The Beckham Experiment
Although Grant Wahl’s book The Beckham Experiment[i] reads more like an extended magazine biography (Wahl notes that he wrote for Sports Illustrated, so perhaps this is not unexpected), his work on David Beckham raises some interesting points of consideration. In the early pages of his work, Wahl notes the contrasting elements of Beckham as public figure (i.e., celebrity) and private person, a theme that will see continued resonance throughout Wahl’s treatment of the soccer star. According to Wahl, part of Beckham’s success stems from his ability to appeal to a wide range of people; managing to avoid a strongly defined personality (which is not to say that Beckham’s presence was not felt, but merely that it curiously managed to remain ubiquitous and polymorphic), Beckham’s image could be reworked by fans in order to suit their individual needs.
One aspect of Beckham’s persona—arguably the main one—revolved around his identity as a soccer player. While we can apply the criticisms of past readings to Beckham’s celebrity, Wahl speaks instead to the ways in which soccer talent and celebrity work in synergy (referred to as the “sweet spot”) to produce a multiplier effect. Together, celebrity and talent provide multiple entry points into the narrative of Beckham, allowing potentially disparate fans to identify with the star. Perhaps more importantly, however, the convergence of multiple narratives in the figure of Beckham allows for a type of cross pollination as people interested in one aspect of Beckham have the opportunity to be exposed to another aspect of fan culture (e.g., followers of the Becks/Posh saga could grow to appreciate Beckham’s soccer prowess). In some ways, according to Wahl, Beckham hoped to tap into this very process in order to popularize soccer: an infatuation with Beckham as a celebrity in Los Angeles would necessitate an awareness of his exploits on the soccer pitch.
Finally, through Wahl, readers glimpse the complex nature of the star-making machine: although attention might fixate on Beckham, Wahl demonstrates that Beckham is not solely responsible for obtaining his post (or keeping himself there). Again we see resonance with the popular culture critiques of the 1930s and the 1950s wherein fame (and its trappings) are manufactured by a handful and then distributed to the masses. Although we might conjecture that some celebrities-as-brands control the processes described in The Beckham Experiment to differing degrees, we can probably assume that the majority of modern fame is supported by a team that must also be understood in order to contextualize the role and presence of stars in culture.
[i] Wahl, G. (2009). The Beckham Experiment. New York, NY: Random House.