Politics and Popular Culture

moderator: Henry Jenkins, Comparative Media Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Johanna Blakley, Annenberg School for Communication, University of California
author: David Carr, New York Times
author: Stephen Duncombe, Gallatin school, New York University (NYU)
published: March 20, 2014,   recorded: February 2009,   views: 2221

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The 2008 presidential campaign may have fused politics and entertainment once and for all. Three panelists and moderator Henry Jenkins discuss the nature and implications of this convergence.

To Johanna Blakley, political candidates who understand the meaning of style “can communicate volumes,” and to her eye, Barack Obama “has amazing skill.” His campaign, dubbed “brand Obama,” engaged celebrities and pop music, utilized the internet, broadcast and cable TV, and “rarely made a misstep,” says Blakley. In fact, McCain “desperately tried to make Obama look bad for being in synch with popular culture…but it ended up biting him on the ass.” Blakley also discusses her survey work with Zogby International, which creates political “typologies” of the American public not simply by asking about political affiliation but examining the intersection of political beliefs and entertainment preferences. The partisan divides among Red, Blue and Purple hold up in people’s cultural affiliations. Whatever the ideology, the “entertainment experience… always ends up leaking into real lives.”

While at the Democratic Convention, David Carr was conversing with Craigslist founder, Craig Newmark and found “a kid to my right live blogging our conversation. I thought, it doesn’t get any more meta than this.” The “miracle” of the Obama campaign, Carr believes, was how it “organized itself,” through an “adhocracy self-assigned by geography and expertise.” People picked tools provided by the campaign that suited them. Blogging, videos, and mash-ups emerged without much campaign oversight. Says Carr, it “became kind of a style thing, an expression of who you are.” People didn’t call and ask for support so much as ask, “Have you seen this video by will.i.am. --let me send it to you.” Watching Saturday Night Live and Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin became an “expression of cultural identity which became a part of political identity. “ Citizen-generated content took over this campaign, and isn’t going away for the next election cycle. But, warns Carr, this “mass niche of like minds,” can be “a tool for marketing democracy and/or fascism.”

Stephen Duncombe recalls a brilliant move by Obama after a bruising debate with Hillary Clinton: he brushed the shoulder of his suit jacket, quoting a music video by rapper Jay-Z, “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” He instantly distanced himself from Clinton on the cultural level, and was embraced by American youth, who remixed the Obama moment, and unleashed it on the Web. To Duncombe, this moment crystallized how politicos “can start to think about popular culture in a productive way.” Pop culture is a “unique laboratory of fantasy that can be explored, understood, mobilized and actualized through political practice.” Obama succeeded by imbibing a variety of pop culture icons and ideals and said, “I’m a mixed race, latte-sipping urban guy who likes basketball and hip hop.” Duncombe says that the conflation of politics and culture need not degrade politics, if people “do it with integrity, with honor.

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