Today’s pop stars embrace their roles as political figures. Taylor Swift and Beyoncé identify as feminists. They speak out on gender equality and support women’s empowerment. Meanwhile, Miley Cyrus has become a voice for LGBTQ youth homelessness. Through her Happy Hippie Foundation, she has pledged to help a population largely overlooked by the mainstream LGBTQ movement. The media and fans alike swoon at these efforts—just as Swift, Cyrus, and Beyoncé want them to.
Appearing progressive is complemented by the “edgy content” in pop stars’ music and performances. Videos that challenge gender roles, standards of beauty and the representation of love provide millennials with a tangible—albeit potentially superficial—representation of their views. These gestures incite celebratory articles, blog posts, and social media feedback through which young fans curate and telegraph their socio-political identities.
Arguably innocuous, such surface-level activism is masking a frustrating phenomenon: In their efforts to be edgy, white pop artists in particular are brazenly exploiting people of color. Taylor Swift nestles underneath twerk-teams. Katy Perry has dressed up as Cleopatra, geishas, and caricatures of black women. And, after repeatedly being called out for appropriating black culture, Miley Cyrus sported dreads and called Snoop Dog “mammy” at the VMAs last month.
So much of the power of this exploitation relies on the illusion of ignorance. Lily Allen claimed that when she groped the black backup dancers in her music video for “Hard Out There,” she merely meant to provoke conversations about misogyny in music. When Swift essentially dismissed Nicki Minaj as being an angry black woman on Twitter, she claimed that Minaj was pitting women against each other, a cardinal sin in the age of #squadgoals. And when Minaj confronted Cyrus at the VMAs for her comments, Cyrus claimed she was misrepresented by the press.
In an ideal world, fans would be able to use the same online tools they use to share pop stars’ activism in order to deter racist behavior. Yet when the same websites and publications that praise these artists condemn them through listicles and scathing blog posts, often the artists still come out ahead. Indeed, it seems millennials define themselves as much by hate-watching racist videos as by sharing progressive ones. In order to speak out against racist media, we are forced to inadvertently promote it.
In recent months, both Cyrus and Swift have made a point of surrounding themselves with people of color. Swift has adamantly voiced her love for rapper Kendrick Lamar and her new friendship with Kanye West, while Cyrus asked advocates from the Happy Hippie Foundation to announce her new album at the VMAs. In light of these alliances, it’s important to remember that the same publicity cycle that endorses this activism and allyship gives Swift, Cyrus and other white pop stars every reason to keep offending their fans. Whether we are shaming their sexual liberation, fawning over their righteousness or condemning their callous behavior, we’re still giving celebrity media teams what they want by virtue of our collective liking, sharing and retweeting. The commodity of entertainer edginess may come in exchangeable forms—but it’s time we wise up and prove that racial insensitivity is bad for pop stars’ bottom line.