For Celebrities, Apathy Can Be a Form of Political Credibility

Stars are focused less on candidates than on democracy itself this year, and using their own past indifference as a tool.

Tyler, the Creator
"Please, please, if you’re young, and your fucking back don’t hurt, go to the polls and cast a fucking vote." -Tyler, the Creator (Getty / The Atlantic)

Tyler, the Creator’s phone camera appeared to be smudged. He had aimed his lens up his nostrils. He seemed to be sweating. “I know I’m the last person y’all should ever take advice from,” the 29-year-old rapper told his fans in a video posted to Instagram and Twitter. “But I’m reiterating what everyone else is saying. Please, please, if you’re young, and your fucking back don’t hurt, go to the polls and cast a fucking vote.”

Stylistically, this was a typically scruffy and profane message for an artist whose signature chorus goes, “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school.” Substance-wise, it seemed to make him squirm. In the past, Tyler said in the video, he “didn’t give a fuck about none of this shit”—politics—“just like a lot of y’all ... But I see the light.” He wants follow-through for the Black Lives Matter movement. He wants more arts education in schools. Alluding to gay rights, he said he likes “being able to marry whoever I want at any given moment.” And so this year, he said, he’ll be voting for the first time ever.

Scratch one more name off the shortening list of celebrities who haven’t weighed in on politics in 2020. Taylor Swift, who was notoriously silent during the 2016 campaign, is baking cookies frosted with the Biden-Harris logo. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the action star whose movies unite red and blue America, threw his first-ever presidential endorsement to the Democrats. Donald Trump retains much of his small celebrity fan club from 2016—Kid Rock, Roseanne Barr, Jon Voight—though Clint Eastwood appears to have gone centrist on him. Still, the more inescapable examples of celebrity activism in 2020 are not for or against a particular candidate. They are rather, as in Tyler’s case, for the act of voting itself.

Such efforts are not new, obviously. Musicians joined the 1964 Freedom Summer drive to register Black voters in Mississippi. Rock the Vote partnered with MTV and helped sweep Gen X into the political fray in the early ’90s. P. Diddy’s slogan “Vote or Die” targeted hip-hop listeners in 2004. Yet for the past few national elections, the more memorable crossovers between pop culture and politics have been grounded in candidate-worship. The star-studded schmaltz of Will.I.Am’s “Yes We Can” music video soundtracked Barack Obama’s 2008 run. Pop stars and actors in couture pantsuits trailed Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In both 2016 and 2020, Bernie Sanders found a one-of-a-kind spokesperson in Cardi B.

In 2020, Trump and Biden have their visible supporters and detractors, but the candidates themselves sometimes seem beside the point on social media. Tune in to any given platform where influencers influence, and you’ll see a stream of infomercial-like content about ballot procedures and civic duty. Some of it is from corporate brands engaged in image management. Some of it is from fashion retailers who have realized that the hot fall design consists of the letters V, O, T, and E. But much of it is from entertainers who have typically peddled escapism. Justin Bieber assured his followers that he has “never been political” even as he urged them to vote. Chris Evans used his allegedly accidental publication of an explicit pic as an opportunity to plug the polls. With one Instagrammed bikini pose, Kylie Jenner drove thousands to a registration site. Samuel L. Jackson put on a swearing clinic to encourage people to use their voice on November 3.

The emphasis on voting itself comes at a time when the act of casting a ballot is especially fraught. Fearing that the coronavirus will keep people from the polls, activists and officials in many states have worked to make it easier to vote early and by mail—which means voters need to be educated about a host of new rules. At the same time, the virus has thwarted old-fashioned canvassing efforts involving clipboards and folding tables. Partisan legal battles over ballot procedures further complicate the picture. A report issued in September by the Brennan Center for Justice found that voter registration in many states “plummeted” from 2016 to 2020. Online canvassing will be key to making up the gap, and voting organizations say their efforts in the past few months have been paying off.

The challenge facing artists who try to pitch in is that voting is, in itself, not a particularly interesting thing to talk about. Scan the deep catalog of recent celebrity election PSAs, and you quickly develop an allergy for all forms of the phrases use your voice and make yourself heard. Even the stars seem to realize it’s boring. Take the example of Jeff Goldblum, who in an Instagram video promised to re-create a classic scene from Jurassic Park if enough people registered, checked their registration status, or requested a mail-in ballot via his unique link. To make this pitch, he read from a piece of paper with a script on it. In extremely Goldblumian fashion—with wacky facial expressions and mouth noises—he critiqued the banality of what he was reading as he read it. “You’re not going to want to miss it,” went the last line of the script, leading Goldblum to ad lib, “Well, I don’t even know you.” He then crumpled up the paper and threw it away.

Disavowing preachiness and clichés while also preaching clichés is nothing new for voting activists. In an early-’90s Rock the Vote ad, Chris Cornell stood in front of a garbage dump and admitted that no one was going to vote just because a rock star told them to. But social media is a more intimate-seeming medium than TV commercials are, and there’s a special kind of strangeness in seeing the individual personalities of one’s Instagram feed all speechify about their reluctance to speechify. This has led to an aesthetic of pseudo-irony cloaking deep earnestness. You see it when Jane Fonda leads other celebs in a slapstick workout routine with the slogan “Exercise That Vote.” You see it when Lady Gaga, wearing her most normcore glasses and sweater, sings on camera, “I know this is cheesy, but is easy.” The implication of such videos is that corniness is no sin when democracy is at stake. Who can argue with that?

Goldblum, for what it’s worth, did end up “re-creating” a Jurassic Park scene, by bringing in co-stars Sam Neill and Laura Dern for a goofy bit of home video. Other get-out-the-vote efforts—many of them organized by voting groups such as HeadCount and When We All Vote—have also tried to harness the power of nostalgia. Katie Couric hosted a Zoom reunion for the cast of Mean Girls, and the results were a charming treat for fans of the 2004 teen comedy. But 15 minutes into watching the actors’ reminiscences, I began to wonder what the election had to do with affection for Lindsay Lohan’s heyday. There’s also the example of the synth-pop band The Postal Service, which released one hugely beloved album in 2003 and then never put out any new music ever again. The group’s social-media accounts teased something big in early October. Was it a new album? No, it was an 18-minute comedy skit/PSA in which various famous people tried out to join the band, and occasionally mentioned voting while doing so.

For all the effort going into such videos, many chipper calls to do one’s duty don’t address the disenfranchisement and disillusionment underlying the reality that 100 million Americans don’t vote. So it’s been striking to see a different, seemingly less orchestrated kind of celebrity dispatch emerge: confessions from professed nonvoters. In addition to Tyler, Shaquille O’Neal, Snoop Dogg, Offset, and a number of NBA players have all gone public saying this will be their first year at the polls. Their reasons for getting involved now—and not before—vary: Shaq said he didn’t understand the Electoral College until recently; Snoop and Offset say they believed their criminal records precluded them from being able to vote. In each case, the simple change from disengagement to engagement makes a statement that’s more profound than any hashtag or jingle. In Tyler the Creator’s voting video, he said he knows that “a lot of y’all are going to be like, ‘My vote don’t matter and they’re going to pick who they want.’” But it’s clear, given the video’s very existence, that he also knows how to get past that attitude.