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Celebrities can’t stop showing us who they really are

Jann Wenner, Drew Barrymore, Ashton Kutcher, and what happens when privilege distorts reality.

Jann Wenner, an older man with curly gray hair wearing a purple shirt and black pants, holds a microphone while sitting in an armchair, conducting an interview.
Jann Wenner talks with Bruce Springsteen on September 13, 2022, in New York City.
Taylor Hill/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

So much for the virtue of staying silent.

Several public figures have stepped in it recently by oversharing or making moves they simply didn’t have to make. The list has become so long that it feels less like they’ve committed a series of unforced errors and more like an entire unforced era.

The complete rundown includes a mystifying “you could have just stayed home” moment from Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, who had to be removed from a performance of Beetlejuice for disruptive behavior. Drew Barrymore and Bill Maher each incensed fans when they announced they would be crossing the picket line and restarting their talk shows just as the Hollywood strikes pass Day 100. (They ultimately both changed their minds after backlash.) That ’70s Show actors Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis also absolutely did not have to write character letters in support of their former co-star and convicted rapist Danny Masterson, nor post a video response to the entirely predictable backlash.

Then there’s Russell Brand, who faces multiple allegations of violent sexual assault. But it’s not Brand who is on this list: That honor goes to Anna Khachiyan, co-host of the popular (and contentiously “dirtbag left”-ish) podcast Red Scare, who responded to the allegations against Brand by tweeting, “Lol lmao I stand with Brand obviously,” prompting handwringing among her fanbase about the dirtbag left’s apparent hypocritical love of itself and its own proximity to power. Khachiyan has since doubled down repeatedly.

What all of these incidents have in common is a kind of tone-deaf self-assuredness that comes when a person’s level of societal insulation from criticism is so cushiony, so velvety and soft, that it becomes part of their worldview. These are the mishaps that result when so many people have affirmed a person over the years that that person starts to believe that if they want to do a thing, that thing must be right and justified — because they’re the one doing it, and they’re a good, correct person.

To see the full extent of this limited worldview on display, let us look at the coup de grace of les erreurs du mois — the remarkable, jaw-droppingly obtuse decision of Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner to include zero Black artists or women in his forthcoming book, meant to represent the depth and breadth of Wenner’s career and his place in the legacy of rock and roll. The book, titled The Masters, releases September 26, and features seven interviews with rock legends like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. What speaks louder than the interviews themselves are the breathtaking gaps in Wenner’s concept of “mastery” and who is capable of attaining it.

New York Times columnist David Marchese grilled Wenner this past weekend about his choice to spend a career that spanned five decades refusing to interview women and Black artists. (“I read [other] interviews with them,” Wenner told Marchese.) His myopic vision cuts a giant swath through the legacy of 20th- and 21st-century rock, omitting everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Cyndi Lauper. As Marchese notes, Wenner self-effacingly writes that Black and female creators simply weren’t part of his “zeitgeist,” as if that justifies his unwillingness to include them.

Consider what “zeitgeist” Wenner experienced. Rolling Stone was founded in 1967, and Wenner served as its editorial director until 2019. He also co-created the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was its “public face” until his retirement as chair in 2020. (After the Times interview, he was immediately ousted from his ongoing role on the Hall of Fame’s board.) It’s hard to overstate just how much of a rock industry insider Wenner was; he was close friends with the Rolling Stones and with most of the people he interviewed over the years. He didn’t just glimpse artistic genius, he hobnobbed with it on the daily.

Though he writes of a personal zeitgeist that differed, perhaps, from everyone else’s, it’s more accurate to say that Wenner was more directly responsible than any other person on earth for curating the broader musical zeitgeist for half a century.

Yet, somehow, Wenner did not recognize a single Black artist as a “master,” despite rock music being born from Black culture, despite the work of artists like Stevie Wonder and Prince. Nor could he acknowledge a single female artist, despite living through the eras of Tapestry and Blue, Rumours, Whitney, Jagged Little Pill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, 1989, and Lemonade. In the interview, he instead suggested that Black artists and women simply weren’t “articulate” about the craft.

“Insofar as the women, just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level,” he told Marchese. “The people I interviewed were the kind of philosophers of rock. Of Black artists ... I mean, they just didn’t articulate at that level.”

In a statement issued Saturday evening, Wenner apologized, saying: “In my interview with the New York Times I made comments that diminished the contributions, genius and impact of Black and women artists and I apologize wholeheartedly for those remarks.” Rolling Stone has since issued a somewhat rote statement distancing itself from Wenner.

Wenner didn’t simply bumble into this mess. He chose, for decades, to erase women and Black musicians and creators from his circle of interests, both personally and as a journalist and editor. Then he chose to reify that disinterest with an entire book in which he glibly dismissed more than half of humanity as unworthy of his attention — and then he chose to tell the Times that he only dismissed them because they were all inarticulate, shallow thinkers.

It’s been easy in recent years to write Rolling Stone off as merely a boomer’s guide to the cultural mainstream — bumbling and hopelessly out of touch because all the white men who ran it were. All those times you read the magazine and felt as though its “best-of” lists were hopelessly outdated or missing obvious cultural influencers and game-changers? All of those endlessly white male Rolling Stone covers with few Black artists or hip-hop artists in sight, and female artists on the cover only when they were hypersexualized? It was fairly easy to write off all of that erasure as institutional obsolescence and malaise, brought about by too many backward-focused men at the top, who were too fixated on “masters” of the past to recognize the cutting-edge artists of the here and now.

Yet Wenner just said the quiet part out loud: It wasn’t cluelessness, nor was it an oversight. It was intentional dismissal and disrespect underpinned not just by entrenched racism and misogyny, but also by Wenner’s breathtaking arrogance and insulation from critique.

What’s almost more staggering is the fact that no one told him not to. Apparently, not one person along the food chain of his book publication process — not agents nor editors nor friendly readers — successfully represented to him the reality that The Masters would be a harmful piece of cultural curation, that it would unmask him as a bigot, taint his legacy, and tarnish the reputation of Rolling Stone and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Wenner could have published a different collection that showcased a broader variety and depth of writing and journalism. He could have chosen to reflect on his decades of erasure, published the collection alongside a mea culpa, and set about making efforts to change the industry he helped codify for decades. None of these things happened, and the still-defiant apology he issued hasn’t helped; in it, he blames “badly chosen words” for the scandal and not the fact that he spent 50 years refusing to interview Black artists and women.

This was not simply an unforced error, a one-off, or, on a larger scale, a case of celebrities simultaneously having bad weeks.

Wenner spent those 50 years in a dismissive bubble because he could. Each of our hall of shamers this past month made their choices because they could — because power has given them a distorted sense that they were wholly justified in their entitlement and actions.

Take, for example, Ashton Kutcher’s apology when resigning from Thorn, the anti-human trafficking organization he co-founded, in the wake of his character letter for Masterson. The letter “is yet another painful instance of questioning victims,” he wrote. None of this occurred to Kutcher before he publicly defended a rapist because he existed in a self-affirming bubble so thick that not even a dart as obvious as “believe women” could puncture it. Khachiyan, too, seems to have spent so long in a contrarian environment that her reliance on convoluted rhetorical intellectualism feels knee-jerk. She can’t even snap out of it long enough to acknowledge the seriousness of the allegations against Brand.

Celebrity and fame have functioned like cocoons for each of these public figures, swaddling them from everyday (and fairly obvious) discourse about the issues into which they are wading, and from the very concept of self-reflection. They can’t see that their disconnect from reality is a problem — but that’s also because they can’t fathom the degree to which they have created their own reality, from Boebert’s political conspiracy theories and extremism to Maher’s increasingly right-leaning mistrust of government and science.

None of these perceptions exist in a vacuum, but they are created out of strikingly similar bubbles of power and influence. That’s not unique to this week, or this month, or this cultural moment at all. Ironically, this unforced era just reminds us mostly that there is no unforced era: The world was ever thus.