On Monday, Canadian music icon Bryan Adams posted a video of himself singing “Cuts Like A Knife,” his 1983 hit, on Instagram and Twitter—which was fine.
In the caption, he wrote, “Tonight was supposed to be the beginning of a tenancy of gigs at the @royalalberthall, but thanks to some fucking bat eating, wet market animal selling, virus making greedy bastards, the whole world is now on hold.” This was not fine. The caption was later edited to add, “not to mention the thousands that have suffered or died from this virus,” but it was clear that what really enraged Adams was his missed business opportunity and, based on his use of the term “wet markets,” that he blamed Chinese people specifically.
The backlash to his racist wording was almost immediate. Amy Go, the president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice, told CityNews, “this is going to trigger even more vile and more rampant racist acts against Chinese-Canadians and Asian-Canadians.” North Vancouver MLA Bowinn Ma agreed, saying, “The problem with prominent people like Bryan Adams, or Donald Trump for that matter, expressing themselves in the way that they do is that it actually encourages people to embrace their biases, their prejudices and their ignorant ideas about other people as though they are righteous.”
By the next day, Adams had posted another video, this one of himself singing “Into the Fire” accompanied by a caption that said, “Apologies to any and all that took offence to my posting yesterday. No excuse, I just wanted to have a rant about the horrible animal cruelty in these wet-markets being the possible source of the virus and promote veganism. I have love for all people and my thoughts are with everyone dealing with this pandemic around the world. Here’s the appropriately titled song that would have been performed tonight at the @royalalberthall” (Sidenote: He literally has a song called “Please Forgive Me,” which probably would have been more appropriate, but sure.)
As apologies go, this was… um, bad. For starters, the “to any and all that took offence” wording shifts responsibility from Adams to a nebulous group of people who may have been offended. Saying “I just wanted to have a rant” minimizes the impact of his words—he still doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that what he said was harmful. And he was still plugging his would-be concert and, by extension, his career, which made it harder for me to believe he was genuinely regretful.
But even if it was tepid at best, Adams had to post an apology. That’s just how the celebrity PR machine works, and frankly, has always worked. As writer Ashraf Rushdy put it in a piece for The Conversation, the point of a public apology is to “provide public personalities an opportunity to regain public approval… [It] is an act of publicity. Many of the public personalities are appealing to their audience not to boycott their product, which, in other words, is the celebrity.“ For Bill Clinton post-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, that meant explicitly using the words “I’m sorry” at the 1998 White House prayer breakfast. For Kendall Jenner post-Fyre Festival, that was a Notes app apology. But even if the mechanism differs, the point is the same: don’t stop buying my stuff, please.
But there is something new, and that’s the speed of social media, which means there’s often no chance for a publicist to kill a story before it takes on a life of its own. In a Refinery29 piece about how publicists handled the rise of the #MeToo movement, writer Anne Cohen made the point that, “for as long as there have been celebrities, there have been people in charge of managing those celebrities’ misdeeds. In Hollywood, this has meant a well-oiled quid-pro-quo relationship between an army of publicists and certain media outlets. When a celebrity strayed, some publicists would use their relationship with certain reporters to quash the story, in exchange for an exclusive, or a different spin. The rise of sites like TMZ and Perez Hilton has made this job more difficult over the years, but still, not impossible.” Twitter, though? That was a killer.
The same thing happened with Alison Roman’s recent apology, even though it seemingly hit all the right notes. ICYMI, Roman was trending last weekend over comments she made in New Consumer about Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo. Roman, who’s a New York Times food columnist and Insta-friendly culinary darling, used the two Asian women as examples of people who had “sold out” by releasing product lines. (I guess she forgot about all the white men and women who have turned their culinary fame into lifestyle brands—or the part where, earlier in the same interview, she’d plugged her own line of products.)
Roman’s initial response on Twitter was flippant, but by Monday evening, she had posted a lengthy apology message on social media that had clearly been vetted by a crisis management expert. In it, she fully owned what she’d done wrong, acknowledged her own privilege and asked for feedback. It was miles better than the one Adams would post the next day. But I couldn’t help but notice that she didn’t really explain what “doing and being better” would actually entail, beyond asking marginalized people to explain the impact of her words. And that approach isn’t exactly fair. Marginalized people are routinely asked to do the uncomfortable and mostly unpaid labour of explaining racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc. to dominant groups. Maybe if Roman had said she was signing up for classes or donating to scholarships to help marginalized writers, I’d feel more convinced by her apology. But she’s still asking people to provide her with feedback, instead of seeking out—and paying for—this knowledge. She’s still expecting things to be given to her, which is kinda how she got into this position in the first place.
All of this is making me wonder whether celebrity apologies are actually… useless. I mean, we can never really know if a star genuinely regrets their bad behaviour, or if they’re just trying to manage the backlash. As Zeba Blay put it in her very smart 2019 article on celebrity apologies, “there are good celebrity apologies and bad ones, but it seems the rubric for whether they are in fact ‘good’ or ‘bad’ has very little to do these days with whether the star is even truly sorry. Their actual contriteness is incidental. It’s more about how they apologize, whether they (and/or their team) know the right words to say and when to say them.”
Plus, the nature of public apologies has actually shifted. As The Atlantic argued late last year, there is an old paradigm of contrition, and a new one. “There was a time in American public life when atonement was seen as a form of strength—a way not only to own up to one’s missteps, but also to do that classic work of crisis management: control the narrative,” writes Megan Garber. Today, though, apologies are sometimes seen as a sign of weakness, which is why so many public figures offer non-apology apologies. Roman’s initial apology fit this mould; in the second of two tweets directed at Teigen, she said “being a woman who takes down other women is absolutely not my thing and don’t think it’s yours, either (I obviously failed to effectively communicate that). I hope we can meet one day, I think we’d probably get along.” The implication that Teigen had somehow taken Roman down was insulting and undermined the entire sentiment.
It’s clear that our current cultural landscape has reduced the value of apologies from public figures, even as we become better at apologizing ourselves—or at least, as we learn what makes a good apology thanks to things like Brené Brown’s podcast on the topic, which I saw referenced at least once a day this week. (The key component of a good apology is changed behaviour, FYI.)
1. Use the word “sorry” or “apologize.” 2. Name the offense. (Not “what happened.”) 3. Take responsibility. 4. Show you understand the impact. 5. How will you insure this doesn’t recur? 6. Make amends.— Sorry Watch (@SorryWatch) May 20, 2019
That said, I understand why we want celebrities to say sorry when they’ve messed up, though. Apologies follow bad behaviour—that’s just how our social contract works, which we learn as soon as we hurt another kid’s feelings or beat up our younger siblings and are immediately told to apologize. They’re also a point of connection. As Blay put it, “apologies, just like the acts that precipitate them, just like public outcry, are essentially ephemeral. But to say ‘sorry,’ in both the public sphere and the private, is to say, ‘I see you. I understand.’ And people love to feel seen, if only for a moment.”
When Lizzo went off on a Postmates driver last year, accusing her of stealing her food, I wanted her to ‘tell’ me that she knew she was wrong, acknowledge why I was upset and not only remind me that she’s better than that, but also make me believe it. I wanted a reminder that my affection for this person that I didn’t know was warranted. But in a way, that just underscores how pointless the apology discourse really is. So much of how we measure authenticity and transparency has to do with how we feel about a celebrity—I’m not a big Bryan Adams or Alison Roman fan, which I’m sure is why I’m not particularly enthused about their apologies. But if Rihanna were to mess up, I’d be far more motivated to forgive her. (Not that she would ever, but you know what I mean.) But the thing is, how we feel about various celebrities is almost always the result of a carefully-constructed public persona. It’s all just PR!
So, does Adams’ apology even matter? To me, if he’s doing nothing to address the hurt he’s caused, he might as well have said nothing at all.
And Did You Hear About…
The Vulture oral history of Center Stage, which marked the movie’s 20th anniversary.
Tabitha Brown, the TikTok star that I am obsessed with, even though I have zero interest in making carrot bacon.
Rapper Boosie Badazz’s super disturbing claim that he arranged for an adult woman to perform oral sex on his underage son and nephew. That’s sexual abuse, FYI.
The Twitter thread of mundane celebrity encounters. I find it very soothing.
GQ’s Robert Pattinson profile. Read it for his pasta-making technique alone 😬
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