Pop Stars Are Combating The Radical Right In New Ways

Pop stars like Harry Styles, Shawn Mendes, and Taylor Swift are combating radical right ideologies by spreading messages of inclusion and tolerance.
Harry Styles on the <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfztJoDVRd4">Graham Norton Show</a> (December 2019)

Harry Styles on the Graham Norton Show (December 2019)

Dr. Louie Dean Valencia-García is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right and Assistant Professor of Digital History at Texas State University.

To the unobservant, former One Direction heartthrob and chart-topping singer Harry Styles might not seem like the person to challenge toxic masculinity and demonstrate how to be a powerful ally to queer people, women, and people of color; however, behind a simple mantra of “treat people with kindness” (which you can also find for sell on hoodies on his website), he has managed to quietly model ways in which a white, cis-man can serve as a model on how to be an ally.

Styles’s band prominently features women rocking out, such as Sarah Jones and Clare Uchima. He also is known for painting his nails and his friendship with Alessandro Michele, a prominent queer creative director for Gucci. More recently, he has donned a string of pearls, and has gone on the record describing “feminism is a gift.” The Bowie-inspired British musician decorates his guitars with stickers calling to end gun violence, in front of a Dallas audience nonetheless, in addition to his display of Black Lives Matter stickers and proud flight of the queer pride flags.

Styles argues, “I’m aware that as a white male, I don’t go through the same things as a lot of the people that come to the shows. I can’t claim that I know what it’s like, because I don’t. So I’m not trying to say, ‘I understand what it’s like.’ I’m just trying to make people feel included and seen.” To be clear, we should not laud Styles for treating people with basic human decency; however, he is serving as a good model of how to treat people with kindness.

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The twenty-five-year-old’s response when journalists ask about his sexuality? “Who cares?” Styles iterates, “It’s not a case of: I’m not telling you cos I don’t want to tell you. It’s not: ooh this is mine and it’s not yours.” He argues, “I’m not just sprinkling in sexual ambiguity to be interesting.” Styles, known for wearing dresses, flamboyant accessories, and wearing clothing that defy norms even when compared to other men in the music industry, “I want things to look a certain way. Not because it makes me look gay, or it makes me look straight, or it makes me look bisexual, but because I think it looks cool.”

Styles’s allyship and gender performance has not been ignored by the radical right. In a post on the website Reconquista Europa, one blogger starts his opening salvo calling Styles a “fa**ot” who is “into, at the very least, homoerotic buttsex with negroes.” In response to Styles’s appreciation of women and the mother who primarily raised him, that blogger writes, “This is the danger of single motherhood. When single mothers raise boys like queer pants Harry Styles, they teach them all the wrong values and warp their minds to think and perceive the world gynocentrically like females do. Single mothers are raising new generations of boys to develop female-pattern brains, which leads them to either become homosexuals or ‘male feminists.’” The blogger continues, “Are celebrities these days anything more than mind-controlled robots regurgitating scripted lines of Elite Jews and their White Genocide agenda?”

This blogger ties together many of the fears of the radical right today—anti-Semitic conspiracies and a fear of “white genocide and replacement”. Fascist beliefs, such as these, fear a future where queer white people are not productive to their race. Further, they see relationships between people of different races as degeneracy that will end in a “genocide” of white people—which is depicted as a Jewish conspiracy. They believe they are combating “cultural Marxism” which they see as the product of the Frankfurt School—a group of scholars who were originally at the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, until their exile during the Second World War. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, they sought to understand the intersections of class, ethnocentrism, nationalism, and race. Later scholars augmented to what became known as “critical theory” by also considering how people are systematically oppressed because of their gender, embodiment, and sexuality.

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Unsurprisingly, in response to the Reconquista Europa post, a slew of comments followed on Twitter and on the blog’s comment section. One commenter praised Styles’s embrace of “the fluidity of femininity and masculinity,” to which the original blogger responded, “The statement alone disqualifies you from the human race. Let me guess, your filthy, emasculated Marxist college professor who also happens to be a cross-dressing homosexual told you that nonsense, right?” Clearly, the radical right blogger has bought into the explicitly uncritical belief of a “cultural Marxism” that seeks to turn people into something other than human. In a follow-up post, the blogger (whose icon features a version of the Spanish fascist party’s flag), wrote celebrating “triggering” Styles’s fans on the internet, “We’re winning. The anal sex brigade is losing.”

But is this true? In a world where Trump rallies fill stadiums, it often feels that way. However, musicians such as Styles, Taylor Swift, Nick Jonas, and Shawn Mendes are also filling stadiums. Mendes regularly collaborates with trans musician Teddy Geiger and has even spoken out against climate crisis in Brazil, where its far-right leader, Jair Bolsonaro, denies its existence. Nick Jonas is married to UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Priyanka Chopra, an Indian actor, singer, and film producer. This is not to say these artists have not deserved their fair share of critiques and side-eye glances for their words and actions over their young careers, but they are modeling for a young generation that allyship is a learning process that takes hard work.

In 2017, Taylor Swift was declared an “Alt-Right Icon.” Radical right activist Andrew Anglin argued: “The entire alt-right patiently awaits the day when we can lay down our swords and kneel before her throne as she commands us to go forth and slaughter the subhuman enemies of the Aryan race.” Swift’s legal team even threatened to file suit when a website tried to characterize her as believing in these far-right ideologies. In her opening salvo in a 2018 Instagram post, Swift wrote: “I believe in the fight for LGBTQ rights, and that any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender is WRONG.”

Since then, Swift has gone on to scribe pro-queer songs featuring queer celebrities throughout, diversify her backup singers and dancers with women of color—Clare Turton Derrico, Eliotte Nicole, Kamilah Marshall and Melanie Nyema—, and create music videos featuring a black man, Christian Owens, as her love interest in the music video for her song “Lover”—to say nothing of her feminist anthems, such as “The Man.” Of course, all cultural production deserves critical inspection—to which Swift, and others of her cohort, is no stranger.

On the BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge, Styles recently performed a rendition of musical phenom Lizzo’s song “Juice” to acclaim both from Lizzo and fans worldwide. In that song, Styles’s choices underline cultural shifts today and a better awareness of the ways in which language affects people. In the song, Styles keeps Lizzo’s lyrics that allude to relationships with men, not changing the gender to feminine pronouns, but very specifically replaces the “n-word,” which is not his to use, for the word “baby.”

Now, this is not to say the world isn’t literally burning. Nevertheless, a new generation is coming that looks up to celebrities like these as role models. Maybe it’s a “sign of the times,” but if these artists can learn with humility with the spotlight on them how to be better allies, that gives some hope for the rest of us.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

Opinion // CARR / Culture / Harry Styles / Lizzo / Radical Right / Taylor Swift