Why Celebrities Matter Now

Celebrities sure have been stepping in it lately. A lot. In their attempts to connect with people around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic, many actors, musicians, and other public figures have come across as painfully tone-deaf. Finding examples is like shooting fish in a barrel. There was the cringeworthy “Imagine” singalong by a parade of out-of-touch (and out of tune) personalities. And David Geffen trying to relate to the masses by posting an Instagram image of his self-isolation on his $590 million superyacht. Or how about actress Evangeline Lilly blithely discussing on Instagram her disregard for social distancing (unwittingly predicting the social distancing backlash that would erupt among right-wing fringe groups in April)?

Oh Madge

And then there’s Madonna, in a category all her own. As if posting an Instagram video of herself immersed in rose-petal-covered bathwater were not enough, she also created bizarre, rambling Instagram “quarantine diaries” in which she pondered a burning spear making its way into her inner core before discussing the loss of people in her life due to COVID-19 while a jaunty oboe played in the background.

https://www.instagram.com/tv/B-weA-GhvQ9/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

And that’s just scratching the surface of celebrity weirdness. It’s gotten so bad that we’re seeing a new genre of fairly in-depth news media analysis that might be best described as Celebrity Screwups in the Time of Coronavirus, including a major New York Times article, “Celebrity Culture Is Burning,” and a BBC piece, “Do Celebrities Still Matter in a Crisis?”

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Yup, celebrities can be horrible. But for every miscue, many are using their power and visibility to help in some genuinely touching ways, especially when they stick to their knitting and uplift us with their talents. We saw an example of celebrities at their best during the multi-hour One World: Together at Home concert livestreamed on April 18 to benefit healthcare workers and others on the front lines of the pandemic. Several musicians ranging from Lizzo to Paul McCartney performed single-song sets from remote locations (you can view many of them here). And the performances were consistently moving. Lizzo’s powerful rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come” offered hope.

The Rolling Stones’s “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was an emotional moment that will endure for ages.

The musicians relied on their stagecraft to connect with people they could not even see. Consider the Rolling Stones, for example, appearing from four separate rooms. There was Mick Jagger, blowing us a kiss, his voice soaring above global sorrow. Ronnie, punching his fist in the air and exhorting us to sing — he could not see us, but he could feel us. There was Keith Richards, transcending the ravages of his life, smiling, lost in the moment of music, like some ancient blues man casting a spell. And Charlie Watts, grinning sheepishly as we all realized one of the world’s greatest drummers was playing air drums just like everyone else at home. The Stones have been on a journey with us during some painful times: wars, acts of terror, natural disasters, recessions, and now a global pandemic.

As of this writing, the concert has raised $127 million for various COVID-19 relief efforts, a testament to the power of celebrities to do good.

Words of Hope

But long before the event occurred, celebrities had already been connecting in personal and affecting ways. As the pandemic took hold, Matthew McConaughey offered encouragement with a convincing video. There was Ryan Reynolds, sarcastically poking fun at celebrity culture in a video exhorting people to stay at home. Or Dolly Parton, launching a series of children’s book read-alouds on YouTube.

And how about Dame Judi Dench, posting a delightfully goofy video of herself on Twitter urging us to “just keep laughing — that’s all we can do,” and John Krasinski, delvering good news from around the world through his own show on YouTube?

And I must give props to Ronnie Wood, who has taken to Instagram to speak to recovering alcoholics who, like himself, are facing struggles of their own as they are cut off from their sponsors.

In the Footsteps of Celebrities

In recent weeks, I’ve spent some time following their words and checking out their Instagram Live Q&As. Although I witnessed some boring misfires (John Mayer, I am looking at you), I’ve also seen some sparkling, warm moments. The other night the musician Weyes Blood hosted a Q&A via Instagram livestream, and I learned, among other things, that she’s a Scooby Doo fan.

“Scooby Doo, where the F — — are you?” she asked, accurately reading the room as she expressed what we have all been asking.

The poet Scarlett Sabet has hosted some Q&As on Instagram, too, from London somewhere, presumably her home. I realize that Scarlett Sabet is an award-winning poet. But many of us on that Q&A were hanging out with her virtually because she’s dating FREAKING JIMMY PAGE.

She was pretty nice and thoughtful during the Q&A, patiently handling questions from people whose Instagram handles are all variations of Led Zeppelin song names. I’m sure she realizes many of us were joining her Q&A hoping for a fleeting glimpse of Jimmy Page poking his head into the tiny phone frame or maybe playing a lick of “Black Dog” to keep things lively. At one point, I humbly posted a comment about the importance of creating art during hard times. Like everyone else’s little spurts of information, mine appeared on the Instagram screen for everyone to see. Lo and behold, she gave me a shout-out by name, even mentioning my handle.

Eventually she shut down her Q&A after a voice in the distance called her to dinner. The low murmur came so fast that I could not make out who it was. I pictured Page himself, sitting impatiently at the dinner table while pondering the possibility of re-issuing Coda as a 5.1 remix.

The Best of Times

Many famous musicians, bless their hearts, continue to perform concerts from their homes or, in the case of Neil Young, apparently from some distant planet. Dennis DeYoung, sitting at a piano, reintroduced us to the song “The Best of Times,” nearly 40 years after recording the tune with Styx. His voice, a little weathered by 73 years of living, still carried more emotional resonance than I would have dared to expect.

On March 22, Courtney Barnett hosted a three-hour benefit for Oxfam using the magic of Instagram Live — getting a jump on One World: Together at Home by a month. She brought in different musicians such as Sheryl Crow and Lukas Nelson from their homes. There was a homemade charm to the performances, and a lot of amusingly awkward “How do I use this phone?” moments as musicians navigated a performance without the help of their roadies.

And dang if those musicians weren’t kind of charming, too. At one point Barnett asked what all of us in Instagram-land were eating for dinner. I quickly posted “pizza” with an emoji. Her face lit up. “Pizza!” she smiled. For a hot second I could pretend that COURTNEY BARNETT KNOWS WHAT I AM EATING FOR DINNER AND APPROVES, knowing full well that probably 10,000 other people watching the livestream were posting the exact same answer with the same emoji.

There is nothing like a global pandemic to make us want to connect with each other. Most of us are doing that with our loved ones. But in our desire to connect, we’re finding some unexpected sources of connection with people we’ll never meet. In their own way, celebrities are connecting — sometimes in outrageously tone-deaf ways that belie their privilege, to be sure. But even their missteps add value by giving us a diversion from the onslaught of COVID-19 gloom and doom. We are in this for the long haul, my friends. Celebrities are not like you and me, but they are part of our lives. And I’d like to keep it that way.

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