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Politics in our stars

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Given the hotly contested midterm elections in November, a crucial question arises: What can we learn from the 2020 presidential election, which came at a time when Americans were particularly politically active, largely due to social media?

After all, the presidential election debate raged online in the run-up to election day and for months afterwards. (For some die-hard Trump supporters, it still does.) Everyone from your distant Michigan cousin and a crack addict turned pillow seller to celebrities from Ben Affleck to Zendaya.

Danny Goldberg. Photo courtesy Akashic Books.

Influential music journalist turned band manager and industry manager Danny Goldberg examines in his new book Bloody Crossroads 2020: Art, Entertainment some of the numerous cases of entertainers commenting on the presidential race and this tumultuous year with viral tweets and other postings, and resistance against Trump.

Goldberg is well aware of the interrelationship between politics and such stars. In his half century in the music business – as a journalist (Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, The Nation), record company president, and band manager (Nirvana, Sonic Youth) – Goldberg turned to progressive themes while co-producing and directing the rock documentary No Nukes and in 1980 became a fixture in democratic politics while also writing and authoring for The Nation. Goldberg spoke to Capital & Main about what we can learn from the presidential election and celebrity activism to understand our political future.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Capital & Main: What was your inspiration for this book?

Danny Goldberg: I’ve been interested in the relationship between artists and politics for a long time. I have often thought that the political media – especially the ill-right political media – tends to trivialize it in ways that are not helpful to the progressive cause.

I also felt that while the right wing tried to get Democrats and Liberals to stay away from the world of entertainment, they knew how valuable it was. Hence Reagan as governor of California and then president. But Trump took it to a whole other level. He was only president because he hosted a reality TV show for 14 years at prime time. He had branded himself on the minds of tens of millions of Americans as this brilliant businessman. And people in the entertainment industry knew then – and do now – that reality TV had little to do with reality.

It struck me that there was this explosion of a much broader and more diverse group of people in the creative community speaking out after Trump was elected. And I thought it would be interesting to try and document the role they played in the election.

In the book you document Hollywood’s history of activism. But it has intensified over the past few years. Why do you think this is?

We live, for better or for worse, in a world where social media is very important and where general old school media are limited in their reach. And the other side has invested a lot here. Check out the top 10 Facebook posts on a specific day. Usually it’s someone like Ben Shapiro or Dinesh D’Souza. It tilts to the right. And they have Fox News. They have AM talk radio. They have these other television stations even to the right of Fox speaking in a populist language and repeating their version of reality over and over again. Speeches in the Senate and comments in the New York Times and NPR won’t reach enough people to fight back. They also need populist messengers.

Over the years it has been felt that when entertainers speak up politically they are actually having the opposite effect of what they are trying to achieve. Some conservatives claim that people in the “overflight” states do not like it when the liberal elites tell them what to do. Do you think this is true

There are two categories of people who criticize or belittle the role of artists and entertainers in political discussions. One category is people who are ideologically on the other side. So Laura Ingraham writes the book Shut Up and Sing, but I don’t think she wanted Kid Rock to shut up and sing, or Jon Voight to shut up and play, or Donald Trump to shut up stops and goes back to reality television.

I think the law is threatened by [Hollywood activism] because they realize that there is this populist current that entertainers can create, reaching people that op-ed writers cannot. And I think that’s why they demonize entertainers so much.

And then there is the phenomenon of some kind of liberal condescension towards entertainers. I think some experts have a certain territoriality. People who have studied politics all their lives take pride in their expertise, and yet Meryl Streep says something about insecticides and it gets more attention.

“I think the right is threatened by Hollywood activism because they realize that there is this populist current that entertainers can create, that reach people that op-ed writers can’t.”

And the role of artists in politics is not limited to recommendations. If anything, their art historically plays a bigger role when it comes to problems. I don’t think the reaction of younger whites to the murder of George Floyd would have been as violent if it wasn’t for a couple of decades of hip-hop lyrics to raise white hip-hop fans’ awareness of the racist problem, the police force.

I don’t think gay marriage would have become that popular [without depictions in movies and TV shows]. During the Clinton years [supporting gay marriage] was a surefire way for the Democrats to lose. And when Obama ran for re-election, over 60% of Americans supported gay marriage and it was a vulnerability to be homophobic.

Do you think political activism among entertainers will continue to grow?

I think the creative community will have a louder voice in the future than in the years before Trump. I think once you’ve crossed the bridge and decided to weigh your political beliefs, it usually feels pretty good to most people. I spoke to Springsteen during his 20s and he didn’t say a single word politically. And then in 1980 Jackson Browne asked him to play the No Nukes concerts. And that was the first political thing he did. And from then on over the past 40 years he has been weighing things up. Sean Penn once said [about activism], “Once it’s in your DNA, it won’t work anymore.”

Do you think the creative community helped swing the 2020 election?

I think they were part of it. I think putting Kamala Harris on a ticket was the right move. I think the way Biden reached out to Bernie Sanders was very helpful in motivating and making his constituents feel like they support Biden. But they also had a celebrity host every single night of their convention. They had Brad Pitt tell one of Biden’s commercials, and Springsteen another. You must have thought there was a reason to use these people.

“Politicians operate in a very narrow area of ​​conversation, and this narrowness can sometimes be exploited by some of the darkest forces.”

The book is an exhaustive chronicle of entertainment activism, but it avoids any analysis. Why is that?

I just think I deny that [celebrity activism] Part of the mix wasn’t rational to me, but trying to measure the exact effect of it would be ridiculous in my opinion. I just don’t trust anyone who says they know why someone is voting one way or the other. I think this is pseudoscience. I think there are certain things research can tell you. There are certain things focus groups can tell you. There are certain things polls can tell you. And there’s a lot none of these things can tell you.

What is the most important message that you want your readers to take away from this book?

Just to think more openly about what the political talk is in America and acknowledge that politicians need to focus on the next election – what the polls say, what a focus group says, what their funders want. You operate in a very narrow area of ​​conversation, and that narrowness can sometimes be exploited by some of the darkest forces.

And I think that only the expansion of consciousness enables more oxygen in conversation, more energy, less fear, less despair. I firmly believe in more – more people involved, more energy. Artists should also be among them. It should involve young people. But if there had to be a message it would be: We won.

Copyright 2021 Capital & Main

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