Musicians are expected to be role models, spokespeople and beacons of political and social progress
Earlier this year, Rihanna was asked whether she'd accept an invitation, as a myriad of famous women had done before her, to join Taylor Swift on stage. Her answer was frank but polite: "I don't think I would."
From the headlines that followed, you'd have thought she'd waged war on Swift. Her response became part of a catfight of the media's own creation. "Rihanna Disses Taylor Swift In New Interview", "Rihanna insists she'd NEVER join Taylor Swift onstage", "Rihanna Vs Taylor Swift?" But Rihanna's response wasn't about her reluctance to share a stage with Swift, but a reluctance to share the glare of her spotlight – one that demands she shows no flaws, is all things to all people, and never sets a foot wrong. "In my mind she's a role model," Rihanna explained to NME. "I'm not."
Similarly, when the video for "Bitch Better Have My Money" sparked a back-and-forth feminist debate, Rihanna didn't attempt to join it. Instead, she said simply, "This was not a woman empowerment video. I was making a piece of art." It's hardly surprising that she's reluctant to subject herself to the same scrutiny as most pop stars. When she can seemingly give no right answer, Rihanna would rather simply bulldoze past the questions.
"I really loved that actually," Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein told me, in reference to Rihanna. "To have to simultaneously be larger than life, and very down to earth – I just think that's an unfair expectation for anyone. I like that rejection of likeability."
These days though, pop stars aren't just expected to be likeable. They're expected to be role models, spokespeople and beacons of political and social progress. If a pop star possesses an attribute that deviates from the mainstream, they're expected to represent, without reservation or flaw, everyone who falls into that same deviation. It often feels as if we hold pop stars to account with the same vitriol as we do politicians – but they never ran for this office.
Thanks to their phenomenal levels of fame, few artists are subjected to quite the level of intense scrutiny as One Direction. But as a mixed-race Muslim, Zayn Malik always bore the brunt of the ideological burden. He offered representation to a group of people who at best had been sidelined, and at worst actively reviled. But it was a responsibility he wasn't, and still isn't, ready for.
In a recent interview with The Fader, one of his first since leaving the band, Malik reiterated his reluctance to represent anything larger than himself. "I would never be trying to influence anything or try to stamp myself as a religious statement or portrayal of anything," he insisted. "I am me. I'm just doing me."
But when you're a pop star in 2015, you can never be "just me". Now, arguably more than ever, the personal is the political – and this is a blessing and a curse. When we expect too much of our heroes, put them on a pedestal and expect them to speak for everyone, we're setting not only them, but ourselves, up for a fall.
“The press don't have to get their hands dirty leafing through celebrities' garbage to find something incriminating anymore – it's just a scroll away.”
Miley Cyrus' recent foray into genderqueerness might have opened up an important conversation to a wider audience, but it also placed her as the spokesperson for an issue she might not have even fully grasped herself yet. Cyrus is bold and bright and exuberantly enthusiastic about the causes she throws herself behind, but some of her actions have been deemed intensely problematic. Every time we manouevre her closer to the role-model box, it just disappoints us more when she publicly dismisses Nicki Minaj's legitimate concerns over the sidelining of women of colour, or when she poses for photographer Terry Richardson in a one-piece emblazoned with, 'MY PUSSY MY CHOICE'. "And what about all the women Terry Richardson assaulted?" asked Alanna McArdle, formerly of Joanna Gruesome, "What about their choice?"
Halsey – whose fame and exultant fanbase seemed to arrive overnight, fully-formed – almost managed to sidestep the 'spokesperson' role by treating her identity with a very deliberate flippancy. She casually referred to herself as "tri-bi" – bisexual, biracial and bipolar – beating the gossip columns to the punch and heralding a new, post-gender, post-racial, post-sexual era. Except it didn't quite work out that way. Instead, Halsey has become the spokesperson for this post-label era. She's running faster towards social progress, and so she falls harder when the foot of accountability trips her up.
I'll leave it to the ageing rock stars to bemoan social media – after all, it has democratised debate and information, and provided safe spaces in which minorities can carve themselves out a community. But it's also made it immeasurably easier to trip people up. Three years ago, a teenage Halsey tweeted, "I'm gonna go columbine in (sic) this bitch if someone mentions Haylor one more time." The press don't have to get their hands dirty leafing through celebrities' garbage to find something incriminating anymore – it's just a scroll away.
Where, then, does Justin Bieber fit into this discussion? It's become something of an international pastime to mock and deride him in recent years, and it's easy to see why – egging someone's house, resisting arrest after being pulled over for dangerous driving, and abandoning a pet monkey at German customs are just some of the slip-ups on his colourful resume. But perhaps this Frankenstein's monster was first created when he first burst on to the scene, when the media immediately pigeonholed him as the wholesome, two-dimensional boy-next-door, and then silently willed him to prove them wrong.
"I just want people to know I'm human," he told NME. "I'm struggling just to get through the days. I think a lot of people are." He then went on to compare himself to Gandhi, but don't hold that against him.
So where do we draw the line between the importance of holding pop stars to account for their mistakes, and the danger of holding them up to such unrealistically high standards? Perhaps there is no answer, except to remind ourselves, once in a while, that making music and being famous does not a perfect human make.