Before last night’s Billboard Music Awards got underway in earnest, host Kelly Clarkson went off-script.
“There’s something I’d like to — this is gonna be so hard — there’s something I’d like to say about the tragedy at Santa Fe High School,” where just days before, ten people were killed and 13 others injured at the 22nd school shooting in the United States this year.
Clarkson whispered “I’m so sorry,” before going on to say, “Once again, y’all, we’re grieving for more kids that have died for just an absolute no reason at all.”
“Tonight, they wanted me to say, obviously, we want to pray for all the victims and pray for their families,” she said, “they” presumably being the show’s producers. “But they also wanted me to do a moment of silence.”
“And I’m so sick of moments of silence,” she said. “It’s not working.”
“Like, obviously. So — sorry! — why don’t we not do a moment of silence? Why don’t we do a moment of action? A moment of change? Why don’t we change what’s happening, because it’s horrible? And mommies and daddies should be able to send their kids to school, to church, to movie theaters, to clubs. You should you be able to live your life without that kind of fear. So we need to do better…
We’re failing our children. We’re failing our communities. We’re failing their families. I can’t imagine. I have four children, I cannot imagine getting that phone call, or that knock on the door. So instead of a moment of silence, I want to respect them and honor them, tonight y’all… Let’s have a moment of action. Let’s have a moment of change.”
For years, moments of silence have been the go-to way of signifying respect in the wake or on the anniversary of a tragedy. Heads bowed, eyes down, mouths closed. There’s poetry in that, in the notion that there are no words when children are slaughtered in their schools. And of course it is easier to say nothing than to come up with something to say.
But lately this reaction — performed so often by elected officials in the brief interludes between ubiquitous massacres — enrages more than it soothes. The symbolism has soured: Where silence once scanned as reverential response to unspeakable horror, it now reads as yet another example of a nothing where a something is needed, stillness where action is required.
Only one moment of silence in recent memory actually stands out, one that did not feel perfunctory or performative in the shallow sense. It hung heavy in the air, stretching on and on and on. It was the one led by Parkland activist Emma Gonzalez, who timed her speech and her silence to last a full six minutes and 20 seconds, the length of time of the school shooting she’d just survived.
Now, did Clarkson really ignore the teleprompter and defy what “they” wanted her to do? She hasn’t yet spoken about her decision to speak as she did. Whether or not she cleared her speech with the Billboard producers beforehand, Billboard‘s coverage of Clarkson’s remarks has been uniformly positive.
Clarkson occupies a unique position in the pop culture pantheon: Our first American Idol, she still feels to so many like a pop star of the people. In a way, we elect all of our celebrities, elevating our favorites with our money and attention. But Clarkson was someone the masses actually voted for, a woman who we met as a cocktail waitress whose coronation as a recording artist is one we willed into being.
So she has an unusual amount of goodwill among her audience, even for a star of her stature. (She’s been famous for the better part of two decades; she won American Idol back in 2002). She’s also a native Texan: Unlike Taylors Tami and Swift, she comes by her y’alls honestly.
She struggled, a bit, to maintain her composure. More than once, it sounded like she was about to cry. Her voice kept catching in her throat. And, though she didn’t bring it up in her speech Sunday night, she’s talked about having a concealed handgun license and once told NPR she owns nine guns and sleeps with a Colt 45. (“I live alone,” she said at the time. “So I’m not going out like that. I got no chance if some man breaks into my house.”) Authenticity is its own kind of performance, but Clarkson’s feels truer than most.
Clarkson’s opening words were followed by the night’s first performer: Ariana Grande, who nearly one year ago was in the middle of her concert at Manchester Arena when a suicide bomber detonated a homemade, shrapnel-laced bomb and killed 22 others, ten of whom were under 20 years old. And later on, Clarkson opened and closed a medley of covers of the year’s biggest songs with “My Church” by Maren Morris, who performed at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival two days before a shooter opened fire at the country music festival, killing 58 and injuring more than 500 people.