In days of yore, before Trump and Brexit, before the rise of #BlackLivesMatter and fake news, pop stars got an easy ride. We asked them for nothing more than decent tunes and flashy videos. We were content with Britney and Justin in matching double denim, Madonna stripping down to a pink leotard and Beyoncé starring in an Austin Powers film. But in 2017, what we expect from our pop stars is changing.
These days, we expect our pop stars to define as feminists. We expect them to be familiar with cultural appropriation, intersectionalilty and their own privilege. We expect them to not only be aware of social and political issues, but to comment on them publicly. In a word, we expect our pop stars to be woke.
As pop consumers, we buy into more than music. Mainstream pop has always been about selling a package rather than just music, a package that focuses on image and brand identity just as much as songs. For example, it’s impossible to be a Beyoncé fan and be oblivious to the wider context of her brand. Because Beyoncé, like Rihanna or Taylor or Gaga, is more than her music. She is a symbol of black empowerment and modern feminism, surrounded by a cult of personality that makes her an elusive, enigmatic icon with a devoted fanbase.
In return for their devotion, fans expect their heroes to speak up on issues affecting them. When Beyoncé initially failed to comment on her home state of Texas imposing the infamous bathroom ban for trans people, many LGBT fans took to social media to voice their disappointment. They had bought into the idea of Beyoncé to such an extent that they saw themselves, and their concerns, mirrored in her, only to feel betrayed by her silence.
But are we expecting too much of our pop stars? While some musicians, such as Beyoncé and Katy Perry, happily align themselves with political causes, others shy away from talking about controversial issues. Taylor Swift was met with widespread condemnation for failing to speak out against Trump during his election campaign and then again for remaining silent when he unveiled his Muslim travel ban – at the same time she was promoting her new single featuring a Muslim musician.
Though it could be argued that Swift, in her role as musician, has no obligation to speak out on political issues, this is at odds with her wider personal brand. Swift has long been cultivating an image as a relatable celebrity, a star who goes to desperate lengths to persuade her fans she is just like them, a goofy nerd who loves food, cats and Tumblr. But when it really matters, Swift fails to use her hugely influential voice for anything of substance. Her fans, having bought into Swift’s relatable image, are left disappointed to find that, actually, they can’t relate to her so much at all.
Increasingly, fans are demanding that the relationship between them and their idols become more reciprocal. They are no longer content to consume and get little in return. Younger pop fans recognise that world famous musicians can exude more influence in a single tweet than their local MP or congressperson can have during their lifetime. Tired of feeling unrepresented by crusty politicos, younger generations are relying on pop stars to represent them, demanding they speak out about Trump, climate change, LGBT issues and race relations at every opportunity. If they don’t, fans are increasingly implying, they will simply flock elsewhere.
Being woke in 2017 is fast becoming a requirement for a sustainable career in the post-Trump landscape. As younger generations become more informed and engaged in the issues affecting their lives, they are expecting their idols to take notice and use their platforms to speak up. As people with money, influence and a lot to lose, pop fans are delivering a clear message to their heroes: staying silent is no longer an option.