The celebrities have never been less OK. This week Nicki Minaj claimed on Twitter that her cousin’s friend in Trinidad got the Covid vaccine, then suffered from swollen testicles and became impotent.
Online discourse blew up. There was a Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend backlash, a Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend backlash to the backlash, and eventually a Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend press conference where Trinidad’s actual health minister denied any recent cases of the second jab swelling anyone’s balls, including, presumably, those of Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend.
One pities Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend, a stoic presence in the brouhaha who probably wishes he’d come up with a different cover story to explain his chlamydia symptoms.
Trinidad has around the same population as Dublin, where it seems to me pretty plausible that you could tell your pal a white lie and have it broadcast worldwide after they transpired to be related to Jedward.
An entertainer with millions of followers will only have a small fraction of that audience believing everything they say. But a small fraction of millions is still a lot of people being misled. It’s understandable that ordinary people jumped in to ask Minaj what on earth was going on.
It got weirder when public figures joined in. Even Boris Johnson got involved. I am all for wasting the time of the British government — since, after all, they kept Ireland waiting for 800 years — but why do famous artists receive this level of response when they deign to weigh in on public health?
There are a couple of unspoken premises at play here. The first is that the most celebrated artists are the best artists. The second is that the best artists are the best people, and their statements on any matter will be instructive to the general population.
That first premise, ‘most celebrated artist equals best artist’, is bogus. I used to be puzzled when people asked if my parents are writers — why would they be? Do you ask your plumber if their parents are plumbers? — until I realised the literary world is so nepotistic that it’s a fair question. Those who can afford to focus full-time on art before they’re making money will often find success sooner.
What’s considered ‘good’ is culturally contingent; the loose monster novels that the Victorians loved are entirely different beasts to the shorter, sharper bestsellers of today.
And art is personal. A novel can be very good at being the kind of novel it’s trying to be, and if you don’t like that kind of novel then you’ll still hate it.
But let’s suppose an artist can be objectively ‘good’ and that our culture follows a fair process for finding and highlighting those people. Why do we give them so much authority on areas outside their field?
It’s easy to take exception to wild anti-vaccine ramblings. I’d be concerned if you didn’t, almost as concerned as I am for Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend. But virtually any sentiment loses force and meaning when it becomes the focal point of an atomised personality cult.
Another of this week’s excesses proves as much: the various ‘political’ outfits at New York’s annual Met Gala. While police arrested Black Lives Matter protesters for demonstrating outside the high fashion event, attendees fawned on the renegade style of those fortunate enough to snag a ticket. “TAX THE RICH”, said Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dress. “PEG THE PATRIARCHY”, demanded Cara Delevingne’s top.
One can nitpick the intrinsic value of these slogans. Most countries already tax the rich, to my knowledge, bar a few places like Monaco and the UAE. If ‘TAX THE RICH MORE’ sounds a bit wet, that’s because it can’t rely on aping the rhythm of ‘EAT THE RICH’ to sound more radical than it is.
As for ‘PEG THE PATRIARCHY’… pardon? If the intended meaning is ‘humiliate or break the patriarchy’, implying that penetrative sex humiliates or breaks the recipient, then that’s a fairly patriarchal sentiment. I would suggest you peg a consenting adult and join a union.
But the problem isn’t fundamentally with the slogans themselves. It’s that all areas of public discourse seem to be moving towards a Hollywood star system, where we choose our heroes and organise our beliefs around them.
We feel like we know them. We think they share our interests. In reality, wealth and fame shield celebrities from most aspects of life that might give them any personal stake in changing the world for the better.
When individuals possess a huge amount of power, I suppose they might as well put it to the best use they can. But better yet would be if they didn’t have that power to begin with.
Some of celebrities’ power comes from massive wealth inequality. Some comes from the unprecedented ability of modern media to get names and faces into places they have no business haunting.
Regardless of where it comes from, celebrified politics gives its mascots an outsized ego. It distracts the rest of us from local and collectivist forms of activism. That’s just my take on it, though — for a more informed opinion, you might want to ask Nicki Minaj’s cousin’s friend.