How is American Politics Portrayed in Popular Culture?

Popular culture is an integral part of the United States (US). It is almost impossible to ignore the vast output of film, television, music and documentary from the US, and this means their message is received on a vast scale. In terms of topic, it could be argued that politics is one of the most popular. This is only encouraged by the nature of a presidency as the primary figure in the country strives to present themselves in a positive light. With the average viewer age of news programs being over 50, popular culture fulfils the political endeavours of many younger people (CRANE, 2004). This inevitably leads to a much higher amount of opinion, which in some cases can damage the credibility of American politicians and the political system as well as praise. This essay will focus primarily on the impact of music in American politics while also assessing the impact of film, documentary and television.

The first topic this essay will cover is the advent of ‘nemesis politics’, essentially the ‘counter culture’ fronted mainly by musicians. Issues in politics have been contested and damned by musicians since the 1940’s with folk artists such as Woody Guthrie writing songs in protest of Fascism that he deemed to be rife in American politics of the time. His guitar famously modelled a sticker that read ‘this machine kills fascists’ while songs such as ‘all you fascists bound to lose’ and most famously ‘this land is your land’ spelled out his frustration regarding the way in which American society operated. Mark Allan Jackson describes Guthrie as a “propaganda singer” and believes that his “self-assessment as an American and a patriot rings true” (JACKSON, 2007). Guthrie prompted the beginning of the political folk movement whose influence can still be found in modern day hip hop – arguably the most politically active section of contemporary music. Artists such Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger took much of Guthrie’s philosophy and made it much more overtly political. Both used satire in early songs such as Dylan’s ‘Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues’ and Seeger’s version of ‘Beans in My Ears’. Focusing on Dylan initially, the Paranoid Blues highlighted the “red scare” that was prominent in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s due to the impact of McCarthyism and the John Birch Society. Both organisations were responsible for creating great tensions in the US over Communism and the seemingly imminent danger posed by the then Soviet Union (WALKER, 2011). Dylan mocks the ridiculous nature of such scaremongering with lines such as “I quit my job so I could work alone, I got a magnifying glass like Sherlock Holmes, followed some clues from my detective bag and discovered red stripes on the American flag, did you know about Betsy Ross” (DYLAN, 1962). In this light, American politics is represented as being manipulative and radical. Although not popular in a mainstream sense, Dylan’s paranoid blues provided an honest and somewhat sobering view of very popular anti-communist beliefs that have arguably been replaced by fears of terrorism in the modern day.

Toward the end of the 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s political folk music was expanded on by artists such as Gil Scott Heron and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Starting with ‘Revolution’ in 1968, John Lennon began his transformation into a revolutionary and a peace activist. Referring to Lennon at the height of his activism Gore Vidal called him a “born enemy of those who govern the United States” and continued by saying “he represented life and that is admirable, and Mr Nixon and Mr Bush represent life, and that is a bad thing” (USVS, 2006). He was monitored by the FBI and was almost deported from the country for his anti-governmental stance. His notoriety was increased with his ties with Black Panthers leader Bobby Seale along with famous protest speakers Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. Lennon was frequently referred to as a ‘tool’ of these distinctly more radical speakers, which meant his music held a great threat to the credibility of the government. Inevitably the anti-war movement adopted John Lennon’s music, with “give peace a chance” becoming a ‘national anthem’ that was sung at demonstrations across the country. Not only this, but at a freedom rally in 1971 in Michigan Lennon directly influenced the decision to release poet John Sinclair from prison, a man who himself took part in anti-government music with late sixties punk band MC5. “Let him be, set him free, let him be like you and me” amongst various other lyrics making up the ‘Song for John Sinclair’ proved resonant as Sinclair was released from prison the next morning. Sinclair himself attributes his release to Lennon “because regular people thought this guy from The Beatles is coming to see about this guy’s case, there must be something wrong with it” (USVS, 2006). In the late 1960’s and early 70’s John Lennon through his music depicted US politics as being unjust, controlling, separatist and racist. Due to his immense fame, Lennon was almost above the law, and the message in his music still resonates and is still applicable thirty years on.

War has been a trending topic in music since the previously mentioned times of Woody Guthrie. Protest songs such as ‘Ohio’ by Neil Young written in response to the 1970 Kent State shootings and ‘Fortunate Son’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival written about the war in Vietnam are just two examples of the kind of music Abbie Hoffman believed would make up the “leaders of the revolution” (GUARDIAN, 2010). However, the critical acclaim of war and protest songs largely died in the 1980’s, with documentary, film and even stand-up comedy replacing it in contemporary America. Michael Moore, an infamous documentary filmmaker, in 2004 released ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ which examined the ‘war on terror’ that was initiated in the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings in 2001. Moore paints the troubling story of a war that should never have happened. He also examines the relationship between the Bush family and the Bin Laden family to discover that both families prospered from the September 11th attacks. In reference to the Iraq war Moore highlights that the American government invaded and bombed “a nation that had never attacked the United States, a nation that had never threatened to attack the United States, a nation that had never murdered a single American citizen” (MOORE, 2004). A commentary such as this over videos of exploding bombs and injured Iraqi civilians is typical of a Michael Moore film, and something that is highly emotive. As a result, Moore largely accomplishes his goal of projecting the American government and George W. Bush in particular as deceitful, selfish and incompetent. However, with praise of Moore also comes criticism from Christopher Hitchens in particular. In a famous article named ‘The Lies of Michael Moore’ Hitchens calls Fahrenheit 9/11 a “sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness” and a “spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of “dissenting” bravery.” While accepting the need for a documentary such as this to contain a narrative and somewhat of an ideological bias, he damns Moore’s omission of “everything that might give your “narrative” a problem” before saying “you have betrayed your craft” (HITCHENS, 2004). Interestingly, both Michael Moore and Christopher Hitchens identify sources of what Barry Glassner calls America’s ‘Culture of Fear’ (GLASSNER, 2009). However, while Moore attributes this to Bush, Hitchens blames Moore himself as his film merely reinforces the need to “fight against” the “all-powerful” Osama Bin Laden, with any other topic being “a dangerous “distraction” from the fight against him” (HITCHENS, 2004). Where this critical analysis of Fahrenheit 9/11 becomes applicable to this essay is in the sense that almost all cultural product is inherently biased. For example, if this essay had focused on songs such as ‘The Ballad of the Green Berets’ by SSgt Barry Sadler instead of ‘Ohio’ a completely different narrative of political portrayal in the US could’ve been formed. It could have certainly been argued that the Green Berets reached number one in the official Billboard charts for five weeks, five weeks longer than any song discussed in this essay (BILLBOARD, 2013). However, in defence of this, The Ballad of the Green Berets is remembered by few while the works of John Lennon, Neil Young and Gil Scott Heron to name a few are remembered fondly by the world. Heron was right when he said that ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’, but this does not make the message any less credible and impactful.

It is impossible to talk about music and its representation of American Politics without covering the civil rights movement. Pete Seeger, who like John Lennon was an FBI target for surveillance, was responsible for undoubtedly the most important song of the 1960’s civil rights movement. When meeting Martin Luther King in 1957, Seeger “helped King and other civil rights activists incorporate song into their organizing tactics” and in 1963 during the March on Washington over 250,000 people sang the song that became the ‘national anthem’ for the movement (GUARDIAN, 2014). Although simple, Seeger’s ‘we shall overcome’ issued a simple message to the government of the time, that the people would not back down. It was part of a movement that forced John F Kennedy to act upon his claims to pass civil rights legislation. This was successful as the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed in the two subsequent years (HISTORY, no date). Not only this, but as a result of its use in the Civil Rights Movement, ‘We Shall Overcome’ has become synonymous with protest and civil inequalities since. Issues concerning feminism, environmentalism, war and terrorism regularly reference the song, and much like John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’ Seeger captured the public frustration with American politics and offered an alternative. American politics was represented as not being for the people, a trend that is seen regularly throughout the examples given in this essay.

When looking at the timeline of political music, the most recent genre to cause great impact was the Hip Hop movement. Music became relevant once more in terms of politics and political protest with artists such as ‘Public Enemy’, ‘NWA’, ‘KRS-One’ and most recently ‘Immortal Technique’. In an article on politics and Hip Hop, George Martinez puts forward his belief that “Hip Hop is the most powerful intergenerational force in the world and is still growing” (MARTINEZ, 2004). Possibly the most notorious Political Hip Hop songs is ‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy with lyrics demanding “got to give us what we want, got to give what we need, our freedom of speech is freedom or death, we’ve got to fight the powers that be” (PUBLIC ENEMY, 1989). The song was used as the theme for director Spike Lee’s film ‘Do the Right Thing’ that received widespread acclaim and with the Public Enemy song attracting just as much attention. Again this song speaks of the government as the somewhat racist oppressors, a representation also suggested by Lennon. Referring back to George Martinez, he believes that “the power of Hip Hop can’t be contained by capitalist forces. But people can be confused by those powerful forces”, a view that collectives such as Public Enemy and NWA and even back to Bob Dylan would agree with (MARTINEZ, 2004). It is then seen as the duty of artists such as these to expose their perceived nature of American government, that being an unfair, undemocratic and somewhat ruinous system.

To conclude, this essay will look finally at a quote from an article written by David T. Little in which he sums up music’s impact as a prominent form of counter-culture. In looking to the future Little believes “though it might seem to pale when compared to the fervour of revolutionary music of the ‘30s and ‘70s, it nonetheless might be the most powerful tool we’ve got. At least until the next revolution” (NYTIMES, 2011). This holds a great amount of truth as Music appears to still be the most accessible way in which to voice political beliefs that are not defined as mainstream. While filmmakers such as Michael Moore and comedians such as Bill Hicks are only pertinent for a number of years, the works of some of the greatest political musicians including Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Pete Seeger is not only widely remembered but infinitely applicable to the contemporary world. There still needs to be a counter-culture that can say ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘Give Peace a Chance’ in order to provide constant checks on government. Ultimately, the creators of the popular culture discussed in this essay all share the same desire to represent American politics not as perfect body of excellence but as a flawed system that requires change and fairness.

Bibliography

BILLBOARD (2013). Hot 100 55th Anniversary: Every No. 1 Song (1958-2013) (http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/5149230/hot-100-55th-anniversary-every-no-1-song-1958-2013)

CRANE, Michael (2004). The Political Junkie Handbook (Specialist Press International)

DYLAN, Bob (1962). Talking John Birch Paranoid Blues (Colombia)

GLASSNER, Barry (2009). The Culture of Fear (Basic Books)

GUARDIAN, The (2014). Pete Seeger’s legacy to activists: don’t give up. We shall overcome By Amy Goodman (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/30/pete-seeger-persecution-songs-folk-justice)

GUARDIAN, The (2010). Neil Young’s Ohio – the greatest protest record By Dorian Lynskey (http://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/may/06/ohio-neil-young-kent-state-shootings)

HISTORY (no date). March on Washington (http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/march-on-washington)

HITCHENS, Christopher (2004). Unfaihrenheit 9/11, the Lies of Michael Moore (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/fighting_words/2004/06/unfairenheit_911.html)

MARTINEZ, George (2004). The politics of hip hop, Socialism and Democracy (Routledge)

MOORE, Michael (2004). Fahrenheit 9/11 (Dog Eat Dog Films)

JACKSON, Mark Allan (2007). Prophet Singer: The Voice and Vision of Woody Guthrie (Journal of Popular Music Studies)

NY TIMES (2011). Until the Next Revolution By David T. Little (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/18/until-the-next-revolution/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=1)

PUBLIC ENEMY (1989) Fight the Power (Motown)

THE US VS JOHN LENNON (USVS) (2006). Directed by David Leaf, John Scheinfeld (Lions Gate Films)

WALKER, William (2011). McCarthyism and the Red Scare: A Reference Guide (ABC-CLIO)

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