Back in November I saw Kim Allen present the Celeb Youth project to the Career Development Institute conference. It was a brilliant presentation that talked about how young people are using celebrity to think about and talk about their aspirations.
Since then I’ve been following the project online and managed to bag an invite to the project’s final event over the last couple of days. The project has been fantastically innovative in the way that it has engaged with people and built outputs for a wide range of audiences. The team have blogged throughout the project and engaged with a wide range of disciplines and professions. It would have been possible to just do the research and produce a few papers for academic journals. Instead they’ve been talking to lots of people and thinking about what the implications of their research might be for teachers, careers advisers, youth workers and of course for celebs themselves.
The final event very much picked up the spirit of the project’s online presence. It began with performance artist Bryony Kimmings introducing us to her “credible likeable superstar role model” Catherine Bennett. Her performance raised lots of interesting issues about the way in which female pop stars tend to be constructed in a way which makes little sense and offers little positive value for one of their main audiences (tween girls). Why do all pop songs have to be about love and rejection? Why can’t we have songs about palaeontology, tuna pasta, what we want from the future and the animal kingdom?
These important questions set us all thinking for Katy Vigurs celeb quiz. I woz robbed!
The next day looked a bit more like a standard academic conference. However, before anyone even mentioned Bourdieu we were asked to share who our favourite celeb was with our neighbour. The papers got underway in a series of disciplinary based panel sessions. The format was one of the Celeb Youth team presented some findings, a couple of people responded from different perspectives (other disciplines, practice etc) and then we were all invited to gather in groups and discuss. We all talked to each other and got a good opportunity to chew over their ideas. Unlike most conferences I go to I wasn’t tempted to fall asleep or start checking my email. The whole thing was much more fertile than the usual conference format.
But, the medium was not the only message. There was also a lot of important stuff about how young people engage with the idea of celebrity. In essence the project is constructed in opposition to the usual knee jerk media/politician stuff about celebrities being to blame for everything. You know the sort of thing: the economy is broken because young people are lazy, young people are lazy because they watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Therefore Kim Kardashian caused the recession. I’m over egging it but not much. The Celeb Youth team (Laura I think?) showed a quote from Iain Duncan Smith about how X-Factor cause the riots. You can’t make this stuff up!
Conversely, the research suggests that young people look beyond simple analyses of celebrity. The Celeb Youth project shows young people engaging with celebrity as a resource within which they can think about and understand their own lives and aspirations. Rather than buying into a narrative which is simply “shag a footballer and get rich” they typically prize celebrities who they believe embody hard work. Of course not all young people see all celebrities in the same way, but this is rather the point. Celebrity is a battleground on which you can test out your ideas. It is a place where those with little life experience can observe those with a bit more and think about whether they are behaving well and making good decisions. This may not always lead people to the kinds of decisions and values that I hold, but it isn’t a simple process of cause and effect. There is a sophisticated, critical process of consumption going on here.
All of this raises a lot of issues for those of us who are particularly interested in developing interventions that help people to think about their future and increase their self-awareness. However, that discussion is probably for another day. For today I’ll just thank Celeb Youth for having me and wish them well as they carry on with their interesting work!