Let’s Cancel the Celebrity

Why bother "cancelling" a celeb at a time when there are options to divest from the concept of celebrity itself?

Cancel Idea of Celebrity
(Shelagh Murphy/Pexels)

And because celebrities are only as powerful as their audiences, people like you and me are put in a funky position where we actually possess a bit of power

While trapped inside for the better part of the last two years, celebrities have found innovative ways to maintain their statuses. From new reality exposé Netflix series, exorbitant yacht vacations, and the notorious ensemble cover of “Imagine,” celebrities have shown us the tools used to keep themselves relevant. Controversy seems to remain at the top of the list. If celebrities can’t stay out of trouble, even when the world has largely locked them inside, why do we continue to give them so many opportunities for redemption?

In September, I wrote about DaBaby’s homophobic rant at Rolling Loud, how many of his listeners and fellow celebs condemned him, and how several canceled gigs didn’t cancel his stardom. In October I noted Doja’s long track record with committing cancellable offenses, along with her ability to evade them all. DaBaby and Doja are just two of several people in the limelight whose past actions should come under scrutiny. After all, it’s critical for us as invested members of society to question the people to whom we give authority. But both of these particular situations, among the many more, leave me wondering why we platform certain people at all when it’s been proven time and time again that celebrities and the wealthy rarely use this power for the betterment of others.

I don’t mean this to be a rambling exposé on the offenses of your favorite stars. We’re all human, and I’m sure there are many moments our current selves reflect on with a hand shielding an embarrassed face. It’s also crucial to recognize that anyone can be both an agent or victim of harm. However, when these offenses are displayed on an international scale, their ramifications are understandably magnified.

While we can’t expect any celebrity to be perfect, harm from celebrities like Doja, DaBaby, Matt Damon, or J.K. Rowling grows from a misstep or miseducation to tangible harm. And because celebrities are only as powerful as their audiences, people like you and me are put in a funky position where we actually possess a bit of power. How do we best wield it?

Too Big To Cancel

To criticize a megastar before social momentum has decided it’s their turn is at best shouting into a void

Cancel culture suggests that we run to Twitter and Instagram to notify everyone we know of the trending celebrity’s most recent offense. We retweet and like based on a headline or a couple hundred characters, clog a celebrity’s mentions to let them know how disappointed we are, wait a few days for a sanitized Notes app apology, and forget it all happened a week later once our “problematic fave” stars in a new movie.

As celebrity career success tends to snowball over time — particularly for A-listers and the well connected — impassioned fanbases only grow. And once a celebrity reaches a point in fame where their fixture in pop iconography is solidified, that power — to be so lauded that their brand will excuse their behavior again and again — is hazardous. Like with Morgan Wallen or Sia, I wonder at which point, we stop touting Twitter hashtags as effective, long-term solutions to past and present harm.

For many people, this crossroads is where we ask whether or not we, collectively, should separate the art from the artist. For this, we don’t have a clear answer. Certain pieces of art are able to hold meaning independent of their creator, yet audiences must hold the perspective that all art is influenced by an artists’ worldview and life experiences.

In an ideal world, we recognize that an artist is not the sum of just their creations but also their actions. In this same world we are able to hold two truths at the same time: a work of art is impactful and meaningful and the person who created the art may have caused harm. But what happens when we share or glorify that art? How do we value the production without excessively praising the producer? Current formats in which individuals are able to consume art — watching TV, streaming music, attending concerts, buying books — all generate income for the artist.

If our enjoyment of a work of art continues to monetarily benefit an agent of harm, how much separation is there really? This question is much easier when considering older art where social purchasing power doesn’t really go to the artist in any way. The dead white men of the 1700s have little to lose or gain with contemporary audiences.

Making these decisions to remove harmful characters is much easier when the person in question is ostensibly bad. R. Kelly is a great example. Though accounts of his predatory and sexually abusive behavior had toured many hushed conversations, he didn’t begin to face true termination until Surviving R. Kelly was released. People flocked to the internet to express their varying degrees of shock and disappointment. Clubs stopped playing “Ignition” every few minutes. But then this past September, two years after the documentary’s release, Drake gave R. Kelly writing credits for a song on Certified Lover Boy, generating a new stream of income for the formerly beloved singer.

Aside from this, Drake himself has a track record of unsettling behavior with minors. His relationship with Millie Bobby Brown and his blatant groping of an underage girl at his concert are just two circumstances that come to mind. But fans’ unrelenting devotion to him and his music highlights just how deep celebrity culture runs.

To criticize a megastar before social momentum has decided it’s their turn is at best shouting into a void. Their fans quell any and all criticism, and the harm goes unchecked. There is no blueprint for accountability when a celebrity’s status outweighs the level of harm committed. Unless that harm is already related to the current news cycle it will go ignored, dismissed, and discounted (i.e. stories of egregious sexual assault before and after #MeToo’s moment).

I struggle to believe any artist, regardless of talent, deserves unconditional support or society’s obsession. The only way to truly usurp a celebrity’s power — besides not generating their income — is to remove power from the concept of celebrity itself. The sooner we stop looking to celebrities as role models, activists, and influencers, and start recognizing them for who they are — people with a particularly honed skill — the sooner we can admit their ability to cause the same harm we all do and to address their harm the same way we would within our own communities.

Throw The Whole Thing Away: Cancel Celebrity

Celebrity-dom has convinced us the lives influencers lead should only be reserved for a select few when in fact their power falters the second we turn our attention elsewhere

Cancelling the celebrity doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t mean suddenly losing your favorite music to listen to, movies to watch, or books to read. Like many systemic issues, individual action can only influence powerful dynamics so much. My choice not to buy Harry Potter books or listen to Drake does little to impact J.K. Rowling’s or Drake’s wealth. However, unlike other industries, institutionalized injustice in media requires an audience to uphold it. Insofar as what is being platformed and given attention, our behaviors as regular folk do matter here. If we as a population can turn our attention from those who profit off our insecurities, dissatisfaction, and our need for an escape, we can also shift this paradigm.

To do this, I think we first need to remove the term “cancel” from the discourse. It’s run through the internet gamut so thoroughly that its meaning has been obscured. Instead, I suggest we shift towards accountability. Cancellation is often shortsighted, focused on generating trending hashtags. Conversations begin and end at the most recent offense of the hypervisible star of the day. In shifting our language towards accountability, we also shift our mindset, thinking about both systemic failings and how they show up on the interpersonal level. We consider clear cut, explicit actions individuals can make towards long term self-improvement. We go from apology videos to lifestyle adjustments.

A great model for this behavior is Noname. The Chicagoan rapper gained credibility in the music industry quickly, collaborating with her fellow hometown natives Chance the Rapper, Saba, and Donnie Trumpet. After a time in the industry, in 2019 she noticed the need for a space in which everyone — particularly people of color and queer folks — could read and discuss texts about social liberation. She then shifted her focus from increasing her fame to studying radical action toward a future built on community care. Aside from her release “Rainforest” in 2021 which followed a Twitter spat with J. Cole, she hasn’t released music since.

While I’d like more celebrities to commit to such revolutionary acts of their own volition, it isn’t likely. After all, the appeal of fame is the fortune that accompanies it. But it does mean this moment provides the perfect opportunity for us as an audience to demand this work of those who need our financial support. Not every celebrity should speak out on every issue — especially when they have done no work to educate themselves on the matters at hand. But they should stop monetizing their lukewarm political takes (cough cough, Taylor Swift).

In the manner of Noname, we can also turn our attention to those with platforms in our neighborhoods. Noname’s rise — and turn towards community care — began in Chicago and continues to have the city at the center, the city she grew up in and nurtures in return. Similarly, we as an audience can turn to our communities more frequently for art. Supporting our friends starting music careers. Going to small local shows and viewings. Patronizing intimate venues. Viewing our own lives the way we view the lives of celebrities — worthy of celebration and status as role models.

Returning energy to our immediate communities creates pathways for connection and opportunity that ultimately bring us closer to our own idealized lives. Influencers exist because of how many people want to live like them and emulate their behaviors. At the core, celebrity-dom has convinced us the lives influencers lead should only be reserved for a select few when in fact their power falters the second we turn our attention elsewhere.

According to data published by Marie Charlotte Götting, indie artists provided over a third of all music sales in 2019 — twice that of Warner Music Group. Muni Long, writer and singer of the currently trending song “Hrs & Hrs,” was in the songwriting business for years under various contracts before deciding to represent herself — a decision that ultimately granted her first Billboard hit.

Celebs Don’t Need Saving

My boss on here pointed out recently, that if he had ever said anything remotely as egregious as DaBaby did at Rolling Loud he’d lose his job. Why then, when it comes to celebrities, do we willfully forget/neglect the everyday realities and appropriate responses to poor behavior?

“If the punishment for a crime is a fine, then it’s only a law for the poor.” In the same logic, if the average person would face tangible repercussions for a mistake a celebrity made, you wouldn’t call the consequences of their actions “cancellation.” You’d recognize that punishment as proportional to their damage.

There are many genuinely talented people we can turn to for the value of their craft. We can acknowledge what they do and the needs they fulfill without rushing to their aid when criticized. The knee-jerk reaction to defend celebrities when they commit harm, to me, comes from the need to emphasize a shared human experience. A need to acknowledge our own wrongdoings we wouldn’t want to be punished for, or have learned from, or have been accused of.

But here’s the thing: celebrities aren’t relatable. They don’t need us to defend them. And ultimately, they don’t need to exist in this way for the rest of us to find fulfillment.


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