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Publication: British GQ, 2000

New Pop Dirt

Chazbaps, threes-up and champagne enemas. Gossip’s got a whole lot grubbier since it started travelleing at 56,000 kilobytes per minute. So how come Madonna’s giving it up for

"I am going to dedicate this song to all the pop bitches out there" - Madonna, Brixton Academy, 28/11/00

Do Posh and Beck still enjoy a bottle of champagne in their intimate moments? Is Finley Quaye's flatmate okay now, after what happened? Is it really true about Craig David?

You shouldn't believe everything you hear. But life is considerably more fun when you do. For an immediate frisson of the dirty fun, nothing beats an infectious new strain of scurrilous celebrity tittle-tattle we'll call new pop dirt. Like a genetically-modified hybrid of the urban myth and the sick news-related joke, the new pop dirt is an accelerated rumour that enter the awareness from an unspecified origin, comes with no substantiation whatsoever, and certainly won't be the kind of throwaway yarn you'll be sharing with your boss at the water cooler.

The new pop dirt is now as foremost in he collective consciousness as it's possible to be without making the Nine O'Clock News. Alluded to on kids' television programmes, printed as anonymous "blind" items in the tabloids, shared by grown men across pub tables, and traded across corporate email networks, detailed stories of debauched celebrities have replaced urban myths as cultural ephemera of choice. Anatomise most stories, and they break down in the same way: a celebrity or two, scatological sex, a lot of drugs, some physical harm and a narrative that inevitably results in with egg - at the very least - on the faces of those in question. Whether you scratch around on the internet or just spend too long listening to the man in the pub, there are so many in general circulation now that it's possible to play six degrees-of-seperation by linking one pop star to another with a smeary sex or drug-related misdemeanour. You could, for example, begin with the DJ reckoned to have sired the daughter of his rockstar friend, whose brother is dating a singer from a major girl band, and enjoyed a "threes-up" with her and her sister. The same sister used to date an ex-boy band star whose homsexuality is papered over by flings with prominent female celebs, one of which, with a dusky rock singer, concluded in hospital with treament for anal damage (hers, that is). Unsurprisingly, many of the tales wind up somewhere in the anal region.

In the time it's taken the Spice Girls' career to explode and then all but implode, pop dirt has graduated from being the idle hobby of an entertainment media elite into the actively-pursued fixation of a mushrooming audience whose appetite for the sexual perversions, drug addictions, closet homosexuality, abortions and extreme vanities of the rich and famous the word "voracious" doesn't do justice to.

If it's true, as the cultural theorists argue, that the most powerful trends spread like viruses these days, it seems we've all caught a bad dose of the new pop dirt. As nasty bugs go, this one's as catchy as ebola.

AS WITH with so much, the current deluge of scandalous celebrity gossip owes principally to the internet, whose high-technology has always been most fruitfully exploited to low ends. A spam email dumped into collective in-box in late 2000 that really crystalised the new pop dirt's new murky agenda. Purporting to be an extract from Andrew Morton's biography of the couple, the email detailed the consequences of an inadvisable erotic game David and Victoria Beckham played using a champagne bottle. This story, too, wound up in an A&E department.

For obvious reasons, the "champagne enema" email did swift trade and probably established some kind of record for being the most forwarded spam mail on the net. Being an obvious hoax detracted neither from its recipients' enjoyment nor hinder the yarn's elevation into popular folklore. The sullied image of pop culture's golden couple endorsed the public's own dark and wilful notions of the Beckhams' perversity. We would, after all, hate to think their sex lives were as humdrum as our own.

Wherever else these semi-truthful celebworld leaks derive from, the crucible of new pop dirt online is Popbitch, a "cool gossip email" which began circulating around a year ago. Set up by anonymous media insiders, Popbitch brazenly strides in where he  most shamless of tabloids sleazemongers fear to tread, routinely laying waste to the vanities of the pop industry. Staggeringly, they haven't been sued yet. Dispensing with the sniggering caveat of "allegedly" and the coded innudendo of the tabloids, Popbitch's publish-and-be-damned (and fêted) ethos delivers not so much a breath of fresh air as a nostril-curlings chance to see how bad the dirt really smells.

"The whole idea is pop music for adults," says Popbitch's 30-year-old spokesman, "adult" being the same you see on Soho shop signage. "It's meant to provide an alternative to copy-approved magazine and newspaper articles. In the media, the balance of power has shifted to the celebs, and their PRs control access and only want journalists to write flattering pieces. That seemed like a load of bollocks to us; it's not good for the public to be press release-fed."

The pamphleteering tone of the email is free of tabloid-style sermonising and sits somewhere between a staggeringly well-infomed fan and an insouciant insider. But its style is secondary to its content. Each week, it publishes abject details of the stars' pre-fame life, the names of well-endowed sters, those in the closet and those with a taste for class-A drugs along with predictions for the following week's chart entries. Gems of snide trivia - "Billie claims that she only cleans her teeth when her 'tongue feels furry'", for example - are sandwiched between "blind items" referring in thinly-vieled terms to events of the highest PR sensitivity.

The point, the Popbitch staffer says, is to be "warm" about pop stars, by which they mean "honest". "You're fed these gushing profiles of what humanitarian people celebs are. What we do is focus on the the interesting bits of their lives, namely drugs, sex and general weirdness. We're just talking about them in a different way, the way people talk about them in the pub."

So near the knuckle they're practically scraping the bone, Popbitch's juice is sourced, they say, "from eveywhere: "roadies for Eighties band, outrageous old hairdressers, someone from Madonna's close circle, band members." Since many contributors work in the media, fashion and music, there's never a shortage of material. It's no secret how the dirt ends up beamed across cyberspace.

"If you know a story about a friend, that story has a limited life," says one PB contributor, a newspaper fashion editor. "Celeb stories start the same way - they've got friends who can't keep it to themselves, but that chain doesn't peter out. The best stories come from someone one or two people removed from the subject."

The spokesperson thinks the email's vertiginous growth curve will plateau out soon, reasoning, "there are only so many adults out there who are interested in what H from Steps is up to." However, a current subscriber base of 16,000 readers nonethless means 16,000 potential informants, many of whom prefer to give their stories free to Popbitch rather than sell them to a tabloid. "That's the joy of it,' the Popobiccher adds. "It's become a clearing house for stories. Because we're non-profit making, many people would rather come to us than sell their stories to a newspaper"

And already streets ahead of online pop sites like, and the edgier and, much of what has figured in Popbitch's weekly mailout has ended up in the tabloids, notable the Mirrors 3AM column, not to mention reprinted practically verbatim in the NME's gossip column. Outright ripping-off being even more sincere a form of flattery than imitation, the email's influence extends much further than just 16,000 bored office workers and as an under-the-counter news distrbution service the pop industry never wanted, Popbitch proves devastatingly effective.

SHARING pop gossip was once an activity practiced solely by the young and the substantially female. But the newer strain of pop gossip, in all its slanderous honesty, is captivating an demographic of media-litreate, acquisitive twentysomething metroplitan adults who'd otherwise list their interests as limited-edition clothes, exotic holidays and recherché US TV dramas. Improbably, pop tales are now more likely to be traded in the unisex urinals at Fabric than they are over Bunsen burners in provincial classrooms, a cultural shift not even Mystic Meg could have predicted.

One effect of pop dirt's natural affinity for the net is that its transmission is accelerated to a speed that makes wildfire look slothful and he information itself has assumed a valency which now ranks it higher than rare trainers and high-spec technical gadgetry.

"We live a culture of acceleration and obsolence," says trend forecaster Sean Pillot De Chenecey. "Like everything else, gossip is short-lived; if you've got a good piece of gossip, you let people know as soon as possible, because everyeone else will know about it ten second later anyway. Additionally, there's little distinction between infantile and high-brow information any more. Just as we knew about the Bush-Gore election mess five minutes after it happened, we know immediately who Robbie Willams is shagging."

The upshot is that good gossip is the vital accessory in the knowledge economy; it lingers in the memory, invites speculation, accompanies you down the pub, and then give its ownbr an edge over all his friends because, now that celebrity is the nearest our atomised society gets to having a common folklore, pop gossip is the hottest social currency.

"There's now an insatiable demand for news all the time and the speed of information just isn't going to slow down," De Chenecy adds. "It's partly cecause everyone is swamped by brands, but people value themselves far more about what they know than what they own.

Which is a long way of saying that the man with the dirtiest pop stories gets bought the most free drinks.

As cultural trends go, meanwhile, the deluge of new pop dirt perfectly supports Margaret Thatcher's suggestion that there's no such thing as society. Close-knit communities - gossip's traditional breeding ground - have collapsed just as the virtual soap of our airbrushed, all-pervading pop culture has ballooned. Manufacturing a new, beyond Z-list celebrity class out of magnificently unremarkable people, "Big Brother" most clearly illuminated how the distance between the world of fame and "normal" life has diminished to the point where it overlaps. Off-screen, the blurring continues: just how hard can it be to get into London's Trendy Met Bar and meet Westlife these days?

"British pop stars are like amateur pub turns," argues Johnny Davis, editor of The Face. "The level of mystique has plummeted. Once, Oasis were on a pedestal, and now you see Liam photographed snogging the crap one out of All Saints in a pub. You see pictures of Madonna washing her car on a Sunday. But we want celebrities to behave extraordinarily and lead glamorous lives so we can feel better about ourselves. We're disappointed that they aren't living up to our ideals and so we're picking it apart. The result is that everything is out in the open now. There aren't any secrets anymore."

  Pop dirt has consequently emerged as the messy flipside to blandly fawning and trivia-obsessed media coverage. If the prevailing model of pop star manifests boy/girl-next-door fantasies of sa ahsred subconscious, then pop dirt only addresses the salacious queries we all have regarding our "neighbours": what do they look like when they're off their heads and having sex?

The blame - if that's how  you view it - for the fact that our pop muchkins' every hushed-up drug crisis, closely-guarded kink and unglamourous personal failing has somehow now made it to the public awareness stretches back to Diana's death in 1997. The inconvenience consequence was a celebrity vacuum that needed immediate filling. Luckily, toothsome tots of pop where on hand for a photo opportunity when Diana no longer was, and creepy tableaux of perma-grinning popsters - previously the territory of the expanding portfolio of celebrity publications - began filling tabloid pages.

"All newspapers have enlarged their showbiz departments," says Sunday People's entertainment columnist Sean O'Brien. "It used to be seen as the fluffy department in the corner of a newsroom; now it's the central part of a tabloid paper. Because showbiz news >is< the news. My quality control for a story is always, would you tell your mates about it down the pub, because stories about non-famous people and things just aren't talked about any more."

Which makes for a tricky balancing act. As a secondary consequence of Diana's death, the tabloids' obligation to tone down celebrity reporting impacted just as the acreage of pop imagery was expanding, the upshot being that the neutered tabloid merely present a faintly cattier spin on the wide-eyed carousel of bland peddled by celebrity publications. Craig David says, "I'm teetotal when it come to drugs!" Robbie Williams has a hairy back! Jordan has had her boobs enlarged to 36DD! With news of famous people comeing in two forms - bland, and really bland - coverage of the minutiae of the of minutiae of the celeblife these days is more likely to elicit an overflowing sickbag than a burtsing swearbox. It's little wonder the currency of pop dirt just keeps rising.

Meanwhile, there's no better place to test the pulse of the pop dirt nation than on Pobitch's messageboard. While the PB masterminds claim there's no anti-celebrity agenda behind the savage honesty of their weekly tip-sheet, the message board acts like an online bring-and-buy sale where the sole commodity is filthy laundry, not all of it unbelievable. In true old-school tabloid style, members if the conline community who post on the messageboard never let such things as reliable sources and fact-checking get in the way of a good lie and the information's shameless unprovability hardly matters: post a query regarding a figure from the world of pop - any will do - then sit back and watch the allegations, slagging, bile and conjecture and flow by the gigabyte-load, with mail after mail embellishing accusation on accusation.

 "The messageboard is so out of control," the PB spokeperson notes. "We try to discourage people from being too horrible." But it doesn't work. When subjects named aren't reported to be to bankrupt, heroin-addicted and anal sex-mad, then they're inevitably violent, narcissistic and headed for an early check-in at The Priory. Generating speculative dirt by the gigabyte-load,

"It's like we, the people, have take control of the gossip," says Ed Carwright, PR agent for Fatboy Slim and Ali G lookalike Armand Van Helden. "PRs use to be able to control information on celebrities, but these days, the net has made that impossible, because it removes the need for the gossip columns, the Nigel Dempsters of this world. People are talking to each other, sharing information. From a PR point of view, there's nothing you can do about it. "

Since PB messageboard gathers the very nastiest of pop intelligence, little of what appears ends up on the weekly email. Messageboard-originated stories that didn't make the final cut & paste includes the tale of the star whose publicist has banned interviews because he wants to come out, and appearing regularly is the youthful female starlet who allows men snort cocaine from her breasts, earning her self the nickname "Chazbaps". If it's "Appletonia" - speculation on the sex lives of All Saints' Mel and Nicole - the messageboard provides what amounts to a rolling newsfeed devoted the topic.

"It's truly addictive," one user confirms. "I used to be on it 50 times a day at work, except it wasn't work, because I ended up not doing any. I used to go on under about ten different names and put up loads of highly libellous material. Did it stick? Yeah. But I put up some some stuff about Jimmy Saville that was taken off."

Whether the pseudonymous tribes who spend hours logged onto this virtual custard pie shop are motivated by love of pop in all its vacuity or just loathing, they're demanding the same honesty from inhabitants of the pop cosmos as outing campaigners did of prominent but closeted gays in the Nineties. Should it turn out to be loathing, the pop manufacturing indusrty only has itself to blame. If the nation which went pop-bonkers is becoming pop-bored just as quickly, then PB is its own, negative-image Smash Hits.

"I mean, look at Kerry from Atomic Kitten," the anonymous Popbitcher concludes. "Is this what out pop stars have become? A cross eyed-girl whose life was summed up by her being nicknamed Chipshop, because she looked like someone who works in one? We deserve more."

If you've been anywhere near a Westlife record recently, you may be tempted to agree.

© Kevin Braddock 2000

All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

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