Your Grammys Reminder That Celebrities Are Not Political Activists
Why some stars may—or may not—stay mum on Trump during the annual music award show
Photo by Flickr user Eva Rinaldi.
Every day of Trump’s presidency has brought a new round of terrifying news: a ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries; the confirmation of Jeff Sessions for attorney general—a man once considered too racist for a judgeship; ICE raids throughout the nation, even in “sanctuary cities” like Los Angeles; and the confirmation of Betsy DeVos for secretary of education, a woman who will almost surely decimate our public school system.
And every day, Taylor Swift stays quiet.
I wouldn’t know, of course, because I don’t pay attention to Taylor Swift, and I certainly don’t look to her for my political cues. But her fans and critics alike apparently do, and they’ve been obsessively writing articles about it. “Taylor Swift’s silence on President-elect Donald Trump is deafening,” declared one Mic piece. Another Fusion article demanded: “It’s time for Taylor Swift to say something about Donald Trump.” Pieces like this Daily Beast article compare Swift’s political activities—or lack thereof—to that of her rival, Katy Perry, who campaigned aggressively alongside Hillary Clinton.
Most of these pieces argue the same thing: That, as a public figure who frequently identifies as a feminist and exploits feminist ideals to bolster her own personal brand, she has some unique responsibility to speak up, to say something, to join the resistance. But so far, the star has hardly mumbled a word, except to send off a diplomatically worded tweet in support of the Women’s March (which, although conceived as an anti-Trump effort, remained a politically superfluous event with no ideologically cohesive end game) without actually attending.
And today, with the annual Grammy Awards underway, people will look to all the glittery celebrities, expecting them to lodge some kind of grand protest. And perhaps the celebs will deliver. Political activism, after all, has been good for some brands. Consider Lady Gaga’s success in rendering herself an LGBTQ activist—so successful, in fact, that her fans interpreted a tepid, politically impotent Super Bowl performance as a revolutionary act. But as Leah Finnegan wrote for The Outline, celebrities are not here to be your friends. They are not here to run for office. They are here to sell you something: their brand, their sponsor’s brand. “Gaga’s performance, however, ultimately illustrated how a celebrity, separated from any sort of individual authenticity as celebrities by definition are, is at her core not a tool of a political party but of the free market, on Earth to unite people with products,” wrote Finnegan in her newsletter. “And so, whether a celebrity is demonstratively political is really beside the point because their politics, like everything else, innately hew not to any moral imperatives but to the capitalist bottom line.”
Adele Laurie Blue Adkins is a person. But Adele™ is a brand. And when she—or Katy Perry, or The Weeknd, or whoever else—takes the stage Sunday, they will be there primarily to sell you their brand, or someone else’s. And when the CEOs of companies like Under Armour and investors in companies like Lyft or the dastardly, cartoon-villain founder of PayPal are in control of the purse strings, you have to wonder how likely it is that the celebs are willing to compromise their own sponsorship deals (and access to free swag) for the opportunity to make some kind of political statement.
Still, anti-Trump activism has proved beneficial for some, which is why there are celebs speaking out. Kristen Stewart enjoyed some positive press after her Trump-focused Saturday Night Live monologue. Shia LaBeouf’s anti-Trump art installation was lauded by the public, though it became a flash point for violence and was shut down. And while CBS executives have been skittish about airing political positions, Grammy’s producer Ken Erlich says he’d be open to political speeches on the stage—because, honestly, it’s probably great for ratings.
Still, consider, that even with the greatest celebrity endorsement on Earth—Beyoncé’s—Hillary Clinton still couldn’t clinch the vote, because most people actually aren’t looking to their favorite singer/songwriters for opinions on reproductive rights legislation. Most people look to Taylor Swift for music that distills sweet, nostalgic romantic scenarios into listenable pop anthems, which is a reasonable thing to expect from Taylor Swift, as she has a history of successfully delivering on that product.
So, tonight, some celebs may speak out. Some celebs may not. Taylor Swift will likely remain quiet. And that’s ok. Because the only thing Taylor Swift is responsible for selling is herself, and some Apple products.