Not too long ago, a much-talked-about interview with Louis Tomlinson was published by the Guardian, in which the former 1D member showed an unusually high level of humility and self-awareness, in popstar terms. Speaking about his former bandmates, Tomlinson acknowledged that Harry’s the “cool one”, Zayn’s got the “fantastic voice”, while Liam could always “get the crowd going.” Then, he said, “there’s me.” Cue the broken heart emojis.
This is the first celebrity interview I can remember in a while that’s generated quite so much conversation on social media, and I think it’s because it taps into a very real worry for most people: namely, the absolutely horrifying prospect of being considered average. All of us, at some time or another, are likely to have worried that we’re not the scene stealer, the life and soul of the party, the most entertaining, the MOST anything – and I’m certainly no exception.
Like Louis, I’ve always worried a little about being the runt of the litter. I’m pretty sure the straight As I achieved throughout school were thanks to the terrifying spectre of averageness lurking in the back of my mind (although about two minutes spent in the company of private schooled intellectuals at uni had me forced to accept it). Even today, if I spot someone walking down the street wearing an item of clothing that I own, I’m mentally consigning it to the charity shop pile – my bank balance might have other ideas, but my inner anti-average impulse balks at the idea of wearing the same Zara jacket as every other basic highstreet shopper.
Talking of which, the term ‘basic’ – a word which has only entered our cultural lexicon relatively recently – is surely the best possible example of our collective fear of averageness in a time when comparison has never been so easy. A catch-all term for a very specific type of unoriginality, Urban Dictionary defines it as a phrase used for “someone devoid of defining characteristics that might make a person interesting, extraordinary, or just simply worth devoting time or attention to.”
If you’re not already acquainted with the term, it can be hard to explain the nuance of what exactly qualifies for basic-ness, but if you pride yourself on your nude lipstick collection, own the rose pink iPhone or a Michael Kors handbag, you’re already pretty deep into basic territory (and yes, I boast all kinds of basic attributes, pink iPhone included.) And while, as with most things, it’s women who are more likely to be slapped with this uncomplimentary label, men aren’t completely safe either. Ed Sheeran’s catty song ‘New Man’ perfectly sums up the type of guy you might also consign to the ‘basic’ category: “Goes to the gym at least six times a week; Wears boat shoes with no socks on his feet; Owns every single Ministry CD; Tribal tattoos and he don’t know what it means.”
But this fear of living an average life applies to more than just aesthetics. As India Knight pointed out in a recent column following Jo Swinson’s decision to rule herself out as the new Lib Dem leader, today, “the expectation is never that as a girl or a boy you might just want to potter about as much as possible while having a job to pay the bills. No, the narrative is now that everybody should be scrabbling like mad to get to the top of the tree, eyes narrowed, elbows out.”
“The more women there are at the top the better, as far as I’m concerned,” she continued. “But we also know lots of women who are perfectly happy to be in the middle. Not because they’re unambitious, but because they value their quality of life more than they value power and status.” As an out-and-proud potterer, I think this is something we could all do well to remember, particularly as we see our peers shooting up the career ladder or leapfrogging into salary brackets we can only dream of ourselves. Ambition is perfectly honourable, but not all of us are destined to become CEOs, or even managers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Often, it’s actually for the best.
And if it’s validation you’re looking for, as Helen Mirren pointed out during a talk on self-worth in Cannes last month, while most of us are terrified that we’ll never win an award, the reality is “most of you probably won’t.” The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can get on with enjoying ourselves. After all, it’s possible to go through life without winning awards or achieving great riches and still be considered special by plenty of people.
Just look at Martyn Hett. On paper, he was a PR manager from Stockport: so far, so normal. But as the coverage since his tragic death in the recent Manchester terror attack has shown, the “iconic” Corrie superfan packed more into his short life than most people do in a lifetime. He appeared on Come Dine With Me, had a portrait of Deirdre Barlow tattooed onto his leg and brought daily lols to his friends and Twitter followers through his love of what he called “strong women and low culture”.
His escapades have even spawned a hashtag – #BeMoreMartyn – encouraging everyone to channel his innate fabulousness and ability to go out and grab life by the balls. One of his biggest strengths, from what I’ve gathered from reading about him, was to derive loads of pleasure from things plenty of people couldn’t give a toss about (Michelle McManus’ back catalogue being one of them). As soon as you stop worrying about your interests not being interesting enough, it seems, that’s just what they become.
I think we could all do with being a bit more Martyn in life, and worry far less about giving into our basic instincts. Not all of us will get to be the Beyoncé in life, but when you think about it, Kelly and Michelle haven’t exactly had a terrible time of it. You might not have a trophy on your mantelpiece to prove it, but chances are that alongside being fairly average, you’re pretty fucking iconic yourself.
This piece first appeared as an edition of Sian’s regular email newsletter. It’s brilliant, sign up here.
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