Yesterday, Guy Sebastian posted a video on Instagram to apologise for a previous social media post about the recently-launched music industry campaign #VAXTHENATION. The music industry has been arguably the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the campaign seeks to encourage everyone to get vaccinated so live music can open up again without interruptions like lockdowns.
Guy’s apology caused widespread backlash across the internet and with artists in particular, with the overall consensus being that Sebastian was backtracking so he wouldn’t alienate fans who didn’t believe in or support vaccination. Rapper Briggs said “unpack your spine” and Urthboy said that Sebastian is “terrified of losing his anti-vax $”. But to me, Ben Lee’s analysis of the situation stood out the most.
“To be honest, this is actually a really sad example of what happens when your career is dependent on trying to be all things to all people.”
Let’s talk about that.
Guy Sebastian became famous almost 20 years ago, and served as almost a prototype for a type of musical stardom any millennial is familiar with – the type that is risen, and ultimately chosen, by the public. I don’t just mean in the general sense where, for example, our streams discern someone’s chart success. No, we literally had to pick up a phone and dial a very specific number to tell the Australian Idol people that we wanted Guy Sebastian to succeed.
Since Sebastian won Australian Idol, we’ve seen so many other pop giants follow almost exactly the same formula. Camila Cabello, Little Mix, Harry Styles and Normani are just a few of the most current pop juggernauts that all followed the reality TV talent show route to superstardom. This isn’t to say that they’re not talented – we know they are – but their personas were, at least at one point, defined by how much they appealed to wider audiences. From the very start, Guy Sebastian’s success was completely centred around the fact that he was the most popular. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have won.
Because so many of these stars came up through TV, there existed an inherent focus on ratings. The 2003 Australian Idol finale was viewed by more than 3 million people – indicative of just how many people were ready to invest – literally, money out of pockets – in Guy Sebastian’s stardom.
How do you make sure you maintain people’s interest, especially on such a large scale? You don’t alienate, you appease. You appeal to as many people from as many different demographics as you can. Not only does that ensure a certain level of people consuming your music, but there’s greater potential for it to reach even more people beyond that.
Sebastian has successfully maneuvered that path to still be relevant to this day. It helps that he has a beautiful voice and has proven his worth as a songwriter, but the foundation of his career, I think, is built on the fact that he convinced the majority of a huge group of people that he was likeable.
There’s just one problem. In 2021, pop fans don’t want popstars to be likeable, they want them to be human. Online stans want artists to speak out on any and all social issues that they seem fit so they can feel comfortable continuing to stan. And as social media also brings us closer to our pop idols than ever before, the line between ‘fan’ and ‘friend’ begins to blur. Fans think they know their idols because we’re no longer reduced to seeing them in music videos, press circuits or award show performances. Suddenly, we’re placing similar expectations on our faves as we do our friends – I could never be friends with a Trump supporter, so if an artist I like supports Trump, I can no longer engage with them.
This is why apathy is so tiresome in 2021. It took Taylor Swift years to speak out about her political beliefs, and when she did she said her reluctance was due to the fact it might influence others, and she didn’t feel like she knew enough about *it*. However, it’s hard to believe that Swift – a rich, white, southern girl – also wasn’t considering that by speaking up she might just alienate parts of her fanbase – those that are rich, white, southern, Republican. And when Swift finally did speak out in support of the Democrats, people said her career was over. (It wasn’t.)
But that division must be scary, especially for someone like Guy. So, when his comments were flooded with anti-vax sentiments, he backtracked. He backtracked with an apology for the tone of the original post – posted without his direct involvement, apparently – and said the message wasn’t “communicated with love”.
No matter how you dress it up, encouraging people to get vaccinated is communicating with love. It is the one thing that we know can stop our loved ones, or ourselves, falling very ill or even dying from this disease. We’re 18 months into this thing – there’s no point dancing around this to not hurt people’s feelings. We have to get vaccinated.
Sebastian has pushed back against the backlash he’s received. He is adamant that he is not anti-vax, has received both doses of a vaccine and maintains that he’s been “very clear of his stance” – arguing that his statements were in regards to making uninformed medical decisions.
While “clear” isn’t the word I’d use, Sebastian’s double backtrack seems calculated. He didn’t clarify his stance on his Instagram with a new post, not even in the comments of his original video (comments are disabled by the way). No, he did it in the replies of a post by Urthboy, and then again on 2GB with Ray Hadley – two places where his half a million followers aren’t going to find unless they look.
The live music industry has been decimated by the pandemic, but Guy Sebastian will be fine. He is still keeping afloat with his music, he hasn’t had to quit being a musician to go and work a quote-unquote “normal” job. He is comfortable, and he’s absolutely earned that comfort.
But his comfort combined with his influence is exactly why he needs to speak out about getting vaccinated – directly, clearly and unafraid of backlash. Niceties aren’t going to get us out of lockdown, jabs in arms are.
For more on #VAXTHENATION, head here.