The Jenners are Instagram stars, not icons – the T-shirt backlash is proof | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Kylie and Kendall should not mistake their disposable celebrity standing for real talent. Superimposing their faces over musical icons is next-level hubris

• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a London-based freelance writer

What makes a cultural icon? You might say it’s a person, symbol, or idea that resonates with a group of people on a meaningful level, usually to the extent that he, or she, or it becomes moment-defining and evocative of a particular time. Were you to choose, for instance, the 1960s (has there been a more mythologised decade?), a visual directory of recognisable faces pops up – The Beatles, Twiggy, JFK, Jackie O, Christine Keeler, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Andy Warhol, and so on.

There used to be a sense that iconic status was earned, whether through artistic output, style, political involvement or influence. But what of now? We live in the age of the Kardashians, those vapid products of “reality” television who resonate only in terms of their image, recognisability and brand allegiances. Yet, in this age of Instagam fame, they nevertheless appear to perceive themselves as icons. Take youngest sisters Kylie and Kendall Jenner, whose line of “vintage” $125 T-shirts saw their own faces literally superimposed over musical stars such as Notorious BIG, Tupac Shakur, Black Sabbath, Metallica, Pink Floyd, the Doors, Kiss and Led Zeppelin. Needless to say, the balls-out audacity of this act has left many reeling. Appropriating someone’s face, apparently without permission, is bad enough, especially when that person is deceased. Slapping your own face on top of it in an attempt to cash in on their immense talent is some next-level hubris.

Girls, you haven’t earned the right to put your face with musical icons. Stick to what you know…lip gloss.

— Sharon Osbourne (@MrsSOsbourne) June 29, 2017

I think it’s safe to say that, in “disrupting” the symbolism of these musical icons with portraits of their own faces, the Jenners aren’t attempting some kind of meta Situationist détournement in order to make a postmodern statement about the hollowness of mass-media culture. I reckon they just genuinely think they are as culturally important as any of the above. And, in terms of sheer scale, perhaps they are, though what a depressing sentence to have to type. Kendall Jenner has 82.1 million Instagram followers, and her latest trouserless mirror selfie earned her 2.6m likes. Kylie, meanwhile, has 95.6 million followers and her latest standing-in-a-wardrobe-hiding-half-her-face-behind-an-iPhone selfie got 2.3m likes.

Unadulterated internet adoration for doing sweet sod all would inevitably go to even the most humble of human beings’ heads. But to put yourself on the same level as some of the most significant musical acts of the last century takes real cheek. Seeing two very different kinds of cultural meaning collide like this is hilariously jarring, rendered even more so in light of Kendall Jenner’s recent crass attempt to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement as part of a Pepsi ad. The Jenners clearly believe they merit a place in the cultural pantheon, yet are unsure how to go about staking it out. I suppose you could compare them to the legions of American heiresses who married their way into the British aristocracy in the run-up to the first world war, but instead of trading dollars for titles, they are attempting to trade brand for cultural capital. In other words, they’re not social climbers but cultural climbers, and not very effective ones at that.

Which is why the backlash against this latest gaffe has been so encouraging. People are not about to surrender their cultural icons and their protest movements to celebrities lacking the talent, originality and passion to create something new and inspirational themselves. Music and politics mean something to us, they are stitches in the fabric of who were are, and we defend them to the hilt. Not only that: we feel that icon status is least merited by those who ruthlessly and dispassionately seek it out.

Perhaps history will judge the Kardashians differently – no doubt there is a gender studies thesis being written about them as we speak – but I think we can assume our descendents will judge their cultural meaning as crass and disposable as many of us do now, a fleeting trend in the mass-media internet hype machine that flickers brighter than a blood diamond, titillating millions momentarily, before fading, meaningless, into the murk of cached internet history.


Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

The GuardianTramp

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