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Archives for 2008 Election

A Revolutionary Soundtrack


The connection between contemporary pop music and politics tends to be quite prickly. There’s a lot of power available any time a pol can make a link to popular culture. Witness Walter Mondale’s use of the phrase “Where’s the beef?” in 1984 or Hillary Clinton’s Sopranos video last year.

But the connection is often made gingerly. As evidence, check out some examples of politicians answering the softball “What’s on your iPod?” question and you’ll see nothing but caution and calculation.

Once upon a time, about the best example of a joint venture between pop music and politics was the infamous meeting between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon in 1970. But since Elvis was trying to become a “Federal Agent-at-Large” in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, it’s not a very rock ‘n’ roll moment. In the collision between pop music and politics, the former has to bend to the latter. For example, consider James Brown’s endorsement of Hupert Humphrey in 1968. I don’t think Humphrey displayed the slightest bit of soul in response.

More successfully, in 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign used Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit “Don’t Stop” as a kind of theme song. Fleetwood Mac (at least the mid Seventies version) was a pretty soft-rock sort of band. That song’s lyrics are uplifting, not rebellious or anti-authoritarian. Recall that Bill Clinton’s campaign had briefly used Jesus Jones’ song “Right Here’ Right Now” and that Fleetwood Mac ended up re-uniting (once again) and playing live at Clinton’s inaugural ball. The first Baby Boomer Presidential candidate rode to victory (in part) on the back of a Baby Boomer hit single.

And what did Hillary end up selecting as her campaign theme song? As previously discussed: Celine Dion’s “You and I.” Now, there’s a tune that says “experience” and “moderate.”

That means we have to look at Barack Obama to break the mold. After all, he’s the candidate who keeps promising he’s not going to do things in the traditional Washington fashion. He’s the guy who’s supposedly captured the youth vote and the progressive vote. But has he done so?

Well, yes and no. Obama’s campaign rallies never shied away from music others might consider controversial. Have a look at this playlist from a San Francisco rally last fall. When he gave his concession on Tuesday from Indiana, after losing the Pennsylvania primary, Obama’s speech was followed by “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” as the song’s author John Mellencamp stepped forward to shake the candidate’s hand in congratulations. That’s a photo-op, but not much of a rock ‘n’ roll revolution.

But let’s go back a few days earlier. On April 16, the last Democratic debate was held and moderators George Stephanopolis and Charlie Gibson raked Obama over the coals pretty well. Hillary Clinton got one hit on her account of a Bosnia trip, but Obama took a barrage of blows. Does Jeremiah Wright loves this country? Do you? How come you don’t love the flag? How come you don’t love white people? Aren’t we loveable enough for you? Left, right, left, right – BAM! Upper cut to the jaw.

Two days later, Obama referred to this pounding during a speech. He acknowledged the incident, classified it as politics, tried to move past it. Then came the bold move: He said, “You’ve just got to…” And he flipped his hand with a dismissive gesture, as if brushing a little lint of his shoulder. This wasn’t arrogance, at least not the garden variety sort. He stole that damn move right out of the Jay-Z playbook.

The rapper’s song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is the typical theme of Me-Against-the-World, but the chorus offers advice that if you are “feelin’ like a pimp,” then you ought to “go and brush your shoulders off.” Jay-Z clarifies that “Ladies is pimps, too,” and they should likewise “brush your shoulders off.” The message pumps louder: “You gotta get / that / dirt off your shoulder.”

There’s a reason the rock/politics equation usually doesn’t work. Rock is often loud, rude, chaotic, antiauthoritarian. If that’s true, hip-hop is that same attitude cranked up to 11. But in this instance, hip-hop didn’t conform to politics. Obama stepped over to hip-hop and borrowed the attitude unadulterated.

Despite the fact that hip-hop has been continuously under attack as an artform over the last 30-plus years; despite the sexism, homophobia, violence, and materialism often found in hip-hop; despite Jay-Z’s own controversial nature and his use of “pimp” and the N-word in this song – despite all that, Obama was trying to communicate a response to an attack with a move that was (in many ways) rude, rebellious and anti-authoritarian.

To really appreciate this event, you need to see the video version that showed up quickly on YouTube. Set to the beats of Jay-Z, you see Hillary Clinton hammering away at him on numerous occasions; Stephanopolis and Gibson take their turns. Then Obama speaks and little cartoon heads of his attackers pop up on his shoulder – he brushes them off. They pop up on the other shoulder and are brushed off again. Finally, a little kitchen sink is thrown at him, to no avail.

There is a danger of embracing hip-hop. It’s an undeniably controversial form, with sex, drugs, violence, and race. Any sane politician would keep this stuff at arm’s length. And yet, for one moment, danger was embraced: A perfect marriage of pop culture and politics.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 5:51 AM | Permalink

The Real Deal


Americans act like they love to get access to the real thing. Not the fake plastic manufactured version, but the real deal. Reality shows, gossip blogs that rip the lid off Hollywood, autobiographies of former drug addicts: we eat it up even though much of it is positioned, scripted and about as “real” as the special effects in your average blockbuster. Still, sometimes it seems the worst charge you can hurl at some famous people is that they’re a “phony.”

Why does this charge seem to stick some times and other times doesn’t even come up?

In part because we assume that the more “authentic” view is the better one. Rapper Vanilla Ice was unmasked as a mere wannabe gangsta, while 50 Cent survived getting shot nine times. Compare the lyrics of their respective hit singles “Ice Ice Baby” and “Candy Shop” and then try to figure out which is the more thoughtful lyric.

Of course, our focus on authenticity in our popular culture is flawed. Gangsta rap and punk are supposed to be authentic, but bubble gum pop and teeny boppers are fake. There are music fans that don’t care, listening to whatever strikes their fancy, and I suppose you could charge that they are lacking in artistic values. But you could just as easily charge certain discriminating hipsters and intellectuals as being snobs.

This quest for authenticity – which provides the framework for arguing that a novel about gang life is not as compelling as an autobiographical account of rising up from the street – leads to cases like James Frey and Margaret B. Jones (a.k.a. Margaret Seltzer), authors who mixed personal facts, accounts from others and a heavy dose of artistic license. The crime was being caught lying, but why did they feel that an autobiography was superior to an acknowledged work of fiction?

The world of politics isn’t immune from this tendency.

I’m thinking of Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. Once Gore got the “phony” tag slapped on him, and that label stuck, then everything he did and said got viewed through that prism. He was supposedly a congenital liar, who claimed he invented the Internet and was the inspiration for Love Story. He was a fake, who relied on consultants who relied on consultants to dress him and help him be an Alpha male. He was an opportunist, who manufactured a ridiculous crusade around unproven facts about the environment. It was the same for Kerry, far beyond the successful Swift Boat project that turned a war record against a military veteran. Kerry also had the windsurfing, Lambeau Field and Swiss cheese on his Philly cheesesteak. Both fakes, phonies and opportunists.

You may recall that part of George W. Bush’s campaign strategy in 2000 was that he was authentic. Love him or hate him, what you see is what you get. He doesn’t put on airs. He doesn’t pretend to be what he isn’t. Or so the theory goes. But again, it’s much like raw gangsta versus bubbly boy bands: Is the “fake” artist worse than the “real” one? If so, why? I believe that the charges against Gore were false, sometimes manufactured and sometimes overblown. And Bush, of course, is the son of a wealthy family of New England WASPs who happened to have settled in Texas to do business – not as he’d have us believe a true Texan, through and through.

In this election cycle, you can see the “phony” charge bubbling under the surface. Were Hillary Clinton’s tears in New Hampshire real or fake? Is Barack Obama a visionary or an empty suit? Did John Edwards’ $400 haircut show he wasn’t sincere about fighting poverty? Mind you, John McCain gets to reverse course on most of his stands from eight years ago, but that’s okay, since he’s no phony. He’s the real deal, the captain of the Straight Talk Express, right? Or so the theory goes.

The “phony” charge can be incredibly insidious. Once you get stuck with it, everything proves you’re a phony. It reminds me of the work of Dr. John Gottman, whose studies of marital stability and divorce prediction was profiled in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller Blink. Gottman says in that book that people are typically in one of two states in a relationship. In “positive sentiment override,” positive emotion acts as a buffer. One spouse will do something potentially irritating and the other spouse will let it slide. In “negative sentiment override,” even a relatively neutral act is perceived as negative. In this state, Gottman says, “[if a] spouse does something positive, it’s a selfish person doing a positive thing.”

Perhaps this reminds you of some events in the current Democratic contest for the presidential nominee. It’s a contest that is partly for who can be more real and authentic. One side is convinced that their person is the genuine article, while the other candidate is a charlatan and a fraud. Every word out of their mouth proves it, whether it concerns the sermons of Dr. Jeremiah Wright or peacemaking trips to Bosnia.

As for me, I’m not so convinced that we can ever really know what goes on in a famous person’s head. “Authenticity” is low on my list of qualifications, partly because of the difficulty of judging this state and partly because I’m not sure how much it really matters. With politicians, I tend to judge them like songs. Does it have a good beat and can you dance to it?

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 5:13 AM | Permalink

We Are All Sinners There


They call Las Vegas “Disneyland for Adults,” which means that it’s highly artificial, sometimes beautiful, often garish, and engineered to appeal to the immature part of your brain. It reminds me of one specific part of Disneyland – Pleasure Island from the ride Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, the place where boys indulge in too much excess and then turn into jackasses.

The historical appeal of Vegas is gambling. Who doesn’t like to think they can win? And the frisson of hanging out with a mobster or two, well, that’s just part of the thrill of losing your money. Or it was. For a town built on a foundation of vice, today’s Las Vegas has a great deal of appeal for Middle America. Big names here are Rita Rudner and Celine Dion – two artists among the least offensive practitioners of their respective crafts. That’s another side of the city – but it’s not the one everyone talks about.

Instead, Vegas has turned into a real-life version of the 1973 film Westworld, before robot Yul Brynner goes and threatens the wealthy fantasy-seekers. The city’s put out the word to ordinary Americans – good, solid citizens – that this is a place to put their normal lives aside for a few days, and indulge their forbidden desires. Its recent, very successful advertising campaign builds on a promise of guilt-free bacchanalia: “What happens here, stays here.” Its popularity seems to suggest that the average American really want nothing more than the chance to head to the desert and display all the reckless abandon of a 19-year old on Spring Break.

The branding campaign is driven by the need to create “new demand hinged on the knowledge consumers had of what Las Vegas has to offer: world class shopping, dining, entertainment, clubs, golf, etc. – MORE than just gaming.” Okay, I get it. I came for the craps, I stayed for the Wolfgang Puck and Armani. But what do the ads really say?

The spots depict various scenarios of all types of people who come to Vegas to let their freak flag fly. One features a group of somber women in a limo, obviously returning from a bachelorette party. One by one, they begin laughing hysterically at one bridesmaid who seems embarrassed at an offscreen indiscretion until she joins them in laughing at herself. The spot concludes with the tagline, “What happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.” The campaign makes the thrill of Vegas seem accessible to everyone.

Let’s be very clear about this, in case you haven’t seen the ads. The approach is not “Come to Vegas and win big.” It’s not “Come to Vegas, for the dining and shopping experience of your life.” Nope. It’s pretty blunt. “Come to Vegas and have no-string-attached indiscriminate sex with complete strangers! Experience the thrill of waking up the Morning After in somebody else’s hotel room!

Anybody can be a skank anywhere, anytime. Vegas says, “Come on over, let loose, and it’ll be our little secret.”

Vegas is also a big convention town, and that message doesn’t necessarily thrill the business crowd who claim they would prefer a more straight-laced marketing approach. But regular folks seem to love it. Just mention “Vegas” in casual conversation and people will say the catch phrase, “What Happens….”. They say it with a certain amount of humor, with a nudge and a wink.

But it’s not just a joke.

One night earlier this week, I was sitting in a Vegas hotel bar with some business colleagues. A co-worker alerted me that there was a “couch full of prostitutes” behind me. When I turned to look at the group of young women, it struck me: How could you tell the difference? In most American cities, it’s pretty easy to discern the dividing line between a professional trollop and a young gal just showing off a little skin. In Las Vegas, that line seems completely erased.

Over the course of human history, there have been periods of flexible social norms in Western Society, from Ancient Rome to Victorian England to the Sexual Revolution of the Sixties. It seems that our true natures will not be denied. It’s tougher to be a kid today; they have to grow up faster and face greater challenges earlier than they once did. But you still desire the innocent fun of childhood and so, as an adult, you go to Disneyland to be a kid. There also seems to be something else within may of us that will also not be denied. You’re supposed to be mature, get married, have kids, be upstanding. But nature calls.

When it does, you can go to Vegas to be Traci Lords – or to sleep with her.

Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 9:20 PM | Permalink

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