Standing Firm: Country Artists Weigh Supporting Causes Big or Small In the Age of the Troll
You've got to stand for something, or you'll fall for anything.
Aaron Tippin's 1990 debut single, released coincidentally during the run-up to the first Gulf War, became a rallying cry for country fans and helped brand the singer -- whether consumers agreed or not with his actual opinion -- as a man of conscience.
More than 25 years later, in a landscape complicated by 24/7 feedback on social media, artists are especially challenged about how they use their platforms to make a difference in the world.
Giving back is heavily encouraged. Darius Rucker received the annual Harry Chapin Memorial Humanitarian Award on May 7 during the Music Biz convention in Nashville. Blake Shelton was likewise the winner of Country Radio Broadcasters' artist humanitarian award during the Country Radio Seminar in February.
"You don't do it for the recognition," said Rucker on the Music Biz red carpet. "You do it to help people."
But no good deed goes unpunished, and artists who offer up support in public forums often find online trolls goading and attacking them or -- as Vince Gill, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood discovered -- Westboro Baptist Church members questioning their religious convictions.
The negativity is so out of hand that one artist told Full Sail University music business program director Jackie Otero he won't even post about his favorite football team on social media: "'There's so much backlash,'" she recalled him saying. "'I don't want to piss anybody off.'"
Otero relayed the story while moderating "The Activist Artist: Pros and Cons of Artist Involvement in Social Causes," a May 8 Music Biz panel that outlined specific considerations about how musicians can best use their public platform for positive change.
There are pitfalls, to be sure. Linda Ronstadt once was ushered out of a casino for a political comment, while the fury against Dixie Chicks over an offhand put-down of then-President George W. Bush in 2003 led to death threats and to terrestrial radio abandoning the group.
Despite that venom, artists and public figures have the ability to call attention to issues in a way that the average person cannot. Glen Campbell helped de-stigmatize Alzheimer's disease by revealing his condition prior to his final concert tour in 2012. Rucker, Alabama and a host of country acts have raised millions for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Hunter Hayes makes it a habit to heighten awareness about suicide prevention during his concerts.
"Artists have a duty and obligation to use [their platform] for good and give back, and to stand for something," said Red Light manager Gaines Sturdivant (Craig Morgan, Drake White) during the "Activist" panel.
For many, finding causes is an easy extension of their personalities. Charlie Daniels' support of military charities, Dolly Parton's Imagination Library and RaeLynn's public acknowledgement of diabetic issues are all easily understood as an outgrowth of their belief systems and personal challenges.
"Most times, fans already know what that artist believes, from their music, from going to their shows, from hearing them talk, so it isn't that much of a surprise when they do make a stand," said Activist Artist Management partner Matt Maher (Dwight Yoakam, Frankie Ballard).
Maher cautioned that artists should position themselves as a champion of a cause without denigrating people who disagree with them. And, he advised, they should expect pushback.
"People are going to complain," he said. "That's what the internet is for."
Knowing how to react to those complaints is important. Sweet Talk Publicity founder Jensen Sussman (Florida Georgia Line, Dustin Lynch) indicated that the first step when facing a backlash is to determine the source: Is it from core fans? From media? From, she asked, "seven random people on Twitter?" If the artist has aligned with one side in a controversy, they should know going into it that they will face a divide. Thus, it needs to be a topic they're committed to.
"If an artist came out and spoke and that's their passion, that's what they believe in, then they need to stand by what they said," noted Jensen. "We can massage around it as a team and come up with the right way to move forward. I usually advise to stand with it."
Passion is what artistry is about. Audiences listen to music that engages them and pay to see musicians that pique their interest. Thus, controversy can be a good thing. Dave Matthews generated positive news when he took a public position on saving rhinos, noted Sturdivant.
As recently as the May 1 Billboard Music Awards, Imagine Dragons' frontman Dan Reynolds earned kudos from fans by using the band's entire acceptance speech to bring attention to conversion therapy, a controversial program that adherents claim can alter homosexuality. The American Psychiatric Association considers it unethical, but -- as Reynolds told viewers -- it remains legal in 34 states.
Florida Georgia Line's Tyler Hubbard challenged his fellow artists during the same awards show to use their good fortune to lift their audiences.
"At the end of the day, it's all for nothing if you're not using your platform for better, if you're not using your platform to spread love to help those in need, to be a light to your community," he said. "We just want to encourage you guys to create a life that's bigger than ourselves."
Taking a position comes with its challenges. But, believes Maher, it's part of the job if you choose to become a public figure. Those who embrace that most passionately, he insinuated, are also likely to garner the most passionate following.
"Artists are leaders," he said. "Grin and bear it. If you lose fans because of your football team, you've got shitty fans."