Hannah McGill: Oh you pretty things

Kate Hudson played a teen groupie in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. Photograph: Kobal

Kate Hudson played a teen groupie in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. Photograph: Kobal

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WHEN the investigation of past sexual offences by entertainment industry figures began in 2012, one rather expected attention to fall on the teenage rock groupie culture of the 1970s.

No shortage of accounts exist of rock stars sourcing underage company. Yet it didn’t happen. While Operation Yewtree has shamed a few grimly uncool figures, our rock gods have escaped scrutiny. We stand to hear more about their pasts, however, as they graduate to the great after-party in the sky. Some commentators have already queried the worshipful memorialising of David Bowie, because of his reported activity with an underage groupie. Such men, say some commentators, were abusers of children – simple as that.

The matter is complicated, however, by the fact that the women these groupies grew up to be tend not to consider themselves the victims of crime. “Who wouldn’t want to lose their virginity to David Bowie?” says Lori Mattix, who was 15 at the time of that alleged event. “I was doing exactly what I wanted to do,” declares another famed ex-groupie, Pamela des Barres. By their account, they were sophisticated beyond their years, and enriched, rather than damaged, by their experiences. Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous – with its smart, warm-hearted teenage groupie, played by Kate Hudson – has helped to perpetuate this romantic view.

Of course, many an abuser has convinced a victim he or she is “special”, and many a victim has been ostensibly complicit at the time. By insisting they’re fine with what occurred, Des Barres and Mattix do no favours to girls who’d rather not be thought sexually mature before the law says they are; or to those who realise after the fact that a “relationship” was abuse. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that their context was one to which it’s hard for modern eyes to adjust. Teenagerdom itself was a recent construct; youth culture was flying in the face of all convention. Even the world’s biggest star, Elvis Presley, had started dating Priscilla Beaulieu when she was 14. That the sexual objectification of teenagers was less policed than it is today made the groupies more vulnerable. It also meant they could regard themselves as crusaders against bourgeois morality, rather than victims. They sprang up at a moment in which young women were seeking greater freedom, but were still too undervalued to be protected from exploitation. Supposedly liberated, but available for limitless sexual use, the groupie remains an unsettling sign of her times.

Perhaps the most useful response today is not to demand a retrospective outcry, or to shame the groupies, but to appreciate the positive shift. However much we hear about the sexualisation of youth or excessive indulgence of celebrities, it’s hard to imagine blind eyes being turned today to the scenarios described by Lori Mattix. If an immeasurable amount was lost to our culture with the death of David Bowie, this aspect of his history is one thing not to mourn.

Storm in a teacup

WHAT’S a glass of water worth to you? What if it’s been heated up? And had a slice of lemon stuck in it? An online customer review caused some fuss last week, when a customer complained about a York bistro charging her £2 for this frugal order. The restaurateur responded, informing his critic of her failure to take into account the costs of being waited on and washed up after, all of which he painstakingly broke down for her. In its measured sarkiness and excess of detail, his answer has “petty grievance against stroppy customer, nursed all day” written all over it. The French speak of “l’esprit d’escalier”, whereby one comes up with the perfect response to an antagonist only on the staircase afterwards – but the internet allows us all to double back and have our perfectly worded go. I can see both sides of this one: sitting in someone’s nice café and expecting service for nothing is miserly, but two quid’s kind of up there in pricing terms. The person I really feel for is whoever was sitting opposite the complainant – who presumably had something proper to drink, and, if they’re anything like me, wanted the earth to open as soon as conflict arose, and started throwing tenners and teabags around just to shut everyone up.

Force of nature

IT’S a pleasant new feature of our information-saturated culture that artists have started endeavouring to beat the leaks and surprise us all with untrailed, unexpected, finished pieces of work. Beyoncé, Radiohead and the aforementioned Bowie all issued surprise releases – but is it feasible with a project involving more resources than an album? Director 
JJ Abrams of Star Wars: The Force Awakens fame has sprung on the world a fully formed sequel to 2008 monster movie Cloverfield. It’s out in two months – a split second in movie promotion years. He has contrived, in mere months, to release one of the most anticipated films of all time, and one of the least. Greedy. «

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