Star Power? Celebrity and Politics among Anglophone Canadian Youth
Jackson, David J., British Journal of Canadian Studies
Celebrities are playing an increasingly important role in Canadian politics. Recently, entertainers have become active in politics, politician Belinda Stronach has become a celebrity herself, and a celebrity from the sports world became a member of the federal Parliament and a Cabinet minister. At the same time, Irish rock star Bono has emerged to lobby world leaders to change their countries' policies toward the developing world. A survey of 456 young Anglophone Canadians indicated that Bono's beliefs influence the political beliefs of young Canadians, and he has helped to set the agenda for politicians. Celebrity and politics will continue to be intertwined in Canada, but in a more restrained way than in the USA.
My name is Bono, and I am a rock star. I tell you this not as a boast, but more as a kind of confession. Because, in my view, the only thing worse than a rock star is a rock star with a conscience, a celebrity with a cause - oh dear, oh dear. (Bono, speaking to the 2001 graduating class of Harvard University.)
IN 2004, both Canada and the USA held federal elections. The USA's presidential campaign of that year was a watershed political event for a number of reasons, one of which was the fact that hundreds of entertainment celebrities made their political preferences known. Most prominently, dissident film-maker Michael Moore released the movie Fahrenheit 9-11, intending to disparage the policies and character of the Bush administration. Iconic singer Bruce Springsteen toured the country with Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, and played many concerts to raise money for America Coming Together, an organisation dedicated to the defeat of President Bush. Many other stars publicly supported President Bush's re-election, campaigned with him, and gave speeches and concerts on his behalf.1
Canada, on the other hand, has traditionally experienced less involvement in politics by entertainment celebrities. Admittedly, this may have changed a bit in the 2004 federal election. Canadian rockers Barenaked Ladies campaigned for Jack Layton in the New Democratic Party (NDP) leadership race. Former Montreal Canadiens goalie and sixtime Stanley Cup winner Ken Dryden was elected to Parliament from a Toronto area riding, and subsequently joined the Liberal minority government as a Cabinet minister. Elections Canada joined forces with MuchMusic, Cineplex Odeon Cinemas and the Urban Music Association of Canada to support Rush the Vote (RTV), an effort to increase youth voter turnout (Macaluso 2004). The organisation's website (www.rushthevote.ca) included a section on celebrities who are 'down with RTV', including such luminaries as former Miss Canada Lynsey Bennett, and musicians Chantal Kreviazuk, K-OS and Rascalz. These rather isolated and fairly low-profile examples still leave Canada a long way behind the USA in terms of celebrity involvement in politics.
This article examines the relationship between entertainment and politics in Canada in a number of areas. It discusses the participation of celebrities in politics, as well as the response of young Anglophone Canadians to such participation, as ascertained by survey research. In particular, this research explores the role played in Canadian politics by Irish rock star Bono, in terms of both the political elite and the public. I begin, however, with an examination of the historical relationship between celebrity and politics in Canada compared with the USA.
Celebrity Status and Political Culture
It has been argued that the USA invented the contemporary idea of the celebrity, although studies of the desire of individuals to achieve fame (as distinct from mere notoriety) trace its origins to the ancient Greeks and Romans (Braudy 1986). Adair (1974) argues that the Founding Fathers were motivated by a desire to achieve 'fame', defined as recognition by history for having achieved something great. Others suggest the origins of modern celebrity culture date to the period just after the American Revolution, when Americans turned to political figures and heroes of battle to unite their disparate nation (Babiak 2004). Braudy suggests that:
after the Revolution, Americans were eager to see pictures and hear poems that celebrated their great men and heroic actions. Without a glorious past, they had nevertheless a glorious present and in celebrating Washington or Franklin or Jefferson, they were celebrating themselves as well. (1986: 395)
Canadians, without a clean break from their colonial masters, did not have and may not have needed famous individual personifications of their bi-national polity. Any hero in English-speaking Canada would be likely to offend francophones, and vice versa, as the disparate reactions to Louis Riel's Red River and Northwest Rebellions demonstrate. This probably continues to influence the muted nature of political celebrity culture in Canada.
Daniel Boorstin famously defined a celebrity as 'a person who is known for his well-known-ness' (1961: 57), and argued that Americans face the prospect of living in a world of 'pseudo-events' instead of real ones, and where heroes (famous for having done something worthwhile or exceptional) are replaced by celebrities (famous for being famous). Either way, in the most basic sense, celebrities are people who are very well known. When we speak of celebrities and the celebrity system, however, we usually mean entertainers. Musicians, actors and film-makers are not famous for being famous, of course: they are famous for their artistic creations. However, they are not renowned for what they know about politics, and this is the source of much disdain for celebrities when they speak about politics. Why should anyone be influenced by their beliefs when they are not experts? While this criticism is certainly valid, it does not mean we ought not to examine the possibility of celebrity influence over beliefs in areas in which they might not be expert. It also means we ought to be particularly interested in celebrities who actually do know something about the issues they promote.
Even if they do not tell us how to vote, celebrities can still play a socially significant role by distracting citizens from politics, or promoting consumer capitalism. More recent celebrity scholarship has considered the entire celebrity system as a form of social control. Cultural studies scholars have refined earlier thinking about mass society, which conceived of the masses first as the dangerous mob, and then as passive consumers of entertainment media (Marshall 1997: 37). Marshall claims, however, 'at this point, the conceptualisation of the celebrity as an ideological support for consumer capitalism remains more of a hypothesis than a proven statement' (1997: 43). Cultural studies theorists instead stress the active role audiences play in negotiating the meaning of celebrities and the celebrity system. Marshall suggests that: 'cultural studies is an intellectual project that stresses the subordinate classes' active "making sense" of their situation and environment' (1997: 47). Gamson provides a continuum of audience response to celebrities, ranging from naive believers in the authenticity of celebrities to postmodernists who reject the search for authenticity and instead enthusiastically embrace the in-authenticity of the celebrity system (1994: 155-61). Most audience members fall between these extremes. Again, the stress is on the activity of the audience, their interpretation of individual celebrities and the entire celebrity system. This is a key insight, for the research presented here examines how young Anglophone Canadians interpret, use and are in turn influenced by the celebrity system, and in particular their relationship with Bono.
Entertainment celebrities and politics have not traditionally been as connected in Canada as they are in the USA, where it is common for politicians to be treated like stars, and for stars to join in the political fray (West and Orman 2003: 2). Perhaps the only Canadian politician to achieve celebrity status - in the sense that the public clamoured to know as much as possible about his personal life and reacted to his presence like fans reacting to a rock musician - was Pierre Trudeau, whose election in 1968 generated a wave of support across Canada that came to be known as 'Trudeau-mania'. His staying power as a celebrity-politician was evident as late as 2001-2, when items of women's underwear with his likeness on them were hot sellers in Canada (Meissner 2001), and the CBC aired a popular mini-series based on his life. Trudeau was also at the centre of a major mixture of celebrity and politics in Canada when, in 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono visited him to discuss world peace. Interestingly, no specific promises seem to have been asked for by Lennon and Ono, or given by the Prime Minister, although Lennon said he believed Trudeau was 'a beautiful person'.
A new politician-celebrity may have been born in Canada in 2004, with the emergence of wealthy businesswoman Belinda Stronach. In 2005, MacLean's magazine described Stronach as 'the only glamorous politician in Canada', but there was a less positive reaction when the political novice entered the Conservative Party leadership race in 2004. Some commentators decried the rise of a celebrity politician with, allegedly, more style than substance. For example, Norman Webster, the former editor of the Gazette in Montreal, wrote of Stronach's bid: 'then there is Belinda Stronach. How embarrassing. Should she win the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, she will be a Schwarzenegger in the snow, another triumph of vapid celebrity politics.' Stronach lost the leadership election to Stephen Harper, but she managed to make more headlines when the 2004 federal election produced a minority Liberal government with the Tories in opposition. She and Deputy Conservative Leader Peter MacKay became romantically involved, but the relationship probably ended when Stronach defected to the Liberal caucus on 17 May 2005, just days before a crucial confidence vote on the Liberal budget. Whether Stronach's rise indicates Canadian convergence with the USA in terms of glamour and star power playing important roles in the emergence and influence of politicians remains to be seen.
Scholars have argued that celebrity culture has traditionally been more muted in Canada than in the USA because of the supposedly sceptical and reserved nature of Canadians (see Lipset 1990; Berton 1982). On the other hand, English-speaking Canadians embrace US celebrities to a large degree. More than 90 per cent of all theatrical movie releases in Canada are foreign products, mainly from the USA. Despite content rules mandating significant airplay for Canadian music and television, around 70 per cent of music played on Canadian radio stations is foreign, as are the majority of popular English-language TV programmes. A recent examination of the top twenty TV programmes in Canada over one week (2-8 May 2005) showed not one Canadian production: all of the most popular programmes were US shows such as C.S.I., Desperate Housewives and The Simpsons. Perhaps the ready availability of US celebrity culture through movies, TV programmes and music has stunted the growth of a similar celebrity structure in English-speaking Canada. Perhaps disgust borne of familiarity with the excesses of US celebrity culture has contributed to a conscious choice by Canadians to ignore it.
Content regulations, on the other hand, indicate the Canadian government's belief that popular culture and celebrities can influence political attitudes, such as attachment to Canada and affinity with other Canadians. Pierre Juneau, then-Chairman of the Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), contended in 1971 that:
our mandate and our purpose is to ensure that Canadian broadcasting develops as a system for us to communicate with one another about our problems and the problems of the world; about our ideas and our views of the world; about our past and our hopes for the future, about our environment, about the quality of our lives, about our role in this area of the universe. (Lehr 1983)
Scholars are divided about the value of content regulations, and the argument behind them that popular culture influences people's political beliefs. Economists Acheson and Maule (1997) argue that the Canadian government's cultural policies are a failure, in part because they are built upon a contradiction. They write:
Canadian foreign economic policy towards the cultural industries has evolved on the assumption that Canada can pursue protectionist policies and shelter them from international agreements by negotiating special terms, while encouraging Canadian producers to seek foreign markets. (p. 80)
The authors endorse the scrapping of content policies, which they believe would encourage the Canadian culture industries to produce internationally desirable outputs as well as 'local interest' material.
Supporters of Canadian culture policy argue that the protection of culture is essential because of the role it plays in identity formation. Audley (1994: 63) suggests:
communities and nations whose past is not reflected in publications, broadcast programmes, films, and video and audio productions are as handicapped as individuals afflicted with amnesia. Societies whose current realities are not adequately explored, reflected, debated, and contested through works that are widely available, and create a substantial body of shared knowledge, will increasingly become democratic in name only, with propaganda, social management, and manipulation becoming ever easier.
Much Canadian studies scholarship analyses the meaning of entertainment products, and while not typically asserting that the material influences the beliefs of Canadians (or not to the extent that Audley contends), it does suggest that entertainment at least reflects the beliefs of Canadians (Lehr 1983; Edwardson 2002-3; Jackson 2005). Little scholarly literature demonstrates the direct influence of popular culture or celebrities on people's political beliefs, but Jackson and Darrow (2005) demonstrate that young people are more likely to agree with a political statement when it is endorsed by a celebrity than when it is not.
Previous research on celebrities and politics leads us to a number of expectations about the current state of affairs in Canada. As I have suggested elsewhere (Jackson 2002), young people are more apt than older citizens to be aware of the role of celebrities in politics and the political themes of popular media. With the role of celebrities in Canadian politics apparently growing, what do young English-speaking Canadians think of the role of celebrities and politicians, as well as their interaction? Are young English-speaking Canadians any different from their counterparts in the USA in terms of their response to celebrities' roles in politics and the celebrification of politicians? One celebrity in particular has been trying for years to exert a great deal of influence on Canadian leaders, as well as on the mass public: Bono. Is this working?
To answer these questions, this article examines the results of a survey of students enrolled in introductory political science classes at seven Canadian universities: Dalhousie in Nova Scotia, McGill University in Quebec, the University of Western Ontario and the University of Windsor in Ontario, the University of Manitoba, the University of Calgary in Alberta and the University of British Columbia. While not a random national sample, the 456 completed questionnaires draw from all regions of Canada and come from young English-speaking Canadians enrolled at universities with varied academic reputations and admissions standards. Although limiting the sample to respondents enrolled in university is less than ideal, recent socialisation and public opinion research projects have justified doing so, especially when testing new theories or when better data is not yet available (Dolan 1995; Huddy and Terkildsen 1993).2
The survey determined the respondents' partisanship, ideology and beliefs about specific issues. It also included a series of open-ended questions about which public figure they most respect, and the name of a figure from the entertainment world whose opinions on politics they would respect.
Rather than trying to draw correlations between media preferences or use levels and political beliefs, this article instead examines individual celebrities. Socialisation research that focuses on the entertainment media must examine the pronouncements of celebrities outside their entertainment products, as well as the messages of TV programmes, movies and songs. It is crucial for us to do this, because the search for correlations between messages in the pop culture and young people's beliefs may aid us in making the case that the popular culture ought to be considered an 'agent' of socialisation. However, seeking only these correlations will not help us understand the other major challenge of socialisation scholars: namely, the examination of how young people use the entertainment media and its messages in the formation of their own beliefs.3 This approach also recognises cultural studies' proposition that media consumers are not passive, but participate in the meaning-creation process of celebrities and the celebrity system.
First, respondents were asked to name the public figure they most respect.4 Disappointingly, from the perspective of politicians, 49.4 per cent of respondents chose not to answer. A total of ninety-four names was produced by 232 respondents. In all, 235 discrete mentions of figures resulted, because a few respondents offered more than one name. The most popular responses are listed in Table 1. No individual was an overwhelming favourite, although Canadian politicians of the past and present are well represented, as are Canadians overall, who took seven of the top fourteen positions.
Among respondents who named the public figure they most respected, 22.8 per cent offered a figure from the entertainment industry.5 These included a wide variety of people, from rock star Eddie Vedder to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. Half of the individuals most frequently named came from countries other than Canada, including five from the USA. This leads us to wonder whether Canadian and US youths view the world of public figures differently. One way to answer this question is to compare US and Canadian youths' responses when asked to name the public figure they most respect. Unfortunately, we do not have such results from exactly the same period, but a 1997-8 survey of US university students (Jackson 2002) produced very different results, as presented in Table 2.
Of the top nine figures listed in the table, only one is foreign: Mother Theresa, a relatively non-controversial humanitarian figure. This is in marked contrast to the Canadian list, where seven are foreign. Each of the remaining figures on the US list is an American politician. Bill Clinton was the most popular, with the then mayor of Detroit Dennis Archer a close second. Given that one of the universities where the students were surveyed is located in Detroit, it is not surprising for a local figure to make the list. Does the lack of any foreign figure among the most popular responses indicate that Americans are narrow-minded and untrusting of foreigners, compared with Canadians? Or does the presence of so many foreign figures on the Canadian list merely reflect the fact that Canada is a relatively small country and situated next to the world's most powerful nation-state? The data do not permit us to answer these questions, but it is interesting to note that of the seven foreigners among the Canadian responses, five are from the USA, but two are figures who may be rightly described as truly transnational political figures, including the then Secretary-General of the United Nations. Such globally-oriented and potentially controversial figures are absent from the US list. Finally, of the 120 names mentioned on the US survey, thirty-four (28 per cent) were figures from the entertainment world. In the Canadian sample, ninetyfour names were mentioned, and twenty-five (27 per cent) are figures from the entertainment industry. Both the Canadian and the US surveys produced lists that were quite heavy with entertainers.
Respondents to the Canadian survey were also asked to name a celebrity whose opinions on politics they respected. In all, 206 respondents offered a name, and ninety-nine different names resulted. In total, 233 discrete respondent mentions of celebrities were obtained, because a few named more than one. U2 lead singer Bono received 24 per cent of these mentions. The other frequently mentioned celebrities appear in Table 3.
Only eighteen of the ninety-nine celebrities mentioned are Canadian, and only one of the top eight is Canadian (Matthew Good). More interestingly, each of the top celebrities hovers somewhere on the left side of the political spectrum, and most have had some pretty negative things to say about the Bush administration. Perhaps this reflects the power of recent events to shape young English-speaking Canadians' thinking, in that the surveys were administered just before and after the US presidential election. These results may simply reflect the anti-Bush tendencies of a majority of the sample. When asked for their level of agreement with the statement: 'George W. Bush is probably one of the worst presidents we'll ever have, or have had. I just don't know how, so far, he's gotten away with everything he's done', 51.3 per cent of respondents strongly agreed, and another 28.6 per cent agreed somewhat. President Bush is not popular with the Canadian university students in the sample, so any celebrity who said something negative about him is likely to be respected.
The focus on US politics and celebrities is interesting beyond the controversial nature of the Bush administration. Anglophone Canadian youths in general did not think of a Canadian celebrity whose opinions on politics they respect. This could be explained by the traditional reluctance of Canadian celebrities to speak out about politics, as described above. It is likely that not many Canadians knew about the Barenaked Ladies' support of Jack Layton, or the handful of other recent examples of Canadian celebrity involvement in politics mentioned above. On the other hand, Canada's proximity to the USA's entertainment market, and the importance of the USA to Canada's economy and defence, has traditionally meant that Canadians pay much more attention to the USA than Americans pay to Canada.
The most interesting result was the large number of respondents who respect Bono. While 24 per cent is not an especially high figure, it is important to note that it represents nearly five times more support than that gained by Bono's nearest competitor. The number of respondents who offered Bono, moreover, is sufficiently high to allow for significant statistical analysis as presented below, after an investigation into the political beliefs and activities of the Irish rock star.
Bono and his Beliefs
What does it mean that a plurality of young Anglophone Canadians surveyed respected the political opinions of Bono? The first reaction we might consider is relief. What if the respondents had preferred a less savoury figure, such as rapper Eminem, socialite Paris Hilton or hockey player Dany Heatley, each of whom would have been troublesome for different reasons (Eminem's alleged homophobia and misogyny, Hilton's vapidity and Heatley having killed a friend in an automobile accident)? More broadly, what does it mean to respect Bono's opinions on politics? What are these beliefs, and are the young people who respect Bono politically different from other youths?6
The relationship between celebrity and audience is a complicated one, and celebrities may be more or less credible in terms of politics, based on the source of their fame. Rojek (2001: 17) suggests celebrity status may be 'ascribed', 'achieved' or 'attributed'. Ascribed celebrity status derives from lineage: the children of famous families become famous. Achieved celebrity comes from the celebrity actually having done something. Attributed celebrity status derives from cultural intermediaries making people famous, even if they have not really done anything to deserve such status.
In terms of political celebrities, West and Orman (2003) offer a fivecategory typology of what they call 'celebrity-politicos'. 'Political newsworthies' are individuals whose main business is politics and who have achieved celebrity status. Reverend Jesse Jackson and John McCain are examples. 'Legacies' are children of powerful political families, who also seek political office, such as George W. Bush. 'Famed non-politicos (elected officials)' are individuals, such as former senators John Glenn and Bill Bradley, who parlay fame in a non-political realm, such as science or sports, into elective office. 'Famed non-politicos (lobbyists and spokespersons)' translate fame into influence in politics without themselves getting elected. Examples the authors offer include singer Willie Nelson and actor Charlton Heston. A final category is 'event celebrities', which includes people, such as Anita Hill, who are made famous by participation in a news-event not necessarily of their choosing.
These typologies help us understand the role of Bono in politics because, as West and Orman argue, 'Hollywood celebrities have become an increasingly important part of our national debate over policy issues' (2003: 62). West and Orman are referring to the role of celebrities in US politics, but we might wonder if Canada is experiencing a similar increase in celebrity influence in policy debate. Clearly, Bono fits West and Orman's category of 'famed non-politicos (lobbyists and spokespersons)', because he has never run for public office, but has tried to parlay his fame into influence over the leaders of the world's most powerful democracies. He fits Rojek's category of 'achieved' celebrity status, because, to use Rojek's wording, his fame 'derives from the perceived accomplishments of the individual in open competition' (p. 18). I would suggest celebrities whose fame is 'achieved' are likely to be more able to influence political elites and mass publics, since their overall credibility is higher. This is because they have produced a body of actual work to achieve their fame, rather than merely having fame thrust upon them for reasons of lineage or the public's seemingly never-ending need for more celebrities. In the end, however, the public gives celebrity status, and can take it away. Bono has been famous for twenty-five years. To understand his enduring public persona, one must examine the familial, religious, political and performative experiences at the core of his public identity.
Bono (whose birth name is Paul Hewson) is the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, which was founded in 1978 by the band's drummer Larry Mullen Jr, and includes Adam Clayton on bass and The Edge (David Evans) on guitar. As the band became increasingly famous in the early and mid- 1980s, their politics began to take centre stage, along with the Christian spirituality of the band's lyrics. Their politics were not confined to their lyrics, but included action as well, such as participation in the Live Aid concert at London's Wembley Stadium in 1985.
The band's early US tours influenced its politics. According to Bono, during concerts in 1981:
people were throwing money on stage during the Bobby Sands hunger strike. But what was that money for? Those dollars were arriving in the streets of Belfast and Derry as weapons and bombs. Some things are black and white - but the Troubles in Northern Ireland are not. I know: I'm the son of a Protestant mother and a Catholic father. (Miller 1984: 61)
Subtlety and an embrace of the complexity of issues remain important elements of Bono's politics. It is also important to note the extent to which, even early on in U2's career, Bono was conscious of and concerned about the audience's perception of the political beliefs of the band. Clearly he did not want the audience to assume his support for Sinn Fein or the IRA.
Religious themes permeate U2's music, and the lives of three its members as well. Steve Stockman, a Presbyterian minister in Ireland, offers a subtle analysis of the band's Christianity in his book Walk On (2005), in which he accounts for the seeming contradiction between the band members' drinking, smoking and late-night lifestyle, and their Christianity. Stockman offers a sympathetic view of the band's journey into Christianity, tracking their development through their early days in a Dublin spiritual community, to their ironic period in the 1990s, to their more recent return to an earnestness of which some critics are suspicious. Stockman also rejects the argument (often made by conservative Christians) that the band members are not truly Christian because of Bono's clear rejection of organised religion.7
U2's lyrics also mix political and religious concerns, in such songs as 'Sunday, Bloody Sunday'. On a live recording, Bono introduces the song: 'There's been a lot of talk about this next song maybe, maybe too much talk. This song is not a rebel song. This song is "Sunday Bloody Sunday."' The song refers to events that took place on 30 January 1972, when British troops shot dead thirteen unarmed demonstrators in Derry, Northern Ireland. It may also be named after 21 November 1921, when the British (in the form of the Regular Royal Irish Constabulary and the Black and Tans) killed twelve members of the Gaelic Athletic Association who were suspected of having Republican ties (Stockman 2005: 33-4). The song directly concerns the 'troubles' in Northern Ireland, with lyrics such as:
And the battle's just begun
There's many lost, but tell me who has won
The trench is dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart.
Clearly, based on the introduction above, the band worried about the song being perceived as a 'rebel' song, in favour of the Republican side in the Irish-British/Catholic-Protestant conflict. The song concludes:
The real battle yet begun
To claim the victory Jesus won
On Sunday, bloody Sunday.
Through that lyrical twist, the song is transformed into a call for universal recognition of the resurrection of Jesus, presumably not just by both sides in the Irish conflict, but by all of divided Christianity as well. By preferring a more subtle expression, and by complicating its political messages with spiritual ones, the band in turn risks the wrath of critics, who sometimes express frustration with the lack of concreteness in the band's images, ideas and beliefs.
While the band's lyrics are often political, or at least concern important world events and public figures, critics have noticed a vagueness in them. David Plotz (2002) suggests that U2's twenty-five-year run as one of the world's most important rock bands has been facilitated by Bono's simultaneous self-importance and self-mockery, as indicated in the quotation that begins this article, and by, 'pretend[ing] that it is a political rock band'. While admitting that the band has written about such political topics as Ireland's troubles, Martin Luther King's civil rights struggles, the USA's policy in Latin America, and Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, Plotz still argues, 'U2 is perhaps the world's vaguest band If it is political music, it is for the Bob Kerreys of the world, for folks who seem full of great, but totally inchoate, ideas.' Plotz offers many examples of the vagueness of the band's lyrics, and the seemingly incongruous dedication by U2 of songs to various causes where the connection between the song's lyrics and the cause are far from obvious. In fact, Plotz suggests he is a great fan of U2's song about King, called 'Pride (In the Name of Love)', yet he, 'def[ies] anyone to explain what it teaches about Martin Luther King, Jr'.
Plotz argues that this vagueness is of the essence in terms of explaining U2's popularity as a rock band, and I would argue that it goes a long way towards explaining why young Canadians are more likely to respect the opinions of Bono about politics than any other celebrity. While the causes that U2 supports - Greenpeace, War Child, Amnesty International, Burmese democracy, African debt relief, increased western assistance to Africa and Irish reconciliation - have a liberal or left-wing tinge, they are mainly inoffensive. Who is against human rights, or in favour of civilian casualties in war, or environmental degradation? The causes are as vague as the lyrics. Young fans can make almost anything of them. In fact, to expect complete clarity of message in a song might be to miss the mark. Not every political song can be as clear as the topical songs of troubadours such as Phil Ochs, who was said to have sung the headlines. Many of Ochs's songs have failed to endure because they were too precise. Popular music scholar Simon Frith (1996) argues that scholars who focus on the potential influence on listeners of the lyrical content of pop songs miss the point, because songs are best understood as the expressions of these ideas. In other words, U2 is not necessarily getting young people to agree with its message by influencing them through specific lyrical appeals, but instead is offering young idealists an avenue of expression of their beliefs, be it in the form of singing along with U2 on recordings, or in concerts with tens of thousands of others.
While U2's political focus started with US involvement in Irish issues, over time it has expanded to include the broad justice issues discussed above. After U2 performed at Live Aid, which raised US$200 million for African assistance, Bono spent a month working in Ethiopia in a relief camp (Leland 2000). After recognising in the late 1990s that US$200 million amounted only to the debt payments of African nations for a few days, Bono came to be most strongly associated with the issue of developing country debt relief. The movement has apparently achieved a number of successes, including the G-8 nations pledging to forgive US$100 billion of the US$356 billion it was owed (Leland 2000), and pledges of increased aid and trade after the G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland in 2005.8 Bono has formed a policy advocacy group called DATA, which stands for Debt AIDS Trade Africa (Traub 2005). He has lobbied for debt relief among G-8 leaders, both in their capitals and at G-8 summits, and helped Bob Geldof organise the Live 8 benefit concerts in 2005. According to economist Robert J. Barro, who is critical of the value of debt relief, 'Bono was as successful with conservatives, such as Senator Jesse A. Helms as he was with liberals' (Barro 2001). The keys to Bono's success appear to include his massive celebrity appeal, his self-deprecating irony, his knowledge of the issue, and his commitment to a very unglamorous cause. According to Traub, he is 'the most politically effective figure in the recent history of popular culture' (2005: 82).
The lack of glamour of the causes Bono promotes is important, as are the ways in which it appears to be a selfless endeavour on his part. While Bono stands to gain nothing personally if the industrialised democracies cancel debts owed by developing countries, the same cannot be said of some of the causes to which celebrities have recently attached themselves. For example, whether fairly or not, celebrities who campaign for increased funding to fight the AIDS epidemic have been criticised for being interested in the issue only because they know someone who has died of AIDS, or believe it has heavily hurt the arts community. Artists who argue for strict adherence to the freedom of expression can be accused of hiding behind the USA's Constitution to protect their right to make money by selling sexually explicit or violent recordings, TV shows and movies to impressionable youths. Whatever public relations gain Bono may experience from his support of debt relief, there are no dollars coming his way because of it. Street suggests that the support of Bono and other artists for such causes as Jubilee 2000, 'do not cost the artists and celebrities a great deal. It can enhance their fame and reputation (and this may, of course, go some way to explaining why they do it)' (2002: 434). However, Street rightly rejects the argument that political involvement is always a cynical career move by pointing out that it often involves risks for artists. While Bono faces little physical or political risk for taking up an issue such as debt relief, he does face the possibility of being pigeon-holed as a 'celebrity with a cause', as the quotation at the beginning of this piece indicates. While Bono's sarcasm suggests he is not overly concerned with this possibility, the declining career trajectory of any number of celebrities who became overly associated with single issues, including perhaps Bono's friend Bob Geldof, is a concern for someone who makes a living from being popular.
Bono has also praised Canada's role in relation to debt relief, aid and other issues. In 2003 he spoke at the Liberal Party's national convention, and said:
I'm here for Paul Martin I am honoured. So how am I going to return Paul Martin's favour? I'm going to be the biggest pain in his ass. A year down the line, he's going to regret tonight I believe the world needs more Canada. (Rath 2003)
Young Canadians were doubtless impressed when such a famous musician suggested the world should emulate their country. During the speech, the singer explained that in the late 1960s, then-Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson suggested that Canada (and other developed nations) should spend a minimum of 0.7 per cent of gross national product on foreign assistance (aid). By 2003, Canada's aid spending had dwindled to just 0.29 per cent of GNP, but Martin promised to increase this. Martin's Liberals formed a vulnerable minority government in 2004, and by April 2005 were receiving criticism from Bono for not keeping their promises:
I'm bewildered really. I'm disappointed. I've not given up hope. I really can't believe that Paul Martin would want to hold up history, or indeed would hold up history We were looking for Canada to lead rather than be a laggard what's upsetting about this is it feels like business as usual. (CBC radio interview)
While Martin had the more pressing matter of keeping his government in power following devastating leaks from the inquiry into the misspending of millions of federal dollars in the sponsorship scandal in Quebec, young Canadians who respect Bono might have become more likely to question the Martin government as their hero's opinion of it dropped, while simultaneously remaining proud of the Canadian ideals Bono implored Canadians to live up to.
What Young English-Speaking Canadians who Respect Bono Think about Politics
Are those who respect Bono's opinions about politics different from other young Anglophone Canadians? Do their beliefs run parallel to his? The respondents who named Bono as the entertainer whose opinions on politics they most respected appeared to be politically different from other respondents. First, the Bono crowd was more liberal. On a seven-point scale, where seven represents 'extremely liberal', Bono fans average 5.33, whereas others average 4.83 (t = 2.519, sig. (two-tailed) = .014). In terms of political party affiliation, they are more likely to prefer the NDP (32.7 per cent to 21.0 per cent) or the Green Party (9.7 per cent to 3.8 per cent), and less likely to be Conservatives (11.5 per cent to 20.8 per cent), and these differences are significant (chi-square = 11.373, sig. (twotailed) = .078).
Beliefs on specific issues parallel the results above. Bono believers are slightly (but statistically significantly) more likely to agree that marijuana possession should not be a criminal offence, and that only the police and military ought to be allowed to have guns. They are slightly less likely to agree that women should stay at home and take care of the family, rather than work outside the home. Interestingly, Bono-ites have warmer feelings toward the United Kingdom, France and Quebec than do other young Anglophone Canadians. When asked to decide which goals Canada ought to pursue, Bono's acolytes are more likely to choose 'protect freedom of speech' (29.6 per cent to 21.3 per cent), and 'give the people more say' (38.9 per cent to 30.8 per cent). They are less likely to say 'fight crime' (9.3 per cent to 20 per cent) or 'maintain economic growth' (22.2 per cent to 27.9 per cent). As suggested above, we are unable to impute causality from these differences. However, young English-speaking Canadians who respect Bono's beliefs about politics are different from other Anglophone Canadians. Because there are some parallels in his beliefs and theirs, young Anglophone Canadians may find comfort in the expression of these beliefs in U2 songs, and may in turn find their own beliefs reinforced.
Discussion and Conclusion
While the celebrity participation in the 2004 US election gained the North American headlines, something important was going on in the 2004 Canadian election as well. Celebrity entertainers became active in politics, Belinda Stronach became a celebrity, and a sports star became a member of Parliament and a Cabinet minister. Bono has been alternately praising and hounding the Canadian Prime Minister. While it cannot be demonstrated that Bono influences the political beliefs of young Canadians, it is indisputable that he has played an agenda-setting role among politicians, by influencing 'the list of subjects or problems to which governmental officials, and people outside of government closely associated with those officials, are paying some serious attention at any given time' (Kingdon 1995). Celebrity and politics appear destined to continue to mix in Canada, but in a typically Canadian way, which is to say restrained and muted.
The selection of Bono by Anglophone Canadian youths offers insights into how they think about celebrity and politics. This selection may represent an expression of internationalism, multilateralism, liberalism, subtle anti-Americanism and pro-Canada sentiments, and a mature choice of a celebrity who is well known for having done his homework on the issues about which he speaks.
Scholars have noted the tendency of Canadians to prefer a multilateralist approach to foreign policy (Resnick 2005: 68; Ignatieff 2003). Respecting the political opinions of Bono is one way to express this belief. This is because Bono is, of course, not Canadian, but hails from Ireland. By selecting a figure from outside their country, young Canadians suggest a high comfort level with people from other countries, and also express agreement with Canada's tolerant policy of official multiculturalism. While this policy is not always fully endorsed by English-speaking Canadians (Mackey 2002), it is broadly accepted publicly as the national ideal. In prodding developed countries to increase their contributions to foreign aid and to cancel debt, Bono has encouraged disparate regions of the world to work together for the benefit of the least well off. By endorsing these beliefs in aligning themselves with Bono, young anglophone Canadians demonstrate a preference for a world based on international cooperation, rather than aggressive unilateralism.
Of course, Canada's preference for multilateralism contains a hint of anti-Americanism as well, which is a tendency Canadians scholars have noticed (Edwardson 2002-3; Mackey 2002; Granatstein 1996; Gibbins 1995). By endorsing Bono's political beliefs, young anglophone Canadians may also be subtly suggesting antipathy towards the USA. As the richest and most powerful nation, the USA, Bono has suggested, has a special obligation to lead the world in debt forgiveness and foreign assistance. Of course, it is not doing this, and Bono has been critical of the USA because of it.
Agreeing with Bono also expresses some pro-Canadian feelings. Bono's suggestion that the world 'needs more Canada' reassures young Anglophone Canadians that Canada is indeed an important and valuable country. His criticism of the failings of Canada to live up to its ideals does not reduce the patriotism involved in respecting Bono, because in his criticism of Canada he reminds Canadians that they are failing to be Canadian enough.
While Bono presents himself as a fairly typical rock star on stage, he also presents an image of a studious and concerned citizen who knows what he is talking about. The choice of Bono demonstrates the influence of international celebrities in Canada, yet it is evidently not simply his celebrity status that wins him respect. Bono is the anti-celebrity celebrity, whose complexity and contradictions make him a safe choice for young Canadians. While events such as Ken Dryden's and Belinda Stronach's rise to power suggest a growth in the celebrity status of Canadian politicians and the use of celebrity status to gain political power, the respect of young Canadians for Bono indicates that it takes more than glamour to earn respect for one's political views. Bono is not, to use Boorstin's language, famous for being famous, but he uses his fame to promote good causes, and young Canadians admire him for this.
Scholars should continue to investigate the role of celebrities in politics, in terms of their influence on elites and the public, as well as the effect on the political process of the glamourisation and celebrification of politicians themselves. The most interesting question remains the one of effect: do celebrities influence the political beliefs of their audiences through political expressions in their art or public statements? The difficulty of this question ought not to be a deterrent to its investigation by serious scholars through survey research, experimental methods and content analysis.
The author thanks the Research Grant Program of the Canadian Embassy for supporting this research.
1. Bush supporters included actor Stephen Baldwin, baseball player Curt Schilling, NASCAR drivers, Britney Spears, musicians Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper and Toby Keith, and several Christian and Cuban-American singers. Kerry attracted significantly more celebrity star-power, including actors Jack Black, Natalie Portman, Ben Affleck and Canadian Michael J. Fox, as well as Springsteen and many others.
2. The survey took place between October 2004 and March 2005. Response rates for the surveys administered in classes by the researcher ran at nearly 100 per cent, while those administered by faculty members (this includes only those administered at the University of British Columbia) were returned at a substantially lower rate - about 25 per cent. This produced an overall response rate of about 70 per cent. Also, using students enrolled in political science courses could result in a bias in the results, because the students have been primed during the semester to think about politics. This is not as major a problem as it might seem. In some cases the bias is a conservative one. For example, students who are primed to think about politics might be less likely to name a figure from the pop culture when asked to name the public figure they most respect. Ultimately, with a narrow sample such as this, the most important rule is to avoid making broad generalisations about the entire population based on the sample.
3. Edgar and Edgar (1971: 609) differentiated between two broad schools of socialisation theory: passive and active. In passive socialisation theory, the basic question is 'what do the media do to people?', while in the active model, the question is, 'what do people do with the media?'. Each approach is justified, but the research presented here focuses more on the latter question than the former.
4. Specific question wording appears in the appendix.
5. These results parallel findings from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's 2004 survey to find the 100 Greatest Canadians. Three of the top ten made their mark in sports (runner Terry Fox and hockey men Wayne Gretzky and Don Cherry). Using a fairly conservative standard of evaluation, about 40 per cent of the top 100 made their reputations through entertainment or sports. I say conservative standard, because novelists, painters and classical musicians were not counted as entertainers. In 1999, the Dominion Institute and the Council for Canadian Unity conducted an online survey to find out who Canadians regard as heroes. Terry Fox finished first, and no entertainer made the top ten (http://www.thememoryproject.com/ heroes_poll.cfm).
6. I shall refrain from imputing causality in the political differences between those who respect the opinions of Bono and other young English-speaking Canadians, because it is impossible to specify which came first: respect for Bono or agreement with his politics.
7. Bono has said, 'I often wonder if religion is the enemy of God. It's almost like religion is what happens when the Spirit has left the building. God's Spirit moves through us and the world at a pace that can never be constricted by any one religious paradigm.' ('Bono: the Beliefnet Interview,' retrieved 31 October 2005 from http://www.beliefnet.com/story/67/ story_6758_1.html).
8. Not all campaigners for debt relief, increased aid and fair trade agreed with Bono's claims of success at the G-8 summit. See S. Hodkinson, 'Oh No, They Didn't! Bono and Geldof: "We Saved Africa!"', retrieved 27 October 2005 from http://www.counterpunch.org/hodkinson10272005.html.
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DAVID J. JACKSON is Associate Professor of Political Science at Bowling Green State University. He is the author of Entertainment and Politics: The Influence of Pop Culture on Young Adult Political Socialization (2002).
Here is the wording used in the survey referred to in this article.
1. In the space provided, please name an actor or musician whose opinions on politics you respect.
2. Please write in the space provided the name of the public figure you most respect.
3. On the whole, how satisfied are you with the way democracy works in Canada?
1. very satisfied 3. fairly satisfied 5. not very satisfied
7. not satisfied at all
4. Here is a list of FOUR goals. Which goal is MOST important to you personally?
1. Fighting crime
2. Giving people more say in important government decisions
3. Maintaining economic growth
4. Protecting freedom of speech
5. Generally speaking, which political party do you prefer?
1. Bloc Québécois
8. Another party
6. How would you describe your political beliefs? (Please circle one response.)
1. Extremely liberal
3. Slightly liberal
4. Moderate; middle of the road
5. Slightly conservative
7. Extremely conservative
7. Smoking marijuana should not be a criminal offence.
1. Strongly agree 3. Somewhat agree 5. Somewhat disagree
7. Strongly disagree
8. Society would be better off if more women stayed home with their children.
1. Strongly agree 3. Somewhat agree 5. Somewhat disagree
7. Strongly disagree
9. Only the police and the military should be allowed to have guns.
1. Strongly agree 3. Somewhat agree 5. Somewhat disagree
7. Strongly disagree
10. We'd like to get your feelings on some countries in the news these days. We'd like you to rate them using what is known as the 'feeling thermometer'. Ratings between 50 degrees and 100 degrees mean that you feel favourable and warm towards that country. Ratings between 0 and 50 degrees mean that you don't feel favourable towards that country. If you rate the country at the midpoint, 50 degree mark, that means that you don't have any particular feelings towards that country.
A. Great Britain
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Publication information: Article title: Star Power? Celebrity and Politics among Anglophone Canadian Youth. Contributors: Jackson, David J. - Author. Journal title: British Journal of Canadian Studies. Volume: 20. Issue: 1 Publication date: May 2007. Page number: 75+. © Not available. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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