Between the suspension by A&E of Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson for anti-gay remarks in an interview with GQ, the firing of actor and MSNBC talk-show host Alec Baldwin for his own homophobic ranting, and the Food Network’s cutting ties with chef Paula Deen due to racially insensitive remarks that came to light during a lawsuit, it seems like it’s open season on celebrities.
That’s even more true than it seems at first blush — and it extends all the way into the world of politics. Even there, the ability of leaders to control messaging and the story line on any given topic is breaking down with remarkable speed. Thanks to a wide range of ever increasing new media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and more, it’s easier than ever for regular people — and voters — to speak out and voice opinions about the rich and powerful. Our gain is their loss. And often, our enjoyment.
Here’s how the new dynamic works. Earlier this month, the best-selling and controversial pop singer R. Kelly released his latest album, Black Panties. (Understatement and restraint have never been his strong suit.) For years, Kelly has faced numerous legal issues related to battery, sexual assault, statutory rape and even the production of child pornography. (He was found guilty of battery but acquitted on the sex and porn charges; he also has settled some claims as well.)
To celebrate Black Panties, Kelly hosted a chat on Twitter for his fans and followers. “Getting ready to answer some of my favorite #AskRKelly questions!!” he wrote, “Start tweeting!” Almost immediately, the singer was deluged with snarky comments related to his past indiscretions and scandals. “My lil cousin jus bout to finish 10th grade … Seems like she ready?,” wrote one correspondent. “What’s your favorite bedtime story to read a date?” read another. “So @rkelly only answered 16 questions, the perv really cannot do anything over 18,” summarized one commenter, while another asked, “Were you high off something when you started this hashtag? Where tf is your PR team?”
While heckling is as old as the hills, this sort of unmediated access to superstars simply didn’t exist before. As important, these conversations can be conducted only in full public view, so there really is no place for the besieged celebrity to hide. If artists want to engage their audience (the better, one assumes, to sell more albums, or movie tickets, or novels, or whatever), they increasingly have to do it on the audience’s terms.
Something similar is happening in politics too. Earlier this week, President Obama — whose political success is often attributed to his masterful use of social media — tweeted a postcard featuring a smug-looking, 20-something hipster dude wearing an adult onesie and holding a mug of hot chocolate. “How do you plan to spend the cold days of December?” queried the President, who added the hashtag #GetTalking.
Almost immediately, the image went viral, though not in the way Obama meant. “PajamaBoy” became its own hashtag, and countless parodies and reappropriations spread across the Internet. “Mommy Said I Could Stay Up Late,” read one, while another attested, “Why Yes I Am a Thought Leader,” and a third asked, “How did you know I went to Oberlin?”
At the dawn of the mass-media age, critics such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer fretted that powerful new tools such as radio, film and tabloid newspapers would create perfectly effective propaganda capable of fully molding public opinion while suppressing dissent. They pointed to the way Hollywood manufactured seamless fantasy worlds and public personae for their stars and how Hitler, Mussolini and even Franklin Roosevelt used radio and film to move the masses. “Donald Duck in the cartoons,” wrote Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment, gets his “thrashing so that the audience can learn to take their own punishment.”
Such worries are largely beside the point in today’s new media landscape. To be sure, slick marketing campaigns and programs — even, and perhaps especially, ones that seem “genuine” and “authentic” — are still with us and often effective at getting votes and ratings. But the relationship between star and fan, and between political leader and voter, is rapidly changing in fundamental ways.
Power is shifting from the top of the pyramid down to its lower reaches, where anyone with an opinion and an Internet connection can at least speak her mind and circulate that opinion to an audience that is potentially in the millions. In his prescient 2000 study of celebrity culture, What Price Fame?, economist Tyler Cowen wrote, “Contemporary stars are well-paid but impotent puppets … [who] serve their fans rather than making their fans serve them.”
Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, R. Kelly and Barack Obama might want to pick up Cowen’s book and give it a close read. There’s a lot they could learn about how to engage an audience that has not only a mind of its own but also the ability to make its opinion known loud and clear.