It's no secret that the past month has been, at best, the worst. Between the initial shock of the election results and the avalanche of racism, xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia that followed, it's been a time full of tough questions. What's the right way to speak up for what we believe in? Are we being vocal enough against hate? What could we be doing differently? And while we debate among ourselves, the pop stars we love are undoubtedly having the same conversations as they figure out their roles in the new reality.
Some A-list artists have gone straight to big, bold gestures. Lady Gaga protested outside Trump Tower the day after the election, and Katy Perry Instagrammed her $10,000 donation to Planned Parenthood. YG, who's been saying “Fuck Donald Trump” since the spring, has kept the protest going with his tour of the same name, efficiently destroying a Trump piñata at a recent stop in Oregon.
All these actions made a certain amount of sense. For decades, pop music has been an outlet for the fears and frustrations of its audience; when it’s difficult for us to say what we’re thinking or what we’re feeling, musicians can step in to do it for us. So it's only natural for artists with big platforms to step up and condemn a leader who stands for hatred and bigotry. But right now that's a little trickier than usual. These are strange, upsetting times for everyone. Nothing feels right, and it’s difficult to focus on anything other than all the crises in our midst. Even the most well-intentioned acts of celebrity protest run the risk of feeling like publicity stunts.
In this context, many of our usual sources of entertainment can come across as passé and boring. Justin Bieber recently punched a fan to little fanfare, for goodness' sake. And did you even notice that Taylor Swift completed the mannequin challenge on Thanksgiving? We're craving something more these days — something that helps us feel a little less alone. Giving to the ACLU or Planned Parenthood is a good start, as is simply using Twitter to share the work of other writers and artists on government corruption and white supremacy (as John Legend, Chance the Rapper, and others have been doing). As long as someone with influence is willing to align themselves with equality, it isn't always particularly important why they’re doing it. Grabbing the attention of fans who might not otherwise be thinking about a particular issue or argument is what counts.
The other option is saying and doing nothing, which comes with risks of its own. This is why Swift came under scrutiny through much of the autumn for failing to express a preference for any candidate (and only kinda-sorta addressed the problem by Instagramming herself in line to vote, without saying for whom). It's why it felt awkward when Carrie Underwood’s only real political statements were the jokes (#woof) she made with co-host Brad Paisley at the CMAs in early November. When artists take the non-statement route, it feels as though they're playing characters who exist someplace where hate crimes aren’t spiking and an alleged sex offender isn’t about to take office. And while their careers likely won’t suffer, they also won’t be remembered for their efforts and sentiments in the moments when efforts and sentiments mattered the most. Their privilege grants them the luxury of silence, which most of us don’t have.
Of course, it isn’t as easy as sending a quick “fuck Trump!” tweet en route to the studio to lay down a tight new jam and leaving it at that. In the months and years to come, the public will be watching to see who genuinely cares about making a difference, and who's just trying to take advantage of a big moment. If it seems like an artist is drawing more attention to their role as an ally than to the issues that necessitate allies, that’s going to be a problem down the road. If they record a song about how much Jeff Sessions sucks but opt out of donating any of the proceeds to a civil rights organization (or putting themselves on the front lines in another way), that’s not so great, either. But there's never been a better time for our biggest artists to speak out — and it's worth figuring out the right way to go about it.