How Fan Culture Is Swallowing Democracy
September 11, 2019 7:25 PM   Subscribe

We are witnessing a great convergence between politics and culture, values and aesthetics, citizenship and commercialism. Here, civic participation is converted seamlessly into consumer habit. Political battles are waged through pop songs and novelty prayer candles and evocative emoji. Elizabeth Warren is cast as a “Harry Potter” character and Kamala Harris is sliced into a reaction GIF. This is democracy reimagined as celebrity fandom, and it is now a dominant mode of experiencing politics. posted by Ahmad Khani (36 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm actually fairly certain that this is not a dominant mode of experiencing politics, but rather is a pressure release valve while experiencing politics. It's straight-faced parody taken to the point of British dryness. There are no statistics offered which say this is a dominant mode of "experiencing politics", whatever that means. It offers up a Know Your Meme sort of background on 1 thing each about 9 candidates, that's all.

It's interesting, as I (even as a twitter user) had never encountered any of these things before, nor reporting about these in any media I'm exposed to before this moment, but apparently for this author it's A Thing. *shrug* They all seemed like vague online versions of lesser SNL skits to me. You know, in a different medium not television.
posted by hippybear at 8:12 PM on September 11 [48 favorites]


Just as a quick sidebar: Everlast was also the lead guy in House of Pain!
posted by Chrysostom at 8:18 PM on September 11 [10 favorites]


It’s extremely annoying for a news organization that should be setting the tone for the coverage of candidates to instead throw up its hands and say “I guess we’ll just go along with the twitter kids on this! Wink wink!”

They’re basically saying, “Remember when Hillary dabbed? Remember when Obama ordered Dijon mustard on his sandwich? Remember when Kerry windsurfed? Remember when Al Gore didn’t say he invented the Internet? Yeah, that’s how we’re covering this election too, bitches!”
posted by ejs at 8:35 PM on September 11 [37 favorites]


Sanders is using Cardi B’s celebrity, too, but his attitude toward that celebrity feels agnostic. In the video, he treats her not like a star but like a constituent. His very distance from pop culture allows him to create credible pop objects of his own.

This is a really good summary of why Bernie is so appealing, he's never pretending to know someone better than he does. Reminds me of one time Courtney Love was on I think Letterman and she mentioned that Al Gore came up to her once and said he was a big fan of hers. And her response was "name a song". That's a trap most politicians would get themselves in to but Bernie would not.
posted by Space Coyote at 8:37 PM on September 11 [18 favorites]


Remember when Republicans covered themselves in purple Band-Aids and mocked Kerry's Purple Heart, awarded in combat? Oh, and spent the previous years screaming at anybody about how they hated the troops?

There is nothing new under the sun.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 8:38 PM on September 11 [15 favorites]


Blaming twitter for the media continuing to be vapid and shitty about things like windsurfing, on Twitter, which is cutting through that crap and actually spreading memes that are viral because they are insightful is missing the mark I think.
posted by Space Coyote at 8:39 PM on September 11 [3 favorites]


Guy Debord on this banalisation of both celebrities and politicians (in 1968):
Stars — spectacular representations of living human beings — project this general banality into images of permitted roles. As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations that they actually live. The function of these celebrities is to act out various lifestyles or sociopolitical viewpoints in a full, totally free manner. They embody the inaccessible results of social labor by dramatizing the by-products of that labor which are magically projected above it as its ultimate goals: power and vacations — the decision-making and consumption that are at the beginning and the end of a process that is never questioned. On one hand, a governmental power may personalize itself as a pseudo-star; on the other, a star of consumption may campaign for recognition as a pseudo-power over life. But the activities of these stars are not really free and they offer no real choices.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 8:46 PM on September 11 [22 favorites]


Looking through the... article? Performance art? that the NYT put together for this, I can’t help by think back to what that wise man once said:

I used to be with it, but then they changed what “it” was, and what I’m with isn’t “it” anymore, and what’s “it” is weird and scary to me. And it’ll happen to you!
posted by Ghidorah at 8:48 PM on September 11 [19 favorites]


I agree that some of this stuff is annoying -- it's nice that people can be excited about RBG, personally I'm profoundly depressed that reproductive freedom depends on the continued well-being of an octogenarian cancer survivor -- but we can't be that surprised that there's an intersection of celebrity and democracy. If you want people to vote for you, they have to know who you are. And if they know who you are, that's going to spark other comparisons. This doesn't seem unnatural or new. If memes feel like they're going into overdrive right now, it's just a reflection of how more people are paying more attention to a part of the election than usual.

(We can also give people a break on the Harry Potter thing! It's not very interesting, but Potterverse has been very popular for two decades. Referencing Harry Potter is no worse than invoking Star Wars.)
posted by grandiloquiet at 9:35 PM on September 11 [6 favorites]


Certainly you should not consider my opinion on rap or hip hop useful in distinguishing what is actually good, as I certainly wouldn’t know how to recognize that, but as far as rap songs by white dudes that I had to listen to because they were on the radio in the late 90s/early aughts go, Everlast’s hit “What It’s Like” was one of my favorites. It had a nice message if nothing else.

When I was born, a bad actor had already been president for three years. The idiots who elected him went on to forget most of what he actually did and also canonize him as some kind of saint of the conservative movement, even though by all accounts for half of his presidency he was nearly as senile as the current president and his wife ran the whole show behind the scenes in a way that none of the fuckers who worship the man’s memory would ever accept if it had been public. The current president, a two bit mobster con man masquerading as a real estate dealer who got lucky enough to parley his endless bullshit into a bad reality show, is not just senile but also insane, and the manner the New York Times reported on him and on Clinton leading up to the election is a key factor in his ridiculously narrow victory, because it was so ridiculous and so narrow that every factor was a key factor. But the New York Times wants to whine about politics being corrupted by fan culture now?

Fuck off idiots. I love how this is like half paywalled, and the unpaywalled half is just a series of almost but not quite scolding, but definitely bewildered, banal observations on how the kids these days are relating to politicians. Do the pay walled bits make this uninspired run of vague kvetching about the internet (broken up by weird headers that look like they were designed by a New York Times editor who hasn’t used the internet since MySpace was the hot new thing) have any sort of point or insight?
posted by Caduceus at 9:42 PM on September 11 [29 favorites]


Not really.
posted by hippybear at 9:48 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


I'm sorry, how is this brand new? Any stroll back through British politics way back when has dashing captains and war criminals heroes being pushed into politics because they had avid fan followings. Someone better versed than me in the Classics should be able to pull up some great Roman stories because I know I've read propaganda political stories and thought that is just fandom with money and swords.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:00 PM on September 11 [19 favorites]


I agree that politics culture is becoming fan culture, but I think it's much more like sports fandom than it is like Potter fandom.
posted by escabeche at 10:06 PM on September 11 [11 favorites]


Just as a quick sidebar: Everlast was also the lead guy in House of Pain!

Also some form of athletic gear, if my memory isn't entirely befuddled.
posted by hippybear at 10:21 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]


Boxing gear, chiefly gloves and shorts.
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:41 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]


weird headers that look like they were designed by a New York Times editor who hasn’t used the internet since MySpace was the hot new thing

More like a NY Mag intern with instructions to “make it look like John Bois but also vaporwave and very meme”
posted by snuffleupagus at 10:44 PM on September 11 [8 favorites]


Boxing gear, chiefly gloves and shorts.

Hemingway's other really-short story told the tale of a disgruntled pugilist.
posted by sylvanshine at 11:49 PM on September 11 [15 favorites]


Everlast is way more interesting than this article, which is the New York Times fretting that their preferred mode of experiencing politics, vaguely centrist disinterest, is not shared by the vast majority of the populace. For further evidence of this, consider Bret Stephens, a man with no idea what Republicans actually think who nevertheless feels as if he does, and who sees continued employment as the New York Times because if they hired an actual intellectual figurehead of Trumpism, anything they did receive would be unprintable.

So, Everlast! He was an actual East Coast rapper, back before white rap was respectable and therefore garbage. He most got good around the time he pivoted to Irish pride with House of Pain (you've heard Jump Around), but kept around in the background. This video by one of the few early 2010 internet video producers to keep his insufferable gimmick, Todd in the Shadows, goes into it a little more.
posted by Merus at 12:07 AM on September 12 [7 favorites]


> weird headers that look like they were designed by a New York Times editor who hasn’t used the internet since MySpace was the hot new thing

I hate to break it to you but it's back in vogue, thanks to internet nostalgia.
posted by reductiondesign at 12:17 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]


personally I'm profoundly depressed that reproductive freedom depends on the continued well-being of an octogenarian cancer survivor

QF being succinctly perfect. Damn.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 1:20 AM on September 12 [9 favorites]


I know, right? Remember how anyone with a name was recast as Greek half-god or popular Roman emperor during the French revolution? So shallow and annoying.
posted by Ashenmote at 1:26 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]


I'd say this is nothing new. The 50s had dueling commercial style jingles: "I like Ike" versus "Adlai, We Love You Madly." I think at the time people complained the candidates were being sold like Frigidaires, or whatever.

The '60s had JFK as King Arthur in Camelot, after the famed early televised debate in 1960. And Vaughn Meader's record where he did JFK impersonations sold astonishingly well. Certainly a consumer object, seemingly bought by both sides of the aisle. Not a serious political critique.

I'd argue Goldwater, LBJ, Nixon, and Ford were in a relatively divided era, so maybe we saw fewer positive comparisons, but there was no shortage of broad satire and caricature, including comedy records and books that still pop up in thrift stores. I mean, Nixon is *still* being mocked in popular culture today.

Carter ran as an honest, outsider yeoman farmer, a cliche that goes back to Washington and Jefferson.

Reagan was pop culture through and through: a movie actor who ran as a cowboy. He was a villain in innumerable punk songs and even band names. He played off of Star Wars imagery by calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire," and he was derisively called Bonzo after a monkey he was in a movie with.

1988 saw Dukakis as Snoopy. George HW Bush will be forever remembered by Dana Carvey's portrayal on SNL ("wouldn't be prudent"). The infamous Willie Horton ad worked in part because news broadcasts had focused on bringing sordid reports of urban crime and fire to the suburbs as entertainment.

Clinton was the amiable fat guy who loved McDonald's and played sax, and the hip young Boomer who used Fleetwood Mac in his campaign. This was perhaps the peak soundbite era: read my lips; a new world order; kinder and gentler; it's the economy, stupid; I feel your pain. That was said to be bad.

For some reason I deeply remember from my childhood seeing a mug with song lyrics mocking Clinton to the tune of the Beverly Hillbillies. The whole Lewinsky affair is inextricably linked with Leno and Letterman at their peak relevance. Also, right wing political talk radio blended politics and entertainment and became hugely influential.

Gore and Bush weren't that popular, and certainly nobody compared them to superheroes, but Bush tried to cultivate the cowboy image. And there was anti-Bush merchandise *everywhere* in any liberal town during his whole presidency. Pro-Bush merch seemed to overlap with tacky 9/11 memorial stuff ("These colors won't run!")
posted by smelendez at 2:27 AM on September 12 [13 favorites]


Bush tried to cultivate the cowboy image

There was a lot of “clearing the brush on my Texas ranch”
posted by sallybrown at 4:06 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]


I admit to owning a "Republicans for Voldemort" bumper sticker.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 5:39 AM on September 12 [4 favorites]


There's this somewhat pernicious, ahistorical thing where elites (from all political contingencies) assume that both democracy and politics were somehow a purely intellectual, emotionless, logical affair until those people showed up with their emotions and memes and all...

...it has literally been this way since the election of noted war hero and mythic legend George Washington.

The only thing that changes is the definition of "those people".
posted by davros42 at 6:13 AM on September 12 [10 favorites]


In defense of the graphic designer, imagine being given this prompt with a deadline.
posted by captain afab at 6:17 AM on September 12 [6 favorites]


This piece reeks of Very Online Person mistakenly believing their Twitter feed is in any way a reflection of real life. A think piece on what hot memes your follows pinched off in the last five years is just about the most insipid, tedious thing I will experience today.

No, this is not the dominant mode of experiencing politics. In fact, the people who experience politics in this way tend to participate the least.
posted by FakeFreyja at 6:22 AM on September 12 [18 favorites]


YES. What FakeFreyja said. THEY DON'T VOTE. And as much as I am used to being let down by the Times (which full disclosure I often love) this kind of clickbaity hot-take fake journalism is disappointing to say the least. Do better, as they say.
posted by hilberseimer at 6:46 AM on September 12


I think perhaps this speaks to people''s inclination to look for archetypes, with all of their associated characteristcs (positive and negative)... the hero, the genius, the false friend, the show off...
By assigning an archetype in the form of a current pop-culture icon/celebrity, I think people are subconsciously whittling the complexity of politics and its personalities with their many motivations, into a more manageable form.

When politics is reframed into these commonly stories and characters, I think it has the effect of making politics more accessible to everyone, even folks who don't follow politics. It's an easy point of entry - people like stories.

There's many election results that can be seen as underdog vs. Fat cat; maverick vs. Establishment, etc. As a politician, you need to be aware of WHO is assigning your archetype, and where they're coming with that impression. Because, it ultimately determines whether you'll be elected. You'd better hope you can skew it in your favour, before it becomes part of the narrative.

(And with the democratizing effects of the Internet, it is a lot harder for politicians to pick their own roles... everyday people have an incredible amount of power in this regard, by what memes they spread)
posted by NorthernAutumn at 6:55 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]


Blaming twitter for the media continuing to be vapid and shitty about things like windsurfing, on Twitter, which is cutting through that crap and actually spreading memes that are viral because they are insightful is missing the mark I think.

I wasn’t blaming Twitter, I was blaming the vapid and shitty New York Times.
posted by ejs at 6:56 AM on September 12 [4 favorites]


I think perhaps this speaks to people''s inclination to look for archetypes, with all of their associated characteristcs (positive and negative)... the hero, the genius, the false friend, the show off...
By assigning an archetype in the form of a current pop-culture icon/celebrity, I think people are subconsciously whittling the complexity of politics and its personalities with their many motivations, into a more manageable form.


Many of us (maybe most of us, maybe all of us) tend to process the world and our lives by shaping our various experiences into one or a few coherent stories. I read a book years ago that looked at opening and closing arguments in trials as folk tales for juries and it was a great perspective. Mainstream pop culture gives people story frames through which they can examine somewhat confusing or apparently meaningless world events. “This reminds me of . . . .” It helps us feel there is meaning and purpose to these developments and our lives in general. There was a great Ask a bit ago about Where is our Bob Dylan? that to me was not just about a popular singer but more about a symbol or inspiration that people use to tell the story of the 60s in the US. Harry Potter is the best comparison I can think of, in the sense that many people have borrowed its language, plot, characters, and symbols as a way to tell the story of the present day (and not just in the US but all around the world).
posted by sallybrown at 7:13 AM on September 12 [4 favorites]


After you've been around the sun a whole lot of times, one starts to get tired of things like the political circus and pop culture labeled as pop culture. One wonders about what "All the News That's Fit to Print" means, anyway. One wants to just sit in a nice chair and read a good book.
posted by kozad at 7:17 AM on September 12 [4 favorites]


(And with the democratizing effects of the Internet, it is a lot harder for politicians to pick their own roles... everyday people have an incredible amount of power in this regard, by what memes they spread)

There is no power in these memes (which is a very 2019 sentence). If you could conduct a perfect poll of every voting-age American on whether they have ever even read the term "Hermione Harris" and whether Bernie Sanders does or does not listen to Cardi B, I would bet a lot of hard money that less than a hundredth of one percent even knew what the hell was even being asked. The average voter doesn't know or care enough about this stupid shit to begin to understand it, much less be influenced by it.
posted by FakeFreyja at 7:18 AM on September 12 [10 favorites]


::sigh::
Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the committee, said Democrats were trying to make it appear that they were toughening their stance on impeachment.

“The Judiciary Committee has become a giant Instagram filter,” Collins quipped. “To make it appear that something’s happening that is not.”
posted by katra at 9:12 AM on September 12


FakeFreyja: agreed, the power I am thinking of isn't necessarily in terms of individual creators influencing fellow voters... I am thinking more of the impact these visuals have on the election campaign teams themselves. When I've worked elections, we were hyper-aware of all media/imagery that even had a whiff of our candidate connected. We would then take steps to counteract, or highlight that narrative, depending on whether or not it was favourable (or if it was just neutral chaos). Sometimes, online posters pick on some nuance/follible that gives the campaign insight on candidate strengths/weaknesses that we hadn't really noticed yet. It's often a very useful flag.

From my perspective, the power is in the influence that the meme makers have on the campaign workers, which in turn impacts the election narrative/new videos/media releases/buzzwords/etc., that ultimately reach voters in more broadly-reaching forms.
posted by NorthernAutumn at 8:31 AM on September 13 [2 favorites]


So, Everlast! He was an actual East Coast rapper, back before white rap was respectable and therefore garbage. He most got good around the time he pivoted to Irish pride with House of Pain (you've heard Jump Around), but kept around in the background.

He also teamed up with Santana for what is my personal favorite track from Santana's Supernatural album. I nevertheless still am a little puzzled that that's the name that got dropped in this article.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:41 AM on September 13 [2 favorites]


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