Beckham the virus goes to Hollywood

So Beckham, the über-metrosexual, the pho­to­genic English ath­lete who trans­figured him­self from mere pro­fes­sional soc­cer player into global me-dia, is leav­ing Real Madrid Football Club, his home for the past three years, and is now head­ing for the City of Signs.

grey Beckham the virus goes to Hollywood

Beckham became a Hollywood foot­baller years ago (around about the time of ‘Beckham the virus’, pos­ted below).  Certainly his bosses at Real Madrid seem to have found Becks more style than substance.

But in a met­ro­sexu­al­ised world style is almost everything now.  Even and espe­cially in the world of men’s sports. This is why his lack-lustre per­form­ance on the pitch dur­ing his time in Spain didn’t pre­vent his agent land­ing him a $1M a week salary at Los Angeles Galaxy — the biggest world sports deal ever.

Galaxy, like Real, have paid a hefty premium for Beckham’s unri­valled mer­chand­ising power. Galaxy also believe, to the tune of a mil­lion bucks a week, that Beckham can seduce America, so long peev­ishly res­ist­ant to the sweaty, clean-limbed — and increas­ingly coquet­tish - charms of soc­cer, and ‘open up’ a spec­tac­u­larly luc­rat­ive new young male mar­ket in the US.

Whether or not he suc­ceeds, America had bet­ter get ready for a little more soc­cer and a lot more met­ro­sexu­al­ity and Sporno. It was back in 2002 that the US was intro­duced to met­ro­sexu­al­ity and its poster-boy, David Beckham (by, erm, me: ‘Meet the met­ro­sexual’), and look what happened then.  With Becks actu­ally resid­ing and play­ing in the US the res­ults could be climactic.

grey Beckham the virus goes to Hollywood

America and Hollywood, so long at the cut­ting edge of com­modi­fy­ing mas­culin­ity, have fallen so far behind much of the rest of the world since the 1990s. Incredible as it may sound, American mas­culin­ity needs some tarty tips on how to tart it out more. Enter Becks, the tarti­est tart in Tart-Town.

This is why Beck’s friend­ship with Hollywood’s box-office king/queen Tom Cruise is more than just another foot­baller going celebrity chum­ming.  Cruise, the all-American Dream-boy gone wrong, needs Becks more than Becks needs Cruise who is now glob­ally rather less pop­u­lar than Becks.  Because this is about media power rather than polit­ical or mil­it­ary power, that’s to say the New Power, it’s the inverse rela­tion­ship of Bush and Blair.

Britain mean­while will envi­ously and resent­fully watch his every move reflec­ted across the pond, and start to feel like it’s miss­ing out.  And then Becks, cur­rently out of favour here, partly because of last year’s World Cup dis­aster but mostly because we don’t for­give him for mov­ing to Spain three years ago, will be back in vogue.

We Brits are fickle like that.


grey Beckham the virus goes to HollywoodBECKHAM, THE VIRUS

He’s one of the most fam­ous humans who has ever lived — even though he’s not that cute, not that smart and not that great a soc­cer player.

By Mark Simpson

[Originally appeared Salon, June 28, 2003)

It ha(n’t been like this since the death of Diana. Britain has been suf­fer­ing from a national nervous break­down ever since David Beckham, hand­some icon of the Manchester United soc­cer team, announced last week that he was leav­ing to play for Real Madrid.

The Sun, the best-selling UK tabloid, set up a Beckham “grief helpline” and claims it has been swamped with calls from dis­tressed fans. One caller said he was con­sid­er­ing sui­cide, while sev­eral con­fessed that they were so upset they couldn’t per­form in bed. A man who has “Beckham” tat­tooed on his arm threatened to cut if off. “I cried myself to sleep after hear­ing the awful news,” said grand­mother Mary Richards, age 85. A London cabby, ever the voice of reason, asked, “Has the world gone mad? He’s only a foot­baller!” But he was mis­taken. A foot­baller is now the least of what David Beckham is.

In the era of soc­cer that will come to be known as B.B. — Before Beckham — the sport was a team game. What mattered was the club, the team and the player in that order. Then in the mid-1990s, David Beckham — or “Becks” as he is known in that famil­iar, affec­tion­ately fore­shortened form with which the British like to address their work­ing class her­oes — came along, flicked his (then) Diana-style blond fringe and changed the face of soc­cer. It wasn’t his legendary right foot that altered the game, but his pho­to­genic face — and the fact that he used it to become one of the most recog­niz­able, richest and valu­able ath­letes in the world, receiv­ing a salary of $8 mil­lion per year, earn­ing at least $17 mil­lion more in endorse­ments and com­mand­ing a record trans­fer fee for his move to Real Madrid of $41.6 million.

Beckham’s greatest value is his cros­sover appeal — he interests not only those who have no interest in the club for which he plays, but those who have no interest in soc­cer. He is the most recog­nized sports­man in Asia, where soc­cer is still rel­at­ively new. Possibly only Buddha him­self is bet­ter known — though Beckham is catch­ing up there too: In Thailand someone has already fash­ioned a golden “Becks” Buddha. He’s even man­aged to interest Americans, for God’s sakes. The 27-year-old, tongue-tied, sur­pris­ingly shy working-class boy from London’s East End has suc­ceeded in turn­ing the mass, global sport of soc­cer into a mass, global pro­mo­tional vehicle for him­self, repro­du­cing his image in count­less coun­tries. He has turned him­self into a soc­cer virus, one that has infec­ted the media, rep­lic­at­ing him every­where, all over the world, end­lessly, mak­ing him one of the most fam­ous men that has ever lived.

David Beckham, in other words, is a superbrand.

In recog­ni­tion of this, Becks was the first foot­baller ever to receive “image rights” — pay­ment for the earn­ing poten­tial his image provided his club — and got them, to the tune of $33,300 a week. In fact, image rights were the main issue at stake in the record-busting six weeks of con­tract rene­go­ti­ations he had with Manchester United last year; his worth as a player was agreed at $116,500 a week almost imme­di­ately. Then there’s that $17 mil­lion a year for endors­ing such brands as Castrol, Brylcreem, Coca Cola, Vodafone, Marks & Spencer and Adidas. And Becks just keeps get­ting big­ger. His trusty law­yers have already registered his name for products as vari­ous as per­fumes, deodor­ants, jew­elry, purses, dolls and, oh yes, soc­cer jer­seys. Such is the power of the Beckham brand that it’s hoped it can res­cue the for­tunes of Marks & Spencer’s cloth­ing (a high-end British chain that has become a byword for “dowdy”).

But alas, the brand couldn’t save murdered Suffolk girls Holly and Jessica, poignantly pic­tured last year in police posters in match­ing rep­licas of his No. 7 red shirt. When it was still hoped that they might be run­aways, the man him­self made a broad­cast appeal for their return. There was the Becks, eer­ily right at the heart of the nation’s hopes and fears again.

grey Beckham the virus goes to HollywoodBeckham has even man­aged to brand a numeral — 7 — the num­ber on his soc­cer jer­sey. A clause in his Manchester United con­tract guar­an­teed him No. 7, he has 7 tat­tooed in Roman numer­als on his right fore­arm, his black Ferrari’s regis­tra­tion plate is “D7 DVB,” and his Marks and Spencer’s cloth­ing line is branded “DB07.” He even queues at No. 7 check­out when he goes shop­ping. This is often inter­preted as a sign of his super­sti­tious­ness, but is more an indic­a­tion of his very rational grasp of the magic of brand­ing. (He may, how­ever, have to settle for the num­ber 77 when he moves to Real Madrid, as the coveted 7 is already taken by Spanish super­star Raul.)

But some­how, Beckham has not yet become a vic­tim of his own suc­cess and has man­aged to remain offi­cially “cool.” Europe’s largest sur­vey into “cool” recently found that Beckham was the “coolest” male, accord­ing to both young women and men. Beckham’s status can be attrib­uted to his diva-esque ver­sat­il­ity and his super­brand power: “Like Madonna he is very ver­sat­ile and able to rad­ic­ally change his image but not ali­en­ate his audi­ence,” says pro­fessor Carl Rohde, head of the Dutch “cool hunt­ing” firm Signs of the Time. “He remains authen­tic.” Each time he goes to the hairdresser’s and has a restyle — which is alarm­ingly often — he ends up on the cover of every tabloid in Britain. In other words, whatever Becks does, how­ever he wears his hair or his clothes — or, cru­cially, whatever product he endorses — he is say­ing, as Rohde puts it, “this is just another aspect of me, David Beckham. Please love me.” And, it goes without say­ing, buy me. And mil­lions do.

Becks’ greatest sales suc­cess, how­ever, was actu­ally on the foot­ball field — though less with the ball than with the cam­era. He’s the most fam­ous foot­baller in the world, and con­sidered by mil­lions to be one of the greatest foot­ballers of all time, but argu­ably he’s not even a world-class player. A very fine one, to be sure, but not nearly the foot­baller we are sup­posed to think he is — not nearly the foot­baller we want to think he is. Sport, you might ima­gine, is the one area of con­tem­por­ary life where hype can’t win, where res­ults, at the end of the day, are everything. But Beckham has dis­proved that, has van­quished that, and rep­res­ents the tri­umph of P.R. over … well, everything. His con­tri­bu­tion to Manchester United was debat­able. On foot­balling skills alone, he is argu­ably not worthy of play­ing for the English national team, let alone being its cap­tain. However, in the last dec­ade soc­cer has become part of show busi­ness and advertising.

grey Beckham the virus goes to HollywoodBeckham is a hybrid of pop music and foot­ball, the Spice Girl of soc­cer — hence his mar­riage to one. He is — indis­put­ably — the cap­tain of a new gen­er­a­tion of pho­to­genic, pop-tastic young foot­balling lad­dies that added boy-band value to the mer­chand­ising and media pro­file of soc­cer clubs in the 1990s.

Beckham’s foot­balling forte is free kicks. This is entirely appro­pri­ate, since these are, after all, among the most indi­vidu­al­istic — and aes­thetic — moments in soc­cer. Unlike a goal, with a free kick there’s no one passing to you, no one to share the glory with. Instead there’s prac­tic­ally a spot­light and a drum roll. And how he kicks! “Goldenballs” (as his wife, Victoria, aka Posh Spice, reportedly likes to call him) has impress­ive accur­acy and his range is breath­tak­ing — along with his fam­ous “bend­ing” tra­ject­ory, his kicks also have style and grace. Long arms out­stretched à la Fred Astaire, wrists bent del­ic­ately upward, for­ward leg angled, and then — con­tact — and a power­ful, pre­cise, eleg­ant thwump! and follow-through. An Englishman shouldn’t kick a ball like this. This is the way that Latins kick the ball. Beckham doesn’t just rep­res­ent the aes­thet­i­ciz­a­tion of soc­cer that has occurred in a media-tised world — he is the aes­thet­i­ciz­a­tion of it. Like his silly hair­dos, like his “arty” tat­toos, like the extraordin­ar­ily elab­or­ate post-goal cel­eb­ra­tions he prac­tices with the crowd, almost everything he does on the field is designed to remind you that No. 7 is any­thing but a number.

Off the soc­cer field Becks is able to use clothes and accessor­ies to draw atten­tion to him­self. And does he. The Versace suits, the sarong, and the sequined track suit that opened the Commonwealth Games dazzled TV audi­ences and con­fused some for­eign view­ers who still thought the queen of England was a middle-aged woman. Essentially, Beckham’s visual style is “glam” — more Suede than Oasis (with a bit of con­tem­por­ary R&B pop promo thrown in). And like glam rock, which was a British working-class style run­ning riot in the dec­ade of his birth, the 1970s, Beckham, the son of Leytonstone pro­let­ari­ans, has a clear image of him­self as working-class roy­alty, the new People’s Princess (though his “super­brand” power has as yet been unable to sell us his wife, who, post-Spice Girls, remains unpop­u­lar and unsuc­cess­ful). Hence his wed­ding took place in a castle; at the recep­tion after­ward Posh and Becks were ensconced in match­ing His ‘n’ Hers thrones, and their Hertfordshire home was dubbed “Beckingham Palace” by the tabloids.

Soccer, like pop music, is one of the few ways the British are per­mit­ted any suc­cess — it is, after all, some­thing both manual and aris­to­cratic at the same time. Becks the foot­ball pop star rep­res­ents and advert­ises a mater­i­al­istic aspir­a­tion­al­ism that doesn’t appear bourgeois.

Beckham’s tat­toos — a lit­eral form of brand­ing — seem to epi­tom­ize this. What were once badges of male working-class iden­tity are now ways of advert­ising the unique Becks brand. “Although it hurts to have them done, they’re there forever and so are the feel­ings behind them,” Becks has explained. But these are not the kind of “Mum & Dad Always” tat­toos his plumber dad and his mates might have had. The huge, shaven-headed, open-armed, “guard­ian angel” with an alarm­ingly well-packed loin­cloth on his back looks more than a little like him­self with a Jesus com­plex. Beneath, in gothic let­ter­ing, is his son’s name: Brooklyn. Once his uni­form comes off at the end of a match — as it usu­ally does, and before any­one else’s — the tat­toos help him to stand out instantly, and mean that he is never naked: He’s always wear­ing some­thing designer.

grey Beckham the virus goes to HollywoodBecks clearly enjoys get­ting his tits out for the lads and lasses — and oil­ing them up for the cover of Esquire and other lad­die mags. While he may look strangely under­nour­ished and fra­gile in a soc­cer uni­form, as if his ghoul­ishly skinny wife has been tak­ing away his fries, and all those injur­ies sug­gest he’s some­what brittle, stripped down he looks as lithe and strong as a pan­ther. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t do drugs. His body is a temple — to his own self-image — which he never ceases worshipping.

There is how­ever a sub­missive pho­to­philia to Becks. A cer­tain passiv­ity or even mas­ochism about his dis­plays for the cam­era, which seem to say “I’m here for you.” Hence per­haps the fond­ness for those Christ-like/James Dean-like poses with arms out­stretched (the cover of Esquire had him “cru­ci­fied” on the Cross of St. George). Even those free kicks seem to have the lop­ing icon­o­graphy of “Giant” or Calvary about them.  Truth be told, Becks is there for him, but it’s a nice thought nonetheless.

To some he is already a god — lit­er­ally. In addi­tion to the Thai Becks Buddha, a pair of Indian artists have painted him as Shiva, the Hindu god of destruc­tion. In the Far East, andro­gyny is seen as a fea­ture of god­head — and so it has here in the West as well since the Rolling Stones. As Becks tells us him­self: “I’m not scared of my fem­in­ine side and I think quite a lot of the things I do come from that side of my char­ac­ter. People have poin­ted that out as if it’s a cri­ti­cism, but it doesn’t bother me.” It’s as if when he was a teen­ager he looked at those grainy black-and-white ‘80s girl­ish bed­room shrine posters of smooth-skinned doe-ish male mod­els hold­ing babies and thought: I’d like to be like that when I grow up. Becks is the poster boy of what I have termed else­where met­ro­sexu­al­ity. His hero/role-model status com­bined with his out-of-the-closet nar­ciss­ism and love of shop­ping and fash­ion and appar­ent indif­fer­ence to being thought of as “fag­goty” means that for cor­por­a­tions he is a price­lessly potent vec­tor for per­suad­ing mil­lions, if not bil­lions, of young men around the world to express them­selves “fear­lessly,” to be “indi­vidu­als” — by wear­ing exactly what he wears. Beckham is the über-metrosexual, not just because he rams met­ro­sexu­al­ity down the throats of those men churl­ish enough to remain ret­ro­sexual and refuse to pluck their eye­brows, but also because he is a sports­man, a man of sub­stance — a “real” man — who wishes to dis­ap­pear into sur­fa­ce­ness in order to become ubi­quit­ous — to become me-dia. Becks is The One, and slightly bet­ter look­ing than Keanu — but, be warned, he’s work­ing for the Matrix.

Ultimately, though, it is his desire that makes him the super­brand that he is. Beckham has suc­ceeded where pre­vi­ous British soc­cer her­oes you’ve never heard of, such as George Best, Alan Shearer and Eric Cantona — a Frenchman who played for Manchester United and is John the Baptist to Beck’s Christ — have failed, and has become a truly global star. Partly because the world has changed but mostly because they didn’t want it as much as he did. Becks is trans­par­ently so much more needy — more needy than almost any of us is. The pub­lic, quite rightly, only lets itself love com­pletely those who clearly depend on that love, because they don’t want to be rejec­ted. Beckham’s need­i­ness is lit­er­ally bot­tom­less. Like his image, it grows with what it feeds on. He’ll never reject our gaze.

It’s there in his hungry face. He isn’t actu­ally that attract­ive. Blasphemy! No really, his face doesn’t have a proper sym­metry. His mouth is frog­like and bash­fully off-center. But what is attract­ive, or at least hyp­not­iz­ing in a demo­cratic kinda way, which is to say media­genic, is his neurotic-but-ordinary desire to be beau­ti­ful, and to use all the tech­no­logy and voo­doo of con­sumer cul­ture and fame to achieve this. His appar­ent lack of an inner life, his sub­missive, high-pitched 14-year-old-boy voice that no one listens to, his beguil­ing blank­ness, only emphas­ize his suc­cess, his power­ful­ness in a world of super­fi­ci­al­ity. That oddly flat-but-friendly gaze that peers out from bill­boards and behind Police sunglasses looks to grey Beckham the virus goes to Hollywoodmil­lions like the nearest thing to god­li­ness in a god­less world. People fall in love not with him — who knows what Beckham is really like, or cares — but with his mul­ti­me­dia need­i­ness, his trans­mit­ted “viral” desire, which seems to spread and rep­lic­ate itself every­where, endors­ing mul­tiple products. Becks’ desire, via the giant shared toi­let handle of advert­ising, infects us, inhab­its us and becomes our own.

The British for their part, even those call­ing tabloid papers in tears to declare their lives ruined now that Beckham is mov­ing to Real Madrid, will sur­vive shar­ing him with the Spanish for a few years. After all, they’re already proudly shar­ing him with most of the rest of the world — and bask­ing in his reflec­ted glory. No one buys our pop music any more; our “Britpop” prime min­is­ter, Tony Blair, post-Iraq, is widely regarded abroad as a scoun­drel; our roy­als, post Diana, are a dreary bunch of sods (even her sainted son William is begin­ning to lose some of his Spencer spark and glow to the tired, horsey blood of his “German” dad and grandmama); and our national soc­cer squad has dif­fi­culty beat­ing coun­tries with a pop­u­la­tion smal­ler than Southampton.

But “our Becks” on the other, per­fectly man­i­cured hand, is some­thing British the world seems to actu­ally want. Badly.


Copyright Mark Simpson 2003

This essay is col­lec­ted in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story.


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