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What can Dictators learn from Pop Stars?

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

It’s no surprise that throughout history pop stars have performed at the request of dictators from across the globe. Libya’s Qaddafi clan has had the likes of Beyonce, Lionel Richie and Nelly Furtado perform for them, Sting played for former Uzbekistani despot Islam Karimov, and JLo once sang Happy Birthday for the recently-retired President of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. However, rooms are not the only thing these duos share. Pop stars, whether it be by design or happy accident, have been able to create cults of personalities which see people fall in love with their carefully constructed image. From the Beatles to BTS this is not a new phenomenon. The intriguing thing about this though is just how good artists are at it.

On the 19th July 2020, renowned megastar Dua Lipa posted a picture depicting a map of ‘Greater Albania’ on her social media. 'Greater Albania' is an irredentist, ethno-nationalistic concept that would see Albania grow from its present-day borders to include Kosovo, parts of northern Greece, western parts of North Macedonia, and southern sections of both Serbia, and Montenegro. This was in support of an online petition to have Apple recognise Kosovo on its maps (Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008 and is recognised by 100/193 UN member states as independent, however Serbia denies its claim of independence and the issue remains hotly contested to this day). Whether or not Dua Lipa posted this without knowing the full meaning behind it or whether she really is an ethno-nationalist remains a question, but what doesn’t is that this post is at best controversial and at worst deeply offensive to many. In fact, the concept of ‘Greater Albania’ is directly linked to violent nationalism with links to Nazism and racism. Seeing that she is still yet to delete this post from either her Twitter or her Instagram, over 2 years later, it is interesting that her popularity has not taken a hit. As of the time of writing Dua Lipa has 87.1M Instagram followers and is approaching 10M followers on Twitter.

There was backlash after posting something as divisive as a map of ‘Greater Albania’. However, this did not exceed the usual angry rumbles on Twitter and a few news articles very carefully reporting the issue without damaging Dua Lipa’s branding. 2 years later and Dua Lipa has continued to be one of the most prominent pop stars in the world, Scousers still sing One Kiss at the top of their lungs in homage to her performance at the 2018 Champions League Final, people are still trying to prove that she can indeed dance and her socials are back to regularly scheduled programming. But, among the half-planned photos and various brand deals remains the infamous ‘Greater Albania’ post.

Albanian national self-determination is a contentious issue, and this is not the first time this flag has caused controversy. Being flown over a Serbian football game in 2008, it lead to brawls and a pitch invasion resulting in the game being suspended. Dua Lipa issued an apology claiming that her post had been “wilfully misinterpreted by some groups and individuals who promote ethnic separatism”. As much as I believe she didn’t intend to cause controversy or open a debate into the idea of a Greater Albania existing, there clearly is a link to her post and these ideas. The flag is a direct representation of ethnic separatism and the word autochthonous (used to describe people who are indigenous to an area) itself is directly related to ethno-nationalism.

So, how has Dua Lipa managed to evade serious repercussions? I’m not asking for her to be put in jail but maybe being forced to take down the ethno-nationalist propaganda would suffice. I put it down to a cult of personality. Now like I said pop stars have cultivated these since their inception, it’s what drives their popularity and fundamentally it is what makes them money. The photoshopped love child of celebrity culture and ordinary musical talent has protected pop stars from blunders in the past and it is still working for Dua Lipa in this case too. Fans become more than fans - they’re used as constant support to diminish any possible criticism of their favourite artist. In essence they are transformed into a larger PR team than any record label or artist could ever amass.

There have been many instances of pop stars throughout history making faux pas in the public eye, even more so in the social media age. It has been said that the short-lived furore that often follows is a result of an increasingly politically correct society and one in which people actively look to bring down those in the public eye. However, I’d argue that rather than the short-lived nature be related to a burning desire to ‘cancel’ the next celebrity, it is more that the carefully constructed personas that these celebrities choose to share with us are so powerful in influencing our view of them that it is impossible in many circumstances to truly ‘cancel’ someone.

Personality cults seem like something you learn about in history when discussing dictators, and that’s because it’s been a method that has been and is still being used by dictators (and other politicians) to help garner and keep support. It wasn’t that long ago we were seeing images of Rishi Sunak as Superman on the news after he’d co-signed the country to another COVID-19 riddled year by willing people to fill restaurants again. Despite this, the personality cults developed by pop stars seem to be a little less obvious (except in the case of stan culture on twitter) and a lot more successful. I’m not sure how dictators would harness this same power, maybe a heavily autotuned hit single would work, or maybe a genre defining album would be the ticket. Either way, it seems if you’re looking to take over the world and become the most popular person in it at the same time, pop stars are the perfect role model.

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