Pop Culture and Politics: When The Silver Screen Flicks, The Television Shows, and The Guitar Riffs Become Agenda Setters

During the closing track of their 1980 magnum opus “Back in Black”, AC/DC have made it clear: “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution”. In the given context, the catchy chorus refers to the raw distorted electric guitar-driven sound and the raspy high-pitched vocals that have been a trademark characteristic of the band since their formation in 1973. It’s meant to be a response to the more conservative critics who did not find any appeal in the acoustic aesthetic of the Australian group and whose repulsive feelings have put the “noise pollution” label on the artists’ work – and quite possibly on the whole genre.

However, as Neil Young put it, “There’s more to the picture than meets the eye “, and AC/DC’s statement may have a deeper meaning: in a society that promotes the worshipping of celebrities and pop culture, where both the artists from various fields and the likes of the Kardashians are under the spotlight (and give up on their privacy out of free will or under economically-satisfactory conditions that make up for the tradeoff), celebrities can be much more influential than politicians in shaping opinions.

A good example can be the rather recent ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: had the members of The House of Lords started an initiative that involved pouring ice-cold water on each other’s heads, the result would have been both hilarious and inefficient. Moreover, one can only imagine how the newspapers would have tackled the topic and suggested a desperate cry for attention/popularity, whilst also making a list of suggested causes that might seem of greater importance on the public agenda. But when the Hollywood celebrities had done it, all of a sudden it became a trend – a behavior that both the public and the politicians themselves could follow and get similar positive responses. The social norm for analyzing and describing an individual who follows or emulates the actions or discourse of a political figure points to a critical and cynical perception, where anything from a sheep-like conformism to an ideological fanaticism can be invoked.

However, doing what Brad Pitt does will make you classy; acting and dressing like Kim Kardashian will give you a certain mass-apealling coolness factor that suddenly brings a note of glamor; telling the jokes you heard on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon will make you sound a lot funnier, whilst pointing out facts and life advice you heard on Oprah or Dr. Oz will make the others raise their eyebrows for your thoughtfulness.

Academics and scholars from the field of political elites usually overlook the influence of pop culture figures as opinion-setters and only look on the policy-making field that belongs to the elected officials. For example, classical elite theorist Gaetano Mosca’s disjunction mentions only a ruling class and a class that is ruled. Robert Michels presents a structured oligarchic system, where everything is leader-centered. C. Wright Mills wrote about a triangular structure where the political, economic, and military spheres have differentiated interests that still belong to an oligarchic minority. Also, Robert D. Putnam displays a shift of power from the leaders to the advisers and specialists.

The theorist whose classification makes room for the artists and celebrities is Vilfredo Pareto, with his disjunction of governing elites and non-governing elites – and the subject of this debate can be categorized as a part of the latter.

 Artists with a Political Agenda

But when Bob Dylan had performed his anti-war and social-equality songs on the steps of the Abraham Lincoln Memorial right before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, he delivered a political message to a large crowd that was ready to make a change. The ideas did not belong to him (as he was a part of The Civil Rights Movement, a small faction whose members did not possess high financial capital or decision-making power – thus it can be called a “counter-elite” movement), but his words and music have had the power to present a left-wing political agenda that was suitable for the historic moment that followed his performance.

Dylan, while filming the music video for the song "Subterranean Homesick Blues"

Dylan, while filming the music video for the song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

 

Similarly, when Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Pearl Jam, James Taylor and REM (among others) have played for the 2004 Vote for Change campaign, where most of the performers have expressed their views against George W. Bush’s administration, being a supporter of the Democrat Party had suddenly become something a fan might take into consideration more seriously. Also, every time Roger Waters of Pink Floyd makes a political comment (and he’s been known as a very vocal critic of both domestic and foreign policies of Britain since the administration of Margaret Thatcher, and as a pro-Palestinian voice), a large community of followers will provide a positive feedback and might show support.

Vote for Change

Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam promoting their liberal political views during a concert from the “Vote for Change” campaign.

 

But the examples are not limited to a list of celebrities who either endorse or criticize the policies and actions of the decision makers.

 Artists with a Political Agenda of Their Own

A classic example of artists displaying a political agenda of their own comes from the summer of 1969: Woodstock has been instrumental in shaping the mindset and attitude of a generation that rejected the traditional values and norms. Moreover, among the artists that performed were Stills, Cosby and Nash (with Neil Young) and The Who. Both acts have had their fair share of making political comments during their careers: the first has been known for criticizing the US policies (and 4 years later, in 1973, would famously announce “He’s gone” to an acclamating audience – referring, of course, to Richard Nixon’s resignation) and the latter were in the process of writing the timeless protest song that expresses feelings of desolation and angst – “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (“Meet the new boss, the same as the old boss”).

 

The Who performing on the stage of Woodstock (1969)

The Who performing on the stage of Woodstock (1969)

 

Another example involves David Bowie – who has been so influential in the fields of music, fashion, and film, that he is often regarded as one of the greatest British artists. And without a doubt there have been homosexual politicians in Britain, yet none of them has sent the liberating message of David Bowie. In the early 1970s, he had the courage and stoicism to declare homosexuality and create an androgynous and ambiguous stage persona that stirred controversy and outrage. And despite the initial reaction of the press, Ziggy Stardust has enjoyed a huge success musically, and socially has laid the foundations of the Gay Pride marches and helped the likes of Elton John Freddie Mercury, and George Michael “come out of the closet”. Fourty years after David Bowie had publicly expressed his “outrageous” sexual orientation, mainstream celebrities like Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres not only receive acceptance, but are appreciated for their work without receiving judgmental comments, and can also express their love feelings publicly – in front of the camera and in their private life. Meanwhile, LGBT individuals can enjoy a better life than a few decades ago, as many state legislatures have enabled same-sex marriage and adoptions for the gay couples. Was there a more advanced and subversive political agenda behind David Bowie’s youthful counter-cultural movement? Only a conspiracy theorist would make such a statement – at most, he was interested in getting attention, since he wasn’t the most gifted British singer of his generation. But in the conservative environment of the 1970s Britain, no politician could have ever stepped up to defend gay rights. At the time, homosexuality was still considered to be a mental disorder, and a political intervention on behalf of any party would have led to suicide in the future elections.

"It's Outrageous!" - David Bowie mimicking fellatio on Mick Ronson's guitar on live television.

“It’s Outrageous!” – David Bowie mimicking fellatio on Mick Ronson’s guitar on live television.

 

 Mainstream vs Underground: Alternating the Agenda

In the same manner in which the political actors can be divided in those who are in office and the opposition, there is a similar characteristic of pop culture figures: they can be mainstream or “underground”. For every cultural movement there is a counterculture that promotes different values and tries to gain enough support to bring a shift of the status-quo. And each time the winds of changes blow, the underground culture embraces the mainstream attention and indirectly gives a choice to the ones who had been outfashioned: they can either go with the flow and join the new popular movement, or stick to their values and wait for an implosion of the new mainstream. Because, unlike politics, there is a phenomenon of oversaturation that takes its toll once the cause becomes too common and implodes. Conversely, if the members of the political party that lost the elections join the new governing faction, the result will be a hegemonic party whose implosion is debatable and depends on a large number of factions. Under no circumstances will being in power ever feel uncool.

 

Pop culture, however, is made to change. And this change is the result of both oversaturation and political interests. It might not be clear whether the politicians own the media or the media conglomerates are the puppet masters of the political game – and the discussion bears a Noam Chomsky-esque characteristic that is not to be presented in this article. However, when the casual music fan attends a U2 concert, he or she might learn about their political perspectives. A Rage Against the Machine gig might reveal the inner anti-capitalist  feelings of a generation that grew up in a corporate environment.

 

In the 1970s, the “mainstream” was pretty hard to define and required a point of reference: if the media was this point of reference, then Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, The Eagles, The Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, and a large number of singer-songwriters were “the mainstream”. They were under the spotlight and could be seen on TV shows and magazine covers. One might think that they were the ones who were promoting the political agenda of the elites in the post-Beatles era. However, cult acts like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple, were encompassing larger ticket sales and, despite their public eye-shy approach, were more relevant “on the street”. It was around the time that the labels and magazines have began to use a sociological approach to marketing, so that they would eventually be on both sides.

Nowadays the ownership of Rolling Stone Magazine is well-known, and its political agenda is not hard to distinguish – it’s blatantly left-wing. It isn’t a stand-alone publication, as it’s a part of a larger media conglomerate that tries to reach every social category, from every upbringing (the same company owns the tabloid newspaper “US Weekly”). But virtually every media conglomerate keeps an eye on both the mainstream and the underground scenes, and prepares the transition for whenever the oversaturation moment occurs. It had become a lot easier for artists to become politicized, and thus become media or political “puppets” – especially in a time when most of the songs on the radio are not written by those who sing and play them. If they are a part of the underground movements, they are free to say and do as they will – but, unless a real shift occurs and their art becomes meaningful and well-known to masses through other means, their commercial success will come with a price: their intellectual integrity.

 

One last question that has to be asked before reaching a theoretical conclusion is: In the end, who owns who? Do the Wall Street Bankers own the politicians and “suggest” the policies, or do the politicians have autonomous control over the economy? This causal relation doesn’t have a clear answer, as usually banks are involved in electoral campaigns of key elected officials, yet the outcome of the elections determines whether or not the bank will be prosperous. Artists and celebrities are caught somewhere in the middle, as they can either endorse or bury a certain idea or movement that might be on the agenda of the elites. Their exposure depends on the loyalty to their cause, and sometimes they are not even aware of the game they are part of – they might be pawns or they might be kings. But their importance and influence is not to be neglected by political scientists and sociologists, as they sometimes have more power and influence than the elected officials themselves.

 

Sources:

Mills, C. Wright (1956), The Power Elite

Putnam, R. D. (1976) The Comparative Study of Political Elites

Institute for Historical Review, “Vilfredo Pareto, Sociologist and Philosopher”, Available at:  http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v14/v14n5p10_Alexander.html

Joe Moran – “David Bowie Misremembered – When Ziggy played with our minds”, The Guardian, July 6th 2012

Peter Tatchell – “Britain’s First Gay Pride March”, Boyz Magazine, June 18th 2009, Available at: http://www.petertatchell.net/lgbt_rights/history/britainsfirstgaypridemarch1972.htm

“Bob Dylan and Civil Rights”, Available at: http://folkmusic.about.com/od/bobdylan/a/Bob-Dylan-Civil-Rights.htm

 

Image Sources:

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