The New Ethics of Pop: Celebrity Activism since Lady Gaga

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a chapter in the book Pop Cultures: Sconfinamenti Alterdisciplinari, edited by Massimiliano Stramaglia. Lecce-Rovato, Italy: Pensa Multimedia, 2019.
Also available in PDF format.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2019. "The New Ethics of Pop: Celebrity Activism since Lady Gaga." Pp. 113-129 in Pop Cultures: Sconfinamenti Alterdisciplinari, edited by Massimiliano Stramaglia. Lecce-Rovato, Italy: Pensa Multimedia.


In this chapter, I discuss the recent expansion, in our days of an incessant obsession with fame, of the adoption of ethical, political, and charity causes by celebrities, especially stars in the pop culture world of popular music. In relation to historical developments of the differentiation and de-differentiation of culture, I analyze these developments as a commodification of politics in pop culture. Findings of this paper especially center on the case of the politics and activism of global pop sensation Lady Gaga. I will show how the ethics of activism is infused in the aesthetics and entertainment values relating to the singer’s advocacy. Examining and extending the case of Lady Gaga, I offer a model on the new ethics of pop culture, specifically to account for the wide embrace of activism and charity causes in contemporary celebrity culture at large. This development, I argue, indicates the emergence of a marketable form of commodity activism that is presented as an economics of sincerity.


The sociology of fame and the broader multi-disciplinary area of celebrity studies are nowadays more popular than ever before. This development in itself must be a reflection of certain aspects of our contemporary culture, indicating a growth of the fame of the fame and the intellectual culture that comes with it. In my own sociological work, I have taken up the scholarly challenges some of these issues pose by means of an investigation of the conditions of the rise to fame of global pop star Lady Gaga. Now thoroughly cemented in the collective consciousness of our age and, as a result, the subject of a fair number of scholarly studies (Deflem, 2017; Huba, 2013; Iddon and Marshall, 2014; Stramaglia, 2015), Lady Gaga was able to attain a world-wide level of fame in the world of popular music at a time when, specifically in the period from 2008 to 2010, the discourse on the world of popular music was predominantly phrased in terms of decline and disintegration. The central question of my work, in other words, pertained to the conditions of why Lady Gaga became famous at a time when the music industry was imploding. In a book-length study (Deflem, 2017), I have addressed a number of sociologically relevant conditions to answer this question, specifically focusing on aspects of marketing and law, media and audience, sex and gender, artistry and styles, and, indeed, activism, dimensions of the latter of which are also at the heart of the present chapter. The issue of the activism of Lady Gaga is what provides the starting point of the present analysis to contemplate on the course and direction of activism and, more broadly, political and normative causes that are taken up by the celebrities in today’s world of pop culture, especially though not exclusively in the realm of popular music.

In keeping with the perspective of this book, my approach is not only sociological, in oriented at an analysis of the conditions and direction of celebrity activism, but also branches out into an assessment of these issues on the basis of a perspective that is rooted in a reflection focused not only on questions of effectiveness, but of meaning as well. Since Max Weber, sociologists need not eschew an interpretive understanding of culture. Although a certain degree of distance, in time and/or space, might have to be accomplished to assess the meaning of culture in the longer term, this requirement need not prevent a heuristic analysis of our own times. We can leave it to future historians to sort out the true impact of our musings.

This paper will begin by clarifying the sociological conceptualization of culture my work on fame and activism in the world of pop is based on. I will especially seek to clarify the problem of the relationship between activism and pop culture in terms of the historical process of differentiation that has been characteristic of modern societies. Next, I will rely on the case of the activism of Lady Gaga to show some of its many components and especially the role it played in her rise to fame. In line with the objectives of this chapter, I will specifically address the implications of these developments with respect to the impact and meaning of such celebrity activism vis-à-vis the primary functions of pop culture in aesthetic terms. Properly understood, I will argue, today’s celebrity activism has become part and parcel of the material products of pop and fame. As such, celebrity activism has reduced rather than expanded any meaningful politics of pop.

Differentiation and De-Differentiation in Modern Culture

What is culture? Any discussion on celebrity, fame, music, and the like must begin with addressing the question of culture itself. In my work, I take on a sociological conception of culture, indebted to theoretical contributions stretching from Emile Durkheim (1893) over Talcott Parsons (1971) to Jürgen Habermas (1981), to refer to the whole of values, ideas, and ideals, both in terms of ideal representations and the material practices associated therewith. Essentially mediated in a symbolic form that is meaningful within a concrete societal context through means such as language and sounds, culture is expressed in such various material artefacts as writings, paintings, and recordings. Applying insights from Parsonian systems theory, I conceptually distinguish cultural values from norms. Whereas values are defined as conceptions of desirable ways of acting within groups, norms refer to sanctionable standards of conduct among groups (Deflem, 2008).

Apart from the notion that culture is both what is said and believed and that which is done and acted, as praxeologists will remind us (Bourdieu, 1977), what is important in the present context is that culture in modern societies has most essentially differentiated in terms of the categories of knowledge, ethics, and aesthetics, institutional spheres which are institutionalized in, respectively, science, justice, and art (Habermas, 1981). Needless to say, whereas sociologists were once typically inclined to study culture in terms of the one dominant culture of a given society or, worse yet, that element of a more diverse co-existence of multiple cultures which had successful claimed, rather than actually attained, generality, culture is today understood pluralistically in a strictly analytical manner. Hence, within culture, our attention can and should go to various levels of subcultural diversity and the less as well as more popular aspects of culture, including especially those forms that may strike us as frivolous and perhaps even irrational. Kitsch and pop should be taken seriously and, additionally, cannot be assumed to exist merely because it is profitability as a commodity unless one would adopt a reductionist perspective at the expense of a constructionist approach (Deflem, 2017, pp. 19-20).

Among the contemporary instances of popular culture that command our special attention are peculiar developments in the world of popular music and various manifestations of celebrity culture. Whereas the industry of music has recently had to undergo various adjustments, especially in view of technological developments (i.e., the implosion of recorded music sales and its transition towards live performances and merchandise), the world of fame and celebrity has ironically greatly benefited from the same by means of a near endless proliferation of reality shows on TV, celebrity gossip on social networking sites, and a multitude of other opportunities that have expanded the reach of celebrity on the internet as well as in the traditional media.

This much is clear today: celebrity culture is here to stay for the foreseeable future and, likewise, popular music will remain, in whatever altered form, part of our everyday life. However, what is a historical achievement of modern societies as well is its differentiation between aesthetics and ethics. As a result of these dual developments, what has become important to analyze are the combinations and re-combinations of the ethics of pop culture with its aesthetic aspirations and, therefore, how the differentiation of culture into its various expert domains today is confronted with attempts to de-differentiate them once again. Simply put, where once the performers, musicians, and entertainers of old could and would restrict their activities to the aesthetic realm and where once the institutions of ethics, politics, and activism could rely on their own experts, these functions are nowadays again merged to develop a new kind of so-called ‘celebvocacy’ embodied by the contemporary celebrity activist. Among the questions this de-differentiation poses, I will begin my analysis in the coming pages by unraveling some of its manifestations and directions in the case of pop star Lady Gaga and subsequently address the implications thereof in terms of broader changes in the transformation of modern culture.

Ethics and Aesthetics in Celebrity Culture

It is only in the context of the highly differentiated culture of an otherwise also highly differentiated society that the infusion of activism, advocacy, and politics into the world of popular culture is readily puzzling or at least paradoxical (Deflem, 2017, pp. 11-13). Societies that are undifferentiated will experience questions of truth, justice, and beauty to be inseparable from and deeply intertwined with one other. But as societies modernize, the differentiation of these cultural dimensions will lead to the formation of expert (sub-)cultures and their respective corresponding expectations and objectives that do not readily connect in one particular way, but that instead can be combined and recombined on an individual or at least more restricted level only. What is (ethically) right for one need not co-exist with what is (aesthetically) beautiful for another.

Reductionist scholars of culture, especially those working in an orthodox Marxist tradition, could easily dispense with the problem that I here address as they will conceptualize culture in terms of the profit imperatives of market and wealth. Most emblematic in this respect is the work on the culture industry developed by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (1944), in which the dominant forms of entertainment and culture are conceived to reflect dominant politics and dominant values. The triviality of pop culture is thereby seen to be accompanied, at best, by an implied conservatism of bourgeois politics and its values and the marketability thereof for monetary gains. In his sociology of music, Adorno (1976) expressed this idea most sharply by arguing that pop music is by definition unaccomplished and unchallenging from a musicological viewpoint and equally unbearable for political and normative reasons.

The initial reaction against the triviality of the politics of pop among social scientists, likewise, presented a less than fruitful intellectual path by suggesting that popular culture, especially rock music in the era of the counter-culture of the 1960s, would not only be emancipatory but impactful as well as a political or normatively influential force (Street, 2001, 2003). This approach is non-empirical as well and far too presumptuous that political and ethical goals can be achieved through pop culture. Therefore, rather than assuming an a priori notion of the revolutionary politics of rock music and other politically charged expressions of pop culture, it may be wiser to empirically examine the various ways in which aesthetics and ethics are being assembled, the conditions under which these combinations and re-combinations take place, as well as their objectives and their consequences. In the next section of this paper, I will undertake this analysis in the case of Lady Gaga and other celebrities since.

Pop Culture Activism: The Case of Lady Gaga

In my book on the conditions of Lady Gaga’s rise to fame, I devote a whole chapter to the role played by the singer’s activism for a variety of causes, her political interventions, and her religiosity (Deflem, 2017, Chapter 8). I will here briefly summarize the key findings of this research. Some of these aspects of Lady Gaga’s activism will be well-known and are perhaps also more readily understandable in the framework of her music and the other forms of her artistry which have managed to propel the singer to global stardom. But some findings may be more surprising, though no less relevant (see Deflem 2017, 148-154).

Given the nature of Lady Gaga’s music and the composition of the core of her fanbase, it will cause no consternation to learn that the singer has been most active, from early on in her career, in causes related to issues relevant to youth, women, and members of the LGBT community. Most outspoken has been Lady Gaga’s support for gay rights and the acceptance of the gay community in society at large. This concern was not related to any personal orientation on her part, but was especially fueled by her strong fanbase in the gay dance club dance during the early days of her recording career, especially in the summer of 2008, when she still struggled to get recognition with her first single, ”Just Dance,” and her debut album, The Fame. Lady Gaga was explicit and vocal about her support, most clearly, for instance, when in 2009 she participated in the National Equality March in Washington, DC, and advocated the repeal of the so-called “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy that prohibited gays from openly serving in the U.S. military. Lady Gaga’s embrace of gay rights also influenced her music, both with respect to its content (e.g., the lyrics to the song “Born This Way” explicitly mention tolerance with respect to sexual orientation) as well as its form (e.g., the video to the song “Alejandro” was visually conceived as a celebration of gay love).

Lady Gaga has given her activism a structural permanence in the form of the creation, along with her mother Cynthia Germanotta, of the Born This Way Foundation, which was formally launched at an event hosted by Oprah Winfrey at Harvard University in 2012. The non-profit organization was particularly set up to address youth-empowerment issues, especially concerning bullying, and has since also involved itself in efforts related to inspiring bravery, body acceptance, and various mental health issues.

Besides her work through the Born This Way Foundation, Lady Gaga has also and very often been engaged in a variety of activist causes on an individual level, mostly by speaking out on certain issues she claims are dear to her. The examples are too numerous to mention, but include vocal support, especially through her Twitter account, on a wide variety of issues, including the promotion of gay rights, support for the people of Japan following the tsunami in 2011, awareness of sexual assault against women, body acceptance, poverty, and water conservation. It is to be noted, also, that Lady Gaga has on occasion voiced an explicit political orientation. Although she was relatively silent on her (party-)political stance during the first few years of her career, she has since been supportive of Democratic politicians and rallied for Hillary Clinton during the U.S. presidential race of 2016.

Additionally, and perhaps most surprisingly, is that Lady Gaga has also explicitly injected a strongly resonating ethical element in her work and public persona by publicly revealing and discussing her religious orientation (Deflem, 2017, pp. 153-154). During a television interview on CNN in 2010, she told Larry King that she considered herself to be very religious and to believe in Jesus Christ. At the same time, she expressed some doubts about the role of religion and church in the world today, saying that she is both quite religious but also confused about religion. Lady Gaga’s work and public image have at times also explicitly revealed her religiosity, such as when she sings that “God makes no mistakes” in her song “Born This Way.”

Apart from accelerating Lady Gaga’s rise to fame, the singer’s stance on ethical and religious issues and her embrace of activism, like that of many others before and since, are remarkable from a sociological viewpoint because it represents an infusion of the ethics of activism into the aesthetics of pop in a societal context that is most distinctly shaped by a long historical process of differentiation. The length alone of this process of cultural differentiation that is characteristic of modern societies makes it noteworthy when ethics and aesthetics are again combined, not to mention the fact that politics and activism have typically not been associated with pop stars whose primary job it is to entertain even as their musical abilities can be questioned. The contours and impact of at these rather sharp but, in any case, very recent instances of de-differentiation should be carefully examined.

Celebrity Activism and Fame

In my study of the conditions of the fame of Lady Gaga, I have contemplated on the direction and meaning of Lady Gaga’s embrace of activist causes (Deflem, 2017, pp. 154-159). I here discuss the essential elements of these issues to subsequently take the analysis further in terms of both the singer’s activism and the embrace of activism among other celebrities.

Lady Gaga is clearly not just a pop star, but also, and often at the same time, an activist. The singer’s activism is revealed in what she (objectively) does, how she (subjectively) sees herself, and how she is (inter-subjectively) seen by the fans of her music and, more importantly still, by the wider audience of her fame. Openly and explicitly embracing the role of an advocate on numerous causes and thus bringing about an infusion of the ethics of activism into the aesthetics of pop, Lady Gaga not only presents herself, but is also widely perceived as, anything but a trivial pop star.

The recognition of Lady Gaga as an activist is perhaps most clearly revealed on those occasions when the reaction to her advocacy and her religious and political orientation is mixed, both positive as well as negatively critical. For her work on gay rights and acceptance, for instance, the singer has received awards and general praise from members and organizations in the LGBTQ community. Yet, it has also been suggested that the singer may have taken on these issues for self-serving purposes, claims whish she herself, of course, denied (Sciarretto, 2011). The sincerity of Lady Gaga’s actions has often been accepted but has, at other times, also been questioned, leading the singer to have to affirm the earnestness of her actions. By example, when the trend among celebrities to publicly voice their religiosity was cynically interpreted as disingenuous, Lady Gaga defended herself and posted on Instagram that “God is never a trend” (Deflem, 2017, p. 158).

Such controversies in the reaction to Lady Gaga’s activist actions affirm the seriousness with which the performer’s extra-artistic conduct and opinions are taken. Strikingly, for instance, while Lady Gaga’s advocacy on behalf of youth and LGBT rights has been generally very well received, her religious proclamations have led to a variety of critical responses, which is especially poignant in the United States where religion is a central aspect of cultural life that is not restricted to the private realm. Specifically, Lady Gaga’s identification as a Christian who was raised in the Catholic faith has been both positively received, even when it led to being inserted into the non-traditional context of pop art, but has also met with criticism and even outright condemnation from other, more traditional groups (Deflem, 2017, pp. 156-157). Whether Lady Gaga has abused religious symbolism or, instead, is sensitive to the needs of those who suffer as Christians should, what is clear is that such controversies have positively influenced her notoriety and fame.

The ethics of the Lady Gaga’s activism have served to bring her much attention. But there is more. From the viewpoint of politics, activism, and religion as accelerants of fame, the argument can be made that any infusion of a pop artist in the worlds of such normative issues will be beneficial with respect to the artist’s fame precisely because the worlds of music and ethics are differentiated and, at best, co-exist in an uneasy relationship. This condition of tension and unease may even be more pronounced in the case of an artist like Lady Gaga who is known for her provocative image and outlandish style.

Besides its contribution to fame, the activism of Lady Gaga and other celebrities like her can also be examined in terms of its effectiveness and impact. These conditions will, inter alia, depend on the degree of influence the celebrity enjoys. The fans of Lady Gaga, for example, will surely have been made aware of a number of advocacy issues they might otherwise not have considered, not because of these issues’ gravity on a social or even a personal level, but as a result of the fact that they adore the performer as an artist and as a person as well (Bennett, 2014; Jang and Lee, 2014).

Beyond her fanbase, Lady Gaga’s advocacy will also have an impact of the wider audience of her fame, although perhaps not always as intended. In any case, it should be noted that despite her enormous influence, Lady Gaga may still be ineffective in bringing about actual change as she does not hold decision-making power. In fact, precisely because she is a popstar with a well-known and as eccentric perceived public image who at times enters the serious arenas of advocacy and politics, it can even be argued that Lady Gaga is not bringing any advocacy issues to light in a manner that is effective in addressing the underlying issues. As Lady Gaga’s own intentions can never really be known, it is up to the public to decide if she is seen (rightly or wrongly) as deliberately calculated, taking on activist causes to further her success and fame, or instead is genuinely motivated and, as a result, may be more effective as well.

The Rise and Rise of Celebrity Activism

The activism of pop culture and the politics of music are not the invention of Lady Gaga or a phenomenon that has appeared only with the rise of recent celebrity culture (Street, 2001). However, it is undeniably a sign of contemporary times that celebrity activism and its study have moved to the center of attention (Tsaliki, 2016). At least two noteworthy changes have taken place, which, I argue, are indicative of activism in this age of celebrity culture and the direction it is taking.

First, as already hinted above, the range of activist causes taken up by celebrities is not limited to one or another issue, but has considerably expanded and diversified. Taking the case of Lady Gaga, the breadth and intensity of the singer’s activism have increased greatly, with varying and ambiguous consequences. Lady Gaga began her activist path by advocating gay rights, which she could defend in view of her early fanbase, and from there extended into youth-related issues, such as bullying, assault awareness, and emotional health. But the singer has since also gone straight into politics, most clearly when she sang at the final campaign rally organized by then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton before the U.S. presidential elections of 2016. The results were not as Lady Gaga had hoped for and expected. In the middle of the night after the election, even before Hillary Clinton had conceded the race and called Donald Trump, the singer went out to Trump Tower in New York City holding up a “Love Trumps Hate” sign (Lang, 2016). Democracy be damned, Lady Gaga’s opinion had to be heard. And it had to be seen as well, as her stunt was conveniently photographed for distribution on the internet and via other media.

Similar concerns and questions can be asked when the singer began taking on such a wide array of issues as disaster relief, all kinds of diseases, mental health issues, poverty, weapons reduction, and water conservation. By August 2017, Lady Gaga’s ongoing march into the wide world of activism went so far that she felt no embarrassment tweeting the poll question, “How do you think it's best to solve the world’s problems?”, with the provided answer options “To #BeKind” and “To #BeViolent” (Lady Gaga, Twitter post, 2017).

Second, and of special concern in the context of this chapter, it is striking to observe that since, though surely not just because of, Lady Gaga’s activist path, advocacy has taken on a new dimension among many other performers, artists, and celebrities. There are today indeed a great many artists and celebrities who take up various activist issues, advocate a wide range of charitable causes, and openly and eagerly speak on political, religious, and all kinds of ethical and normative issues.

To offer empirical foundation to the expansion of celebrity advocacy, I have for this paper examined the activism in today’s world of popular culture by means of two published lists of top stars and performers in the music and entertainment industry. I identified their activist involvement as reported on these celebrities’ respective Wikipedia pages as it would best indicate not only which activist causes they are involved in, but also how relevant they are judged to be as part of their career and public persona. Specifically consulted were the top-ten entertainers listed in the Billboard “Social 50” chart at year-end 2017, a list which ranks music artists in terms of popularity as indicated by their activities and fan involvement on the major social networking sites as well as weekly song plays reported by Next Big Sound (Billboard, 2017), and the most recent Forbes “Celebrity 100” list, which ranks the world’s highest-paid celebrities in the preceding year (Forbes, 2018). In Tables 1 and 2, I list the performer or celebrity, their primary role in the world of music and entertainment, followed by their reported activist involvement.


The retrieved list of top-ten artists in the Billboard Social 50 list of 2017 contains mostly performers of commercial pop music, arguably the intrinsically least political of all styles of popular music. Yet, each and every one of the artists listed is elaborately involved in a wide range of activist causes. The Wikipedia pages of every artist on the list, other than reggaeton star Maluma, typically mention several paragraphs of activities in separate sections on philanthropy, charity, and/or activism. For artist Maluma, too, charitable involvement, such as aid in victim relief efforts, was readily found through a Google search.

The activist causes these popular artists are involved in are wide-ranging, including charitable donations, work on behalf of various diseases, self-acceptance, children and youth advocacy, education, orphaned children, aid to developing societies, substance abuse, mental health, voting campaigns, animal shelters, racial justice groups, gender equality, LGBT rights, United Nations programs, Amnesty International and other humanitarian groups, natural disasters relief, and many more. It is striking, also, that a source as rudimentary as Wikipedia would spend explicit and fairly elaborate attention to activism and charity, often totaling multiple paragraphs, on the pages of artists who, by definition, will be known primarily for their music and fan popularity. In simple terms, the conclusion of this brief inquiry shows that activism is now firmly established as a component of a career in popular music.

The list of celebrities in Forbes Celebrity 100 list published in July 2018 contains the highest-paid celebrities of the preceding year in various forms of entertainment, such as music, sports, and television. Like the list of the most popular musicians, all of the celebrities listed by Forbes engage in numerous charity and activism activities, as revealed from their Wikipedia pages, with the sole and striking exception of the highest-ranked celebrity, boxer Floyd Mayweather. The case of Mayweather is, in fact, especially problematic because of the boxer’s history of domestic abuse allegations, which are duly noted on his Wikipedia page instead of any philanthropy or activist causes. But the issue of advocacy is nonetheless brought explicitly before Mayweather as he has been criticized for saying he spends his money on himself and does not engage much in charitable giving (Whaley, 2017). In fact, the athlete is involved in activism as he oversees his own foundation that is oriented at underprivileged youth and strives to promote community development, entrepreneurialism, and education.

Apart from Mayweather, however, all other celebrities on the Forbes list are very prolific as activists. The number-two ranked celebrity, actor George Clooney, is perhaps the most active and also best known to be an activist as his Wikipedia page lists various specialized categories of advocacy, including political actions, humanitarian interventions, and involvement in actions related to Darfur, the Armenian genocide, the Syrian refugee crisis, and gun control. Other celebrities on the Forbes list are likewise very active, such as television personality Judy Sheindlin, who is the creator and spokesperson for a mentoring program designed to nurture and strengthen women, and former athlete and actor Dwayne Johnson, who runs a foundation for at-risk and terminally ill children. Some of these activist efforts are less known, but others have gained much public attention and exposure and have duly contributed to the celebrities’ standing and public image. By example, the Irish rock group U2 and its members are very well known, not only for their music, but also for their wide-ranging involvement in a multitude of issues relating to poverty, health, and injustice.

An undeniable conclusion from this brief empirical inquiry is that every celebrity of note has his or her charity or charitable and activist cause and that, in turn, every charity and activist issue today appears to have its celebrity. At times, a celebrity’s activism will in fact be perceived to be so pronounced that it is considered of equal importance to their primary occupation as musician, actor, or other entertainment role. Of Lady Gaga, by example, it has been said that her activism is “her true calling” (MSN, 2017). The recognition of celebrities’ involvement in activism is important to acknowledge, but it should also be framed in a broader context that considers a number of relevant factors in the contemporary constellation of celebrity culture before any meaningful conclusions on its impact and value can be reached.

Pop Ethics and the Economics of Sincerity

It is clear that ethics and aesthetics co-exist in the world of Lady Gaga and other entertainers and celebrities today. In fact, it is safe to say that today every celebrity is a celebrity activist. If this phenomenon is real, as I have here shown, and if it can be expected to continue and possibly expand, as I reasonable think is also the case, a new period may have been entered in the ethics of pop that poses questions on the effectiveness of activism in the age of celebrity culture and that calls for an assessment of its sociological dimensions in the development of culture and popular culture.

From the sociological viewpoint of a constructionist approach of popular culture, it is striking to observe that a new ethics of pop has been developing in which the politics and economics of entertainment and art, even in something as seemingly playful as pop music, are argued to co-exist with relative ease. Such an easy and unproblematic co-existence is at least portrayed by those who represent celebrities and their respective industries (Deflem, 2017, p. 154). The current personal manager of Lady Gaga, by example, has asserted that advocacy and activism can and should be taken up by musicians and entertainers in terms of an “authentic connection” can be presented between “the artist, the brand, and the charity” because it would matter much “when it comes from the heart” (Rys, 2016). Such a strategy would be beneficial both for reasons of the goals of activism and the economic sustainability of a career in music.

Indeed, besides Lady Gaga’s management, the profit-oriented representatives of the music industry have begun to explicitly embrace the activism of its practitioners. When George Clooney was awarded the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, he was praised not just for his work on television and in film, but for his “life of acting, activism and pranks” (Pena, 2018). When Lady Gaga received the Woman of the Year Award from Billboard magazine, she was explicitly honored because of her artistry as well as because of her role as a “crusader,” particularly in matters of raising sexual assault awareness (Martins, 2015). At times, such instances of praise and recognition have even resulted from blatant expressions of identity politics, such as when Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as decathlete Bruce Jenner, graced the cover of U.S. sports magazine Sports Illustrated and received the equally prestigious Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, not for any achievements in sports, but as a direct result of being a transgender person.

If the intertwined and peaceful co-existence of activism and business in the world of entertainment and popular culture will be widely accepted among their audiences, whether they be the fans of pop music or the more and less casual onlookers of celebrity behavior and misbehavior, a new economics of sincerity can be said to be developing in celebrity culture (Deflem, 2017, p. 160). Celebrities will take on causes that really are dear to them because it is judged to be good for business. The issue then is not only one of the effects and effectiveness of celebrity on activism but also, and even more peculiarly so, of the consequences of activism on celebrity culture and the role charity and philanthropy play for a career in pop and entertainment. For, indeed, not only is every celebrity today a celebrity activist, it appears to be considered necessary, among industry insiders, for celebrities to embrace activism and philanthropy to establish their careers.

From the viewpoint of the effectiveness and administration of activist causes, it is likely that the advocacy of celebrities can be effective only when it is perceived to be done for all and only the right reasons. This is an empirical question. In advance of any in-depth investigation, It can be argued only that the effects of activism in pop culture are essentially ambiguous in terms of their objectives. Yet, it is at least possible that the consumers of entertainment and celebrity as well as the overlapping category of those involved with and affected by a range of activist causes will perceive the new wave of celebvocacy as just another part of celebrity culture and, worse yet, its accompanying profit-oriented industry.

Saturation alone may be activism’s worst enemy. In the case of Lady Gaga, for instance, the star has at times been less than effective in just even reaching her audience on some activist issues as she may have been perceived to be over-involved and, as a result, uneventful and no longer worthy of attention. When in March of 2018, Lady Gaga tweeted her support for the March For Our Lives rallies that were held in various U.S. cities in 2018 in support of stricter guns laws, she received relatively little and far less attention as compared to some of her past involvements (Allaire, 2018). What once was attention-grabbing precisely because it was unexpected from a pop star by now might have become bland, boring, and even off-putting. As such, Lady Gaga’s activist involvement may have reached over-saturation to the point of her activism losing effectiveness, which should be a cautious warning to other celebrities as well as the representatives and beneficiaries of their causes.


Lady Gaga is a pop star who was able to rely, among other factors, on her involvement in various activist causes to establish her fame as a global pop sensation. This observation does not necessarily imply that the singer’s commercial success has been deliberately guided by her activism, but is primarily meant to suggest that her activism objectively functioned to accelerate her fame. Of course, as Lady Gaga’s management has explicitly acknowledged, once the singer’s career had launched her into global stardom, the choices that were made with respect to continued activist causes were also influenced by an awareness over its career implications. This infusion of ethics into the aesthetics and entertainment qualities of pop music reveals a de-differentiation of popular culture. Similar actions, as the analysis in this paper has shown, can also be witnessed among many other artists, entertainers, and celebrities. But the consequences of these developments are ambiguous and puzzling. Most problematically, precisely when and because activism and philanthropy are widely embraced and practiced by a large number of all celebrities existing, a very real and consequential irony may very well be that contemporary celebrity activism has not only turned into, but is also widely perceived as, just another commodity in the business of popular culture.

Beyond the sociological implications I discussed above, the ironies of the development of a hyper-activism in celebrity culture are significant in at least two respects. First, from the viewpoint of the goals and means of activism, the audience of pop culture may be turned off by the political and activist orientation of entertainers because they can no longer differentiate one from the other. After all, just based on the sheer number of celebrities involved on a nearly endless wide range of social issues, all of the world’s pains and ills should already have been solved by now. Worse yet, even in terms of its more pointed objectives, celebrity activism can fail rather miserably. Most strikingly perhaps, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 would make little sense if celebrity advocacy would have been effective as intended and that it would not, as can be reasonably claimed to be the case, actually have contributed to the unexpected electoral outcome because the public rebelled against so many a celebrity’s self-righteous preaching.

Second, from the viewpoint of popular culture, entertainers like Lady Gaga, George Clooney, and many others may see audience members turn away from them, not because of a perceived lack of merit in their art, but because they disagree with the content and direction of their advocacy. The immensely popular and financially lucrative world of professional sports in the United States, for instance, has taken a hit recently in its viewership, attendance, and ratings because of its association with political causes not all sports fans agree with. The National Football League, perhaps most clearly of all, has lost fans (and revenue) in recent years because its leadership not only allowed, but openly embraced the unpatriotic behavior from some its players refusing to stand for the national anthem. Unable to disentangle activism and politics from entertainment and art, it may be popular culture that could become the worst casualty of all. Instead of being preached at and being told incessantly about this or that activist issue and charitable cause, what the fans of popular culture always and by definition want from performers and artists, more than anything else, is to enrich their lives with music, art, and joy. If only celebrities would stick to doing what they are meant to do. For there can be no worse sin for an entertainer than not to entertain.


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