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Why do musicians with political music avoid speaking out?

By Joseph Evans

Joseph Evans explains why we should give musicians who stay fairly quiet on political issues, despite having a discography laced with political opinions, a pass.

In one of the wilder happenings in an already tumultuous 2020, Jedward are now among the most beloved icons of activist Twitter. 

From highlighting the inconsistencies of lockdown policies, to calling out other celebrities for their harmful behaviours, to hammering out the message to keep safe and wear a mask; Jedward’s Covid-19 content genuinely seems more effective and coherent than most governments. The Irish pop duo – who have not been considered particularly relevant in recent years – also boss their way through most contentious issues in general pop culture. Their dedication to calling out JK Rowling on her transphobia is particularly welcome given how many of our childhood role models are turning out to be, well, bad people recently. 

Speaking of other celebrities proving to be disappointments; why is it that Jedward, famous for their 2009 X-Factor run and glossy, Eurovision-esque covers of pop songs, are the ones leading the charge for speaking out on current events, as opposed to say, IDLES, a band whose lyrics bleed political engagement and whose career is defined by how ready they are to, according to The Line of Best Fit, rip into “Tories with shit-eating grins”? 

Is it unrealistic to expect celebrities who get political for their work to be as political after hours? It must, at the very least, be utterly exhausting to constantly sound the rallying cry against inequality and idiocy with no let-up. Perhaps it is asking too much of an artist to supplement their chosen medium of political engagement with other avenues that they may not be as skilled in using well. In an interview for The Line of Best Fit the quote: “I feel like using popular culture is an easy and astute way of making people question things they’ve normalised that aren’t necessarily natural” is highlighted prominently, which implies that for IDLES at least, the chosen method of activism is the music itself.

Maybe we are looking for social media leaders in the wrong places. For the most part, pop culture icons aren’t seasoned commentators or academic thinkers. Expecting them to coherently and robustly platform ideas online is as unrealistic as expecting the legions of “Steve, 52. Love Stella, hate the missus” types that swarm the comments of Daily Mail stories shared on Facebook to engage with people who disagree with them in a respectful and meaningful way. IDLES are good at protest songs about the state of modern British politics; would this translate to them being good at raising awareness and building an activist presence on social media? A good punk anthem requires a different set of skills than an engaging and memorable Twitter presence, so perhaps Jedward are just better at controlling an online discourse than IDLES would be.

Perhaps there is a bleaker side as to why most pop culture figures don’t engage with political discourse with the same flair and dedication as Jedward. Firstly, the extent to which celebrities are practically involved with their social media accounts differs widely. For example, the vocally anti-Trump Green Day have outsourced their pages to a professional media management company, which means their presence is obviously more driven by advertising and generating money from their brand than by spreading the opinions of the person whose name they bear. Even to an individual who still exercises full control, the need to maintain a presence that does not harm their income is paramount in an online culture that primarily advertises through posts and paid adverts on Facebook – the reach of which would be reduced by expressing views that risk alienating part of that target audience.

Celebrities who “go political” often face backlash from supposed fans who do not want to have to question their own held views, or have injustices and contradictions in their belief systems pointed out to them – especially by a pop culture figure whose work they enjoy. For examples of some of the worst reactions speaking out can bring on, check out the story of Gamergate, or the harassment faced by Rose McGowan after she accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. The not only loss of income but stalled careers and an utterly terrifying level of privacy invasion and threats can easily become the lot of figures who attract enough attention on social media to be perceived as a threat by people who don’t agree with their take on the issues raised. This obviously isn’t consistent in its targeting or severity, but if an artist decides they don’t want to risk it can you really blame them? With the increasing awareness we have of how social media can become a breeding ground for militant right-wing groups, and the domination of mainstream media sources by right-leaning conglomerates like the Murdoch Empire, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to put myself in a position where I risk becoming the focus of their ire.

The fact that Jedward are willing to call bullshit where they see it is commendable and adds some much-needed whimsy to this absolute train wreck of a year, but the systemic problems built into our culture are not going to be solved by a weekly Twitter-storm, so I wouldn’t be too hard on the bands that don’t want to take the risk of starting one.


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