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The Celebrity Endorsement That Actually Matters

On Dave Chappelle, Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift, and the power of reluctant activism in this crappy, confusing year

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Friday night Dave Chappelle gave the most grudging, reluctant, teeth-gritting political endorsement of all time. [Dave Chappelle voice] Of all time! Onstage at the Cutting Room in New York City, he “shocked the crowd,” as the New York Observer was delighted to report, “with a 60-minute set largely devoted to slamming Hillary Clinton.” That he’d already voted for her is mere trivia. In post-fact, post-decorum America, it’s not what you did, it’s what other people say about how you said you felt about doing it.

Let us note at the onset, as the Observer piece notes at its conclusion, that the paper’s personal relationship with Trump is … complicated. And context matters: Live in the room, the set struck other attendees at least a little differently. But Chappelle gave supporters of both candidates plenty of ammo. He chastised the media for suggesting that Trump’s locker-room talk necessarily implied sexual assault: “He said, ‘And when you’re a star, they let you do it.’ That phrase implies consent.” He described — praised? coronated? denounced? you decide! — Trump as “the most gangsta candidate ever.” In conclusion, as regards Hillary, in the Observer’s own careful words:

The image is, uh, vivid; the slogan is a little wordier than “I’m with her.” A Chappelle rep has since tersely clarified these remarks: “His comedy show blasted both candidates … by the way, he voted for Hillary.” But if you’re voting for her, too, it’s not what you’d have wanted, or expected, from a Liberal Media Cultural Darling.

Earlier on Friday, Chappelle had been announced as the host of the first postelection Saturday Night Live, on November 12, with A Tribe Called Quest as the musical guest. This gave rise to two distinctly left-leaning sliding-doors fantasies: If Hillary wins, that show will be a raucous, joyous, schadenfreude-slinging celebration of a fatal bullet dodged, and if Trump wins, an enraged Chappelle will join ATCQ in smashing the set with sledgehammers while “Show Business” plays over the PA system. No middle ground, and no question Chappelle was fully on board with the blue-state program.

That Chappelle’s political thoughts turned out to be far angrier, disgusted, nuanced, and controversial caught most onlookers by surprise. (His ruminations on North Carolina’s transphobic bathroom bill — he’s against it, though “he noted he would rather not have ‘a woman with a dick’ stand next to him at a urinal” — didn’t go over so well.) It’s “the Notorious RBG” putting Colin Kaepernick on blast all over again. This sort of tortured ambiguity is not what anyone wants from a Celebrity Political Endorsement, but Chappelle himself has been historically instrumental in showing us that stars, in this realm as in most of the others, are really just like us. Flawed, self-contradictory, politically impolitic, and, at this point, at least, absolutely sick of this shit.

Beyoncé’s own Celebrity Political Endorsement this past weekend was far less conflicted, though she sure waited until the last minute to make it. Friday night she joined Jay Z, Chance the Rapper, and (why not) Big Sean at a massive Hillary rally at Cleveland State’s Wolstein Center. Her backup dancers wore pantsuits; for the backstage photo op, Mrs. Carter herself opted for, yes, an “I’m With Her” T-shirt. Sunday night, at another Clinton rally, LeBron James told another Cleveland crowd that “this woman right here has the brightest future for our world.” (J.R. Smith showed up, too; that he wore a shirt at all was concession enough.) Tuesday night, Bruce Springsteen will join Clinton, Barack and Michelle Obama, and (why not) Jon Bon Jovi at a rally in Philadelphia.

Of these unabashed A-lister endorsements — the coolest and biggest superstar cosigns liberals could’ve hoped for, with a few exceptions — only LeBron’s, first announced in his October op-ed for Business Insider, was met with much surprise. (Beyoncé is a bigger name, but given her political inclinations, her Hillary support was taken as more of a given.) Michael Jordan, his predecessor in NBA dominance, had always been reluctant to speak out politically, a calculated temerity summed up by his infamous (and possibly apocryphal) quote, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

Of course, Jordan broke that long-established silence this summer, addressing the issue of police brutality. Whereas LeBron is a wartime superstar in every sense, and lately has been acting like it, first with his more general call-to-action ESPYs speech in July alongside Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony, then with the explicit Clinton endorsement. That LeBron is, by some margin, the most beloved human in one of the election’s most coveted battleground states only heightens the theoretical impact.

But Springsteen’s path to that Philly rally stage might be more instructive about the calculus stars are making this year. As a beloved and plainly left-leaning Voice of the Common Man, he has never shied away from choosing a side, and he tends to grandly surface in any given election’s last 48 hours or so, whether he’s stumping for John Kerry in 2004 or Obama in 2012. But as recently as last month in a Vanity Fair cover profile, he seemed to be at least contemplating sitting this one out, declining to address Trump directly, though adding, “When the times have felt very drastic, I feel like, ‘Well, I gotta put my two cents in.’ So we’ll see what happens.”

What persuaded him to reprise his role as the Democratic Party’s musical savior (rockist division)? Why did he consider renouncing that throne in the first place, and why now, drastic as this election was from the start? Could it be a specific reluctance to antagonize Trump voters whose economic anxiety, as the hotly contested story goes, mirrors that of the characters in his most famous songs? Republicans love the Boss, after all, from Chris Christie to every candidate who has ever hilariously misinterpreted the sentiment of “Born in the U.S.A.”

Or is it simple fatigue? He’s done all this before, weathered all the doomsaying, raised rattled spirits at these 11th-hour rallies. Sometimes his side wins, and sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s hard to say how much influence he wields in either case. We’ve all got a pretty good read on the guy, sociopolitically, in 2016. Why would he fling himself into the mud again, if this time it’s practically radioactive? Is the upside high enough? Could the downside get any scarier?

Even the less garish, boldface anti-Trump movements, involving artists and activists far less likely to attract (or lose) right-wing fans in general, have more of a palliative effect. Dave Eggers’s “30 Days, 30 Songs” project has plenty of appeal for a specific audience, roping in Aimee Mann, R.E.M., Ani DiFranco, Moby, and others, but it’s highly unlikely that a true undecided voter will be swayed by a D-plus Death Cab for Cutie jam. Most of this stuff has the soothing but ultimately empty feel of various choirs preaching to themselves. Financially and artistically, there’s far less at stake here for more niche-oriented bands already known to be liberal-minded; below the Springsteen tier, there’s far less danger here, beyond, y’know, the possible destruction of America as we know it.

Musicians on the other side of the aisle aren’t faring any better at winning hearts and minds, or even much trying. Country music, naturally, remains a primarily red-state enterprise, but you’ll find few right-leaning genre superstars willing to back Trump unambiguously. Last week’s Country Music Association Awards — the genre’s biggest night — was stridently tame, save (there she is again!) Beyoncé’s technically apolitical but still thrilling and confrontational team-up with the Dixie Chicks, who know better than anyone what a few words of public protest can do to a superstar career.

The precedent had already been set; country’s biggest stars are mostly proceeding with extreme, and somewhat uncharacteristic, caution. Ired by media speculation, Blake Shelton tweeted back in July that “I haven’t enforced ANYBODY for president.” And Eric Church, a brash outlaw type whose big breakout hit included the line “Wanna little more right / And a little less left,” has struck a more conciliatory tone ever since; his 2016 election talk has tended toward vague dismay, and his new single, the anti-bullying ballad “Kill a Word,” is a soft-tossed but not unaffecting plea for something approaching national unity. The more famous — and maybe the more previously outspoken you are — the less you want any part of this, this time out. Even if you suspect most of your audience agrees with you, what’s the upside of making that explicit? At the highest levels, the stakes seem higher this time, that precipice more treacherous. Which explains why the single loudest megacelebrity voice right now is the silent one.

She won’t name names. It’s uncharacteristic. For some, it’s wildly upsetting. “It’s time for Taylor Swift to say something about Donald Trump,” went a Fusion headline last month. Thesis: “To remain silent is to remain complicit in every hateful statement, every reminder that a man with power and fame can — as Trump said this weekend — ’do whatever he wants.’”

Aside from publicly declaring herself a feminist, Swift has historically been careful to never get too political or offer much in the way of an endorsement to anyone, and in this largely quiet and L-ridden calendar year, you can hardly blame her for staying out of it. But people blame her all the same. Her likely reasoning is Michael Jordan–esque: Republicans buy Taylor Swift records, too. Most of her records, probably. It’s hard to say what would’ve happened if she’d come out for Hillary in a big, flashy, unmistakable way. (Imagine Clinton at a dull, pedestrian event, suddenly grinning wildly and bellowing, “PLEASE WELCOME TO THE STAGE …”) An avalanche of hate mail not at all commensurate with the number of back-patting critical hosannas, most likely. That Swift has the most to lose is why Clinton had the most to gain. Taylor is (arguably) the biggest pop star in America, with (less arguably) the largest percentage of fans liable to unironically own “Make America Great Again” hats. She is the machine, and the ghost within it. It’s a business decision. It’s self-preservation. Call it cowardly, but it wouldn’t be you weathering the fallout.

For anti-Trump types, then, you take what you can get, from whoever’s willing to give it to you.

The anti-party line has always been that repressive Republican regimes are great for music, and punk rock especially, but the 21st century hasn’t exactly borne that out. The few high-profile sonic bromides tossed at George W. Bush were forgettable or worse; the mere threat of a Trump administration triggered a little more blowback, but not nearly enough, if that’s your inclination. But there are exceptions. Nicki Minaj’s gorgeously bleep-able onstage endorsement is this year’s finest innovation of the form. And Los Angeles rapper YG’s bracing, brutal “FDT” will likely go down, happily, as the pinnacle of distilling anti-Donald sentiment into song, though it’s also a sad monument to the fact that few even tried to match it, that there aren’t hundreds if not thousands more monuments like it.

That rap music made at least a little more noise this election season might help explain why Chappelle’s comments got so much play or inspired so much hand-wringing. But maybe his endorsement is powerful precisely because of how reluctant and combative and discordant and unsatisfying it was. Nothing about the 2016 election has been normal, or advisable, or remotely pleasant. The strongest statement you can possibly make is to lament, in the angriest, most profane and combative terms imaginable, that you’re being forced to take a side at all. And then take a side. There is hard nobility in wishing you didn’t have to do the thing, and then going for it anyway.