Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, as the nation desperately sought answers for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, one news story ran on almost every major television network. Scrolling along the bottom of the screen, right behind headlines about the reactions of President George W. Bush, ran the story, "Madonna urges restraint [in government retaliation]."
Apparently, pop stars have a lot to say.
Multi-talented celebrities who have already conquered film, music and television are trying their hands at a fourth domain of public interest: politics. From Angelina Jolie's forays into foreign policy to Eminem's song of political protest, "Mosh," pop culture icons are eager to use their fame to save the world. When it comes to today's youth, they may have a chance to do so.
Despite the objections of political analysts, this influx of celebrity politicians can prove a formidable force in the battle against teenage apathy. Politics is not that important to most young people, who tend to view the political realm as far removed from their own lives, says John Orman, a professor of politics at Fairfield University and co-author of "Celebrity Politics" in a phone interview. Only 47 percent of teenagers believe political leaders, elections and the government in general address their needs and concerns, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). As Orman says, "The pop culture system has eaten the political system."
For example, according to the National Constitution Center, 95 percent of teenagers can name Will Smith as the star of "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," while only 2.2 percent can name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. For a group of people who are more knowledgeable about the antics of Paris Hilton than about the current session of Congress, merging pop culture and politics is key to propelling Generation Y towards political action.
The U.S. is a nation addicted to pop culture and the trappings of fame, a nation where "People" is second in magazine revenue only to "TV Guide." Therefore, when celebrities turn to politics, they have a platform from which to draw public attention to their causes. For teens, the famous faces that dominate their everyday lives can have great influence. If celebrities can harness the intensity that teens devote to pop culture, they can help reshape the political landscape of this country.
However, many analysts have questioned the authority of celebrities in broadcasting their personal politics. They say there are dangers in the media focusing so much on what a perhaps uninformed, publicity-seeking celebrity has to say. Even so, there have been very few people to support a cause or a candidate simply because their favorite celebrity does, says Orman. The advantage of celebrity politicians comes not in the support of specific causes but in popularizing political involvement for the masses.
The 2004 election serves as a prime example. While youth voter turnout was not as high as some expected, it was higher than before. According to CIRCLE, approximately 48 to 52 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted, up significantly from only 42 to 43 percent in 2000. Celebrities, ranging from rapper Jay-Z to actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who publicly supported voter registration and voting have largely been credited with this increase. The most notable was Sean "P. Diddy" Combs's bipartisan "Citizen Change" campaign, marked by the catch phrase "Vote or die," which endorsed voter action rather than a specific candidate.
This is clearly a step forward for teenagers, who have traditionally failed to play a major role in elections. With a population of over 28 million between 13 and 18, teenagers can potentially wield a lot of power, but they haven't taken advantage of it. "Even though we've been trying to rock the vote since 1972, we haven't turned young people into a massive voting block," says Orman. At least, not until now.
With their inherent influence, pop culture icons can effect a great deal of change, pushing indifferent teenagers towards political interest and action. Celebrities should continue to take advantage of their popularity with teenagers to engage them in the democratic process of this country. Where others have failed in mobilizing and empowering American youth in politics, people like 50 Cent and Cameron Diaz might just succeed.
Jody Pollock. Jody is a CAP senior (finally!) who is looking forward to another great year in Silver Chips. When she's not driving herself crazy with her impossibly busy schedule, she's singing with InToneNation and going to City at Peace practically every day of the week. Somehow … More »