AJ McLean wrote a song about the struggles of discrimination. Yes, AJ McLean, the straight, white Backstreet Boy whose privilege is outweighed only by his total number of facial hair permutations. But, wait. He’s trying, OK? Give him a chance.
“Live Together” is not groundbreaking. The music video is sort of what would happen if Nickelback turned “Crash” into a short film. And when asked what inspired the song, McLean said he got the idea after he “downloaded the CNN app.” So, yeah, there’s a version of this story titled “Backstreet Boy Reads News, Learns World Is Bad” that’s not amazing.
Except, to hear McLean talk about working on “Live Together” and building his foundation of the same name engenders nonesuch cynicism. On the phone with The Huffington Post, he’s earnest and genuine about coming to terms with hate and trying to use his resources to make change.
Celebrity activism is a strange realm. There’s the obvious question of who benefits most from good deeds when their execution includes a PR firm and campaign strategy. Charities created to forward personal brands are impure in their impetus, if only because, on some level, they are working to make a famous person look better.
Still, isn’t it possible for such foundations to have a positive impact? What is the “correct” iteration of philanthropy? If stars used their resources to give quietly, they’d look less self-aggrandizing. They’d also cost their causes the game-changing power of their influence.
Outwardly empowering art carries the same conflict. For example, Macklemore is probably so upset that he wasn’t named GLAAD's Man of the Year for “Same Love.” Holistically speaking, it’s impossible for any celebrity to get the full Kantian check mark of doing good for goodness’ sake. We’ll never truly know if Taylor Swift would have given that random girl $90 for Chipotle if a reporter wasn’t there to document it.
McLean is nowhere near the typical realm of fame that “requires” active public outreach. Someone like Oprah or George Clooney must give back to avoid hoarding their riches like Scrooge McDuck. McLean has name recognition and the nostalgia factor of being a Backstreet Boy, but if he was just sitting around, crafting different goatee shapes with an Art of Shaving kit, probably no one would care.
The Live Together Foundation, too, is a bit more pragmatic and hands-on than the Bono Saves The Universe method we typically see in the upper echelons of giving back. McLean wants to do something "by the people, for the people," in so far as he's provided with something that needs fixing, and then he goes out and fixes it.
In Live Together's first effort, he helped rebuild Pasadena High School after it was vandalized, actually putting in hard labor himself. “I was there painting and laying down the floor,” he said. “I redid the entire music room.”
As for the song, it definitely suffers from simplicity, carrying that sort of ‘80s, over-generalized, just-love-everyone lesson. It’s “Ebony and Ivory” or “We Are the World” infused with alt-rock.
That tone doesn’t resonate anymore because we’ve made a lot of progress since that rudimentary pop culture moment. The complexities of inequality are far greater than the 20th century victory of just getting along. At this point, saying “give peace a chance” is like trying to solve the black mass of bigotry and violence that plagues this country with a Hello Kitty Band-Aid.
And so, it makes sense that there is an itchy rejection of more surface-level efforts. In the hierarchy of progressive ideas, “Live Together” is far from the top. Yet, while a song like McLean’s doesn’t exactly deserve praise from the liberal elite, perhaps it is also undeserving of the outright mockery that might follow the straight, white member of a prominent '90s band battling bigotry in 2015.
The disturbing reality is that there are people who could use a refresher course on how to “Live Together.” The fact that we need a Black Lives Matter movement or National Coming Out Day are proof of that.
In spite of all the strides we've made, race and sexuality are still divided into categories of “other.” While our greatest thought leaders should certainly move forward from the most basic teachings of acceptance, those messages, when we get them, are certainly not harmful.
Are McLean's efforts going to wholly dismantle the reign of the homophobic white supremacy? Probably not, no! But he is working to make a difference in his own special Backstreet Boy way, and maybe that's enough.
“If this song changes one person’s life, I’ve done my part,” he said. “If it takes one person from being homophobic to going, ‘You know what, whatever,’ then my job is done.”
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Follow Lauren Duca on Twitter: @laurenduca
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