Around this time last year, Drake and Future dropped in to tell us that life was good. Not life as obscenely rich celebrity rappers, that is, but life as garbage men, fast food workers, and mechanics. In the opening frames of the video for their single “Life Is Good,” the pair preen on the back of a trash truck as if it were a parade float, decked out in spotless yellow-and-black coveralls. “Workin’ on a weekend like usual,” Drake laments, and the clip’s working-class cosplay only gets more ridiculous from there.
“Life Is Good” debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 toward the end of January 2020, maintaining that same position for eight weeks. By the end of its near-chart-topping run in March, the COVID-19 outbreak was well underway. Lockdown had just begun, and while the track’s titular phrase no longer applied, Drake and Future’s music video proved to be prescient. During a time when essential workers were the ones receiving rapturous applause on a nightly basis, pop stars repeatedly tried to dazzle us with their down-home relatability, inviting us to Zoom into their living rooms, endorsing unglamorous products, and wearing class like a costume.
When the rich and famous were forced to shoot music videos and late-night appearances while quarantined at home last spring, it offered more candid views of larger-than-life stars. There they were, stuck inside just like us—but not really like us at all. In April, Drake resurfaced with the video for “Toosie Slide,” filmed within the walls of his overgrown Toronto mansion (or, as Drake calls it, “The Embassy”). In the clip, a masked and gloved Drake wanders the halls, sliding Toosie across gleaming marble floors, gazing at his polished trophies, and offering close views of his granite-lined indoor swimming pool. It all culminates with a private fireworks display, a celebration of solitary grandeur. The video mimicked aspects of our strange new shared reality—suiting up in PPE, dancing to viral TikTok challenges, being alone—while warping it through a lens of unattainable luxury.
Amid a crisis that continues to widen America’s income gap, Justin Bieber was another celebrity thoughtlessly flashing his affluence. In the spring, Bieber, his wife Hailey, and Kendall Jenner took part in an Instagram Live conversation touching on class discrepancy during the pandemic. “How blessed are we?” Bieber asked, his vaulted ceiling towering in the background, thinly acknowledging his absurd wealth. He quickly tempered the sentiment with a bootstrapper’s rationale: “A lot of people obviously in this time have a crappy situation. They look at us, and obviously, we worked hard for where we’re at, so it’s like we can’t feel bad for the things that we have.” It wasn’t entirely surprising to hear out-of-touch celebrities try to soothe each other about their ostentatious lifestyles, but the need to broadcast that discourse could be baffling. Amid record job loss, hearing millionaire child stars congratulate their own work ethic felt especially egregious.
Weeks after the Instagram misstep, Bieber and Ariana Grande released their single “Stuck With U” along with a home-video-style clip that provided a peek into the houses of fans and friends. Despite the visual’s message of a unified quarantine experience, Bieber’s portion was once again filmed at his Los Angeles mansion, showcasing sprawling grounds, a personal gym, and massive kitchen—all of it juxtaposed against shots of average homes. (Grande was wise enough to tightly frame her shots on her and a dog.) It was another declaration of #blessed from Bieber, whose efforts to appear relatable were compromised by panoramic lifestyle porn.
Perhaps in an attempt to recompense, Bieber’s next single, “Holy,” painted the singer in a drastically different light. The video stars Bieber as an oil worker who lives in a humble motel with his wife, played by Ryan Destiny. One day, while Bieber works the oil fields, the boss informs everyone that the plant has to be shuttered “due to the current and ongoing global situation.” In a matter of seconds, Bieber and his wife are aggressively evicted from their room and forced to wander the streets, before a world-weary soldier (a hopelessly miscast Wilmer Valderrama) pulls up and invites them to dinner with his family. Bieber spends most of the video smeared with a comical, if not offensive, amount of “oil,” to the point that I wondered if he accidentally showed the makeup artist images of a chimney sweep for reference. The star’s portrayal of a laborer in “Holy” is joyless and empty; his role as a working-class hero isn’t just absurd, it stinks of pity.
A number of other musicians released music videos of a similar ilk throughout the pandemic, but unlike Bieber’s attempt, many of them saw artists approaching their fictional professions with levity or dignity, suggesting that they’ve actually toiled at “normal” jobs at one point. In the goofy clip for “Holy Moly,” Blueface and NLE Choppa manned a weed-sprinkled donut shop—the employees are stoned out of their minds, and the service isn’t great, but everyone’s having a good time. City Girls charmed as disgruntled fast-food workers who get rich via OnlyFans in their video for “Jobs” and as the flyest flight attendants aboard City Girl Airlines in“Flewed Out.” And Danielle Haim worked a deli counter in the clip for “Man From the Magazine,” offering a glimpse into the subtle exchanges between customer and employee. Her character in the video is strong and willful, not someone to feel sorry for.
During the last 10 months, celebrities didn’t just Zoom like us, get sick like us, and vote like us, they also ate like us—or so said their corporate partnerships. In September, Travis Scott became the first rapper with his own branded McDonald’s meal. The comically plain meal itself—a bacon Quarter Pounder with cheese, Sprite, and fries with BBQ sauce—was of course not the point. The point was leveraging a celebrity to sell us a glorified version of what we already know. Scott (in action figure form) described the meal as his “same order since back in Houston,” appealing to our interests in both the nostalgic and the aspirational. The partnership presented Scott as shorthand for the American dream: entrepreneurial, but rooted in humility. It simultaneously elevated the McDonald’s brand while making us feel reverent toward our own ordinary upbringings. And it worked: Roughly one month after the Travis Scott meal was launched, McDonald’s stock climbed six percent.
Not long after Scott unveiled his Cactus Jack meal, Colombian reggaeton star J Balvin cashed in on his own McDonald’s partnership. “When I had my very first chance to go to the States, it was like a dream to me, coming from Colombia to my first time having a McDonald’s meal,” the singer said in an interview with Complex. Balvin also released a McDonald’s commercial where he portrayed employees of the fast food chain as well as a number of jovial customers and characters: an elderly man, a fleece-wearing patron, a basketball player, a fry cook. As a celebration of the corporate alliance, Balvin even enlisted jeweler Gerard Alexander to create a diamond-necklace version of the J Balvin meal. By tethering lowbrow products to aspirations of luxury, the pendant added a layer of opulence to tempt customers.
If 2020 yielded a patron saint of the “relatable” popstar, it would have to be Post Malone, whose 7-Eleven patronage and vocal support of Olive Garden have long given him a leg-up for the title. This year, the self-declared “biggest Bud Light advocate in the whole universe” did a commercial for Bud Light Seltzer, got his very own Doritos flavor, and launched a beer-pong league. Since Post has been building his every-guy brand over the past few years, none of the above seemed particularly conspicuous amid the pandemic—perhaps due to the fact that he doesn’t try to disguise his success as good-old-fashioned hard work. Or maybe it’s because his brand of everyman pandering has become so commonplace.
As we got closer to the 2020 presidential election, some celebrities tried to relate to fans for a purpose other than their own egos or bank accounts. When the typically chic Lady Gaga donned country camo while encouraging voter turnout, she faced backlash for mocking “average, hardworking Americans,” as one woman wrote on Twitter. During a campaign event for Joe Biden, though, Gaga dealt out an impassioned defense for her look. “I put some country clothes on the other day and said I was voting for Joe because I wear Cabela’s [hunting gear] when I’m on a four-wheeler in Pennsylvania,” she said. “I will not be told what I can and cannot wear to endorse our future president. I may not always look like you. But I am you. We are each other.” When Gaga wielded her influence as a shapeshifting entertainer for the sake of the election, she was trying to make herself useful in light of a bigger issue. Her attempt at relatability was intended to service political change—not Big Mac sales.
Of course, successful musicians have been dressing down as blue-collar characters for decades, and genres like folk and country have built empires around the aesthetic of mundane strife. But for every star that has used relatability as a ploy to appeal to the masses, there have been songwriters like Joan Baez, Stevie Wonder, and Bruce Springsteen, whose proletarian political leanings were reflected in the music they made and the actions they took outside of their own celebrity. That same distinction holds today: When people are losing their jobs, dodging a deadly virus, and anxiously awaiting stimulus checks, no one wants to see a wealthy pop star vacuously play plebeian.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork