The script for what happens after a mass shooting—the thoughts, the prayers, the arguments, the forgetting—has come to, even, include mourning that such a script exists at all. At least as far back as 2012, after the killings in Aurora, Colorado, my colleagues were writing about “The Template of Our Grief” and “The Certainty of More Shootings.” This year, after the Parkland shooting, The Boston Globe described the contours of the next massacre and the next mourning process. The predictions have been now fulfilled, inevitably, by the murders in Santa Fe, Texas.
The public can easily anticipate, too, what happens when one grim ritual of American life, the mass shooting, bumps up against a more celebratory one, the awards show. There’s a moment of silence, and then it’s back to business. But at the Billboard Music Awards on Sunday, the pop star Kelly Clarkson tried to rewrite that script. On a dark stage, smiling and maintaining folksiness even through tears, the American Idol winner repeatedly referenced a “they”—presumably the Billboard producers, who’d booked her to be the event’s host.
“Tonight, they wanted me to say that, obviously, we want to pray for all the victims, we want to pray for their families,” she said. “But they also wanted me to do a moment of silence.”
“And I’m so sick of moments of silence. It’s not working—like, obviously. So why don’t we not do a moment of silence?”
Like, obviously: She needed not explain what she meant. The moment of silence is inherently a gesture of futility; it’s a time to remember, not solve, loss. In fact, in a pluralistic society like America, the moment of silence is meant to contain the possibility of “thoughts and prayers,” whether placed at the beginning of a public-school day or after an episode of bloodshed. Together but separately, people of all or no faiths can direct their inner selves as they see fit—without imposing beliefs, without requiring consensus, without making noise.
If such gestures are, as Clarkson suggested, ineffectual, what might replace them? She had a suggestion for this, as well: a moment of “action” and “change.”
“Instead of a moment of silence, I want to respect [the victims and their families] and honor them,” she said. “In your community, where you live, your friends, everybody—let’s have a moment of action. Let’s have a moment of change."
This call, too, is plenty familiar in public life of late. It echoes pleas to replace “hashtag activism” with phone calls to one’s elected representative, and its logic of this is obvious enough. Rather than do nothing, do something.
But Clarkson did not explain what something might be. The senselessness of violence like that in Santa Fe has been much discussed, but there are, of course, possible solutions on the table. Like gun control, which Clarkson, glaringly, did not mention (an avowed firearm owner, she has previously expressed support for gun education and background checks). Nor did she latch onto any of the other concrete concerns being debated publicly: blaming violent video games, or calling for mental-health programs, or reimagining the layout of schools. Her call for action was nearly as empty as silence itself, with the listener able to project their own feelings, their own beliefs, onto the moment.
Clarkson’s critique of silence came, fittingly enough, in a year when it’s been made clear what it sounds like when people get fed up with mere rhetoric and start taking action against mass shootings. The students at Parkland and their followers have focused on specific policy aims as they’ve staged their walk-outs, rallies, and volunteer efforts. With their activism continuing after Santa Fe, it appears as though they’re aspiring to more than a “moment” of change, and rather a sustained movement.
You can argue there is something productive in Clarkson’s vaguer approach. She said, in essence, that whatever you believe, you should do something about it, rather than remain apathetic or paralyzed. But there’s something troubling, too, in critiquing silence as too timid and then declining to say what you actually think should be done to prevent the next horror. Clarkson did imbue powerful emotion in her speech, drawing upon her own roots in Texas. Yet at an awards show devoted to the profitability of music more than its content, she stood vulnerable to the most cynical critique of what pop stars do: sell a feeling, and nothing more.