The fall of the last good man
“We will never agree on anything,” wrote the American music critic Lester Bangs, ‘as we agreed on Elvis.” He wrote those words as part of a now celebrated obituary of Elvis Presley, but it was not only Elvis that he was mourning — his might have been the bloated corpse, but he was not the only one who had died.
For Bangs the passing of Elvis had robbed the United States of its most meaningful, most American icon; someone whose biography and back-catalogue provided the centrifugal force to hold a restless nation together.
Elvis was gravity, and without him the country would, Bangs feared, be lost in a disunited state of weightless relativism.
Once Elvis had left the building for the last time, Bangs foresaw a culture ‘Where along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other’s objects of reverence. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis’s.”
Fast-forward 27 years to another century, another country and another fallen king. It might seem like something of a leap from the death of Elvis to the current marital troubles of the England captain — from the 1970s kitsch of Graceland to the 1990s decadence of Beckingham Palace — but I was reminded of Bangs’s words and fears while reading some of the acres of coverage about David Beckham. Music and football have much in common. Both are largely — if not exclusively — male domains.
Like music, football is not an intellectual pursuit: it demands the engagement of the heart, not the brain. Like music, football is a way that men, mostly, demonstrate tribal allegiances and, like music, football is not so much a pastime as a religion complete with its cathedrals, rituals and gods.
I should perhaps add here that I am not myself a football fundamentalist; at best I am an optimistic agnostic who becomes devout around the time of the European and World championships. Music is my religion and here Bangs’s prophesy has come true. Music has indeed splintered: some bow to hip-hop and others to alt country, some are saved by the gods of rock and others claim that God is a DJ.
The only thing we can all agree on in music is the genius of the iPod. The music itself has become too fragmented for any one artist to rule.
Football also has its tribal heroes but there is, or at least there was, one man who transcended the tribalism of sport, someone who indeed transcended sport itself. In doing so, Beckham became, according to a poll for VH1 — a music channel, remember — the supreme pop cultural icon in the world. Even Elvis could only manage third position despite being the most important single figure in rock’n'roll.
And how did Beckham manage to beat both Madonna and Elvis — how did a sportsman become such a colossal cultural figure? Muhammad Ali did it by refusing to fight in Vietnam, by standing up for his race and his religion. Beckham did it by painting his fingernails and wearing a sarong.
His ever-changing hairstyles, daring fashion flirtations, and acknowledging his large gay following have helped him to redefine the role of a modern man.
He has also offered an alternative template for the modern footballer. Where fellow players spend their evenings roasting, dogging or fathering children by Jordan, Beckham has played the perfect father and husband while at the same time, on the field, displaying the spirit and patriotism of a national ambassador.
His was a benevolent affirming patriotism far removed from the casual racism of some England football ‘fans”. No wonder the Sikh girl in the hit film aspired to ‘bend it like Beckham”. He was New Britain incarnate, like the Tony Blair we remember falling for seven years ago.
Earlier this month the chairperson of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, said that the term ‘multiculturalism” ought to be dropped and in its place, we should refer to ‘core British values.”
He was criticised for suggesting that Shakespeare and Dickens represent Britishness — but he should have suggested Beckham.
He transcended his sport, his nation, his gender and even his race. His cornrow hairstyle, bling lifestyle and genuine love of hip-hop culture prompted claims that he was actually black. The parallels with another working-class white boy, who was also unashamedly pretty, was taunted for what was then considered an outrageous hairstyle and who was comfortable borrowing from black culture, are apparent. And, like Elvis, Beckham’s appeal was that he could be what we wanted him to be.
His autobiography was the fastest-selling memoir in history but, in truth, Beckham rarely says anything interesting. There is less to him than meets the eye and because his public utterances are so bland, he has become a cipher for everyone who looks at him. He became the man in the 1980s Athena poster — a blank canvas on which others could project their own image of Beckham, which he would never contradict.
So the allegations of infidelity, if proved accurate (and Beckham has yet to deny them) are not only a tragedy for him and his family — but for all of us. Because the transformation from castrated Goldenballs to horny Peter Pan represents the end of the last good man.
We don’t want to believe it. Some are claiming that the allegations will enhance the Beckham brand: they demonstrate that he might be a metrosexual but he is also a lad.
Perhaps. Yet I can’t help but feel that whether the incident damages his career or gives him an edge, something died the moment the allegations hit the stands.
In a fragmented culture, where we listen to different records and watch different programmes, there are few shared experiences left — and Beckham was one of them. The image appeared to reflect the reality. For some of his fans, his alleged misdemeanours may validate their own should his seemingly perfect life be exposed as fool’s gold.
And that is the point. With him revealed as an alleged philanderer, he has become just another celebrity to argue about, no longer an icon to believe in.
Is it too early to suggest that we will never agree on anything the way we agreed about David Beckham? —