David Cassidy and the legacy of the teen crush

The 70s heartthrob was wildly popular with teenage girls. Because teenage girls have always found the unrequited celebrity crush strangely comforting, says Daisy Buchanan.

When I was 11, I was going to marry Declan “Ant & Dec” Donnelly.

Now, I can’t stress enough that Dec did not know about my intentions, and that there was never any question of me becoming the child bride of one of the nation’s most popular TV presenters. However, I was completely emotionally invested in our future life together, and I would think about him before I went to sleep, and from the very second that I woke up. My dreams were quite dull – admittedly, I did fantasise about getting to go backstage at the Smash Hits Poll Winners Party, and watching my imaginary husband giving awards out to the Backstreet Boys – but mostly, I imagined that Dec and I would live somewhere suburban, and that perhaps he’d come home from a hard Saturday morning of presenting CD:UK and we’d tuck into some crusty bread and a couple of tins of Heinz Classic Cream of Tomato soup.

If I’d been born a few decades earlier, I imagine I’d have similar feelings and fantasies about a different person, David Cassidy, the beloved singer and star of the 1970s sitcom The Partridge Family. Cassidy passed away yesterday, aged 67, following a long illness. Over the course of his career, Cassidy sold more than 30 million records. At one point during the 1970s, his fan club had more members than Elvis’s and The Beatles’. David Cassidy sparked millions of teen crushes, and everyone from Dawn French to Nina Stibbe and Emma Freud have shared memories of their intense teen feelings towards the star.

Nearly every headline describes Cassidy as a “teen idol” and “heartthrob”. In some ways, these labels border on objectification. I’m sure Cassidy would like to be remembered as an artist and performer, and not just the face that adorned more than a million bedroom walls. However, some of us would say there’s no “just” about it. Crushes are incredibly powerful, and nearly every woman I know can remember, moment by moment, the way it felt to be consumed by them as a teen. The emotions may not have been reciprocated, but they were so real.

When we’re too young for real relationships, we get to specify the personality of our fantasy partner, which means we can explore what we’re looking for in the future

Dec will never know it, but he helped me to survive the bumpiest, most painful parts of puberty. He brought me hope. My crush fuelled me and allowed me to imagine a future in which I would feel liked and loved. My fantasy life was richly detailed, and dreaming about our relationship helped me to construct a space where I could dream of other things. I imagined my writing career, and Dec coming home and opening champagne to celebrate the fact that I’d finished another novel. Without realising it, I discovered that as well as dreaming of a life with Dec, I wanted to work from home, drink a lot of champagne and write a book every month. Two out of three ain’t bad.

School can be a cruel place, and as a target for bullies, I frequently struggled with self-worth. Yet, my crush acted as a shield, an enchanted amulet that protected me from the nastiest comments and insults. It hurt when the boys in my class said they’d rather snog our headmaster Mr Masters than me – but my crush cushioned the blow. I was certain that one day Dec would kiss me, and then the bullies would be sorry.

When we fall for celebrities from afar, we’re free, to some extent, to invent them in our heads. When we’re too young for real relationships, we get to specify the personality of our fantasy partner, which means we can explore what we’re looking for in the future. As adults, we’ll be told that the key to finding love lies in being realistic, lowering our expectations and tearing up our list of dealbreaker behaviour. However, when we’re nurturing an early crush, our hopes are sky-high, and we can hold ourselves in great esteem, believing that great love is out there for us, and we’re worthy of it. As we get older, we’re quick to dismiss those crushes, and the dreaming teens. Yet I think a good crush can save us. In our fantasies, we’re never treated badly, or expected to tolerate disappointing behaviour. For the most part, our crushes are kind to us.

A crush is an idea, but the subject is very real. David Cassidy, the man, is no longer with us, but there are millions of David Cassidys who will exist forever in the hearts of every single person who grew up believing they might marry him one day. All of these David Cassidys, and countless other crushes, have a very specific function. They will protect us from emotional harm. They will remind us that we are all both capable and worthy of giving and receiving love. They all help us to hope.

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