Ashley Judd ushered in the Oscars debut of the academic term often used to signal a multi-pronged approach: intersectionality, whose complicated and weighty meaning notes how social and economic power collects and collides to bear down on some people, like black women, more than others. In Hollywood, recognizing intersectionality will mean a shift of rhetoric and business practices, and there are promising signs that that is happening. But the concept has also been co-opted as an aesthetic—a look, a sound, a feel—and in that, its utility becomes more limited or, at the least, more predictable. The word diversity is beginning to fall out of favor, but its accompanying tropes remain: a pageant of varied faces, a thematic call for unity, and maybe some celestial lighting.
Grouped together, it could be called Commoncore. The moment that, for better or worse, crystallized the Oscars’ politics was Common’s turn on Andra Day’s “Stand Up for Something,” an anthem from the movie Marshall. With Dr. Seussian simplicity, the rapper made a rhyming laundry list:
On Oscar night, this is the dream we tell
A land where dreamers live and freedom dwells
Immigrants get the benefits
We put up monuments for the feminists …
Tell the NRA they in God’s way
And to the people of Parkland we say Asè …
Sentiments of love for the people
From Africa, Haiti to Puerto Rico
As Common rapped and Day sang, lights shone upon 10 activists from a variety of causes—Alice Brown Otter from the Standing Rock Youth Council, Tarana Burke of #MeToo, the trans icon Janet Mock, the celebrity chef and anti-hunger advocate José Andrés, to name a few. It might have been the debut of an explicitly progressive coalition, rooted in shared ideals about universal equity and collective duty. Yet Common changed the subject with this: “Anybody in this room, whatever you believe in, we want you to stand up right now … Stand up for what you believe in.” But what if you believe in building the border wall and arming teachers? The Trump-dissing Common would likely prefer you sit down then. Right there is the limitation of treating protest as an aesthetic.
Minutes later in the telecast, another musical performance got across a very similar idea with very similar staging. The Greatest Showman’s “This Is Me,” an uplifting march song with Arcade Fire–like wooing, is about being proud of yourself no matter who you are—even if you are, to use the movie’s example, a member of a circus freak show. Behind performer Keala Settle stood dignified-looking singers clearly meant to telegraph inclusivity: a woman in a headscarf, a kid with pink hair, and so on. We’ve seen this sort of spectacle time and again. People are still inspired by it, as seen in The Greatest Showman’s success. But it’s hard not to be cynical. Catchy choruses telling anyone who’s been made to feel like a loser that they are actually a winner have been in vogue for a while now, and still the (actual) state of representation in the music industry is dismal.