a celebrity with enough sway and visibility that he needn’t stoop to such measures for relevancy if YouTube compilation videos like the one featuring Derulo singing his name for an hour are a suitable metric of success. But during a pandemic, when the best course of action is to stay inside and away from strangers, the work of maintaining relevancy—and capturing attention— has become much more difficult.
Being famous prior to the pandemic was relatively simple. Celebrities would do whatever it was they were famous for in the public eye, have their photos taken by paparazzi, and appear on red carpets so that the rest of us regular people could watch, discuss, and assess their comings and goings. When the spread of coronavirus forced celebrities indoors, the nature of their occupations changed dramatically. No longer capable of interacting with the public in the ways to which they’re accustomed, they turned to social media and started acting like influencers, flooding the attention market with content, most of it indistinguishable from the content produced by the TikTok-famous like Addison Rae, the D’Amelio sisters, and Madison Beer.
As the pandemic has raged on, celebrities who have tried to live life as they did before have met an incredible amount of pushback and rightful, righteous anger from their fans. For her 40th birthday, Kim Kardashian loaded a private plane with a big group of her friends and family and flew them all to a private island-resort near Tahiti, where they celebrated her milestone for a week straight. Everyone got tested prior, according to Kim, and the event happened in the “safest” way possible, but those reassurances did nothing to quiet her followers, who rightfully expressed their anger at the audacity of flexing this hard during an unprecedented global health crisis. Cardi B. received similar pushback after posting content about her family-filled Thanksgiving festivities. Though she defended herself later by saying she is tested often and paid for all of the family around her to get tested in order to celebrate as safely as possible, the backlash was loud, fierce, and swift. “Sorry, my bad, wasn’t trying to make nobody feel bad,” Cardi said in response to the uproar. “I just had my family in my home for the first time and it felt so good and uplifted me.” The now-hollow adage that celebrities are just like us rings true; the only difference here is that the general public lacks the means to do what Cardi or Kim did.
Celebrities have famously bungled their jobs over the course of the pandemic, singing John Lennon songs over Zoom, comparing their palatial homes to prisons, and generally acting out in ways that the general public is not accustomed to seeing. Though the oft-heard refrain over the past few months has been that the famous people are really just like us, something about a star as marginally famous as Derulo debasing himself on main for likes feels like an unfortunate side effect of the pandemic—a champagne problem to be sure, but one that persists. There’s no real reason to chase clout when you are already in possession of vast quantities of the stuff, but famous people routinely proved that they are human—desperate for attention, alone, and ready to do whatever it takes to feel something akin to pleasure, community, or belonging.
The relentless monotony of the early months of the pandemic for the beans-and-sourdough class of remote workers who found themselves adjusting to life as an indoor cat and the drop in social interactions meant that everyone was, in the parlance of 2020's online discourse, in desperate search of serotonin. The easiest path forward to feeling temporarily better about the state of the world, yourself, and your household, is to chase clout—to seek attention—by any means necessary. But clout is no longer worth very much; anyone with a cell phone, an internet connection, and a high capacity for embarrassment can chase clout, thereby winning a game that has no real endpoint.
If executed with any modicum of success, clout-chasing is moderately embarrassing. Defining “clout” for this specific moment is tricky. A 2019 article in The Atlantic tackled why teenagers were obsessed with the idea of clout, taking a sharp left turn towards Marxism and Pierre Bordieu’s ideas about cultural capital, before settling, somewhat unsatisfactorily, on the answer that teenagers and the like are simply doing what teenagers have done for eons, which is do stupid and occasionally dangerous things for sport, but with a crucial, current twist: Clout can translate very easily to money. For celebrities, there’s no need to chase clout in the way that a teen in Indiana with a lot of time and a modest following on the apps would. But another side-effect of the pandemic is a larger flattening of the self in relation to other people. Because daily social interactions have become temporarily obsolete, the urge to prove your own existence is much more pressing. But chasing clout in the traditional sense—for fame, for brand sponsorships, for hype—is dead. We’re all merely trying to prove to someone, anyone, that we are alive and well.
Clout thrives on attention—a valuable commodity that became suddenly ubiquitous over the early months of the pandemic. But the current situation has changed the very nature of clout, making it less a redeemable voucher for success and more of an everyday need, whether we are explicit about it or not. At its heart, clout is just attention from someone else, be it someone you know or the faceless mass of your followers. Famous people and regular people alike are thirsty for attention, thereby transforming the simple act of engaging with social media of any sort into its own demented validation cycle that is much more existential than it should be. The wall between celebrities and civilians might seem more robust than ever, now, because of fame’s protective coating that renders celebrities untouchable in the face of scandal—but really, what the pandemic has revealed in full is that famous people who chase clout for a living are no different, just as desperate to be seen and acknowledged for continuing to live.
When the distractions of an everyday life are stripped away, and the world shrinks to the size of your home, attention is in high supply, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Boredom is a nefarious mistress, manifesting in ways that often look like anxiety or feel like hunger, but really, boredom is a lack of attention. Feeding that attention with something to look at that isn’t the news, if even for a second, is an important job. Over the past year, I’ve spent more time on TikTok than I have on any other app that lives in my phone; I’ve used it to numb otherwise healthy emotions like grief, anger, frustration, and incipient panic, preferring to put those items in a box on a shelf for later, and choosing to succumb to the soothing comforts of my feed. It’s terrifying how an hour or two can go by simply staring at a screen for pleasure, and while I’ll never get that time back, I feel a small amount of gratitude for allowing myself to just enjoy things as they happen without thinking about why. My passive participation in TikTok contributes to clout’s endgame; with every video of horrible food hacks and booty workouts I save to my favorites, I am signing away a nugget of my attention, validating the creator’s decision to upload, post, and share. I’ve given one clout pellet to the chaser in question, but the trade never feels like work. It is merely a distraction that I use to tamp down other, more unsavory feelings of dread and ambient anxiety that pop up unexpectedly, like a horrible, never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole.
The other side of the coin, though, is a little more tender. For every clout pellet I deliver to a creator whose video I watch and then replay by accident as it loops on infinity on TikTok, I require one back. Every time I scroll through Instagram’s filters and select the ones that turn my face into a bowl of pasta, post the result and sit back on the sofa, I am doing so because I’m stoned, because it’s funny (to me), and because the wimpy little pings of serotonin that come from people simply looking at my face are enough to remind me that I am still alive.