A Band Aid for the failure of politics

It is a reflection of the decline of reasoned debate and the rise of celebrity that society pays attention to popstar politics.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

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It’s a well-known fact that, when it comes to politics, actors, comedians and popstars usually become morons or creeps. A recent case in point was Steve Coogan’s appearance on BBC Question Time. Here he shamelessly played to the gallery, sneering and grinning as he issued predictable wisecracks and invectives directed at the Conservative Party and News International.

This is a well-worn and effective strategy, a favourite of luvvie-darling worthies. The Tories and Rupert Murdoch today serve as kind of imagined, twin behemoths. To fulminate against them puts you on the side of the righteous and the victimised. It ingratiates you with a sanctimonious mob similarly eager to boast what nice, caring people they are.

This paradoxical egotism – protesting against ‘selfish’ right-wing people in order to make you appear morally superior – was mercilessly parodied in the 2004 film Team America: World Police. In it, marionettes representing the likes of Susan Sarandon, George Clooney and Matt Damon are shown as self-important dupes of Kim Jong-Il, parroting liberal-left vacuities. ‘As actors’, says Janeane Garofolo’s puppet, ‘it is our reponsibility to read the newspapers, and then say what we read on television like it’s our own opinion’. Like all good parodies, it helped to change the way people think. Sean Penn’s intervention on the matter of the Falkland Islands earlier this year generated unflattering comparisons to the movie, and I imagine Matt Damon still fears to speak on humanitarian issues, lest he be met with a collective cry of ‘Matt Day-Mon’.

Still, this hasn’t deterred the likes of Clooney and Whoopi Goldberg continuing to make known their support for the Democrats – who are liberal-left, and therefore Good People – in opposition to the Republicans, who are right-wing and by extension Bad People. Now from the pop world they have been joined by Katy Perry, who last week performed at a Las Vegas fundraiser for President Obama in the forthcoming presidential election, and by Madonna, who on Saturday declared at a concert in New Orleans: ‘I don’t care who you vote for as long as you vote for Obama.’ Having been met with jeers and booing, the Material Girl backtracked. ‘Seriously, I don’t care who you vote for as long as you take responsibility for the future of your country’, she recanted. ‘Do not take this privilege for granted. Go vote.’ Other Democrat supporters include Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce, and Jay-Z.

Madonna’s vacillation is telling. In a concert in Tel Aviv in May, Madge had superimposed a swastika over the face of Marine Le Pen for a video montage, and last month, to the bewilderment of fans, in Washington DC she called Obama a ‘black Muslim’. Madonna has always been a chameleon. This is attention-seeking, gesture politics, something popstars excel at.

In terms of hollow egotism, popstars are not far removed from actors. The latter are fantasists and (literally) professional liars, pretending to be someone they aren’t, displaying emotions they don’t have. Popstars are often likewise insecure, craving attention and praise, to be told what good people they are – and consequently ensure that the world knows it.

They have been up to this sort of thing for years. Consider the self-important proclamations of John Lennon, imagining no possessions but having lots of them, Sting’s crusade to save the Brazilian rainforest and its noble savages and, of course, Bono, the humanitarian tax-avoider. The latter two featured in Band Aid, an ostentatiously big-hearted scheme that raised funds for governments in desperate need of more Mercedes-Benzes and Kalashnikovs. This is what happens when you combine paradoxical egotism and a Something Must Be Done mentality. Today, it’s the same toxic compound – intensified – that’s behind the grandstanding and aggressive ‘caring’ censoriousness you see on Twitter.

Midnight Oil have for years campaigned tiresomely for Australian Aborigines, appearing at the 2000 Sydney Olympics with the words ‘Sorry’ emblazoned on their clothes. Saying sorry for something you didn’t actually do takes no effort, but it does make you feel virtuous. And last month at a Radiohead concert in Rome, the Naomi Klein-reading, Green Party supporter and well-known expert on Italian politics, Thom Yorke, dedicated the song ‘Hail To The Thief’ to Silvio Berlusconi.

Still, Radiohead have produced some fine music, and bands famous for an anti-establishment stance, such as the Clash, Dead Kennedys and Public Enemy, have done likewise. In my adolescence, ‘Killing in The Name’ by Rage Against the Machine was mandatory moshing material, an ostensible broadside against racism in US security agencies that became really an anthem for tantrum-throwing teenagers told to tidy their bedrooms. In the USA in the 1970s, Black Sabbath enjoyed popularity among Vietnam veterans on account of their anti-war overtures ‘War Pigs’ and ‘Hand of Doom’. Exemplary as these songs are, would you accept Ozzy Osborne lecturing you on US foreign policy? It would be as ridiculous as Spice Girl Geri Halliwell becoming a UN ambassador on safe sex. (Oh, hang on…)

These are celebrity-obsessed times, biased towards feeling at the expense of reason in an era of conspicuous compassion – of feeling good, not doing good. It’s also an era in which we distrust politicians. So it’s unsurprising that society values the political opinions of popstars. According to Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution think-tank, high-profile supporters can validate candidates: ‘Voters are cynical about candidates and think they will say anything to win… Having a non-political opening act gives politicians credibility at a time of massive cynicism.’

Emotion and subjectivity is what makes music. Rational thinking and detachment should govern politics. To all those who marched under the anti-Gulf War slogan, ‘Not In My Name’, who cares what your name is? And I’m not part of your self-appointed ’99 per cent’, either. The political shouldn’t be the personal. Most of all, people on the liberal-left are not morally better (or indeed, worse) than conservatives. Every time I hear that smug, self-regarding argument I can’t help thinking of Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse as DJs Smashy and Nicey: ‘We do a lot of work for charidee, but we don’t like to talk about it.’

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland and author of Conspicuous Compassion (Civitas, 2004). Read his blog here.

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Topics Culture


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