One unexpected viral hit, and I’m reminded just how it feels to be the centre of attention

Fame, and social media, can flatten us out, making us cartoon-like, when actually we wish we were that simple.

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I’m lying in bed listening to the weather in the streets, wide awake with a headache at 2am. It’s been a funny day, full of love and hate and anxiety, all because I went a bit viral on the internet and briefly became the focus of a lot of attention, and I’m not really cut out for that. What was it Ben said about me? Half freedom fighter, half wallflower. He knows me so well.

I’m not a controversy columnist, as you’ve probably noticed. That last one, on women being written about by men, was my 100th for this magazine, and the first that has gone viral, so it’s a pretty poor strike rate if I was courting publicity. Some Twitter trolls accused me of being attention-seeking (among other things), and I thought, “Mate you’re talking to a woman whose response to being offered the support slot on a U2 tour was to retire for seven years rather than have that size of audience.” So, it’s fair to say I am not one actively to seek the public gaze.

But we’re all a mass of contradictions, aren’t we? You can have strong feelings and want to make a point, and still hate being the centre of attention. You can be angry and still flinch from an actual fight. Everyone is a mixture of competing impulses, thoughts, emotions, character traits. Fame, and social media, can flatten us out, making us cartoon-like, when actually we wish we were that simple.

I think it’s one of the reasons I like shows such as First Dates and Gogglebox. People are introduced to us as types, and then gradually reveal themselves to be complex and interesting, more than the sum of their parts, full of unexpected back stories, motivating forces and plot twists.

Over on Facebook, among people I know, I mentioned feeling a bit battered. I hadn’t had loads of abuse (in the end, the positive response hugely outweighed the brief flurry of invective), but once something you’ve written spirals out of your control, there is that nagging fear of what’s to come. It’s momentarily frightening. And the point is, you’re meant to be frightened. Targeted hostility, aggressive insults – they’re not just disagreement, they’re meant to cow you. One response is to say, “Nothing scares me.” Another is to admit that it’s scary, then carry on.

The journalist Suzanne Moore replied to me that no one takes online abuse completely in their stride, no one is entirely oblivious. “We’re all sensitive people,” she said. To which  I replied, “So much to give” – and thinking of Marvin Gaye cheered me up.

It had been a hot day too, the weather outside seeming to intensify the atmosphere online, which felt overheated, oppressive. In the afternoon, I had gone for a walk up to the high street, where Tesco was full of teenagers trying to put together picnics, and Raze’s “Break 4 Love” was blasting out of the greengrocer’s. Bare legs and shoulders everywhere.

But now the weather has broken, and the rain beats against the windows while I half listen out for the youngest, who is coming home from some party somewhere. I’m not waiting up for him, I just happen to be awake, and it’s comforting the way the rain feels physical and real, where the events of the day have seemed intangible, out of reach, and febrile in that modern sped up, hyped up way. The youngest, the one I’m waiting up for, used to have a speaker attached to his cot playing the sound of rain or the sea to soothe him to sleep, and it does the same for me.

Next day the online furore has all died down, and I’m back to talking about songs I love and the only people listening are the ones who also like songs, and I feel my shoulders fall back into their rightful position. I go for a walk, listening to a playlist of hits from 1976, and the weather is sweltering just like that heatwave summer, and I’m 14 again, poised on the brink of life, out of my head on Wild Cherry and Candi Staton, and I can’t even imagine the internet existing.

I’ve had a reminder, though, even if I’m not sure what to do with it. I’ve remembered I’m not impervious, but then as Suzanne says, none of us is really. We weren’t built to be, we humans. We’re full of holes where the rain gets in. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article appears in the 04 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, What Marx got right