Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2019 | 10 minutes (2,439 words)
“Maroon 5 is just Red Hot Chili Peppers for virgins.” “This is the Fyre Festival of halftime shows.” “Anyone else think Adam Levine looks like an Ed Hardy T-shirt?” The Super Bowl halftime show was worth it for the social media stream it kicked off; otherwise, it was notable only for the fact that Maroon 5 (along with Big Boi and Travis Scott) turned up at all when so many others (Rihanna and Pink and Cardi B) turned the gig down. “I got to sacrifice a lot of money to perform,” Cardi B said. “But there’s a man who sacrificed his job for us, so we got to stand behind him.” Though she ended up appearing in a Pepsi commercial anyway, Cardi’s heart seemed to be in the right place, which is to say the place where protesting injustice is an obligation rather than a choice (of her other appearances around the Super Bowl, she said, “if the NFL could benefit off from us, then I’m going to benefit off y’all”). The man she was referring to was, of course, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee in 2016 during the national anthem to protest systemic oppression in America and has gone unsigned since opting out of his contract. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” the ex-San Francisco 49er said. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”
“The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude,” wrote George Orwell in the 1946 essay, Why I Write. By refusing to perform at the Super Bowl, Cardi B and her peers were in fact performing two acts: acknowledging that as artists they have political power, and using that political power to support Kaepernick’s cause. By replacing them, Adam Levine did the opposite (while claiming to do nothing at all): “we are going to keep on doing what we do, hopefully without becoming politicians to make people understand, ‘We got you.'” The mistake Maroon 5’s frontman made was assuming he could isolate art from politics, which is impossible, particularly in this case — the Super Bowl was already infused with political turmoil, and to negate that was to undercut its significance. Kaepernick’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, would have preferred for Levine to be open about his position. “If you’re going to cross this ideological or intellectual picket line, then own it, and Adam Levine certainly isn’t owning it,” he said. “In fact, if anything, it’s a cop out when you start talking about, ‘I’m not a politician, I’m just doing the music.’ Most of the musicians who have any kind of consciousness whatsoever understand what’s going on here.”
By using “picket line” — a term traditionally associated with labor unions — Geragos further established the Super Bowl and its halftime show as a locus of political action. Essentially he was calling Levine a latter-day scab, an opportunist subverting others’ attempts to bring about change. Though the epithet dates back to the 18th century, when “scab” referred to workers who refused to join unions, by the next century it was used to designate workers who crossed a strike’s picket line. “Just as a scab is a physical lesion,” wrote Stephanie Smith in Household Words, “the strikebreaking scab disfigures the social body of labor — both the solidarity of workers and the dignity of work.” The musicians who refused to play the Super Bowl were expressing solidarity with Kaepernick — and the people of color on whose behalf he is protesting — and preserving the dignity of work. By crossing that invisible picket line, Levine not only broke solidarity but, paradoxically, sacrificed the dignity of work in the name of his own career.
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That anyone in entertainment would feign political neutrality in the current climate is jarring enough, but the move further implies a glaring ignorance of the industry’s history. Nowhere was the politics of celebrity more literal than in Hollywood during the 1940s and ’50s. At that time, the infamous Hollywood blacklist meant that any whiff of Communism threatened your job. Self-protection required coming clean and informing on others to the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC), but a group of artists dubbed “The Hollywood Ten” protested by refusing to testify. Director Elia Kazan, however, gave HUAC eight names in 1952, helping to bury the careers of actors Morris Carnovsky and Art Smith and playwright Clifford Odets and securing his own. “I said I’d hated the Communists for many years and didn’t feel right about giving up my career to defend them,” he recalled in his memoir. But Kazan writes in the negative, as though he wasn’t actively promoting his personal cause. What he was really doing was expressing the power of his own politics in order to support his own work. His solidarity was with himself alone.
Nearly 50 years after he named names, in 1999, Kazan was awarded a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars. Actors like Nick Nolte and Amy Madigan disagreed with his actions and thus refused to applaud his art, but others, including Warren Beatty and Meryl Streep, seemed able to divorce the two. “I never discussed it with Warren, but I believe we were both standing for the same reason — out of regard for the creativity,” George Stevens, Jr. wrote in Conversations With the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age. But Kazan’s creativity came at the expense of others’ creativity; to celebrate him was to celebrate the truncated careers he cut short to allow his own to thrive. This cognitive dissonance appeared, for some, to be resolved by time. Kazan was 89, how long were we supposed to hold his politics against him?
It’s funny that we never ask how long we should hold up someone’s work; our cultural memory favors the art object over the lives of the artists who make it — and their politics. Hollywood’s reaction to Kazan is reminiscent of its reaction to Roman Polanski, who was accused of drugging and pled guilty to raping a 13 year old girl in 1977 before fleeing the States (and his sentence). In 2009, more than 100 actors and filmmakers signed a petition to release Polanski after he was arrested in Switzerland on a U.S. warrant. At the time, Debra Winger, of all people, said, “We stand by him and await his release and his next masterpiece.” The consensus was that he had served his time. The past had therefore eaten up his offense, leaving behind only his art, as though this alone defined him. And even where it didn’t, it clearly did. “He’s now happily married; he has two children,” is how Sigourney Weaver explained last year why she had worked with him and would continue to. She believed she was listening to his victim by advancing “with understanding and compassion.”
Woody Allen, even more than Polanski, has been eclipsed by his work. Actors who align with him are aligning with the politics of privileging his creative output, as though such a thing existed on its own. “There are directors, producers and men of power who have for decades been awarded and applauded for their highly regarded work by both this industry and moviegoers alike,” Kate Winslet, who appeared in Allen’s Wonder Wheel in 2017, said in apology last year. “The message we received for years was that it was the highest compliment to be offered roles by these men.” The year prior, when asked if the allegations against Allen gave her pause, Winslet had said: “Having thought it all through, you put it to one side and just work with the person.” Kristen Stewart took a similar work-first approach when discussing why she appeared in Allen’s 2016 film, Café Society: “The experience of making the movie was so outside of that, it was fruitful for [me and co-star Jesse Eisenberg] to go on with it.” What this did was to elevate the work above all else, which delivered the message that the voices of regular women were secondary to the voices of creative men.
It’s impossible for one artist to work with another without their collaboration being informed by the politics of both parties. Yet Rami Malek seemed to believe he could circumvent this fact while working with director Bryan Singer — a man accused of assaulting multiple teen boys — on the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. When he was first asked about Singer at the Golden Globes, Malek responded: “There’s only one thing we needed to do, and that was to celebrate Freddie Mercury.” He claimed he didn’t know about the allegations, that he was only in it for the work. Yet implicit in the work was Singer’s labor, Singer himself. Despite his replacement by Dexter Fletcher, his presence continues to define the film. The name on Bohemian continues to be his, the accolades it receives go to him (the Baftas excepted). Every time Malek refuses to address the controversy around Singer, he chooses not to confront the realities of child abuse; and every time he appears on screen under Singer’s name, his work is a reflection of that.
Rami Malek’s stance aligns with another common myth about artists, which is that they can cast aside politics to serve the public. In the early 1980’s, the United Nations called for a boycott of South Africa over apartheid, but more than fifty musicians — including Tina Turner, Curtis Mayfield, and Isaac Hayes — ignored it. “If the people didn’t want us there, they wouldn’t come to see the shows,” said Millie Jackson. What she did not acknowledge was that performing there implied she approved of how the ruling government of South Africa was treating its people — or at least, that she didn’t actively oppose it — and that she was willing to take part in its economy and contribute to the bank balance of a problematic government. Ten years later, blue-collar-adjacent rocker Bruce Springsteen crossed the picket line set up by a number of Tacoma, Washington, city employee unions, explaining, “I know a lot of you folks came a long way to be here tonight, so I got a commitment to be on this stage.” Once again, here was a musician who, rather than refusing to contribute his labor in solidarity with the exploited labor of others, was serving the city that oppressed them. More than the words in his songs, his actions spoke to his real allegiances.
During a writers’ strike in 2007, a string of TV hosts — from Ellen DeGeneres to Jay Leno to Jon Stewart — eventually crossed the picket line, some more sheepishly than others, with variations on the “show must go on” excuse. “It’s really hard to have to deal with where they are and where I am,” DeGeneres said, “because I’m kinda caught in the middle.” This defense could be mistaken for selflessness — she is sacrificing her own petty problems for the greater good — if it weren’t for the fact that the audience also occupies the oppressed space she upheld by performing. At least Stewart, who was one of the least comfortable crossing the picket line, used his platform to further the cause of the writers by addressing their strike on air. Still, it’s hard to sympathize when you realize, around the same time, the much less powerful Steve Carell held up taping of The Office because he refused to be a scab. Each extra moment of discomfort he conveyed to the network, each bit of pay he lost, meant more leverage afforded to the striker.
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Just as the artist is not static, neither are their politics, and just as vital as acknowledging one’s alliances is acknowledging one’s changes. Last year, Natalie Portman became one of the few celebrities to openly regret signing the aforementioned Polanski petition. “We lived in a different world, and that doesn’t excuse anything,” she said. “But you can have your eyes opened and completely change the way you want to live. My eyes were not open.” Polanski was not the topic du jour, but her voice was an important reminder that as a culture we had failed to hold him to account. In a similar vein, though they could not undo working with Woody Allen, Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Hall, and Griffin Newman made amends by donating their paychecks to nonprofits like RAINN. “I learned conclusively that I cannot put my career over my morals again,” Newman said. Other artists, as Portman alluded to, have opened their eyes and are willing to learn and to admit their fallibility. Though Lorde had planned to perform in Israel, she ended up changing her mind — joining fellow boycotters Elvis Costello and Lauryn Hill — after two women wrote to her about the oppression within the country, saying, “we believe that an economic, intellectual and artistic boycott is an effective way of speaking out against these crimes.” So she spoke instead of singing, aware that in this instance her voice was stronger in that act.
Still others have literally rewritten history, proving their beliefs are so fierce that they are willing to erase their own art in the name of their politics. Michelle Williams offered to work for free in 2017 to reshoot a number of scenes for All The Money In The World with Christopher Plummer after sexual assault allegations emerged about her former co-star Kevin Spacey. “A movie is less important than a human life,” she explained at the time. This is the active approach to change, which eclipses more passive sartorial gestures like the blackout at the Golden Globes. “For years, we’ve sold these awards shows as women, with our gowns and colors and our beautiful faces and our glamour,” Time’s Up co-founder Eva Longoria said. “This time the industry can’t expect us to go up and twirl around.” It was a toothless rebellion, an objection in accessory form which fit seamlessly into the system which had been exposed in all its corruption.
More effective is direct action, such as Frances McDormand using her Oscar speech to advocate for “inclusion riders” and musicians spurning the Super Bowl to support people of color or Trump’s inauguration to reject everything he represents. Singer Rebecca Ferguson, runner up on The X Factor UK in 2010, was one of the few musicians who said she would accept an invitation to the latter — if she could perform “Strange Fruit,” the 1939 protest song about racism in America. “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,” she would sing, “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Trump chose the Great Talladega College Tornado Marching Band instead.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.