SALT LAKE CITY — Hollywood is not an essential business. That’s become clear in recent days, as stay-at-home orders shuttered movie theaters, halted production of TV shows and postponed concerts and film releases. Broadway is also on hiatus.
For many entertainers, the coronavirus pandemic abruptly turned the spotlight off, and some are struggling to remain relevant in a society where values have changed.
“Celebrity culture is burning,” proclaimed a headline in The New York Times, where pop culture critic Amanda Hess examined some of the tone-deaf ways in which Hollywood stars have tried to engage their fans in the stay-at-home era.
Jennifer Lopez, who only recently emerged from controversy over a racy Super Bowl halftime performance, posted a video on Twitter of her family socially isolating at fiance Alex Rodriguez’s 12,000-square-foot Miami estate, which has a pool and an indoor basketball court, according to Town and Country magazine.
Some people replied asking Lopez to Venmo them money, and one pointed out that California had just processed 80,000 unemployment applications in one day, compared to the usual 2,000. “I love Jlo, but the optics are terrible,” another person wrote.
Singer Madonna, who last year was worth $570 million according to Forbes, has come under fire for posting videos in which she has said she’s starting to ration food and is having problems sleeping. In one, since deleted, she lamented the lack of attention. “What I really miss, and this is true, is being able to talk in front of an audience. ... Making people laugh every night is fun. Another luxury gone … for now. The audience in my house is not amused by me, as far as I can tell.”
The late country singer June Carter Cash famously said, “I’m just trying to matter,” a phrase echoed by actress Reese Witherspoon, upon winning an Oscar for portraying Cash in a film about her life.
With Americans wondering when — and if — life will ever resemble what it looked like just three months ago, do celebrities matter? And will they matter in a post-pandemic world?
In this together?
In his book “Celebrity Culture,” sociologist Ellis Cashmore said that “when we discuss celebrities, we are not actually discussing people, at least not in the flesh-and-blood sense of the word.”
“We are discussing people as we imagine them,” he wrote. As such, a sudden influx of videos showing celebrities at home — or, in one of their homes — instead of in magazines or on red carpet can change our image of them, and not in good ways.
Saying “We’re all in this together” from a mansion or yacht can feel like a gut-punch to a fan who is struggling.
“The big guys in Hollywood are going to be shredded to pieces, especially if they continue to post on Instagram, ‘I’m so bored. I’m drinking martinis in my private pool’,” Akshaya Sreenivasan, a social media marketing expert at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School, told Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press.
That sort of post is prevalent enough that a video mocking the trend went viral on TikTok and Instagram. Dalton Smiley, a college student and photographer in Shreveport, Louisiana, said he made the video in his parents’ backyard pool after getting tired of seeing “poor me” posts from the stars. (That’s orange juice in the glass, by the way, not a cocktail.)
“They were trying to be relatable, like, ‘We’re all suffering.’ But it’s not the same,” Smiley said. He was disturbed by celebrities encouraging their fans to donate money for pandemic relief. “Most of us don’t know if we’re going to be able to pay rent next month. What do you want us to do?”
Smiley gained nearly 100,000 followers on TikTok after this video was posted. He thinks if he’d made it even a week earlier, it wouldn’t have gotten as much attention. “People were just getting tired of seeing celebrities, over and over, playing the victim. ‘We’re suffering, too.’ No, you’re not. Use your platform in a different way.”
‘Enjoy the show’
Writing for NBC, Patricia Grisafi said the pandemic is “creating a new kind of celebrity consumer — one who’s more critical of celebrity exorbitance.”
“Now that we are seeing them in their silk pajamas in their elegantly appointed homes, pretending how hard their pampered lives are while the rest of us count toilet paper squares and hunt for Tylenol bottles, there’s no way to continue our participation in this shared fantasy,” Grisafi wrote.
However, Cashmore, the author of “Kardashian Kulture: How Celebrities Changed Life in the 21st Century,” noted that entertainers are, in a way, just doing their job when they show up musing about the pandemic in a rose-strewn bathtub, or make videos urging people to obey social-distancing orders.
“They’re not irrelevant because they keep us amused,” Cashmore said.
But, he added, “Their hopeless attempts to be serious and urge people to stay indoors are clumsy and transparently insincere and are likely to persuade nobody. Not one single person. But it’s fun watching people we associate with frivolity, shallowness and irresponsibility, putting on a straight face and trying to tell us seriously to do something we know full well they are not doing themselves.”
Despite recent backlash on social media, celebrities show no signs of retreating into obscurity. NFL quarterback Tom Brady and film stars including Matt Damon and Ben Affleck played in a charity poker tournament, with proceeds going to Feeding America. Mark Ruffalo, Will Ferrell and others participated in a widely panned video of celebrities singing John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
And in what’s been called “Live Aid for the coronavirus generation,” celebrities across the world will participate in an April 18 benefit concert, “One World: Together at Home,” that will be streamed on Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, among other platforms.
Performers are to include Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Alanis Morissette, Keith Urban and Elton John, among others. While the producers are raising money from corporations, Gaga said that contributions will not be sought from viewers. “Put your wallets away ... and sit back and enjoy the show you all deserve,” she said during a news conference announcing the event.
So far, the event has escaped the scathing commentary that has accompanied other celebrity forays into pandemic discussion. This may be, in part, because Gaga is among a handful of stars who have been praised for their efforts in recent weeks; she’s raised $35 million for the World Health Organization and has been politely critical of the casual use of the phrase “We’re all in this together.”
“While I think the sentiment is nice, I also think that the fight that I’m in — or that you’re in, right? — is very different than the fight of a woman that is in, perhaps, an abusive relationship and has a child and lost her job and can’t feed her kid and can’t feed herself and also can’t get the help that she needs because she’s in a violent situation,” Gaga said in a recent exchange with talk show host Jimmy Fallon.
Others who have escaped criticism include actor Tom Hanks and singer Pink, both of whom contracted Covid-19. Taylor Swift, Britney Spears and Jeffree Star, among others, have won praise for giving cash to fans in need.
As for the future, the entertainment industry, like other businesses, may struggle to regain its footing once the pandemic is over. It’s been reported that AMC Theatres is close to filing for bankruptcy, Broadway remains shut until at least June; film festivals around the world have been postponed or canceled, as have some award shows, including the Emmys and Tonys. Some movies that would have played on the big screen are going straight to streaming.
But Cashmore said that Hollywood and other entertainment industries will resume normal service eventually.
“I don’t think consumer habits will be changed forever. And that means celebrities will assume their positions as arbiters of taste,” he said.