Digital culture in the age of COVID-19: Celebrity slips
Ever since the U-M student body received President Schlissel’s email detailing the effects of COVID-19 on the winter semester, we’ve immersed ourselves in a digital world. Rapidly-evolving updates concerning student housing and remote learning meant that checking our email became an hourly necessity. And while self-quarantining, platforms like Zoom, TikTok and Instagram Live have lended us the ability to stay digitally connected while socially distanced. To engage with digital culture is to engage with community culture, and vice versa.
“We’re all in this together,” Gal Gadot crooned in an IGTV video while she sat, cushioned in an extravagant Los Angeles home on day six of her quarantine. Having been inspired by a video of an Italian trumpeter playing John Lennon’s “Imagine” on his balcony, the actress awkwardly launched into her own rendition of the classic tune. The video then cut to a montage of other self-important, self-quarantined celebrities following Gadot’s lead in a severely pitchy cover of the song. Among this high-profile crew were comedian Kristen Wiig, actress Amy Adams and talk show host Jimmy Fallon. The IGTV post featured a sickly sweet caption that read “Let’s imagine together … #WeAreOne.” But, as the video’s comment section indicates, Gadot and company’s pseudo-genuine attempt at lifting followers’ spirits fell flat.
The “Imagine” cover motivated considerable backlash from Instagram users as Gadot’s followers were quick to recognize the sheer hypocrisy prevalent in the celebrities’ musical display — each star singing about hope and togetherness while comfortably isolated in their respective mansions or penthouse apartments. One comment labeled it the “best meme of 2020” while many simply urged the actress to promptly delete the video.
Despite efforts like Gadot’s and its hyper-optimistic #WeAreOne message, the recent dialogue surrounding the coronavirus pandemic has not echoed sentiments of unity but, rather, has exposed the stark displays of contemporary classism and income disparity coloring American media. Earlier this month, one such display involving a Dailystar article titled “Jeff Bezos set to be world’s first trillionaire as coronavirus helps Amazon” fueled an already tense narrative surrounding classism and COVID-19. One tweet describing the headline as “disturbing and disgusting” gained substantial media attention while Twitter users recognized the crippling irony behind the Amazon CEO’s recent success. Twitter user @Thomas_A_Moore remarked “Jeff Bezos is about to become the world’s first trillionaire while we’re about to enter a depression.”
As if the economic collapse resulting from the coronavirus did not contribute to the inopportune release of Bezos’s trillionaire-status enough, the article was also published just a few days after Amazon employees had publicly protested the company’s lack of workplace protection. Needless to say, the public tension surrounding income inequality and the coronavirus was not eased when news of Bezos’s insane earnings hit social media.
Luckily for us, the piercing irony demonstrated by the work of Gal Gadot and Jeff Bezos has endured through these months of quarantine, thanks to similarly hypocritical content by other members of America’s elite. Near the end of March, pageant-star-turned-actress Priyanka Chopra took to her Instagram story to applaud for first responders on the balcony of her cushy $20 million California mansion. Around the same time, Sam Smith made a questionable attempt at comedic relief with their series of Instagram photos captioned “Stages of a quarantine meltdown,” in which the singer-songwriter is shown pouting in their home, imitating a state of distress. Instagram users quickly took to Smith’s comment section to note that the celebrity can hardly be suffering in their £12 million, five-bedroom London home; their take on corona-comedy fell flat.
Then we have the pièce de résistance of Instagram blunders: Vanessa Hudgens’s Instagram Live in which, in her familiar, sing-songy tone so sweet it’ll give you a raging cavity, the Disney has-been offers her well informed, thoroughly nuanced take on the virus: “I'm sorry, but like, it's a virus, I get it. I respect it. But at the same time, like, even if everybody gets it, like, yeah, people are gonna die. Which is terrible, but like, inevitable?”
Even “High School Musical” stans couldn’t pardon the actress-singer for her severely inappropriate remarks. “Horrible,” “heartless,” “ignorant” and “disgusting” were just a few words Twitter and Instagram users used to describe Hudgens’s ditsy display. Like clockwork, the actress came forward with a flimsily prepared apology via her Instagram story the following day. Brushing her wavy locks from her face with a perfectly manicured hand, Hudgens sits back comfortably in pretty victimhood, claiming her words were “taken out of context” in this “crazy, crazy time.” Hundreds of thousands of people are dying, health inequities are being exacerbated, communities and businesses are collapsing, but Vaenssa Hudgens is kind-of-sorry, so it’s okay.
And it appears that our favorite celebrities expanded upon this genre of Instagrammed ignorance as several personalities took to Twitter to continue their misplaced efforts. In late March, Pharrell Williams tweeted urging his followers to donate to “responders on the frontlines.” In the backlash that followed, several tweets echoed the rising tension that has come as a result of those like Pharell reflecting the incredible state of income disparity in 2020 America. One Twitter-user demands Williams to “Stop asking the low and middle class to donate to things you and your friends can fix alone.” Another commentator tweeted “This is why we should tax the rich you guys won’t do anything on your own accord.”
Despite Gal Gadot’s original sentiment per the infamous “Imagine” performance that coronavirus is acting as the great equalizer, bringing us together like never before, celebrities’ attempts to fabricate and assert this naively optimistic #WeAreOne dialogue have only sparked criticism across multiple social media platforms. If anything, the coronavirus has only highlighted the state of classist and capitalist forces that still plague American society today — the same forces that allow Jeff Bezos to become a trillionaire while the American unemployment rate soars. Like John Lennon’s song goes, sure, we can “imagine” no possessions, or no heaven. But, better yet, why not imagine a world where individuals don’t become trillionaires? Or service workers receive not just applause, but a just and appropriate income? That’s something worth singing about.