Never mind the bollocks if the job gets done

April 6, 2007

There is more to the pop star politician than just a cynical bid to sell records, argues John Street

In December 1976, the Daily Mirror 's front page denounced "The filth and the fury". Nearly three decades later, the same paper announced that "Brits stars blitz Blair". In the intervening period much had changed, if not the penchant for alliteration. The first article was about the Sex Pistols swearing at the hapless Bill Grundy on early evening television.

The second referred to a series of rock stars trying to persuade the Prime Minister not to embark on the Iraq War at The Brits music awards in 2003.

They failed, of course, but two years later many of those same musicians were to be seen performing at Live8. This time, their efforts did not go in vain. They persuaded - or so it seemed - the G8 leaders to alter their policy on debt for the developing world.

Our pop stars had gone from being pariahs to paragons of virtue. No longer dangerous influences on the young or threats to civilised values; now they were bastions of the establishment, models of compassion and social responsibility.

This story seems to entail two entwined narratives. One tells of the elevation of the pop star as representative of the popular conscience. The other tells of the decline in the traditional forms of political action and leadership. This latter tale is captured in the idea of "post-democracy", a social order in which, according to sociologist Colin Crouch, we retain the vestiges of democracy, the formal mechanisms of participation and accountability, but where the reality is a politics conducted by unaccountable political elites. This is a world in which the people experience politics as popular spectacle, in which they are the virtual participants but not the real architects. In such a world, says Crouch, the elites have recourse to show business in order to fuel popular interest in politics. They appear with Jonathan Ross; they compete on Celebrity Big Brother ; they act with Catherine Tate.

What this story misses, however, is the way in which the pop stars have come to embrace this role. The Times gave Live Aid a short piece on its front page, in which the first person quoted was the event's accountant. Twenty years later, The Times gave its entire cover to Live8 and its message.

This new order of celebrity politics, recently evidenced in the reassuring announcement that our pop heroes are now turning their attention to global warming, is often an object of abuse. From non-governmental organisations who have worked for years to develop popular awareness of complex development and other agendas, stars not only steal the limelight but, more worryingly, distort the agenda and close down the debate. Bob Geldof and Bono become the experts on Africa and debt. Elsewhere, critics complain of stars' unaccountability and ignorance, explaining their involvement not by commitment to the cause, but by career considerations, as their back catalogue is miraculously revived by a sudden insight into the political economy of development.

And yet, and yet. It is easy to be cynical about the poseur politics of the pop star, but to do so is to miss much. Complicit in the process are the newspapers that give space and credibility to the stars. And if accountability is the problem, then this is as much a difficulty for the NGOs as it is for the stars whose endorsement they seek.J This is not about accountable politicians versus dilettante performers, but rather about the complex way in which political ideas are communicated and experienced in a post-democratic order. Processes of representation operate within and outside formal political mechanisms, just as political ideas are articulated in soap operas and news broadcasts.

In research at the University of East Anglia on events such as Live8, we also looked at Rock against Racism from 1976. RAR may have been a very different type of celebrity politics, conducted on a quite different scale, but what is striking is how - for many RAR fans - it came to matter so much, shaping simultaneously political and musical sensibilities upon which the fans still draw.

Live8 may seem the very antithesis of RAR, and in many ways it was, but the sense of engagement that it fuelled through its musical events also resonated with popular feeling and articulated political claims. What these were and how they worked is an empirical question, not a matter of faith or political dogma. The celebrity politician deserves closer scrutiny, not summary dismissal or unreserved embrace. We may not elect them, but we can judge them as politicians and as performers, and by the way they try to combine both roles.

John Street is professor of politics at the University of East Anglia.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments