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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