Bruce Springsteen, North Carolina, and the Futility of Deprivation Activism


It made for bold headlines: just days after North Carolina passed its controversial House Bill 2 (HB2) — also known as the “bathroom law” — Paypal announced that, because of the law’s passing, the company would abandon plans to open a global operations center in Charlotte. Then the Obama administration declared it’d do all it could to use the law against the state, potentially withdrawing billions of dollars in federal aid. A few days later, author Sherman Alexie canceled the North Carolina segment of his tour in support of a new children’s book, tweeting #RepealHB2. That was followed by Bruce Springsteen writing a letter condemning the law and announcing the cancelation of a concert in Greensboro. Yesterday, porn site xHamster announced that it would block all North Carolina-based users from accessing its site. The message was, and is, clear: so long as HB2 remains in effect, the people of North Carolina will suffer. But what good will that do?

It’s easy to understand the thinking behind these decisions, and it actually kind of mirrors HB2 brilliantly: the state is acting in a way that offends these entities, so they refuse to do business with the state. That’s sound logic, and these high-profile withdrawals do generate headlines and bring awareness to the criminality of the law. But the difference here is that boycotting North Carolina doesn’t really hurt Governor Pat McCrory, who was instrumental in bringing the law to pass. It hurts the business owners who sold tickets or who could have sold books. (Alexie especially has come under fire for canceling his appearances.) It hurts the citizens who could’ve had those jobs at Paypal. It hurts the schools and other state institutions that need the federal funding that Obama could cut. It even, god forbid, denies pornography to homosexuals who live in the South and have no other means of safely exploring their sexuality. Some might call this boycotting. This isn’t boycotting; this is deprivation activism.

And not only are these entities depriving their citizens, users, or actual fans — who, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, are largely innocent in this HB2 debacle — they’re also depriving themselves of a platform. (For what it’s worth, xHamster is, reportedly, going to replace the site with a link to sign a petition repealing the law.) Because, while headlines might bolster an artist’s reputation with some in the LGBT community, it doesn’t really do much in the way of convincing lawmakers. (If Springsteen had boycotted Jersey, then maybe this’d be something to really applaud.) What does convince lawmakers, in theory, are hordes of angry voters, straight, gay, trans, or otherwise. Those hordes aren’t easy to mobilize these days, unless you’re someone famous like Donald Trump — or, maybe, Springsteen, whose show in Greensboro was scheduled to take place in a venue capable of holding tens of thousands of fans, most of whom are probably not at all affected by the HB2 law in any way that would make them care to take action if not called to it. But a legend of rock, the goddamn Boss no less, telling them to petition their lawmakers, and in person? It just might work.

Strangely enough, some of the most rational commentary — from musicians, anyway — has come from legacy artists who have no real stake in the game. Cyndi Lauper, in a not-so-eloquent statement, insisted that she’d perform in North Carolina, saying that it was essential for those affected by the law to feel that they were supported by their idols. Billy Ray Cyrus, whose daughter Miley is extremely vocal in her pro-LGBT stance, said that everyone should be “treated equal.”

Jimmy Buffett does have a stake in the game, though, as much as any person with his amount of money can: with shows in both Charlotte and Raleigh, he took to his Margaritaville blog to write about how “stupid” the law was. However, he’s going to play his shows because he says, “I happen to believe that the majority of our fans in North Carolina feel the way I do about that law.” Whether or not Buffett will use his shows as a platform to spread LGBT love to his Parrotheads, who knows, but the fact that he acknowledged the situation and is still performing displays surprising tact that wallops Springsteen.

Springsteen’s decision — and Bryan Adams’ similar decision to pull out of Mississippi due to a recently passed law — is powerful, sure, but it also rings hollow. These guys don’t need any money. What can the subtraction of one date on Springsteen’s tour cost him in the long run, really? Foals, Father John Misty, and Bloc Party all have shows in North Carolina in the coming months, but none of them have spoken up at all. These are bands who skew younger than Springsteen, without a doubt. And in the case of Bloc Party, that band’s singer, Kele Okereke, has written extensively about his own trials as a gay man in the world of dance music. He could even just follow the lead of Donna Tartt, Margaret Eby, and a host of other authors who wrote a letter in protest of Mississippi’s own awful law, expressing concern ahead of time without compromising ticket sales. So why hasn’t he, or any other small-name act heading to NC spoken out about the law?

Maybe they think it’s futile, and not worth the risk of losing fans or money. Besides, what sites would run a story about Kele or Father John Misty denouncing HB2? This one, and maybe a dozen others? Would it make Entertainment Tonight? Probably not. So what would the result be? Arguably, the result would be that the young fans of those acts, gay, trans, or otherwise, would know they have allies. They’d also know that their allies are willing to come to a place governed by laws they don’t necessarily agree with in order to show solidarity with their likeminded fans. Because the people of North Carolina can’t just up and leave. Especially those most affected by HB2, such as transgender people, who, even if they wanted to sever all ties to their homes, could very likely fall into the high percentage of the trans population that faces poverty, and so must be relatively immobile, forced to live in a state that doesn’t deem them worthy of protection.

While thousands of North Carolina’s citizens are now free to be discriminated against, super-successful musicians are withdrawing from the state as a supposed means of support. The Springsteens of the world are taking the easy way out by denouncing a thing and then avoiding that thing rather than facing it head-on. When taken at face value, these statements and actions are bold, inspiring. And, as of this morning, superficial progress is being made. But when seen from the point of view of the vulnerable LGBT population, it’s almost condescending. Not only do they not have any protection, but they also risk having no entertainment, which, in times of trouble, should be available as a means of escaping bigotry, not being reminded of it.