From Bono to Kanye: how seriously should we take celebrities?

Saturday 13 October, 17:3018:45, Garden RoomCountercultural concerns

This year’s royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle appeared to viewers and commentators alike as a happy merging of the British royal family and Hollywood, with celebrity stars such as the Clooneys, Serena Williams, Oprah Winfrey and the Beckhams ‘stealing the show’. Following on from the young royal’s commitment to mental-health outreach, many commentators proclaimed the dawn of a new diverse and ‘woke’ monarchy, shifting from regal detachment to celebrity endorsers of good causes.

When did celebrities get so political? Many would cite Donald Trump’s celebrity appeal as a key factor in his electoral victory and, conversely, many celebrities seemingly deem it their duty to oppose and protest a president they call a racist and sexist. A myriad of celebrities – including Harry Styles, Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna and John Legend – unfollowed Kanye West after he came out as a Trump supporter. Moving forward, celebs from Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson to Oprah have been mooted as possible Democrat candidates to oppose Trump in 2020.

There has, it seems, always been a strong relationship between the worlds of the famous and the political. Actors, astronauts, comedians and successful athletes have crossed over and made prominent political careers for themselves, most notably actor Ronald Reagan, who was elected governor of California in 1966, and then president of the United States in 1980.

Yet there is something in the social media age that has granted the modern celebrity activist more authoritative credibility; in many ways, activism seems just a part of the job today. Celebrity engagement in the #metoo phenomenon and the bold statements made by the ‘Time’s Up’ movement at the Oscars and Golden Globes stole worldwide headlines. While celebrities have always backed their own favoured causes, in 2018 the status ‘celebrity’ seems to bring with it a new kind of authority and/or expertise, along with demands that authority is used for the public good. One Guardian column called British Grime artist Stormzy a ‘political pop hero young people can truly believe in’ after his support for the victims of the Grenfell Tower disaster.

Yet if celebs do not follow the cultural script their authority is often seen in a negative way. Not having the right viewpoint often ends in vilification; actress Blanca Blanco was roundly shamed for not taking part in Time’s Up and wearing red at the Golden Globes. Taylor Swift was condemned for refusing to condemn Trump and support Hillary during the 2016 presidential campaign, seemingly not using her considerable platform in the right way.

In March, it was announced that the Obamas were in advanced talks with the online streaming service Netflix to appear in a series of shows. With the former ‘leader of the free world’ finding a natural career move to the small screen, why now do the worlds of the political and entertainment industry seem so closely linked? Does the absence of public intellectuals open a space for a celebrity voice and moral authority? Is there anything wrong with celebrities championing causes they believe in? And in a reality where Trump still won, despite the criticism of celebrities, do any ordinary people care what the rich and famous have to say?