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Is celebrity the new opium?

02 February 2011

Kirstin Aune’s young students see fame as a potential antidote to a risky future

WHY do young people devour celebrity magazines? Why do they audition for talent shows such as The X Factor in their hundreds of thousands? Why do they want to be famous?

Last week, I posed these questions to the students taking my undergraduate module “Women and Popular Culture”. We’d been discussing Lily Allen’s song “The Fear” — which, incidentally, is featured in the Bishop of Sheffield’s Lent course (News 28 January). In it, she sings about the shallowness of fame and the fears provoked by desiring it.

I asked the students to raise their hands if they would like to be famous. Somewhat sheepishly, about a third of the class did.

One student quickly pointed out that the reason why she wanted to be famous was because of the money she would make. Others concurred: being famous means you can have a good standard of living and not worry about money.

This sheds an important light on young people’s relationship with celebrity culture, and also, perhaps, on why celebrity culture and talent shows have shown remarkable resilience during an economic crisis. Celebrity culture is most alluring when its fruits (a good income) are harder to achieve through other means.

Young people live in what the sociologist Ulrich Beck has called a “risk society”. In the past few decades, young people’s lives have become riskier. The old patterns — early marriage; a job for life where your father worked; or, for young women, full-time motherhood — have virtually disappeared. Young people’s transitions from education and their parents’ homes into work, independent housing, and partnership are now fractured, not seamless.

Graduates are still living with their parents and doing unpaid internships at 30. Since early 2008, the unemployment rate among new graduates has doubled to 20 per cent. And many without a university education are competing for minimum-wage work or low-paid apprenticeships in insecure industries where redundancy could be just around the corner.

Manufacturing jobs have been outsourced to developing countries. One in ten young people are not in employment, education, or training, and the overall rate of youth un­employment is three times that of older adults.

Fame promises economic security in uncertain times. That is why it is so attractive.

Marx said that religion was the opium of the people, giving them hope and comfort in difficult economic conditions and distracting them from challenging economic injustice. Perhaps young people’s new religion, celebrity, is doing something similar today.

Dr Kristin Aune teaches Sociology at the University of Derby. Her book Reclaiming the F Word: The new feminist movement (with C. Redfern) is published by Zed at £12.99 (£11.70); 978-1-84813-395-2.

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