The Beckhams will compete with Diddy, or perhaps team up with him, to forge into uncharted realms of conspicuous consumption. Unlike in England, which has never fully embraced the more outré aspects of consumer culture, Americans of all stripes cheer public displays of excess. When our Donalds, or Kimoras, or 50 Cents spend stupid money, they are not merely indulging themselves, they are doing what we would all do if we had that kind of cheddar: sticking it to the Man. In the American context, for all of the Beckhams’ marginal taste in hairstyles, designer brand names, and tattoos, their conspicuous consumption is what is now considered “class.”
The Beckhams also bring a powerful celebrity lesson: They know when to shut up. As do many men of great physical beauty, Becks has the luxury of underplaying his hand—the less said, the more room for the imagination. But he is also aware, as was Princess Diana, that we live in an image culture, not a word culture. Why say anything when you can strike an assortment of poses in a variety of outfits, silently signifying madly. That is why he is unlikely to come out, for instance, against the Iraq war. Such a traditionally self-important Hollywood gesture would seem presumptuous, and it could chip his carefully varnished brand.
The Beckhams will therefore be embraced wholeheartedly, even if they fall fully under Tom and Katie’s Scientological spell. The thrum of obsessive international interest around where the Beckhams live, where they send their kids to school, where they shop, and whom they pal around with will force the locals to pay attention. Be seen with the Beckhams and your photo will get play in Sri Lanka. And into that vortex brands will follow.
We are, moreover, in a moment when celebrity has become unloosed from its moorings. The Beatles had to be the greatest band ever to warrant their rapturous U.S. welcome. David Beckham comes after the age of Paris Hilton, when one needs to do nothing more than embody certain attributes. We already understand and consume celebrities as brands. We care less about what, say, Nicole Kidman’s latest role is than about dissecting her as a monetizable object. Beckham, even more, is a pre-built brand toy, ready-made for our playing pleasure. Soccer? That’s just his handle.
But, it seems fair to ask, can Becks make America fall in love with the international game? Simon Fuller is too smart a man to care. The truth is that Beckham, outside the hothouse atmosphere of Man U’s “Theatre of Dreams,” Real’s Bernabeu, or the World Cup, is not that exciting to watch. Nor is the American game. Generally speaking, soccer is like champagne. At its best, it is a transcendent experience. At its second-best, it’s just sweet wine with bubbles. But Beckham is also custom-made for YouTube. Three or four in-swinging goals from free kicks (and, truly, he could bang those out till he’s 40) and the fact that he’s scoring those goals on American soil will suddenly matter hugely again in Japan, where the $65 Los Angeles Galaxy branded shirts will sell out in a day in the Roppongi (not to mention Orange County). Every teenager will be repping Becks by late summer, on his back and on her bedroom wall. And that, ultimately, is what the art of celebrity is all about.