There are many milestones in life: leaving the parental home, getting into a serious relationship for the first time, getting a job, and so on. There is one no one tells you about, which sneaks up on you as you get into your thirties.
Suddenly, the phrase “when I was their age” enters your brain, and it refuses to leave. Reaching 30 means that there are adults in the world, who can drink and drive (though hopefully not in that order), who you have little in common with. “When I was their age,” you start thinking, “things were different.”
The phrase has popped into my head especially frequently in the past few weeks, reading about various celebrities. First there was Taylor Swift, who is allegedly dating Matty Healy, singer of the 1975, much to the chagrin of her fans. In a wonderfully uppity open letter, a group of them wrote that she ought to “advocate for inclusivity, celebrate diversity and promote empathy and understanding”, which clearly her current paramour isn’t doing. For the record, Healy is known for antics such as eating raw meat on stage, snogging the occasional fan and enjoying making lewd and shocking comments.
A few days later, outraged fans rose as one to condemn Jenna Ortega, 20, who plays Wednesday in the eponymous Netflix show, after she was photographed smoking. Her mother was applauded for telling her off on Instagram. If the first thing that popped into your mind while reading this was Simon Amstell’s faux outraged “a cigarette?! that you can legally buy in shops?!” on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, please know you aren’t alone.
As I wrote in these pages a few weeks ago, it’s unseemly to care about what teenagers get up to on the internet. Instead, it seems worth asking: when did celebrities get so boring? You see, back in my day – that’s right, we’re doing variations on a theme – most famous people I was aware of were a mess. Actresses seemed highly strung to the point of madness and actors so lustful the gossip pages couldn’t keep up; rock stars were knee-deep in white powder and everyone worth knowing about seemed, on the whole, to be untethered from reality. It was brilliant.
The point of entertainers is to entertain, and following the antics of the rich and unhinged was a delight, especially when teenage life didn’t feel especially thrilling. There is usually something feral buried in the minds and bodies of young adults, and reading about people seemingly driven entirely by their id felt oddly liberating. Some cigarettes and an inappropriate boyfriend? Why are they now all playing it safe?
[See also: We have lost Russell Brand]
As is sadly often the case, the internet is partially to blame. The tabloid press, on whom rubbernecking readers relied, got gradually defanged by social media. Though celebrities once relied on the mainstream media to both get fans and reach out to them, they are now one Instagram post away from millions of adoring people.
As a result, the power balance has shifted from one side to the other: if fledgling publications want to attract more clicks, they now need the glossy, empty, PR-approved celebrity interviews. What this means in practice is that they can no longer dig up compelling dirt without having to worry about the consequences.
On a cynical note, another logical conclusion is that messy celebrities are no longer as appealing as they once were, because the way they are covered has changed so significantly. Someone like Lindsay Lohan remained in the headlines for what felt like decades, even if it often wasn’t for the right reasons. All-powerful PR firms are now more likely to go for blander but safer celebrities, knowing that shiny social media posts and quirky TikTok dances can keep them in the public eye anyway.
I like these reasons because they make me feel good. I can rail against the evil of publicists and social media giants, shake my fist at the sky and still come out on the side of the angels. What is less comfortable is the knowledge that this isn’t the entire story.
If I were to stop and really think about it – look back on the celebrities of 15, 20 years ago through the eyes of an adult – I would have to admit that it all seemed a bit unhealthy. In retrospect, maybe it wasn’t all that glamorous when bands drank and snorted themselves into an early grave. It is even possible that female celebrities having very public breakdowns wasn’t compelling and fun, and that Britney Spears and Drew Barrymore, to name but two, were not having a good time at all.
So many of them were in their early twenties or barely older. They were put in the limelight too young and went mad, and we couldn’t get enough of it. It was a cruel, Faustian bargain: we’ll cherish and adore you and make you richer than you could have ever imagined, and all you must lose in exchange is your mind. Take it or leave it.
The selfishness of today’s young fans comes out in more benign ways. We’ll support you and make you famous, the new deal goes, but you must agree with us and you must be on your best behaviour, otherwise we’ll turn our backs on you. It isn’t ideal either and sure, it makes my skin crawl, but is it worse than the way my cohort treated our celebrities?
I hate how asinine and sanitised popular culture has become because, when I was their age, everything felt grimier and more exciting. Part of ageing is wistfully thinking back on your own youth, and heaven knows it’s something I’ve been able to indulge in recently. The next step may be to admit that, well, back in my day, not everything was perfect either.
[See also: The science of fandom]