Justin Bieber is a glorified Furby. Why do we expect him to have views on the Holocaust?

We need much more of a Henry VIII-style attitude to celebrities – less adulation, and more “amuse me minstrels and if you’re very, very good I might not have you executed”.


As a Jew and a descendent of Holocaust victims, I’m a kind of a very minor stakeholder in Anne Frank. So did Justin Bieber’s misplaced, slightly clunky, maybe self-absorbed, maybe just awkward comment about hoping that Anne Frank “would have been a belieber” ‘offend’ me? Not particularly. Trying hard to be offended ... still trying. Nope, it just won’t come.

It’s slightly crass and it made me cringe. But it baffles me that anyone would be shocked by a teenager blurting out silliness. There was even something quite sweet about Bieber’s comment. He was clearly moved by the story of Anne Frank. He just had a childish way of showing it. Sort of like a puppy pooing on the carpet then wagging its tail excitedly, as if to say, “Look at what I did! Aren’t I clever?”

So when Twitter found this flopsy puppy of a young Canadian guilty of being the Worst Person Ever, I was left shrugging. Why, I found myself asking, do we suddenly expect entertainers to be thinkers?

Bieber is 19. For a variety of misbegotten reasons, he has a Twitter following bigger than the entire population of Canada. He makes a grotesquely good living out of singing and dancing. Why this means his “views”, trite or otherwise, apparently matter is beyond me. It seems that the parents of his fans are so thrilled about their kids listening to music by someone who doesn’t swear or do drugs that they’ve decided to let him raise them. Suddenly a not-too-bright teenager’s naïve take on the Holocaust is subject to the same analysis as a speech made by a world leader.

Kim Kardashian faced a similar Twitter outrage explosion last year when, during a critical moment in the Israel-Hamas conflict, she tweeted, “Praying for everyone in Israel”, which was quickly followed up by a redemptive, “Praying for everyone in Palestine and across the world!” It’s easy to get snotty about the ponderances of such a nonentity (albeit a famous one). But why anyone would ever look to a reality TV star for an intelligent insight into one of the world’s most complex political situations is baffling. Even more puzzling is why anyone would get in a disappointed huff when she proves to be more garden gnome than Noam Chomsky.

Celebrity worship has reached a point where we expect glorified Furbies like Bieber and Kardashian to morph into divine sayers of worldly truths, purely because of their popularity. I expect that the vast majority of “beliebers” listen to Bieber’s music, enjoy it, and couldn’t care less about the guy’s opinions.

When I was a teenager, I practically worshiped Yeah Yeah Yeahs lead singer, Karen O. I was a confused queer girl with low self-esteem and she was a gutsy, punk goddess. So when, in a recent interviewwith the Guardian she claimed never to have been into “the whole feminist movement or anything like that” it upset me to think how much of a blow this would have been to the 17-year-old me.

The same goes for Morrissey, another musical hero of mine, who’s constantly dropping great opinion turds. As it happens, I found the former Smiths frontman’s assertion that wars are “heterosexual hobbies” a lot more offensive than Justin Bieber’s Anne Frank faux pas. If you grant a celebrity role model status, you’re nearly always doomed to be disappointed.

The ludicrous idea of attaching importance to the political views of entertainers can be traced back through the garishly self-righteous Sting/Bono brigade to John Lennon.

“Give Peace a Chance” was seen – and still is by some – as some kind of Ghandian insight but it’s more like something Saatchi and Saatchi would have come up with if they’d been hired by CND rather than Margaret Thatcher. It’s a slogan worthy of yoghurt or toilet cleaner. It’s not profound.

Similarly, Justin Bieber isn’t paid vast buckets of cash to be smart and insightful. Can’t we just let him be thick and carry on making horrible music? I think we should take a more Henry VIII view of entertainers. Without knowing him personally, I think it’s fair to say that the Eighth would have had an “Amuse me minstrels and if you’re very, very good I might not have you executed,” kind of attitude. Singers are there to make pleasant throat sounds, actors are there to pretend to be other people. Kim Kardashian is there to do absolutely nothing. Let’s leave it at that.


Justin Bieber performing recently at the O2 in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis