Celebrities have long been active participants in political discourse, even to their detriment.
But when a celebrity vocalises a political opinion or endorses a candidate, they are often met with eyerolls and calls to "stick to performing".
When Taylor Swift endorsed Democratic candidates in Tennessee ahead of the 2018 US midterm elections, she was met with this exact kind of reaction. Conservative talking-head Charlie Kirk tweeted this in response to Taylor’s first foray into political commentary: “What I used to love about Taylor Swift is she stayed away from politics.”
Conversely, Swift had previously received criticism from various progressive voices for her seemingly apolitical stance and reluctance to disavow the alt-right side of her fanbase.
Since 2018, Swift has been regularly vocal and opinionated. She revealed in her 2020 Netflix documentary, Miss Americana, that she felt pressure to avoid discussing politics but was ready to make up for her silence now.
It seems that celebrities are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. If they don’t comment on politics, they are at risk of seeming too privileged to care or are deemed complicit with the opinions of their more unpleasant fans.
But if they do want to actively participate in politics, they are effectively told to “shut up and sing”.
This is exactly what the Dixie Chicks (now known as “The Chicks”) were told in 2003 when they publicly denounced the US President at the time, George Bush. The all-female band went from being America’s country music sweethearts to being painted as “traitors”.
The band received mass backlash, threats and were even blacklisted from numerous country radio stations. While still successful, the popularity of the Dixie Chicks decreased dramatically, and their story served as a word of warning for country music stars moving forward: don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
As with the Dixie Chicks, for Taylor Swift to become political, she was taking a great risk given her country-music origins and sizable conservative fanbase. Luckily for her, it paid off with her popularity only soaring since becoming more outspoken.
The disdain towards politically outspoken celebrities is a curious combination of fear and dismissal.
Following Swift’s 2018 Democratic endorsement, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee tweeted that, “…it won’t impact election unless we allow 13 yr [sic] girls to vote.”
Fans were rightfully angered by Huckabee’s condescending tone, pointing out that Taylor’s first album came out in 2006. To suggest that Swift only had teenaged fans was to grossly underestimate her popularity.
In fact, Swift’s tweets supporting the Democratic nominees coincided with a massive spike in voter registrations in Tennessee. While Republican Representative, Marsha Blackburn, won the vote, the margin was much narrower than usual for an overwhelmingly red-voting state.
It’s not just the big-name celebs influencing politics, influencers too are learning about the power of their platforms. And in 2020, it seems more critical than ever.
Unlike Australia, the US doesn’t have compulsory voting. This means that the dozens of American celebrities and influencers you see posting voter registration reminders may actually have more of an impact than you’d realise. In particular, it disproportionately affects minorities who are more likely to vote for progressive candidates.
In 2016, just 55.5% of the United States’ voting aged population turned out to vote. With so many celebrities and influencers promoting and incentivising registration this year, we might be able to expect an increase.
A little closer to home, Kiwi singer Lorde used her Instagram stories to encourage her followers to vote in New Zealand’s upcoming general election. She promised that “next year I’ll give you something in return”. Fans took this as a not-so-subtle sign that Lorde may release her next long-awaited album.
The democratic process is designed for participation. So, if celebrities can get more people involved, this means that ordinary people will have more control over how their country is run.
If your average Joe can tweet his unsolicited political opinions as he pleases, why can’t celebrities?
Besides, you don’t see too many conservatives complaining that a former reality TV star is now President of the United States. Funny how that works.