Reassessing What Art, Pop Culture, and the People Who Write About Them Can and Cannot Do

Donald Trump won the election, and as a result, America is grappling with something it should perhaps have known was very much a potential reality. As people try to make sense of the result, the web — especially the corners home to a suddenly self-critical liberal mainstream — has been abuzz with scapegoating: It was the media’s fault. It was the neoliberal machine’s blindness. It was Jill Stein. It was white apathy. It was the electoral college. It was low voter turnout. It was pop culture.

It was, in fact, an inane confluence of all of these things. But above all, it was simply Trump and people voting for him, choosing an illusion of improvement over the wellbeing and safety of minorities, LGBT people, women, and the environment — the thing that, you know, affects everyone. Ultimately, the election was a show of the limits and selectivity of empathy. For Democrats, though, the shortcomings were a coalescence of factors, and pinpointing any one as the THING that made the election go so wrong seems just as fallacious and reductive as so much of the election itself.

But as someone who writes for an art and pop culturally-oriented website, I do think it’s time to at least examine the confluence of politics and pop culture, and to reassess the ways we address the the relationship between the two. This was an election whose awfulness was undeniably both aided and monumentalized by pop culture, for a variety of reasons: on the Right, because a figure of reality televised corporatism with no government experience wooed people into believing in his form of anti-establishment, (white) “populist” hot air due to the very fact that he knows nothing about politics; and for liberals, through the media’s and the Democratic institution’s harnessing of pop cultural icons to create a bubble of feeble inspiration leading to a blind dismissiveness of the actual threat of the other side.

The Clinton campaign — the campaign that, despite its flaws, should have won this election and did win the popular vote — used pop culture to posit intersectional love and hope. Or, it tried to — Clinton’s own history, and even recent silences, made this rhetoric seem potentially hollow, and the strategy was often ineffective. Meanwhile, Trump’s pop cultural status — the sort of status that can make a sociopath seem fun and innocuous — allowed people to describe him as someone who “tells it like it is” rather than someone who’s deeply, fearfully amplifying and harnessing an intersectional hate. He managed to appeal to/con people by in part by convincing them he was the antithesis of the Hollywood elite that may have turned them off to the Clinton campaign…despite the fact that he is very much a member of the pop cultural, and corporate, elite. And his pop cultural familiarity allowed him to activate hate; the Democratic party didn’t manage to activate love and hope to the necessary extent.

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So what can pop culture and art provide in their immersion in politics (or as was the case here, politics’ immersion in them)? And how much should the recent emphasis placed on the commingling of the three — an emphasis that’s often lazy and thereby dangerous — be avoided? The relationship therein is mercurial and will always be different depending on our cultural moment, but it’s important to think about how, in this moment, pop cultural hope failed political foresight. I think giving into the former is, to an extent, a mistake many of us made.

I’d like to start with the landscape of new media, because this has accelerated, by supply and demand, an often unconsidered hybrid pop culture and politics. It’s probably common knowledge that placed above the desks of many new media offices is a thing called Chartbeat. There is one in our office; it is not rare. It’s a television screen that sees posts fighting against one another to get the most viewers, like they’re competing Top 40 songs, and it’s goddamn mesmeric. Obviously the meaning of clickbait comes from reducing — as in many pop songs — things to their most sensationally and basically alluring: this is what websites do in order to survive (though we, here, try at least to consciously avoid it), and in order for those posts to succeed at imitating in their own odd way the fight of their own American dream to make it to the top from obscurity.

Because of the normalizing of this within the media, the injection of pop culture in politics has made both of the two sexier: pop culture gets the self-importance of #activism, and politics gets the glamor and levity of pop culture. For the Left (which in our two-party system is really just the center), a cultural devotion and reverence to pop culture — and its newfangled politicization — has led many to get caught up in outrage over symbols, as opposed to directing our rage towards the systems from which the symbols are merely a reflection. Art/pop cultural criticism is deeply important as a form of cultural digestion, a matter of breaking down the things we consume to better absorb or reject them. But a lot of cultural “criticism” has taken on the cathartically angry tone of actual activism, and thereby displaced that energy onto pure symbols. It’d behoove us to critique and analyze the symptom, but save our rage and fight for the cause.

Yes, for example, the fact that Justin Bieber sported dreadlocks shows that he’s a mildly appropriative toolbag (surprise!), but of course the tensions that come from taking another culture’s symbols exist due to the overarching imbalances in a system; the taken symbol is the innocuous, visualized representation of the actual thing the anger should be — or at least now certainly needs to be — aimed towards. The media has harnessed the success-oriented formula of commingling the anger politics induces and the virality pop culture induces to distract from the former while making the latter feel like it is the former; one of the most popular media methods is now decontextualizing quotes from celebrities and setting people’s anger loose on them.

While we pour energy into arguing amongst ourselves about the minutiae of how celebrities present themselves politically, the Right plots further ways to actually oppress, to enact the policies that’ll only make those symbols — those symptoms — all the more fraught with tension.

As such, the election became quite a “choose your own narrative” — where either narrative was such a threat to the enshrined realities of the other; the Democrats decided they could use a celebrity-faced wall of hope to ignore the demands of the white working class, while Trump fed them — and a massive portion of other, completely well-off white voters — a solution laced with hate. Both candidates and parties amplified the obviously preexisting trend of the strategic commingling of the emotional and symbolic appeal of pop culture with politics to try to use it in their favor. For Trump, the fact that people saw him as a familiar celebrity outside the realm of politics allowed devout Christians to ignore the sexual assault talk, devout patriots to ignore the tax evasion. It led people who might have been ignorant to America’s racial tensions to turn to a campaign that boastfully endangered people of color.

The odd thing was that mostly all artists and pop cultural icons detested Donald Trump — you likely remember the litany of news stories about Trump attempting to use songs for his rallies, which would result in furious open letters from artists dissociating themselves from the candidate. But it didn’t really matter that the rest of pop culture rejected him — Trump could appeal to people’s pop cultural thirst for extremes by simply being Donald Trump, and while rejecting the rest of the pop cultural elite to heighten his populist appeal. The RNC was a zany reality series where the subject just so happened to be bigotry. The DNC, meanwhile, having just unscrupulously rejected their candidate who would’ve had actual populist appeal, shellacked itself as an Oscar-like ceremony, using pop culture as a way to try to electrify a campaign that, by comparison to Sanders’, felt militantly tepid, albeit very important to stand behind due to the ultimate alternative. (Though clearly not everyone saw it as such.)

From Lena Dunham to America Ferrera to Alicia Keys to Paul Simon to Katy Perry, the DNC decorated itself with symbols, the policy-obfuscating, inspirational monoliths of iconhood. At the time, I wondered why Beyoncé wasn’t there, feeling she was the only hope to get people excited: she, I thought, was the only pop star who’d transcended the standards of pop-politicization and made a truly nuanced work that was both pop and art. But there was a reason. Beyoncé was part of the Clinton campaign’s final act, the one that should’ve sealed the deal — that should’ve shown Clinton’s attention to both POC and young voters — that is, if pop culture really were as powerful as we believe it to be. The question is why I had to think, during the DNC, “if only that one powerful pop star were here, maybe we’d win the election.”

For, the endorsements of the vast majority of artists and pop icons did not win Clinton the election. (Though it did win her the popular vote — and the very fact that Trump is accepting a presidency on behalf of the “people” via a system made to keep the people’s votes in check is immensely telling of the fraudulence of his vision). On one side, there was a villain, and the Democrats, on the other side, tried to use pop culture to depict a hero to fight him. The problem is that, despite the world and the human brain being things of great nuance, Trump is one of the closest things we’ve seen to an actual movie villain winning an election; Hillary is a legitimate, experienced politician who’s backed, enabled, and started some violent things and cannot cohesively contend with the pop cultural portraiture of inspiration that was being made of her. The democratic institution thought they didn’t need a Bernie Sanders — or anyone whose image cohered entirely with their policies — because, through a light, pop cultural, diluted version of intersectional feminism, they could appeal to the sides of us that consume bloggy inspiration in the form of short “news items” about pop stars singing ballads for politicians. Celebrities can bring awareness and new audiences to causes; but they cannot be the be-all, end-all.

The day Trump was nominated, I felt the overwhelming weight of the seeming futility of so many songs and spectacles about empowerment in this election, the mass grave of these propagandistic anthems and PSAs written for the mainstream democratic cause. And that’s just pop culture, but the same questions now have to be asked of “high” art, in part because art, like politics, has been coalescing more and more with the realm of pop culture. In the day following the election, I heard the sentiment, “art is the best way to fight” being uttered a few times, and this gave me pause, because it reminded me of the pervasive pop-culturizing of the election. Art is transcendent and wonderful: but it is indirect. Such an aggrandizement of something that works in the realm of symbols feels, again, misplaced, and one of the many aspects that was a part of the problem here: the obscuring of the actual dangers in front of us.

As someone who cherishes art and pop culture (and who’s more comfortable as an artist than as a critic), I think the desire to attempt to devote love and anxiety and trauma and pain and everything else into a work that speaks truths about the nature of things like love and anxiety and trauma and pain is art’s amazing form of proof that people can reflect on their own existence and role in society, in ways more elevated than mere conversation or knee-jerk thought. In an election that feels like the whole country went brain-dead and forgot what empathy is, art and its appreciation are proof that it still pervades human potential, if right now — and historically — it’s been prone to disheartening bouts of dormancy. I couldn’t agree more with something former Flavorwire Editor in Chief Judy Berman said on social media — something very simple that you may have even heard before, but that hit exactly the right note of recognition of art’s value without aggrandizing it to be more than what it is, because what it is is quite enough: “Art is the best argument we have that there’s hope for humanity.” It is cannot exist on its own as activism or political discourse, but it is the hope that can inspire people to keep going.

Making and consuming art are not active, and even less so are making and consuming pop culture. Art as protest has major limits. In the next few years, I’m going to try to stay focused on aiming my anger not at these symbols (though I’ll still critique and analyze them), because so doing is the equivalent of screaming at a mannequin, but rather making it of some kind of direct use. We can use art, and make art, as a means to better understand what’s going on around us right now. But when it comes to making and consuming art and pop culture with political bents, we should urge ourselves and others not to end it there, and not to get so caught up in the realm of symbols as to see what’s acting beyond them. Joining groups, being vocal, and supporting people who’ve been put in need through this destructive new addition to the human timeline is key.

Listening to music in the past few days has reminded of the potential beauty of this self-destructive species. Anohni’s Hopelessness, for example, as a work of persistent sonic beauty and lyrical indictment of the human species at the dawn of the Anthropocene and robotized warfare, managed be a lyrical testament to humanity’s callousness while, in simply existing, being a testament to empathy. I’m happy I’ve had this devastating album to reflect on; that is art; art creates reflection through symbols.

And in the next few years, it’ll become increasingly clear that our interactions with symbols needs to also be translated to interacting, more vigorously, with realities, in order for those symbols to have meant anything at all.