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.

Photo: Jonathan Cape
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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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