During a Natural Disaster, Everything's a Performance

Mike Meyers and Kanye West during a celebrity telethon for Hurricane Katrina victims in 2005. (via YouTube)

On Sept. 2, 2005, as the death toll from Hurricane Katrina climbed past 1,000, Mike Myers appeared next to a nervous-looking Kanye West on primetime network television.

A few days prior, New Orleans native Harry Connick, Jr. had called NBC to propose a televised relief effort, and this was the result. Faith Hill sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Aaron Neville performed “Louisiana 1927.” Matt Lauer, Leonardo DiCaprio, Richard Gere and Lindsay Lohan took turns reading solemnly from a teleprompter.

And then Kanye went off-script. He let loose a smattering of disjointed thoughts about how the storm was affecting poor people, and how the government was handling recovery efforts. And then he distilled it: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

It all took a matter of minutes. NBC cut his mic, Myers looked like he’d just peed his pants, and suddenly we were no longer watching a standard celebrity telethon. In its place was the exhilarating sting of something we weren’t supposed to see: unvarnished anger, mixed with truth, breaking through the shiny, removed, and thoroughly predictable packaging of a tragedy.

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People often talk about natural disasters as unifiers: the way they remind us we’re all just people at the end of the day, how they bring about inspiring displays of unlikely cooperation and neighborly love. This does not mean they aren’t political. Something that disproportionately harms poor people, disabled people and elderly people cannot not be political. Something that so bluntly exposes the segregation, inadequacies and hierarchies in a nation’s infrastructure is by its nature ensconced in politics.

It’s probably not surprising, given the circumstances of Hurricane Harvey, that I’ve found myself watching that Kanye moment this past week. Like Katrina, we find ourselves in the midst of another devastating natural disaster under federal leadership that’s questionably equipped for it, to say the least. Like Katrina, the people hurt most by Harvey will inevitably be people of color, people in Houston’s poorest neighborhoods, people who didn’t have the means to leave.

Unlike Katrina, thanks to social media, the outpouring of support for victims now has a bigger stage. Or, rather -- thanks, Death of the Monoculture -- millions of tiny stages, ones we’re all watching separately, instead of just one at NBC Studios that we’re all watching together.

On Sept. 12, a major telethon is planned for Hurricane Harvey victims, organized by Houston rapper Bun B and featuring Justin Bieber, Beyoncé, George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, Barbra Streisand and more. It may be today's closest analogue for 2005's television special. But we don't need a telethon to get access to stars anymore. We all have front-row seats on the internet as public figures try to ascertain, in real time, the best look for themselves with regard to disaster.

It’s tricky, for some of us, to remember the world in which the Kanye Incident took place. Our interactions with famous people were one-way, for one: celebs gave interviews to magazines as part of album or movie promotion cycles, or released statements through their publicists. In 2017, people are brands; inauthenticity is a kiss of death; and at the intersection of these seemingly contradictory rules is this: endless self-curation of one’s brand via social media is a necessary component of fame. Which means, for better or for worse, that we hear a lot more seemingly unscripted statements from our pop culture figures than scripted ones.

Of course, there’s a playbook. And the section for best practices during tragedies, in particular, fascinates me. It contains infinite calculations for speaking out while staying on-brand -- does a police shooting of an unarmed black man warrant a Facebook post? Are you better off sticking to hunger, child abuse, diabetes? A temporary profile picture to show solidarity with Paris/Manchester/Orlando. A tweet with the prayer hands emoji. At what point does performative do-gooderism become more about the performance than the good?

There is also no abstaining from this decision. No comment is in fact a comment, and one that often speaks volumes. Just ask Taylor Swift.

 

Then, of course, there’s money. As I’ve mulled over Hollywood actors and how much good they can actually accomplish this past week, I’ve seen dozens of headlines about various A-listers’ donations to recovery efforts -- headlines made possible, make no mistake, because said celebrities wanted to make damn sure you knew about those donations. I can tell you that Sandra Bullock and Leonardo DiCaprio have each given a million dollars. Miley Cyrus gave half a million, and broke down on Ellen talking about it.

Jack Antonoff, in a nice touch, matched donations to a Houston-area LGBT center. Houston native Beyoncé, being Beyoncé, launched a Houston-specific relief program within her already existing BeyGOOD Foundation. Bay Area rapper Lil B, being Lil B, has offered free verses to any rappers or producers affected by the hurricane.

I can be the worst kind of cynic about celebrity charity works, but let’s be clear: donations will help real people, with real food and real supplies. It’s the right thing to do and I’m glad people with the means to do so are giving a lot.

But I also find myself hungering, if I’m honest, for a Kanye moment here. For someone angry enough to deliver blunt statements about the not-so-shiny side of this disaster. About climate change, about inequality, about the terrifying ineptitude of the rich guy supposedly running the show.

I know we don’t all watch one thing at once anymore. There’s too much noise. It won’t be as thrilling, won’t leave the same kind of sting. And also: the wounds are fresh right now. Stopping the bleeding is currently the most important thing.

But I’m interested to see what happens when the water recedes -- when it’s time to grapple with the actual lives lost, and the damage done. When those with a platform can break through the publicist-approved chatter and say something loud, unscripted, and painfully true.

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Emma Silvers lives in San Francisco. Find her on Twitter here.

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