This month saw the somewhat unremarkable passing of the Meteor Music Festival in Tel Aviv – an event that gained more notoriety for who wasn’t performing on stage than for those who did perform. While Israel has never been among the top draw destinations for western pop stars, over time Israel has developed into a somewhat important second tier market for western pop bands sitting not all too far behind the big three markets of North America, Europe and Japan. But while Israeli concert promoters much like their counterparts in Australia and Brazil have attempted and in many ways succeeded in making their countries larger draws for acts ranging from The Rolling Stones to Elton John, a major backlash is growing against artists who continue to perform in Israel.
In 2005, just before the age of social media as it is known today, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was founded in Palestine with the aim to persuade major artists, scholars and tourists throughout the world to boycott Israel until a final peace accord is in place which would insure peaceful Palestinian statehood.
Since then, BDS has grown in terms of its public support and in terms of artists actively promoting its cause. While BDS gets substantial coverage on the major media outlets of the Arab world and in parts of Asia, Latin America and parts of Africa, mainstream media coverage in Europe and North America is virtually non-existent while when BDS is mentioned, it is typically done so in a negative light. But the lack of positive media coverage for BDS has not stopped the activists from claiming further successes in getting an ever wider group of artists to boycott performances in Israel.
A total of 20 major artists ended up boycotting the Meteor Festival with American pop star Lana Del Rey being among the most visible last minute cancellations after she initially stood by her original decision to perform in Tel Aviv.
While veteran artists including Roger Waters, Annie Lennox, Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno have expressed support for BDS, it is becoming increasingly interesting to see how young pop artists whose music tends not to be as politically or as philosophically driven as that of Waters, Gabriel and Eno confront the increasingly inevitable question of “how to address BDS?”
Earlier this year, the young New Zealand pop singer Lorde cancelled a previously booked performance in Tel Aviv after admitting that she did not understand the issues BDS has highlighted. After educating herself about these issues she decided that BDS supporters were correct and cancelled her gig accordingly. Then in late August, Lana Del Rey took to social media to defend her decision to perform in Tel Aviv stating that because she and her music are apolitical, she does not consider her performance an endorsement of Israel’s policies towards Palestine and others.
Even more telling than Del Rey’s statement are the social media comments on her statement. While to be sure there are many comments in support of her decision, the majority of comments are a combination of disdain filled condemnation and polite requests for Del Rey to reconsider her position with many making reference to Lorde’s recent reconsidering of being in the same position while many more have mentioned the cultural boycott of Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.
What is more intriguing is that the majority of comments arguing for Del Rey to cancel her Tel Aviv gig do not appear to be from Arabs but appear to be from her mostly white American fan base. This is interesting in and of itself as it demonstrates that perhaps for the first time since the anti-South African Apartheid drive of the 1980s among well known musicians or moreover the Vietnam War era, the otherwise apolitical demographic of white mostly middle class Americans in their teens and 20s are becoming engaged in a highly charged political matter and are taking the side of the Arab world, the wider Muslim world and the wider anti-imperialist activist community. It is likely that the online pressure is what persuaded Del Rey to ultimately cancel her concert in an online announcement from the 31st of August.
But while the anti-Apartheid movement was covered by the mainstream western press in the 1980s (at the time there were few easily accessible alternatives), BDS has mainly grown due to discussions on social media which include major artists like Roger Waters posting their on -stage speeches in support of BDS to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
While some artists including Roger Waters clearly have a philosophical, ethical and moral compass surrounding not only their style of music but the ways in which and locations where they perform, it would be naive to think that the average apolitical pop star gives much consideration into anything other than providing entertainment and getting paid as much as possible for doing so. Therefore, one can only surmise that some if not most of the artists cancelling performances in Israel have done so because they believe they stand to lose more support (e.g. money) from their fans by performing in Israel than they would by boycotting.
Seeing as the Israel lobby remains highly influential in the United States, the calculated risk is clearly not an easy one from a commercial point of view. Be that as it may, it does not seem as though the likes of Lorde and Lana Del Rey would be willing to ruin their careers for the sake of a Palestinian cause that prior to being peacefully confronted by BDS, they never mentioned in any of their lyrics nor during any of their numerous public appearances. Del Rey in particular is among the most overtly materialistic pop stars on the contemporary scene. Clearly, she felt that going against the wishes of BDS would in the long term eat into her popularity and as such eat into her profits. Thus, if even among the most profit conscious and materialist pop stars BDS is starting to matter, it cannot be denied that more and more concert ticket and recorded music buyers are necessarily support the movement for Palestine.
The only logical conclusion that one can draw is that through the power of social media, a once totally suppressed BDS message has become incredibly pervasive and as a result, more ordinary pop music fans are putting pressure on the artists they enjoy to convince them to boycott Israeli performances.
Thus, while the conflict in Palestine has not made any significant progress in decades, the perception of Palestine in the eyes of otherwise largely apolitical western pop music fans is changing. The pro-Israel narrative of mainstream media are being challenged by a surging pro-Palestinian movement on social media. As with everything money talks and the increased number of prominent artists cancelling their gigs in Israel can only mean that there are more Palestine supporters hidden in the crowds of western pop concerts than one could have imaged.