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Enemies of the sheeple: why do pop stars fall for conspiracy theories?

The Guardian logo The Guardian 30/11/2020 Dorian Lynskey
a person looking at the camera: Photograph: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage

In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it, once and for all

At the 1967 Monterey pop festival, David Crosby of the Byrds treated the audience to his thoughts on the murder of JFK. “He was not killed by one man,” Crosby declared. “He was shot from a number of different directions by different guns. The story has been suppressed, witnesses have been killed, and this is your country.” This incident, perhaps the first high-profile case of a musician airing a conspiracy theory, is one reason why Crosby was fired from the band. “He didn’t know anything more than anyone else,” grumbled frontman Roger McGuinn. “He was just trying to be Mr Cool up there.”

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These days, the music world has multiple Mr Cools whose ideas about secret plots make Crosby’s seem vanilla. Covid-19 has triggered a flood of conspiracy theories often involving some combination of 5G, Bill Gates, the World Health Organization and microchips. Musicians who have shared them include Madonna, Ian Brown, MIA, Ice Cube, Wiz Khalifa, Right Said Fred, Jim Corr, the The’s Matt Johnson and Sugababe Mutya Buena. Robbie Williams, meanwhile, has expressed a belated interest in the 2016 Pizzagate theory. “Nothing has been debunked,” he said in June, as if white-supremacist allegations of a child sex ring in a Washington DC pizza restaurant required further investigation.

It is hard to generalise about a trend that unites MIA and Right Said Fred but there are several reasons why pop stars might be drawn to magical thinking. Music attracts mavericks and outsiders. The typical psychological profile of a conspiracy theorist – arrogant, stubborn, proudly heterodox – also fits many performers. Some are autodidacts, attracted to the juicy secret knowledge that you won’t get from the mainstream media, while lacking the analytical tools necessary to sort the wheat from the chaff. And given that musicians who express an interest in politics are disproportionately leftwing, it’s inevitable that a minority will drift to its furthest fringes. When you’ve educated yourself about real conspiracies, such as those involving the FBI and CIA, it is tempting to migrate to ones that don’t exist. Prodigious weed-smoking may also play a part.

a person looking at the camera: He’s a tinfoil wizard – there has to be a twist … Ian Brown. © Photograph: Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage He’s a tinfoil wizard – there has to be a twist … Ian Brown.

Once you have passed a certain point down the rabbit hole, all challenges are perceived as proof that the conspiracy exists. Often, there aren’t enough challenges anyway. In a more innocent era, when conspiracy theories were regarded as a harmless eccentricity that made for good copy, interviewers would wind up musicians and watch them go. Remember chemtrails? Simpler times. Bandmates and employees are prone to looking the other way. The greater someone’s fame and wealth, the less likely it is that someone close to them will say: “Hang on, that’s balls. Stop.”

The current paranoia boom is the predictable result of having a bunch of isolated people starved of their usual sources of income and attention. But are musicians that unusual? You can also find actors and TV stars plugging Covid conspiracy theories, not to mention academics, Uber drivers and plumbers. The difference is publicity: Madonna will get more coverage than your aunt on Facebook. Given all this, the surprising thing is not that there are so many conspiracy theorists in music but so few.

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