Celebrities as symbols for different social and political positions

There is a new cultural history of Johnny Cash out this week and I quickly read several reviews. Reading this review, it struck me that one of the important roles celebrities play in American society is they become symbols for particular causes, positions, and groups. But, what exactly they stand for or represent might be hard to pin down as Johnny Cash exemplified:

Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

In a sense, the paradox lives to see yet another day in Citizen Cash: The Political Life and Times of Johnny Cash, which sets Cash’s contrariness in a new light. Cash, the cultural historian Michael Stewart Foley argues, was not just a country-music icon, but a rare kind of political figure. He was seldom a partisan in any traditional sense, and unlike Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, he rarely aligned his music with a progressive agenda. Nonetheless, “Cash, without really intending it, fashioned a new model of public citizenship, based on a politics of empathy.”…

Some readers may walk away convinced that Cash was a Whitmanesque giant, containing multitudes. I often found myself wondering if he wasn’t a two-faced equivocator. The book is a welcome corrective to the tendency to treat the man as so internally contrary as to be a complete enigma. But the cost of rescuing Cash from the metaphysical fog has been to turn him into a plaster saint. Neither does justice to the actual extent of his weirdness…

Drawing on his own experience, Cash might have broken up the central falsity of the archipelago of glass and steel known as the New South: its equation of whiteness with self-sufficiency and Blackness with dependency. What did he do instead? He smiled grimly and talked out of both sides of his mouth. When Nixon asked Cash to play the White House, he accepted the invite, but politely refused the White House’s request to cover “Welfare Cadillac,” a racist novelty song…

Thanks in no small part to Rubin, Cash has been a blue-state hero ever since. Citizen Cash pulls, in a salutary way, a reverse Rubin and reminds us that the hipster-acceptable Cash, who hung with Bono and premiered his American Recordings songs at the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip, represents less than half the man. But Foley amasses exactly the right facts, only to draw exactly the wrong conclusion.

Who was Johnny Cash? There are multiple ways to approach this but since he was a celebrity, a well-known figure for decades, it may not matter who he really was but rather what the larger public made him to be and continues to make him to be. The celebrities have agency and can make particular decisions but to be famous or well-known means that narrative might be out of their hands. Any new commentary or writing about Cash contributes to an ongoing narrative that could continue to change.

More broadly, celebrities can become representations of particular points of view or experiences. Whether in music, sports, entertainment, politics, or other arenas, the celebrities can have individual experiences – and this is part of why they are intriguing to the celebrity industry and the public as they follow their latest moves – but they also connect to larger patterns of interest in society. Where do celebrities fall in terms of COVID-19 and vaccines? Which celebrities align with which political parties and candidates? What do they think about the latest hot topic?

This often means that celebrities become part of ongoing political and cultural struggles because they represent something. They become proxy figures for larger societal questions. Who was Johnny Cash? We are still figuring that out and the social forces and conditions around the conversation influence our answer to this question.

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