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DJ Taylor: Why we find Sienna and Kerry so inspirational

The popular icons will nearly always have the cultural value of a hazelnut

One of the surest signs that the post-festive season is upon us, apart from the photos of hale octogenarians romping enthusiastically in the south-coast surf, is the proliferation of "best-of" lists. Sixty thousand music fans, gathered by the digital radio station Planet Rock, recently decided that Pink Floyd, closely followed by Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, are the world's greatest rock band of all time.

Not to be outdone, the BBC History Magazine has asked leading historians to nominate the most dastardly inhabitant of the British Isles. Nominations for this desirable accolade include Jack the Ripper, the Duke of Cumberland and Sir Oswald Mosley: a public vote will follow.

But the poll that really caught my eye was one in this week's edition of the teen magazine Sugar that set itself the task of finding the "most inspirational celebrity of 2005". Leaving aside for a moment definitions of the words "celebrity" and "inspirational", both of which the exercise rather called into question, I should say the list realised 10 names, ranging from Sienna Miller at the top to Kerry Katona at number three, Charlotte Church at six and Paris Hilton at eight. Of other celebrity magazine staples such as Jordan and Jade there was, inexplicably, no sign, and no doubt these ladies' publicists will have some explaining to do.

Looking for some subtler taxonomy, amid the glittering roster of talent, poise and éclat, it soon became clear that each of the 10 - like the High Court judge who had never heard of The Beatles, I must admit to not being able to identify Hilary Duff (No 5), Jessica Simpson (No 7) or Jessica Alba (No 9) - was either an actress, a singer or someone celebrated merely for being celebrated.

According to the pundits, with their keen antennae for collective distinction, the teenagers' choice "appeared to favour women who had battled through adversity during the year". So that was it! Instantly the random fragments assembled themselves into an intricate mosaic. Sienna, of course, had suffered a much-publicised break-up with her film-star partner Jude Law, although the two are said to be "back together again", while Kerry Katona had endured a traumatic split with her boyfriend Dave Cunningham, having previously parted company with her husband, Brian McFadden.

Little as one wants to diminish Ms Miller and Ms Katona's tribulations during 2005, the presence of Kylie Minogue - currently suffering from breast cancer - at a dismaying number four suggests the phrase "battling through adversity" might have its flexible side. No disparagement, either, to the legions of teenage girls who genuinely believe that a former ornament of Atomic Kitten with a complicated personal life is an "inspiration", but all this is deeply sad.

Here we are in a landscape crowded out by purposeful female role models from Kate Bush to the Secretary of State for Education, and the public, invited to have its say, plumps for (at number eight) a woman whose lustre rests on her being filmed by an ex-boyfriend having sex in a hotel bedroom, with the results being made available to a couple of million internet voyeurs.

As well as deeply sad, it is also deeply foreseeable. We live, as social theorists never tire of telling us, in a world where the entity known as popular culture has ceased to exist, to be replaced by a mass culture condescendingly distilled through the filter of the showbiz magazines. The popular icons thrown up by this process, consequently, will nearly always have the cultural value of a hazelnut. Even worse, perhaps, are the implications for the Government's insistence - trumpeted from the towers of Downing Street these eight years past - on the absolute primacy of "education" in guaranteeing the nation's future health.

The flip-side of that Blairite vision of Proust-reading, quadratic-equation solving, computer-literate teendom, alas, is a mass culture based, more or less, on the glorification of stupidity. Until the educational think-tanks realise that their real challenge is not to enable children to pass exams or to inflate university admissions statistics but to create a cultural landscape that promotes intelligence above machine-age trivia, Ms Kelly might as well give up her responsibilities on the spot.

Meanwhile, we can comfort ourselves with the reflection that teenage fan-wavings will always look slightly out of kilter to a disapproving older generation. For the record, my own particular heroes, aged 17, were a virulently right-wing Tory politician called Sir John Biggs-Davison, the Jam frontman Paul Weller, and Ian McEwan, then known for his scabrous stories about incest and castration. In this context, Sienna Miller and poor abandoned Kerry can look gratifyingly innocuous.