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21 February 2005Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Can't stand him now
How the tabloids turned ex-Libertine Pete Doherty into 'Potty Pete', their favourite edgy crackhead.

by Neil Davenport

'Kate Moss dumps troubled rock star Pete Doherty on Valentine's Day', declared the UK Sun last week. It is, of course, only the latest dispatch on the affair that's gripped the tabloid's imagination these past few weeks. 'Thinking of Kate got me through this', said the ex-Libertine about the supermodel after yet another night in the cells. While family and friends urged Doherty to give up the drugs, others were urging Moss to give up Doherty. A natural and justified response to both the spectacle and the gossip is a curt 'who cares?'.

Yet the blanket coverage on 'fading rock star' Doherty shows a peculiar change in pop culture's relationship to society. As anyone with a faint knowledge of rock'n'roll will know, musicians' drug habits are the norm rather than the exception. Same goes for the attendant drug fallouts of instability, madness and an inability to wash. There's little about Doherty that's novel, but there's plenty about society's response that is.

An article in Private Eye reveals the part played by the Sun and the News of the World in keeping the Doherty saga going. Obviously, Machiavellian tactics by tabloids isn't Earth-shattering news. But what is unusual is how far they're egging on lifestyles once confined to society's underbelly. Of course, the Sun covered its back with statements such as, 'if you think drugs are cool, look at these pictures…what's happened to him could so easily happen to you'. But it begs the question, why is the paper effectively subsidising his drug habit then?

For the tabloids, it seems Doherty's heroin addiction and self-destructive behaviour is edgy entertainment - and certainly worth shelling out for. And they're not alone. Recently BBC4 devoted half an hour to Doherty, with Newsnight's Kirsty Wark cheerily probing his drug habit like it was a fondness for Haagen Daaz.

All this would have been unthinkable 20 or even 10 years ago. Even within the music industry heroin addiction was still a taboo area. Dark connotations of personal degeneracy and goonish irresponsibility were never seen as handy marketing tools. Indeed, during the Britpop wars of the 1990s there was a concerted PR effort to keep news of Jarvis Cocker's and Brett Anderson's alleged heroin habits off the front pages. Elsewhere Kurt Cobain famously threatened British journalists who raised questions about his and Courtney Love's heroin use. And when London records signed drug-ravaged Liverpool band Shack in 1999, the label's biggest mistake was to promote them as former heroin addicts. 'Who'd want to buy records of craggy smackheads?' was one label chief's despairing response.

There is a clamouring for further displays of self-flagellation
In recent years, though, society doesn't know where to draw the line - especially of that between the public and private. No amount of personal degradation is considered off limits for public viewing. In fact, the grislier and more sordid the spectacle, the more 'cutting edge' and 'taboo breaking' it's supposed to be. But there's nothing forward thinking or challenging about obsessing on life's seamier corners - it reeks of rank philistinism. As mentioned before on spiked, the success and impact of Reality TV has helped foster this degenerate and ultimately dangerous culture. It's created a clamouring for even further displays of self-flagellation, humiliation and degradation.

This is the bizarre position that a minor indie rock figure like Doherty finds himself in. Last summer, the Libertines resembled Reality TV contestants rather than your average indie band mooching around Camden boozers. And it began to alter everyone's perception. The music press reviews for their second album were largely indistinguishable from heat magazine (basically assessments of how much tabloid gossip they'd generated in the past fortnight), while the tabloid press decided that even an indie band could rub regular headlines with Kerry McFadden and Jade Goody.

It doesn't matter, then, that hardly anyone bought the last Libertines album or that Doherty's current band, Baby Shambles, are no great shakes. His pasty chest and mug will continue to be hawked around the front pages. And why not? In a culture overdosing on the squalid and the sordid, a washed-up crackhead seems a grimly appropriate poster boy.

Neil Davenport is a sociology lecturer and freelance writer.

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