Celebrity Culture and Politics: When Stars Get Involved

This article was originally published in OPENWIDE back in 2014, and was written by Ainsleigh Burelle

We’re all familiar with the ins and outs of celebrity culture, such as the antics of Justin Bieber, and the current affairs of local politics, like what’s going on with Rob Ford. However, what exactly characterizes the intersection of these two realms of celebrity and politics? What connects them, and what renders these figures susceptible to criticism?  Musically speaking, artists like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Woodie Guthrie, and the late Pete Seeger, among countless others, have used their songs to spark political awareness and activism through the Civil Rights movement, the Cold War era, and today. Events like Rock the Vote emphasize the groundbreaking power of music to sway and mobilize communities for the purpose of political and social justice.

When musicians get involved in politics, is there something about their approach or perspective that warrants harsh criticisms from the rest of society? Not to say that music makers and actors don’t undergo their fair share of critics already, but is there something inherently different about the way these figures are perceived as political movers? Is there something about the rhythmic coo of Bob Dylan that merits his musical means over say, the impassioned and charismatic tone of comedian and actor Russell Brand?

For instance, in Jeremy Paxman’s interview with Brand for the BBC the British actor fervently rails against capitalism-fed inequality and growing wage disparities around the globe. Not one to camouflage his humble beginnings, Brand admonishes the systemic fractures imposed by neoliberalism and advocates for genuine alternatives. Recently, a widely-shared photo entitled “Russell Brand’s brilliant quote about inequality in one easily shareable image” showed the actor as a Guy-Fawkes-sporting-celebrity-turned-anarchist with the quote: “When I was poor and complained about inequality, people said I was bitter. Now I’m rich and complain about inequality, they say I’m a hypocrite. I’m beginning to think they just don’t want inequality on the agenda because it is a real problem that needs to be addressed.” Arguably, there is a glimmer of truth regarding media representation here. It is significantly easier for the media to assimilate Brand’s rants and the counter-hegemonic, anti-capitalist ideals he holds into an iconoclastic bracket, than it is for them to engage with the aroused issues. Following Guy Fawkes, he becomes the movement’s icon.

Conversely, someone who does seem to be churning out waves of change is Neil Young. What happens when one of the most beloved and revered paragon of Canadian pop culture identity takes an oppositional stance to the opportune business ventures of the elite? For starters, a lot of fact checking, and more than a dash of slander.

Young’s crusade to protect the indigenous rights of the Athabasca Chipewan First Nations People culminated with the end of his national Honor the Treaties tour in Calgary in late January. Undoubtedly, Young has sparked considerable debate over the expansion of oilsands development with the radical remarks made on his tour, and has come under fire from the industry due to apparent misinformation. Those supporting the oil establishment denigrate Young’s claims that the pipeline will allow Canada to export oil-rich resources to East Asia, facilitate Hiroshima-sized effects on the planet, and create an industrial area the size of England among other effects. After the musician proved to critics that “rock stars don’t need oil” by driving his biomass-fueled electric car cross country, backlash was fueled when he admitted to using private jets to travel.

The other side of the coin shows immense support from musical fans and left-leaning environmentalists. David Suzuki, who accompanied Young during Honor the Treaties, vilified the ignorant corporate logic behind the pipeline expansion, while others like John Bennett of the Sierra Club have praised Young’s use of his social stature to qualify the threats of the pipeline expansion and draw national attention to the pertinent issue.

So, is celebrity politics a double-edged sword? As the famed sway from the norm and into the public sphere, this very action arguably becomes the spectacle itself, effectively shrouding the issues at hand. I don’t know about you, but the Jackpine expansion into Fort Mac wasn’t exactly keeping me up at night until Neil sang about it.

There remains a stigma surrounding celebrity activism that warrants skepticism from the media, yet the empty words of political figures are taken at face value. Young has made statements like, “As far as me not knowing what I’m talking about, everybody knows that. It couldn’t be more obvious; I’m a musician”; yet for some reason, this humble and honest statement from the beloved musician feels more transparent than the empty talking points of any politician.

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