The Problem with the Blurring Line Between Politics and Pop Culture

With more artists, musicians, athletes and all-around entertainers making their political affiliations publically known, the line between pop culture and politics is blurring. Whether we like it or not, politics and pop culture are becoming more and more intertwined.

We saw it in sports when Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem. We saw it in Hollywood as actors shared personal experiences in support of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.  We even saw it in music with artist after artist embracing everything from feminism to the Black Lives Matter movement. We saw actors and musicians pick up picket signs, rallying with the masses during the Women's March. Late-night television has become inundated with Trump infused political skits. We saw a reality-TV star turned politician become the President of the United States and Sex and the City Star, Cynthia Nixon, is now running for governor of New York. In 2017 Feminism was the word of the year. It's looking more and more like if you want pop culture, you'll be getting it with a slice of politics whether you asked for it or not.

As a result of the recent surge in popularity of social and political consciousness, instead of shying away from politics and social issues, celebrities are embracing them. In fact, being "woke" has never been more profitable. As with anything that gains popularity, there are always people that will seek to commodify it. More stars are building their brands around being socially and politically aware. While the idea that more people, especially more influential people, are championing social and political causes might seem like a good thing, problems start to come up when you try and commodify activism without any genuine intent behind it.

Capitalising on social consciousness has serious repercussions. Not only on a celebrity's reputation but on the strength and perceived legitimacy of a cause. If a celebrity wants to anchor themselves to a cause, they have to be in it for the long haul for it to really matter.

This becomes difficult when social issues pass like fads and people put pressure on celebrities to speak out on everything. Celebrities who most of the time, aren't really qualified to be a spokesperson for said issues. For example, Selena Gomez was criticised for saying "hashtags don't save lives" when called out on her silence on the Black Lives Matter movement. But what does a 23-year-old ex Disney star have to say that is of any importance to the advancement of black issues? Yes celebrities have a platform and it's important they use them, but let's have quality over quantity here. While it's great that celebrities are using their power and influence to push issues to a wider audience, they should use their voices wisely.

Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with speaking out for what you believe in. If these celebrities genuinely believe in and support the causes they endorse, there's no problem. In fact, there are lots of celebrities that do just that. Colin Kaepernick lost his career because he stood up for what he believed in, and because of that a lot of people started paying attention to things they previously turned a blind eye to. He allowed us all to realise that you don't have to be at a KKK rally to be part of the problem. Those who stay silent are guilty too. They're complicit. There are celebrities like Lin-Manuel Miranda who have been longtime supporters of the issues they publically back, however, not all celebrities are entirely selfless in their support. This is when we start to see the problems with commodifying social consciousness.

In 2017 Katy Perry came out with her 'purposeful pop' Album 'Witness' which flopped catastrophically mainly due to its completely superficial attempt to capitalise on the rise of social consciousness. Kendall Jenner's Pepsi ad was an advertising fail and proved a prime example of exactly what happens when celebrities and corporations aren't genuine in what they endorse. Socially conscious audiences aren't stupid. They can smell a rat a mile away. (Especially when she does things like this:)

You've gotta commit. If we look at the success of Lemonade and Kendrick Lamar's Damn (well, Kendrick Lamar's everything), and more recently Childish Gambino's This is America when done right, joining social and political consciousness with entertainment can be hugely successful for all parties involved. In fact, it can act as an important vehicle for change. We live in a world where pop culture is political. They walk hand in hand.

As soon as money gets involved things start to get complicated. After BeyoncĂ© walked on stage at the VMA's with the word feminist projected behind her, it was a powerful moment for a movement that since then, had always been on the fringes. Even so, many were quick to question BeyoncĂ©'s motives. Was she truly an advocate, or was she capitalising on a powerful emerging brand platform? Does being able to purchase a feminist t-shirt made cheapen the cause, or amplify it?

Let's look at Demi Lovato for instance. She's an advocate for mental health and has even shared her personal experiences in the hopes of helping others, but one fan, Mike Peretz, spoke out against his USD $500 meet and greet experience claiming Demi "blew him off", after he tried to open up to her about his struggles with mental health.  Peretz went on to say,

"This is kind of dangerous thinking about the bigger implications... thinking about how she built her brand on caring about these mental health issues and she blew me off."

And I can't help but agree with him. When a celebrity has built their brand on certain issues, it becomes a problem when they don't walk the talk. You have to question what their motives really are.

Amandla Sandberg said she passed on the role for Black Panther's Shuri to give dark-skinned women an opportunity and yet had accepted a role that was supposed to be played by a dark-skinned black woman. Her decision to speak out had nothing to do with dark skinned black women and everything to do with herself. Championing popular social issues for "woke" points and to serve her own image instead of genuinely supporting a cause, which unfortunately is happening more and more.

According to Adorno and Horkheimer, culture is turned into a consumer product and shaped by the logic of capitalist rationality. It provides easy entertainment which distracts the public from the wrongs of the ruling order, but what happens when activism becomes that commodity? Well, we have the more acceptable, palatable activism, that allows people to think they're doing something to fight the power when it's more like a placebo drug. If you can listen to Katy Perry's 'purposeful' pop, and feel like you're playing a role in changing the world for a better. You're distracting yourself from what's actually happening. Maybe the rise of 'weakness' is all a ploy created by the ruling class to satiate our feelings of rebellion? It's a case of everybody wants to get to heaven, but nobody wants to die.

Most Americans believe that there should be stricter gun controls, including some members of the NRA.  Hordes of artists have now flocked to the issue, including the typically apolitical Taylor Swift. She refused to declare support for a candidate during the 2016 elections and was also noticeably silent when she failed to denounce white supremacist fans for calling her an Aryan goddess. (Apparently, the KKK really digs Taylor) But yet, for gun control she made an undeniably calculated decision to voice her support. Why? Gun control has been an issue for years in America, so why choose now to speak out? Because the movement is so powerful that it's no longer controversial. The tides of change are already turning, so Taylor Swift no longer has nothing to lose but everything to gain. As Mashable's Angie Han says, "She's a follower here, not a leader."

But it's not all bad. When anchored to a famous name, causes are given life. Instead of gathering dust in a far corner of the internet or a textbook, with a celebrity's influence and power,  issues can become salient in the public eye and garner more exposure. Yes, feminism has never been more talked about but are people saying the right things? On youtube, a video bashing feminism and its supporters is more likely to get more views than a video supporting it. Celebrities twist the cause to bolster their own public image and businesses scramble to show their company values align with the cause so they can capitalise on the movement. In saying that, the fact that feminism has reached wide audiences is brilliant. People who would have never come across the term, or would have never thought about feminist issues are now talking about them. While some campaigns don't make it much further past social media, campaigns like #MeToo have and will continue to leave a lasting impression on Hollywood and the general public. The #MeToo campaign, started by Tarana Burke, then later brought to fame by Alyssa Milano has even reached New Zealand Law and continues to serve men and women who need a voice.

Politics and social consciousness have never been more popular, but is this actually doing anything other than lining the pockets of the rich and famous? Are we being distracted from the real horrors of the world while the culprits hide? The answer is muddy, it's yes and no. Things are changing. Our televisions have become more diverse, The Academy looks slightly less, white old and male, the careers of Weinstein have ended. Powerful men can no longer do what they want without consequence and people are showing again and again, that despite what we've been told, black lives do matter. But things are also regressing. For every rapist that is brought down, thousands more wreak havoc in the shadows, for every black name that is hashtagged, many more are still murdered without a second thought, and for every dark face we see on our television screens, there are many more who are still being turned away.

To end, I'll pose a question: is it the intent, the action or the end result that matters the most?

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