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Popular Culture & Politics

Mirrors and Shapers of Images

Popular culture—the music, movies, and stories that we hear and see in the mass media every day of our lives—plays an important role in American social life. Many of the words and images generated and marketed by the “pop culture” industry attempt to reflect the realities of American life and frequently help shape those realities. In some cases, images and sounds from pop culture are relevant to the way we see and think about government and politics.

For example, over the past 85 years, Hollywood has produced many films that use conspiracies as a central plotline. Spies and spy rings were the focus of some early conspiracy-based films. Alfred Hitchcock, later best known for such suspense thrillers as Psycho and The Birds, began his career by directing spy movies such as The Man Who Knew Too Much and 39 Steps in the 1930s. By the 1950s, film conspiracies took the form of alien invasions from outer space (e.g., the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and a decade later the focus turned to government conspiracies. The plot for Seven Days in May (1964) centered on a conspiracy by military leaders to take over the U.S. government, and the 1967 spy spoof The President’s Analyst featured a similar plot undertaken by the telephone company. The conspiracy thriller genre took a more serious turn in the 1970s with the release of films like All the President’s Men (1976), an examination of the real-life conspiracy behind Nixon’s cover-up of the Watergate break-in.

In the 1990s, Oliver Stone carried on the legacy of conspiracy films with his controversial JFK (1991) and the 1995 release Nixon. Formulaic action films like Mission Impossible (1996) and thrillers like A Few Good Men (1992) featured plotlines based on government conspiracies and cover-ups. The 2005 film Syriana explored the covert ties between the government and oil companies doing business in the Middle East, and many of the “superhero” films of recent years, such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) have a conspiracy as plot drivers. Conspiracies were also central to several popular television shows of the 1990s and 2000s such as X-Files, Babylon 5, 24, and Prison Break

Popular music has also mirrored the politics of the day—and at times has actually taken the lead in trying to influence and shape political action. In 1939, jazz and blues singer Billie Holiday released “Strange Fruit,” which put to music a poem about the horrors of racist lynchings in the South. Woody Guthrie’s tunes from the 1930s such as “This Land Is Your Land” and songs by Pete Seeger such as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” became anthems for the protest movements of the 1960s. Both of these songs made it to the top of the Billboard charts in 1962, and Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” sold millions of copies. The music itself became a political force as these and other popular “hits”—from the Plastic Ono Band’s “Give Peace a Chance” to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio”—were heard again and again at civil rights and antiwar rallies over the next decade.

In the aftermath of 9/11, popular music emerged as one of the major vehicles through which Americans were able to deal with the emotional scars left by the attacks. Some songs, like Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American),” gave expression to the renewed sense of patriotism that came to the surface immediately after the tragic events. Other releases, like Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll,” celebrated the heroism of some of those who lost their lives in the attacks, and Bruce Springsteen’s 2002 song “Empty Sky” alluded to the personal feelings of loss and anger felt by many. More recently, a number of political songs have been released in response to the controversies related to the War on Terror, and several of them—including Pearl Jam’s “Worldwide Suicide,” Green Day’s “Holiday,” Rise Against’s “Audience of One,” and John Mayer’s Grammy-winning “Waiting for the World to Change”—have received considerable airplay.

Music also played a role in the Occupy movement of 2011. Launched as Occupy Wall Street in September 2011, the movement spread quickly using “We are the 99%” as its slogan. The general theme of the protests was to focus attention on growing inequality and the need to reduce the influence of corporations in American (and global) politics and society. For its “soundtrack,” however, the movement relied on music drawn from previous protests and with a few exceptions (e.g., Makana’s “We Are the Many,” Ry Cooder’s “No Banker Left Behind,” and Everlast’s “I Get By”) did not develop an identifiable “melody.”*

As we will demonstrate in similar feature boxes for all other chapters, popular culture has always played a major role in reflecting and shaping public opinion, political activity, and even the development of governmental institutions in our nation. It is important that we recognize the role that popular culture plays in our political lives; today, the music, movies, and words we see or hear are major sources of the images and myths we have about government and politics.

*See James C. McKinley, Jr., “At the Protests, the Message Lacks a Melody, New York Times, October 19, 2011, p. C1. For a general overview of the role popular music has played in protests, see Dorian Lynskey, 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day (New York: Ecco, 2011).

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