Trick or Treat? Politics in Pop Culture

Pop culture and politics have been prominent partners through this tricky campaign season.  At the conventions, Republicans tried to win one for the Gipper with a few country stars, Three Doors Down and Clint Eastwood. Democrats, as you would expect, trumped with Scarlett Johansson, Kerry Washington and Eva Longoria, not to mention stars such as Ashley Judd, and Jessica Alba mixing with the masses.Nicki Minaj gave Mitt Romney a profanity-laden shout out, and never to be outdone, Madonna told her D.C. audience “Y’all better vote for [expletive] Obama, okay?,” then continued to promote him as the first black Muslim in the White House.Cardinal Tim Dolan agreed to break bread with Stephen Colbert to talk about spirituality, humor and public affairs at Fordham. And now, because Big Bird is in the crosshairs, we may see Kermit and Miss Piggy announcing their Presidential picks.Some treat celebrity involvement in politics as a joke, but clearly others are convinced that they have an impact.  I read with interest about the recent fundraiser for President Obama hosted by George Clooney at which Stevie Wonder, Katy Perry and Earth Wind and Fire performed. It reminded me of an event earlier this year packed with Hollywood celebrities at which the President said: "You're the ultimate arbiter of which direction this country goes."He may have said more than he meant. Or he may have known exactly what he was saying; that culture is upstream of politics.Ai Weiwei, a prominent Chinese human rights activist and artist, was arrested by authorities in 2011 and held for three months. The first major exhibit of his work in the United States is being held at the Hirshhorn through February, 2013. “I’ve always believed it is essential for contemporary artists to question established assumptions and challenge beliefs. This has never changed.”Reflecting on his work, I realized what a treat it is to have someone of his stature available to the American public, and what a treat it is for us to have the freedom to see it.   One of the greatest treats that we have this Halloween -- despite its spiritual mixed messages --- is freedom of religion, belief and expression.All of these political shout outs could be perilous to the celebrities, however, according to a study to be released by the Journal of Basic and Applied Social Psychology. The Washington Post summarized its conclusions this way: “It’s fine (for celebrities) to tell people to vote … but if (they) tell them who to vote for … some people won’t want” to buy what they are selling.I understand the temptation of celebrities to make political points, but I believe in doing so they underestimate and possibly undermine the one conduit to our subconscious that they uniquely control … the power of narrative. In truth, it is story that is upstream of politics, not celebrity.“The suits that people dress you in are not as important as the content you put forth,” said Weiwei recently. “As an artist, I value other artists’ efforts to challenge the definition of beauty, goodness, and the will of the times. These roles cannot be separated. Maybe I’m just an undercover artist in the disguise of a dissident.”Is there a difference between political and cause campaigning?  I think so.  Through More Partnerships, we were involved in the concert in Central Park last month to raise awareness on such issues as global poverty, malaria and human trafficking.  Foo Fighters, Neil Young and others performed to 60,000 people who largely earned their way there through volunteering.Neil Young said little from the stage, but his lyrics spoke for him. According to a report on the album releasing this month, “‘For the Love of Man’ is an impassioned declaration of the innate worth of all men,” and “Driftin’ Back” is an indictment on the failures of the ’60s-the commercialization of art, corporatization, and religious charlatans … an angry song pointing to the giants’ failure to change the world.”There is a place for pop culture protests, and sometimes they have profound impact. Who would have thought a Russian punk band challenging Putin would be the focus of world attention, not just on themselves but the government’s abuse of power?But the real power is not in the protest, but in story’s premise. The Dark Knight Rises shows the ramifications of “aging out” of the Foster Care system. The next installment of the Bioshock game franchise explores American Exceptionalism. Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer peels back the “ills that plague the black community” including the fact that three out of four African American families are headed by a single mom. “I will put my left hand on 10 Bibles and my right hand to God,” he said, “and say that’s the main correlation to the highest drop-out rate and the highest prison rate.”The key to an enduring impact however, is to allow the story to lead and the cause to follow. If politics leads, it becomes propaganda. Uncle Tom’s Cabin or To Kill a Mockingbird raised public consciousness about slavery and racism, not because of the issues they addressed, but because of the compelling way in which their stories were told.The line between story and propaganda can be a hard one to see. And expect opposition no matter how well told the story might be. Walden Media’s follow up to Waiting for Superman is the narrative film Won’t Back Down that despite its strong performances has been attacked by teachers’ unions.  And in a few weeks, Matt Damon’s new film Promised Land, which touches on fracking, is being released amidst an aggressive counter-campaign by the domestic oil and gas industry“I don’t write for one side of the street,” Bruce Springsteen said recently. “The artist is supposed to be the canary in the cage.”  I agree, Bruce.  If you want to change the world, maybe you should get off the campaign trail and let your art speak louder than your activism.