Elton John, more stars return to the White House under Biden. But are people listening?
Hollywood is back in full force at the White House.
When Elton John appeared last Friday night in Washington, D.C., his performance wasn't just emblematic of his philanthropy work for HIV/AIDS – for which President Joe Biden honored the artist with the National Humanities Medal. It was also a reminder that major star power and advocacy are returning at the nation's capitol.
"Once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme," Biden said, quoting Seamus Heaney. "Throughout his incredible career, Sir Elton John has been that tidal wave, a tidal wave to help people rise up and make hope and history rhyme.”
John's performance is among several celebrity sightings at the White House since Biden took office in 2021. Olivia Rodrigo met with Biden last summer to help promote COVID-19 vaccines to young people. BTS joined a White House press briefing this spring to speak out against anti-Asian hate crimes during AAPI Heritage Month. Matthew McConaughey gave an impassioned plea to end gun violence after a mass shooting in his hometown of Uvalde, Texas.
The ultimate goal of these appearances is influencing a broader audience than would normally pay attention to the president. Stars and social media personalities can use their platform to create a bigger buzz than regular politicians, but it can also help their own brand – when it's done correctly, experts say.
But are these partnerships translating into real change? It depends on the situation – and who you ask.
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Why do celebrities visit the White House?
In addition to Rodrigo, BTS and McConaughey, Selena Gomez stopped by the nation's capital in May to promote a partnership between the White House and MTV to address the growing youth mental health crisis. Ciara, Paris Hilton, Angelina Jolie and the Jonas Brothers have also visited the White House to advocate for various causes.
"When celebrities start injecting themselves in political discourse in the media, they are much more likely to gain attention on that issue than any normal politician, sometimes even the president," says Mark Harvey, director of the University of St. Mary's MBA program and the author of "Celebrity Influence: Politics, Persuasion, and Issue-Based Advocacy."
A celebrity's political engagement can also give them an image boost if they take the time to properly educate themselves or have a personal connection to the issue, which is why many gave McConaughey partial credit for helping Congress pass the biggest gun safety package in three decades after his tearful speech at the press briefing room podium.
"Things like identity matter," Harvey says. "So LGBTQ issues with people like Elton John or Ellen DeGeneres are, not surprisingly, way more credible than most politicians."
Stars with large platforms may also feel a moral obligation to speak up for issues they believe in. But, according to Harvey, rules for when a celebrity is able to speak out about hot-button topics have been "re-written over the last eight or so years" thanks to changes in industry contracts, the 24-hour news cycle and social media.
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How celebrities' relationship with politics has changed over time
Nearly a century ago in the Golden Age of Hollywood, entertainers were seen as just that: entertainers. Studios were largely in control of an actor's brand and many contracts included morality clauses that prohibited stars from doing or saying anything that could reflect negatively on the studio.
The Beatles marked a turning point in the industry's approach to celebrities speaking out on political issues, Harvey says. They "became absolutely so huge that nobody could do anything without their say, so they started advocating. Essentially saying things like 'we're not going to play in the South unless it's an integrated arena.'"
From that point, contracts began loosening and LA and D.C. began hesitantly mingling more: Al Jolson performed for Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge's presidential campaigns in the 1920s; Harry Belafonte and others got involved with the 1963 March on Washington; and Elvis Presley met with Richard Nixon in the early 1970s.
By the turn of the century, the rise of cable TV, the internet and social media changed the pace of the news cycle, making it necessary to fill news slots and create content that drives clicks.
Barack Obama's campaign and administration were rife with celebrity.
"Young voters got Obama into office," says Andy Bernstein, co-founder and executive director of nonpartisan voter registration organization HeadCount. Obama harnessed youth interest through Oval Office invites to social media stars, including YouTubers Tyler Oakley, Ingrid Nilsen and GloZell Green.
Though a celebrity in his own right, Trump's tenure in the White House brought less engagement from big stars. Ye and Kid Rock made highly publicized visits to the White House during this time, but Kim Kardashian was an outlier. She met several times with Trump and his advisers to bring attention to criminal justice reform.
I would like to thank President Trump for his time this afternoon. It is our hope that the President will grant clemency to Ms. Alice Marie Johnson who is serving a life sentence for a first-time, non-violent drug offense.
— Kim Kardashian (@KimKardashian) May 31, 2018
"It was a win-win for both parties," says crisis management and branding expert Holly Baird. "If (Kardashian) can use her notoriety for justice, her fans should rally behind her and support this cause."
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Biden pulls in star power – but is it effective?
Biden's inauguration featured dozens of today's most prominent celebrities: Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga, John Legend and Bruce Springsteen and more. It was a foreshadowing of the many visits to come, but the jury is still out on whether these connections boosted his credibility.
Beyond A-listers, Biden has also leveraged the power of social media stars. As the definition of "celebrity" continues to grow in the digital space, it makes sense that the types of stars recognized by the White House would grow, too, Baird notes.
In the last year, the White House has briefed several TikTokers on pressing issues like the war in Ukraine, this summer's baby formula shortage and high gas prices.
Other Gen Z favorites, such as Rodrigo, who visited the White House to promote vaccines, have turned young people's heads, but Bernstein wonders if the White House was the "best place for that message."
"The problem with vaccine hesitancy is that vaccines are politicized," he says. "So by anything that politicizes these messages, you're losing somewhere around half the audience. … When you have an agenda, everything you say is suspect."
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The question of Hollywood's place in government boils down to influence: When and how can celebrities best get in on the political conversation in a way that actually makes a difference?
"Celebrities have become so much part of the ecosystem and the political system itself has changed so much that consumers are making new demands on these celebrities as far as what they expect. It's not enough anymore for celebrities to stay out of it and just entertain people," Bernstein adds. "It is accepted and expected that people are going to take sides. And sometimes you're punished for not taking sides."
On the other hand, taking sides isn't always beneficial for a celebrity's brand. Remember Michael Jordan's "Republicans buy sneakers, too" line? Conversely, some performers who have embraced right-wing views have felt "shut out and unemployed," Baird notes.
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Speaking out on wedge issues such as abortion or gun control may not easily sway others if the star doesn't have a compelling and ongoing connection to the cause, though it has the potential to boost their personal brand among those who share the same beliefs. But experts argue that people in the middle or on the outside of getting politically involved can benefit from celebrities making political issues feel more accessible.
"If we want young people to be passionate about democracy … a great way to reach them is through culture," says Bernstein. "When we can reach the fan bases of these artists and when the artists themselves are putting their stamp of approval on civic participation, it means a lot more than any politician or any campaign."
But, as Baird notes, Hollywood is famous for believing "there's no such thing as bad publicity." Ultimately, fans will "rally behind folks they can believe in and can relate to."
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Elton John, Olivia Rodrigo, BTS: Why celebrities visit the White House