Influencers: Part II – Celebrities

Find the Introduction to this series here.

We all have people to whom we look for inspiration, advice, or guidance. Some of those people are known to us personally: family, friends, colleagues, and so forth. Well, that list does you no good. You would likely not know many of the people on that personal list and therefore would have no sense of how the influence works.

Celebrities, on the other hand, are not known to us personally (necessarily) but are widely known. When someone says, “I like so-and-so” or “I cannot stand so-and-so”, we have a sense of things. It’s not that any of us know the real person behind the celebrity, but we see their public lives and form an opinion of who that person is.

I think that distinction is important here. The people on this list are not perfect. In fact, I imagine various readers will come across certain names and go, “JFC, is he serious? That person once kicked a baby seal.” If anything of that sort happened, I am not aware of it with the people on this list.

Rather, in some cases perhaps I am aware of something in the person’s past with which I do not personally agree, but I believe the person today is better for it. That counts for something. The following 30 people are here because I treasure knowing what I know about them and consider their influence on my life valuable.

One final disclaimer: I do not have a problem with ranking people – I actively despise it. Categorising people according to a subjective sense of degree is fine. The people on this list influence me. Other people have no affect on my thinking. Some people rub me the wrong way. So while I must present the list in some order, they are not listed from most to least influential or vice versa. Pitting people against one another like that is wrong. (See this older Disney post)

1) Emma Watson

Emma Watson

If you truly pour your heart into what you believe in, even if it makes you vulnerable, amazing things can and will happen.

Emma Watson was an unknown, picked from an eager crowd to portray Hermione Granger. Sometimes I feel we lose sight not only of the weight borne (and still borne) by her, but by Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Tom Felton, Bonnie Wright, Matthew Lewis, and all the other young actors. They grew up in the pubic eye playing, the entire time, fictional characters who grew alongside us and about whom many of us had strong feelings.

We have seen how toxic nerd culture can be with respect to their fandoms. An errant turn by any one of them might have irrevocably damaged their entire life.

Emma Watson stood out to me as Hermione though, the bookish child who wanted the pop quiz or extra credit assignment, who wanted to know everything not to be the best (even though she is the brightest witch of her age) but for the sake of knowledge. Failure to her was expulsion. Wrong answers indicated not inferiority but a gap in knowledge.

All of this put to screen by the woman who would go on to portray Belle in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and Meg March in ‘Little Women’.

Emma Watson’s influence, conspicuously ever-present in my writing, started with this association with a character I adored. As Emma Watson grew in the public eye though, she expanded into other spheres of influence. Attending university while acting, reflecting her personal value for education. Her dedication to fashion as art, and also her dedication to ethics and sustainability. She encourages reading.

She assisted with the launch of HeForShe, an initiative that opened the door for my interest in gender equality (and broader social equality) to become action. It opened the door to new voices and helped me to challenge biases, like white feminism, that I was too ignorant to see.

Throughout all of that, she did all of this with grace, class, poise, civility, and kindness.

2) Saoirse Ronan

Saoirse Ronan

There are a lot of people who say, “Yeah, yeah – I’m a feminist,” and they’re not, actually. I wouldn’t want to throw that word around because it’s a very strong thing.

Sticking with Gerwig’s Little Women cast for the moment, I recall first seeing her in ‘Atonement’. To paraphrase Saoirse herself, she was not a child actor but an actor who happened to be young. The story centres on her character doing something inadvertently horrible and then, as the title suggests, failing to atone, but Saoirse never loses her charm.

Spread that ability to captivate across a few more roles (‘Hanna’, ‘The Lovely Bones’, ‘On Chesil Beach’, ‘Brooklyn’, ‘Lady Bird’) and one cannot help but develop a personal interest: who is this Saoirse Ronan?

That inevitably leads to seeking out public appearances as herself, and that is where her Irish charm truly shines. A personal favourite – her self-aware awkwardness playing ‘Who’d You Rather?” on Ellen. If you missed it, consider checking out this recent post and see if you don’t think the author would conclude, “Saoirse understands this.”

3) Timothée Chalamet

Timothee Chalamet

I have this sense of independent heartbreak, of annulling romances before they get their feet off the ground.

Okay, one more. Laurie. Or the guy who starred with Saoirse in ‘Lady Bird’. Like their recurring partnership on screen, Timothée is on this list for the same reason: one brilliant performance after another paired with a natural charisma in public appearances that reveal a strong sense of shared experience.

I remember when I first found that quote attributed to him and thought, “This is you. Even married you still have that sense and cannot help but bake it into characters.” That dedication to his craft and the idea that we share perspectives on things will keep me indefinitely glued to his appearances to see how things manifest.

4) Sir Charles Chaplin

Sir Charles Chaplin

Nothing is permanent in this wicked world, not even our troubles.

Now we roll back the clock a bit. Unlike the prior two celebs, all of the accomplishment in the world did not attract me to Charlie Chaplin. I loved his work and especially, like many, that featuring the Tramp. I already knew ‘The Gold Rush’ and ‘The Great Dictator’ and ‘The Kid’.

It was only when I finally saw Robert Downey, Jr. perform in ‘Chaplin’ that I awoke to the man himself, and I cannot help but think Charlie would find something poetic in that. He wanted to bring joy to the world but did so from a place of profound sadness. He lived in the troubles and found a way to shine through joy – not by misrepresenting things or pretending they were other than they were, but by finding the humour.

His passionate speech from ‘The Great Dictator’ features on the blog, but I recommend instead that people view it.

5) Jimmy Stewart

Jimmy Stewart

On Jimmy: He is good looking without being handsome, quiet without being a bore, ambitious without taking either himself or his job too seriously and unassuming without being dull.

James Stewart is perhaps the closest on this list to how I view myself. Jimmy, as most know him, was also known for playing versions of himself on screen with a characteristic speech pattern, mannerisms, and kindness. While he and I would likely disagree quite a bit on politics (I am closer to his dear friend and fellow silver screen good guy Henry Fonda in that respect), we agree strongly on character and conduct.

In fact, that is all I will say about one of the kindest men ever on film. I will let Orson Welles handle the rest.

6) Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn

I was born with an enormous need for affection, and a terrible need to give it.

With much of this list one should see a theme – unfailing kindness. Audrey Hepburn had no shortage of that, made all the more fascinating by her personal story. Short version: she was born in Belgium in 1929. She lived in Arnhem when the Nazis invaded, suffering from severe depression and malnutrition.

Her advocacy for health and kindness matter infinitely more to me than her charming characters on screen. As a fashion icon herself, and admitted lover of fashion, she also stressed that health mattered. Remember always, her iconic figure was not the result of Hollywood dieting – it was the result of war-induced malnutrition.

Despite all her difficulties, she never lost her need to love and to be loved, sharing it every way she could with the world.

7) Kristen Bell

Kristen Bell

When I see something unjust, I have to intervene – it’s hard for me to watch the underdog suffer.

I am populating this list in whatever order feels logical at this point. We are jumping back to the present but staying close with respect to character. I had not considered until just this moment, but there is considerable similarity between Audrey Hepburn and Kristen Bell.

We know her as Veronica Mars and the despicable (but funny) Sarah Marshall. We know her as Princess Anna and the reformed Eleanor Shellstrop. She literally cannot even when sloths are involved, and does not mind taking a lip sync of Toto’s Africa to the extreme. Her marriage to Dax Shepard is itself an inspiring tale of two people coming together and working together in love through things.

She is kind and perfectly imperfect and we love her for that sincerity.

8) Chris Evans

Chris Evans

I weep at everything. I love things so much – I just never want to dilute that.

On the subject of kind and a little wild, we have the man whose fellow Avengers ratted out as the after-hours social director for the team. He drinks, he loves sports, and he’s f***in’ Captain America. Plus, you know, he looks like Chris Evans. One does not get more man’s man than that.

He’s also the poster child for masculinity done right. He portrays much of what is traditionally masculine in a heathy way. He also portrays things that traditional masculinity often rejects, like showing emotion as alluded to in the above quote. He speaks out about issues that matter to him and, as with the others on this list, does so with civility. He has a confidence and demand for accountability that we need in this world.

Who would expect less from Captain America?

9) Christian Bale

Christian Bale

I tend to think you’re fearless when you recognise why you should be scared of things but do them anyway.

From one superhero to another (and our second Laurie on the list!). Bale was the first one on my list that gave me pause. “People will see this and go, ‘Influential? The guy behind the Terminator outburst just because he’s Batman?'”

Where many saw an unnecessary outburst from a petulant Hollywood superstar, I saw a quiet man dedicated to his craft frustrated during an already emotional moment. Some saw character, I saw a passing moment. Because I also see the Christian Bale who visits children without any pomp or circumstance. He does it to brighten their day rather than for publicity, which Bale notoriously dislikes. How do we know he does this then? Heart-warmed parents sharing the stories.

His is a kind, quiet soul leading by example.

10) Anne Hathaway

Anne Hathaway

Love is a human experience, not a political statement.

Then we have Bruce’s DC counterpart, Selina Kyle, and another passionate UN Ambassador. I recall when it was somewhat vogue to assail Anne Hathaway after that fateful Oscars, and what upset me is that people did not limit the criticisms to that performance. Soon, came the voices about how none of her roles were particularly good (patently false) and after her character.

It gave birth to a sort of cottage industry of articles and pieces dedicated to solving the mystery: why do people not like Anne Hathaway? For every article continuing to critique her seemed to arise five others with a similar conclusion: she’s too close to perfect and people cannot stand it.

Through it all, she seems to rise above it by doing what is best for her and what is right. Whether delivering continued breathtaking performances or impassioned speeches at the UN, she continues to be a model for people everywhere and that is worth celebrating.

11) Chadwick Boseman

Chadwick Boseman

The only difference between a hero and the villain is that the villain chooses to use that power in a way that is selfish and hurts other people.

While putting together the list, I found myself (obviously) scanning the modern pantheon of heroes. Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Holland, and Chris Hemsworth were all near-inclusions for various reasons having mostly to do with their non-Marvel impact.

Then I remembered Black Panther. More specifically, I remembered Chadwick Boseman. You know, Jackie Robinson. James Brown. Thurgood Marshall. And he does not just perform those roles. I was already familiar with the story of Jackie Robinson as a baseball fan (specifically, a Phillies fan, whose unique role in that story features in the film), but Boseman made is visceral.

One of the challenges of being anyone is that we have experiences unique to that identity. We can understand and sympathise with others, but that is different than feeling it; certainly it is different than feeling it on a constant basis.

Boseman’s performances, professionalism, and character made so much more accessible to me, and changed the way I perceived countless other voices.

12) Kerry Washington

Kerry Washington

I’ll be honest with you. I’m a little bit of a loner. It’s been a big part of my maturing process to learn to allow people to support me. I tend to be very self-reliant and private. And I have this history of wanting to work things out on my own and protect people from what’s going on with me.

If Chadwick Boseman is the King of that feat, Kerry Washington is the Queen. Just this quote from her alone – the ability to identify with her on this sort of personal grounds opened all sorts of doors.

While she may be maturing to the point of permitting others to support her (goodness knows I can empathise with the sense of self-reliance), she finds no shortage of supporting others. She advocates for the arts, about racial issues, for LGBTQ rights, and against violence against women. She participates and supports those issues through action, not just raising awareness, and channels those energies into her performances.

13) Fred Rogers

Fred Rogers

Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like “struggle”. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.

I confess, Mr. Rogers had drifted from my consciousness a bit. He was a huge part of my childhood and, moments of nostalgia aside, that did not follow into adulthood. I suppose in many ways that is the point of the recent film. Fortunately, the coverage brought those memories to the forefront of my mind again.

What I remember is not a man performing for the camera. Fred Rogers was Mr. Rogers. Sure, it was a set and contrived situations, but that was him. He educated viewers. I do not mean in the traditional child format of numbers, letters, and shapes. He taught children about life, no matter how difficult the subject. Death, war, hunger – he would package it in a gentle but honest way that allowed children to process difficult subjects.

And he did every bit of it with endless kindness.

14) Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks

Some people are cowards. I think by and large a third of people are villains, a third are cowards, and a third are heroes. Now, a villain and a coward can choose to be a hero, but they’ve got to make that choice.

Does anyone disagree that the role of Mr. Rogers should go to Tom Hanks? Not only is he arguable the greatest actor of our time (he made millions of people cry for a volleyball; and did you see the diner scene in ‘Road to Perdition’?), he may be the closest to Fred Rogers.

Sure, he has a wacky side. Remember the time he took the passed-out patron’s phone and took selfies of the two of them? He’s also a class act with a sense of humour about things. Whether false-bragging about his Oscars (he has one in the bathroom to keep him humble, and a line of them in the garage so that when he backs in the light reflects and he doesn’t hit the wall per an SNL Anniversary episode) or the revelation that he knows the game Spades really well, he proves time and again that he is the genuine good guy that everyone says he is.

15) John Mulaney

John Mulaney

When I walk down the street, I need everyone to like me so much. It’s exhausting. My wife said that walking around with me was like walking around with someone who’s running for mayor of nothing.

On the subject of Saturday Night Live – John Mulaney.

First of all, we have the quoted bit. His constant self-deprecation about the need for others to like him is relatable to an uncomfortable degree. I would feel called out if I were not so busy laughing. Whether it’s the need to apologise to balloons, you know, just in case it was a person, or allowing a Delta employee to spit in his face after cancelling his flight just to be mean, the earnestness and self-awareness with which he wants to make a good impression hits home.

Then there is his storytelling. Some comedians have good material. While John has that, he also has an uncanny delivery. His same material in the hands of another comedian could be the worst comedy ever. The timing and the manner with which he delivers the material elevates it remarkable levels. Example? During a story about meeting Bill Clinton, he introduces a mediocre impression and simple re-telling of a scene from ‘The Fugitive’. The intentionally distracted way he keeps returning to it as though all he really wanted to do was discuss that movie makes the bit side-splitting.

16) Robin Williams

Robin Williams.jpg

I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel that.

If I could include only a single funnyman on this list though, it would be Robin Williams. The news of his suicide devastated me, and I remember crying as though I’d lost a loved one despite never knowing him personally. That was his gift.

Everyone recalls the manic comedy, the ability to transition from one character to another to another to another seamlessly. During his life though, I sensed the sadness. I sensed the sadness Charlie Chaplin had also described, that I had seen in other comedians, and that I felt myself at the time. He achieved the comedic highs of his career because he knew the lows of life all too well. Being a genuinely good soul, he wanted no one to feel that. He wanted people to embrace their “little spark of insanity” and find the happy.

I will forever be indebted to him for that.

17) George Carlin

George Carlin

People who say they don’t care what people think are usually desperate to have people think they don’t care what people think.

A final word, or seven, on comedy: George Carlin. Early in my career I worked as a security guard and had the tremendous pleasure of Mr. Carlin performing at the venue. The venue posted signs outside the ticket office warning parents not to bring children; a seemingly necessary gesture as parents might be familiar with him as the kindly old conductor on Thomas the Tank Engine (same thing happened with Bob Saget because of Full House).

Prior to the show, my job was to provide security in the green room backstage. I would get to spend some time with Mr. Carlin. My experience? George Carlin is the conductor from Thomas the Tank Engine. The man we saw on stage was the performance.

The performance was something special. He skewered all manner of social topics and informed a lot of my early politics. He attacked the left and the right for their stupidity and cruelties. Before gun control became such a hot-button issue, I remember him joking about proposed legislation banning toy guns. As a writer, I loved the constant analysis of word choice in society and became vastly more conscious of it in my writing (“Get on the plane? **** you, I’m getting in the plane!”).

Through all his biting, eviscerating comedy though, he was a kind man with a gentle soul who cared about people to the end.

18) Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai

We realise the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.

People criticise Disney’s Ariel for surrendering her voice because of a man. To me, that was the point of the story – the moment she decides to surrender her voice is the moment all of the trouble begins. As Malala said, we realise the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.

I became familiar with the details of Malala’s story primarily through her interview with Emma Watson – I said she opened a lot of doors. As a man, I felt that I had not experienced any gender inequality and that made me uncertain about how to go about supporting others with it. Learning from (white) women in the United States and England began the journey.

Malala had to speak up in the face of unspeakable oppression. She spoke about life under severe Taliban rule and then survived an assassination attempt for it. She continued to speak out even more after that. The level of resolve to her feminism alone should inspire anyone.

19) Chelsea Clinton

Chelsea Clinton

So if anyone ever tells you no, if anyone says your voice isn’t important or your dreams are too big, remember these women. They persisted and so should you.

The United States is going through a, well, period right now. The political division is severe and tempers run hot, and while the division is technically ideological in nature it often manifests in relation to the 2016 election: Trump versus Hillary. “Trump won because of Hillary and Obama”. “Hillary lost because….” I am not going to get into those politics here.

What I feel compelled to say: I do not see how anyone, regardless of their politics, could assail the character of Chelsea Clinton. Her politics lean the same as her parents and she receives several persons’ fair share of trolls online, but whatever the disagreement and however severe the vitriol, Chelsea Clinton remains civil and respectful. Some view civility as a flaw in the face of adversity, but one of the hallmarks of many people on this list, perhaps none so much as Chelsea, is the ability to stand firmly behind their values and push for them.

Chelsea Clinton is not a “keyboard warrior”. She advocates for policy change, raises awareness, and donates her resources to issues that matter. This is not civility in the sense that values must yield to adversity; this is civility while pushing through the adversity and the single most admirable quality I see in others.

20) Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

A good head and good heart are always formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.

Perhaps we will see Clinton or Yousafzai make the jump at some point, but the first person on the list to transition from activist to political office is Nelson Mandela. He stood peacefully for his values in apartheid South Africa. How many people facing stakes like that have the fortitude to maintain Nelson Mandela’s level of character?

Having not lived or visited South Africa, and being rather young at the time, Nelson Mandela did not make an impact on me as a political leader. Rather, he was something of a spiritual leader. He had countless insights like the one quoted above, which are effective and inspirational in any circumstance. “Now imagine thinking this in a place where most of the people hate you,” I thought to myself.

21) Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern

I really rebel against this idea that politics has to be a place full of ego and where you’re constantly focused on scoring hits against each one another. Yes, we need a robust democracy, but you can be strong and you can be kind.

That makes a nice transition to the next name on the list: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. I understand that nations are different and governing New Zealand is not the same as governing the US or England or South Africa. I also understand as someone removed from this, I probably have a Kiwi reader or two furious that I would include their political opponent on this list (although, by this point on this list, they stopped reading).

I would live under PM Ardern’s leadership any day – and know of several Aussies who earnestly agree. The potential impact of climate change alone and her government’s proactive stance to get ahead of it are admirable. They have done so much else…in fact, let her tell you.

22) Katrín Jakobsdóttir

Katrin Jakobsdottir

Discrimination pops up again and again, just when you think you have solved the problem.

The situation is similar on an island almost exactly halfway around the world: Iceland. The deliberately misnamed island is where Katrín Jakobsdóttir currently governs. The former Minister of Education first appeared on my radar because of her work with gender equality, an area where Iceland repeatedly paves the way under her leadership.

Some object to modern feminism because they view it as a push for female superiority. Even those critics would have a difficult time objecting to the Icelandic PM’s work where the focus is time and again equality. She promotes equal pay, an issue primarily affecting women, and the need for paternity leave, often highlighting how access to maternity leave is something that allowed her to achieve what she has.

23) Sir James M. Barrie

Sir J.M. Barrie

Shall we make a new rule of life from tonight: always try to be a little kinder than is necessary?

Apologies – I sort of painted myself into a corner so this transition will require a little faith, trust, and pixie dust. We’re rolling back the clock again, too.

My absolute favourite story growing up was Peter Pan. Of course, at the time I thought Peter was cool (kind of the way the actors portraying him at the parks often are), failing to realise that he’s kind of a jerk in the story. In fact, and Once Upon a Time seemed to address this, one almost supports Captain Hook as an adult.

The joy of the story today is not Peter Pan beating up the mean ol’ pirates. Those days set sail long ago. It’s the thematic nature and especially the use of time in the story – Peter’s youth, the ticking crocodile relentlessly pursuing Hook, the fear that those who leave Never Land grow old and can never return.

Much of that comes from Barrie’s natural childlike innocence. He provided other treasures such as “God gave us memory that we might have roses in December” and “Life is a long lesson in humility”. The truthful but reassuring way he looked at life stays with me always.

24) Jane Austen

Jane Austen

There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.

Barrie may have written my favourite story, but Austen is probably my favourite author. The “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” opening to ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is, in my humble opinion, the greatest opening line in literary history. Why? The irony. Austen states this universal truth in one sentence, and then spends approximately 280 pages describing the precise opposite. No, a man in possession of a fortune is not in want of a wife. Literally everyone is in want of a man in possession of a fortune for their sisters, daughters, and so forth.

This is what made Austen heroines so compelling to me. They loved. They loved passionately. The objection they display towards the men in their stories is not out of some form of spinster feminism – it’s out of self worth. For these women, the height of accomplishment was finding a man not that they necessarily loved but that possessed enough to care for them. Heaven forbid she make her own way.

Long before I understood how to take action to support gender equality (thanks again, Emma Watson), it was Jane Austen who opened my eyes to how the world viewed women and how women viewed the world. I saw for the first time the way life placed expectations on women and demanded that they conform – a theme I had seen with male characters, but never because they were male.

25) Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott

I like good strong words that mean something…

‘Peter Pan’ might have a run for his money. With the novel itself, the 1994 adaptation (Winona Ryder, Christian Bale, Susan Sarandon), and the upcoming adaptation (helmed by Greta Gerwig and featuring a good chunk of this list), ‘Little Women’ is possibly my favourite novel of all time. I love the March sisters and the dynamic among them. I loved Laurie (possibly up to the moment he decided that marrying whichever March sister would take him was his life’s ambition – but that’s a piece unto itself) – I found myself identifying with each of them in turn and imagining myself as Laurie, enjoying the March sisters as neighbours.

I even mention in my mini autobiography that my mind palace, my happy place, the mental retreat to which I go in my mind is very much based on how I imagine the setting in ‘Little Women’. There’s something to be said for the influence of someone if a person rearranges their subconscious because of it.

26) Hayley Westenra

Hayley Westenra

I get a lot of pleasure and satisfaction out of giving pleasure to people through my singing; that’s fantastic, but it’s only entertainment.

Spoiler alert of sorts: we’re rounding out the list with music. First up is Hayley Westenra, an artist I discovered at a time in my life when I knew little about music. My taste in music came from pop radio and movies, so basically I enjoyed whatever mass media told me I would enjoy. I started to consider what I liked about music and what I did not, to learn actual music appreciation and develop my library.

Two things jumped out early. Classical music was no longer “boring” and old. I started to understand the composition and began to love it. I also discovered a love for Irish and Celtic music. It was about the same time I learned more about the history of music in the United States, going back to ragtime and early folk music. That new appreciation and an Irish heritage lead me to explore the same overseas.

Enter Celtic Woman, a modern musical group performing classical and traditional folk music. Among their members at the time were Lisa Kelly, another favourite, and Hayley Westenra. In fact, I can point you to the specific moment where it happened. While exploring their Irish music, I came across a performance of the pop song “Beyond the Sea” – or, “that Bobby Darin song you know”. It opened on a singer I’d never heard before, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I became an immediate fan and, as a writer who relies on music for influence while writing, a specific fan of soprano singers in general. Whole segments of my musical influence today are tied to this woman’s pitch perfect voice.

27) Ella Yelich-O’Connor, aka Lorde

Ella Yelich-OConner

I’m kind of tired of getting’ told to throw my hands up in the air / so there.

Let’s stay in New Zealand. Lorde is an artist that did not receive fair consideration from me at first. The trouble with trying something new, I always say, is that it must be tried again otherwise any biases on the first impression might ruin a good thing. My first exposure to Lorde was the hit ‘Royals’. I like the song, love it really, but the radio overplayed it and I drifted away.

Thank goodness for The Hunger Games film franchise. Someone went to Lorde and asked for a cover of ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ that blew me away. Her voice haunted me in the best way, and it changed the context of the song (did not particularly care for the original). It changed the context so much that I think I finally heard ‘Royals’ for the first time. I had to explore the rest of her discography. ‘Teams’, “Tennis Court’….’Perfect Places’. I can play ‘Perfect Places‘ on repeat all day long.

What I had dismissed as “another wannabe superstar” was the precise opposite (and I am forever sorry for that mistake, Lorde!). Her songs are supportive of people and critical of pop culture. Her songs spoke to a sense of disillusionment about society that I had felt for years, a sense that peopled valued the wrong things. She just figured it out ten years earlier in life and articulated it far better to haunting melodies.

28) Lindsey Stirling

Lindsey Stirling

You’ve got to have confidence in the very thing that makes you unique – then wait for the world to catch up.

If Lorde is a story about how I failed to recognise the talent before me, Lindsey Stirling is the success. I cannot even remember how it came about other than to say I ventured down some YouTube rabbit hole one day. Was it Assassin’s Creed, Zelda, Skyrim, Lord of the Rings, or something else? No idea – games often provide fantastic ambient music and, bam, there was Lindsey doing a cover.

Not just performing a cover on the violin, possibly my favourite instrument (I love that tense sound from the strings), but dancing a full choreography. Then I learned everything else, like America’s Got Talent telling her that “no one is going to pay to watch her dance around and play violin”. She took the ‘failure’ like a professional and said, “No, this is what I want to do. Maybe I won’t make a fortune, but it’s what I love.”

Now she is cranking out amazing albums with original music covering complex themes. She produces associated videos with ever-improving choreography – I mean, I thought her original YouTube videos were impressive, but watch one of the more recent videos and it’s clear that she spends as much time dedicated to the dancing as the violin.

When not performing, she’s busy being a wonderful, loving person to everyone. I sometimes mention my admiration for people with faith. For my academic critiquing of religion and concerns about some of the organised elements, I admire individual practitioners because they embrace what I believe is the true spirit of religious faith. Lindsey is one of those people. She holds her faith dearly and will invite anyone to share it, but never begrudges anyone a different view or faith.

That is a person worth having in one’s life.

29) Ingrid Michaelson

Ingrid Michaelson

You and me / we got this / You and me / we’re beautiful / beautiful / We are / we are / going to be alright / We got / we got / we always got the fight in us

Consider the final pair a Winter Song for your Christmas consideration.

When the name Ingrid Michaelson first crossed my path on television where someone (commercial/show?) featured her folksy, indie sound. What struck me most though was learning when I began to research this new artist that she released her music independently. Perhaps because of my interest as a writer, this idea that someone would just ignore the “correct” path (that is, go through a label) to release their art amazed me.

Many of her songs, like the above-quoted ‘Afterlife’ are uplifting. Many are heart-warming and full of love. Many deal with complex matters like heartbreak. Some, like the ARMY of 3 series, are just flat-out fun. Sometimes, whatever the content of the song, her videos manage to work in uplifting content like the partnership with Deaf West Theatre to produce the ‘Hell No’ video in sign language or helping people conquer their fears in the ‘Afterlife’ video.

30) Sara Bareilles

Sara Bareilles

Why so scared that you’ll mess it up / when perfection keeps you haunted? / All you need is your best, my love / that’s all anyone ever wanted

Ingrid Michaelson’s ‘Winter Song’ partner must appear as well, and for many of the same reasons. My first experience with Sara Bareilles was ‘Love Song’, but it was the story behind it that sold me on her. Forced to meet the label’s demand for a song on the Little Voice album, Sara gave them ‘Love Song’ with all of the Austen-esque wit that I love (“I’m not gonna write you a love song, ’cause you asked for it”).

If Emma Watson became the narrator for my experience with feminism, Sara Bareilles became the composer for it. ‘King of Anything’, ‘Gonna Get Over You’, ‘Say You’re Sorry’, and the newer ‘Armour’ all convey a sharp commentary about agency and independence. ‘Sweet As Whole‘ – as an ambassador for kindness and civility, there’s something about this song that satisfies that sense of, “Be nice, but this person really is an ass” that I often feel.

She’s also spends time uplifting others directly with songs like ‘I Choose You’, ‘Brave’, and ‘Bottle It Up’. The balance of a strong, resolute message and incredible humour make her continued work an important part of my life.



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