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Politics and Popular Culture
Globalization has created a paradigm shift in political engagement. Complex communication channels involving the internet have resulted in popular culture’s easier integration into politics. Politicians are increasingly immersed in popular culture since it is viewed as the bond that ties the masses together (Street, Inthorn and Scott, 2015). It is argued that each individual in the society is aware of popular culture. Thus, politicians seek to skilfully utilize popular culture to enhance personal or political appeal to the public. This is due to the fact that the music, films or media stories relayed to the public through popular culture are an important fabric of the society. Popular culture seeks to reflect the realities of life and in some instances assist to shape these realities. Films and music mirror the politics of the day through attempting to mould political action. Artists and film makers embed political messages in movies and music that attempt to reveal grave political issues.
Today’s society is immersed in a culture of control and manipulation through various means. For instance, consumerism, which is entrenched through the media advocates for certain values and ideals that control and manipulate how consumers purchase goods and further influence how people accept these ideals as normal behaviour (Beer, 2013). Likewise, politicians attempt to align their messages with the popular culture. They effectively utilise the media to advance these messages to the masses. Therefore, while the masses harbour notions of freedom and liberty, in the real sense, they are deceived and manipulated. Largely, politicians make use of popular culture to influence people into following their ideologies or into taking certain courses of action that align with politicians’ political agenda.
Distribution of popular culture takes diverse forms and means. Although popular video games are unlike the common sources studied by people, such as policy statements, presidential statements or international agreements; it is normally characterised by micro politics, whereby political subjects, geopolitical and security threats visualisations, imaginary identities and communities are duplicated in a digital form (Hartley, 2017). Some of these games, such as call of duty, provide a clear idea about war like situations. They are developed in such a way that the simulation makes the player identify with a real battleground. In the Counter Strike, an online gaming platform that offers the player with a choice between terrorist planting a bomb, and counter terrorist, who have the goal to diffuse the bomb or eliminate all terrorist prior to planting the bomb, players are offered with insights into war on terrorism. In the 1960s, movies were rife with conspiracy theories that revealed to the public the underhand deals and operations of several governments (Street et al., 2015). The conspiracy films began as early as the 1930s and culminated in the 1960s with films such as Seven Days in May, whose plotline revolved around a group of military men who had the objective to take over the US government. The 1967 Spy Spoof’s movie, The Presidential Analyst, depicted a similar plot, which involved a telephone firm. All the President’s Men attempted to examine the break in and cover-up of the Watergate scandal during President Nixon’s Administration. The movie provided a real life viewpoint of the political events that led to the scandal and how the cover up was planned and executed.
Popular culture is an important political tool since it illustrates and functions within the larger social political atmosphere and it can be used to transmit political ideologies. It shapes identities and institutions and creates rife contestations (Street et al., 2015). In this regard, many politicians and presidents are known for capitalizing on popular culture to garner support for their policies and for themselves. For example, former American President George W. Bush is known for alluding to the wild west mythology of Wanted: Dead or Alive, after the 2001 September, 11 bombing of the New York Twin Towers. Moreover, popular music was employed to bring about emotional healing to Americans, following the Twin Tower bombings. Earlier, in 1939,
Billie Holiday, a renowned blues singer of the day wrote and produced the song “strange fruit, which talked about the horrific racist lynching of African Americans in the South. In addition, former American President, Barack Obama, was adept at his engagement with the popular culture (Hartley, 2017). Constantly, he made references to his television viewing practices. He also appeared on soft entertainment shows where he utilized the platforms to appeal to certain sections of the electorate, and to avoid answering hard ball questions that may have been targeted at him in the ordinary media. During his tenure, Obama used Hollywood actors and musicians to advance his campaigns and raise funds for his political campaigns.
Adorno and Horkheimer perceived popular culture as a tool for political and economic control. The scholars propagated the idea that popular culture enforces conformity through a permissive instrument such as a television screen. They further stated that the popular culture industry provided the masses with the liberty to choose what is always similar. Today, popular culture is viewed as intertwined with politics States actively engage popular culture for diverse purposes. For instance, during times of war or while seeking peace, popular culture plays a significant role in influencing both domestic and foreign policies. In particular, states can leverage on the popularity of popular culture to create and disseminate propaganda during war (Beer 2013). Likewise, states can create and distribute propaganda in times of peace for certain political interests and agenda. In this case states engage in soft diplomacy thorough utilisation of popular culture. For example, the British Council attempts to build trust by attempting to improve cultural associations by international collaborations in areas such as film, arts, music and culture.
After 9/11, American cultural exchange initiatives focused on popular culture, mainly in the area of sports and film. These are employed to reconstruct the US image in the Arab world. Popular culture is central to national branding campaigns. To exemplify this aspect, Tony Blair’s administration attempted to sell the United Kingdom (UK) on the global scene by employing the ‘cool Britannia’ campaign that drew mainly on the 1960s dress styles on ‘Britpop’ while showcasing young British musicians such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. Sports, as part of the popular culture, play a substantial role in influencing States’ action and foreign policies. The ping -diplomacy brought about a breakthrough in Cold War relations between the United States and China. In 1971, the Chinese government invited a nine member Untied States team to play a series of table tennis matches in China (Hartley, 2017). Ultimately, this visit triggered Nixon’s visit to China to re-establish diplomatic relations between China and the United States. Interestingly, countries contest to host the Olympic Games to obtain a platform to showcase to the world their cultural heritage, economic prowess, or other critical accomplishments. For instance, when South Africa hosted the World Cup Rugby in 1995, it used the opportunity to show the world the integration of the nation into the world community and the creation of a Rainbow Nation.
In the past and presently, Rock stars have remained bold in speaking up against social and political injustices. These musicians obtain public support due to their ability to voice political ills in the society (Street et al., 2015). For example, John Fogerty and Eddie Vedder are largely viewed by the public as politicians who deserve presidential votes because of their ability to unite people with their lyrics that advocate for political justice. Brain May launched the common decency initiative to actively solicit for votes for a political office. Two of the reasons for his decision to run for a political office were members of parliament wastage of tax payers’ money and Westminster’s inability to effectively represent the people who voted them into power.
The association between music and politics can be observed across several cultures. It impacts on political movements and influences the masses to subscribe to a particular political ideology. Music is used to express both anti-establishment and pro-establishment political themes, which include anti-war messages, protests, or political campaign songs. Furthermore, music is used as an instrument for creating awareness or as an advocacy tool (Hartley, 2017). Particular types of music and rock bands have been labelled as political due to their mere association regardless of the presence or absence of political content. Precisely, the Beatles rock band music was deemed as political by cultural association and was banned and censored in the eastern bloc nations. However, young people in the 1970s perceived the Beatles’ music as an instrument for social change and embraced its messages. During the civil rights movements’ period in the US, the song “We shall overcome,” was extensively employed to popularise the civil rights message. It was part of a group of songs that were used to advocate for social and political reform, as well as liberation from poor working conditions through the labour rights movement.
Rock music is more widely applied to political messages and courses. During the counter culture era, John Lennon and other rock artists commonly employed protest themes and messages in their songs. In fact, John Lennon considered himself as a political artist (Beer, 2013). The musician’s song, Imagine, was a political anthem that called for peace. It was part of an entire album that was released by the artist as a political album. In the 1960s, Bob Dylan sang against societal ills such as racism, poverty and war. Dylan’s songs helped to popularise the civil rights movement. Influenced by the counter culture’s political inclinations, the artist sustained an anti-establishment stance throughout his musical career, which helped to influence upcoming musicians such as the British Invasion Bands.
Governments in particular countries are known for censoring popular culture. Censorships serve to suppress ideologies expressed through music or in literary texts that are deemed as contrary to popular governmental ideologies (Street et al., 2015). In particular, governments censor popular culture under the guises that it assists to disintegrate the moral fabric of the society. In particular, in the Middle East, governments censor popular culture content, citing cultural and religious sensitivity. For instance, prior to releasing images of popular female artists into the markets, modest makeovers are carried out on the images to comply with religious and cultural dress codes. Approaches to censorships used by different governments vary widely. While some governments in countries such as North Korea utilise propaganda to facilitate censorships, Russia and China utilise state run media establishments, which singularly entrench political messages to the masses (Hartley, 2017). Popular culture messages that do not adhere to the government’s political ideals are censored. During Mao’s reign in China, Popular culture content was severely censored that the public was only aware of government sponsored entertainment content. The regime controlled movie production and distribution. The films that were allowed to reach the public domain contained strong political messages and propaganda that the government of the day intended to propagate to the Chinese people.
Governments’ elaborate censorships increases propaganda spread within the society. For example, the Soviet Union employed an effective, institutionalised and comprehensive popular culture, arts and literature censorship in global history. It utilized individuals who had the capability to influence, inspire or affect culture and dubbed them as ‘engineers of the human soul’. Those who were unwilling to adhere to the regime’s censorship mechanisms were silenced by the state’s censorship body (Beer, 2013). Stalin considered citizens’ censorship more important than production of weapons of war. This paradigm shift deemed art and popular culture as propaganda. Therefore, artists were constrained to particular cultural themes and subjectivities. Today, Malaysia exercises one of the most severe forms of media and popular culture censorships. Mainly, the Malaysian Film Censorship Board restricts viewership of films deemed as culturally inappropriate in the largely Muslim nation. Furthermore, popular culture artists such as hip hop musicians are denied entry into the country and performance permits to prevent introduction of moral decay into the Malaysian society. Artists whose permits to perform in the country are approved are required to perform under strict government surveillance to ascertain that content is politically suitable and culturally sensitive (Beer, 2013). Although the Board’s censorships mainly focus on nudity, violence or perverse language that infringes on the Malaysian moral or religious values, it also filters or restricts politically sensitive messages that criticize the government. In particular content related to Reggae music or films and music of Israeli origin are not allowed in Malaysia.
Popular culture censorship creates varied effects on the society. People may live in fear of victimization or apprehension and therefore, refrain from arts and culture (Street et al., 2013). Additionally, popular culture censorship may weaken the social fabric of a society, and destroy the freedom of expression due to oppression. The government maintains absolute power on its citizens and develops the ability to crash collective power through popular culture or media. For instance, the Chinese government openly accepts criticism through social media but quickly cracks down on any individuals or groups that try to amass power that the government is incapable of wielding its control.
Popular culture is used as a political resistance tool. In the 1960s and 70s, the counter culture were viewed as avenues that entranced political resistance against the organized governments of the day. The counter culture movement helped to popularize the music and film industries in the western countries. What is more, the youth found an effective platform to verbalize their opposition to societal ills such as poverty, increased environmental pollution due to industrialization and the Vietnam War (Beer, 2013). Several protests against governments in the Western world were held by the counter culture propagators. They helped to popularise the Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender community. In addition, the counter culture movement saw the elimination of racial segregation in several US states due to the numerous on-violent protests. However, the counter culture rallies were banned and involved running battles with law enforcement officers.
Hegemony is the process through which dominant groups in the public seek to win over subordinate groups through means devoid of coercion. In many societies, class structures are maintained through religion, educational institutions, the media and market places. They disseminate ideologies to the subordinate groups for their approval. These ideas are meant to influence the weaker groups to organize their lives around them and offer their counter demands and alternative ideologies. The dominant groups carefully consider what ideological and demands to yield to (Street et al., 2015). Moreover, creating balance in this type of scenarios requires continuous demands, counter demands and settlements by concessions. Hegemony offers an avenue for thinking about the mutual relationship between popular culture production and its utilization among the masses. It is considered as a production of negotiation between dominant and subordinate groups and is characterised by resistance and integration. Therefore, popular culture is a critical hegemonic area for its reciprocity. A classic example of hegemony in popular culture is reggae music and the Rastafarian culture that is inseparable from the reggae music. Reggae music seeks to express oppositional religious or political messages and creates several political and cultural effects. However, critics argue that the music is dependent on the capitalistic system that it opposes and that it nurtures the economic interests of the capitalistic system it is out of agreement with.
Popular culture is not considered as popular among the elite groups of people in the society. It is also not recognized as the dominant culture in any level of the society. Nevertheless, it influences attitudes, values, beliefs and perceptions among the masses that the political elite closely monitor both at the domestic and international levels. In some nations such as India, popular culture movies are used to transmit vital information to the subordinate poor. The information may contain messages about maternity care, sex education and safe sex, hygiene practices and family life. Elevation of the populist politics has created the need for consideration of popular culture as a dominant factor in contemporary international politics. Political campaigns targeting nations considered as dissenting nations are more difficult today than it was three decades ago.
Overall, popular culture is utilised in areas such as political campaigns because it provides the masses with avenues for self-expression and as a way to criticize politicians and to create a certain political impact in the society (Street et al., 2015). For instance in Western countries Cush as UK and the US, internet political memes are heavily employed during campaign periods to spread undeniable political truths in a humorous way. Recent presidential campaigns run by both US former President Obama and President Donald Trump have engaged popular culture in order to connect with the average American citizens. For instance, President Trump promoted his presidential campaign in the media in a manner that was akin to promotion of a reality TV show. Since beginning of 2012, Hollywood was involved in covering of presidential campaigns and politics in the US with the aim to appeal to the audiences who were no longer interested in the traditional news system.
Beer, D., 2013. Popular culture and new media: The politics of circulation. New York, NY: Springer.
Hartley, J., 2017. The Politics of Pictures: the creation of the public in the age of the popular media. New York, NY: Routledge.
Street, J., Inthorn, S., and Scott, M., 2015. Politics and popular culture. In From entertainment to citizenship. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.