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THE SOCIO-POLITICAL PROTEST IN POPULAR CULTURE

Kalina Daskalova

web

It’s August 1, 1971 the first benefit concert of its magnitude in world history takes place at Madison Square Garden, New York initiated by George Harrison. The super group included Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr. The concert raises US$243,418.50 for Bangladesh, which was administered by UNICEF. Sales of the album and DVD continue to benefit the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF. There are many exceptional sides to this event apart from being the first of its kind and proportions .The first live appearance for George Harrison since the breakup of The Beatles, the first Clapton appearance since heroin addiction deteriorated. He famously passed out on stage and was revived to continue the show, the first Bob Dylan stage appearance since his period of seclusion. Two years back, in 1969, Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix delivers a historic performance - a highly-tensed rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, which becomes one of the defining moments of the 1960s.

Since the 1970s American musicians touch and sing upon serious political issues. The Vietnam War, racism and bigotry, environmental crisis, all kinds of social injustice call for action. Benefit concerts ("The Concert for Bangladesh", "Live Aid", "Farm Aid", "Live 8") or individual hits (Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas" and USA for Africa's "We Are the World"), large-scale campaigns like "Make Poverty History"/"ONE" still continue to raise millions of funds and the awareness of billions of people worldwide. Radio hits such as Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" or Lennon’s "Give Peace a Chance" marked the artists’ presence as something more than mere entertainment.

Those were mostly black sheep - druggies or alcohol abusers, most often both, towering as symbolic counter-culture icons igniting the masses, given a civil license to project the power of the people onstage, to air it globally. Visionary leaders stood up, realizing the limitless power of the people’s culture, the popular culture that was just gathering speed in the 1960’s. Music and popular culture in general have been widely used throughout this century to convey social dissatisfaction, civil rights demands, war crimes, famine disasters, environmental threats, labor unrest, and terrorism defiance.

The aftermath of WW II saw the every-day people stepping forward. The fifties and the sixties are prominent with the Civil Rights Movement, the bright presence of Martin Luther King and John Kennedy. The seventies traded the Vietnam War for love, guns for flowers, in the eighties Eastern Europe was blown by the wind of change that swept the Berlin Wall. The world was willing to act and turn the course of things. The post-modern era branded by global aggression, dismembered, in tatters, rose in a unique opportunity to engage the powerful vehicle of popular culture in its quest for improvement. With its accessibility the unimpeded flow of information aided the awakening of collective consciousness. Popular culture landed as liberating and empowering - with people on the streets voicing their needs and visions. It traveled faster than elite culture, reached deeper than academic lectures, negotiated better than political speeches. Its flexibility allows for adaptation to the specificities of the particular time and a universal influence, affecting people, cutting across classes. The private was becoming public, the inner world was externalized. McLuhan’s "The medium is the message" is ever so valid - human activity as shaped by the media, triggered, even irritated to face the ugly facts or people as manipulated into believing in illusionary feeling of change and a better world. The tables are turning -the tendency nowadays is that politics actually uses the mechanisms and of the entertaining practices.

Pop-culture forms acquire unique status and values beyond their primary function to entertain; they build up on a higher level that adds to their denotational and connotational dimension. Aside from the symbolic contents of their messages they themselves become symbolic of a particular movement, cause, time or event, forging an extraordinary connection, a blend between the public and the personal that is reverse. The machinery set to rework the personal into the public switches backwards - with the pop-protest we witness the public being internalized to the effect of hitting the deepest chord in each human being’s strive for a peaceful, just, and harmonious existence. Popular protest also finds solid justifications for its nature in M. Fishwick’s "Seven Pillars of Popular Culture": the audience acting as "Demos" being both a target of the message and its initiator, they express themselves, the shared beliefs and attitudes ("Ethos"), the "Hero" is either the rowdy, rugged rock stars or the saint-like visionary figure like that of Martin Luther King Jr. and John Kennedy. "Theos" - be it godly commandments like "love thy neighbour as thyself" endorsed by the hippie movement or the graffiti effusion of "Clapton is God". "Logos" - the word comes with profound song lyrics and inflaming speeches, "Eicon" - through the means of television millions of people not only welcome their heroes in their homes but also humanity’s shameful helplessness. "Mythos" is omnipresent and everlasting - depicting a utopian and peaceful planet - a state to be achieved by the joined efforts of each and one of us.

Pop culture protest pushes to construct a desired reality from the TV screen or the concert stage. Negotiation and dialogue in between music and dance seem far less inhibiting. Most often derogatively described as feminine, when it comes down to protests it brings out the best of the feminine tactics for achieving a goal - patience and perseverance, determination and passion, strength and balance, empathy and compassion.

Popular culture as the new politics is looked down upon some as too flashy, outspoken and star-spangled. The main critiques fall on this type of activism as a consumer generated one. This beautifying of politics may have become far too feminine for some tastes. The provocation for resistance is not the direct reaction to a social injustice but the artificially spurred one, the media being the extension of the self as put by M. McLuhan, creating an illusion of participation. Now all is put on the market - social stances and activism equal purchasing power - by acquiring the merchandise products accompanying protest campaigns, be it a ticket for a benefit concert, a music record, a slogan t-shirt, a coloured wristband. It’s turns out to be the sell-yourself market principle applied even to one’s attitudinal position and opinions. Campaigns grow ever so commercialized involving all the possible media (printed, TV, electronic) employing high-paid celebrities basking in the humanistic halo of some extra-publicity. Stereotypes are being re-enforced - the poor countries and their people who cannot make it by themselves, the myth of the great American brother that would come to the rescue of the feeble and less fortunate ones, the demonization of politicians and the blind fondness of celebrity activists.

"Pop culture has replaced activism", cries Franck Chi seeing apathy and unwillingness to act in today Americans. "To so many in our generation, civil disobedience is a historical reference retired to the prose of Thoreau and the photographs of King and Gandhi." (Chi 2006). He points the lack of inspirational political figures such as Kennedy who "demanded of willing youths that their desire for expression be directed toward social change." In today’s reality President Bush claims "that our national duty was to shop" after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Is ours indeed a generation of "cold consumers", of latent activists. Is our generation so indicative of the consumer consciousness that it requires of every personal action to produce a personal profit or at least a cool, trendy image? Chi gives the following example: "When Paris Hilton posed for Diddy's "Vote or Die!" campaign in 2004, a reporter asked her whether she was registered to vote. She had no idea she had to, but she thought the shirt looked hot, and that she looked hot in one."

And is it indeed a clichéd Rolling Stone boomer-idea, that pop culture managed to stop a war, that musicians once had power as galvanizing figures". Some still believe that "the relevance of pop’s almighty protest song is again worth investigating" and look on "commercial entertainment as a credible tool of sociopolitical change" (Friend 2003). It is worth investigating for sure. The number of articles written on the topic and the interest in the documentaries researching it prove that. "Since the early 20th century, musicians have come together in the name of human rights to fight war, hunger, corruption, oppression, AIDS, apartheid, and Third World debt. From single songs passed by word of mouth to star-studded, multimillion-dollar benefits, activists from Joe Hill to Bob Geldof have spoken up by singing out, drawing together disparate groups of people with unforgettable verse and universal harmony. GET UP, STAND UP serves as a timely reminder of the potent role music has played in a century's worth of political protest." (Chuck D 2005) reads the intro on the Internet site of the TV documentary "Get Up, Stand Up: The Story of Pop and Protest" with host Chuck D (a "Public Enemy" member and a notorious pop-activist himself), the title referring to Bob Marley’s protest song Get, Up Stand Up. In the program protest songs are being historically and analytically evaluated, the importance of pop culture since the generation of the Vietnam conflict and before that is stressed upon, the rhetoric of black music is highlighted together with black separatism, gangsta rap.

 

"Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson

In its execution and formula, with the sermon-like quality of the rhythm, the speech-like rhetoric of the lyrics, the power of the gospel choir "Man in the Mirror" - Michael Jackson’s number-one hit released in 1988 bears strong resemblance to the protest songs of the civil rights movement. It’s enters the "Me-decade" of material gluttony as a product of the "King of Pop" who more than once has plunged into tacky issues of social and political injustice with his songs (The Earth Song, Black or White, We are the World). It is one of Jackson's most critically acclaimed songs. The rhythm is even and melodic punctuated by dramatic breaks in Jackson's passionate rendition of the harrowing lyrics (rumoured to be written in one night) composed by Glen Ballard, Siedah Garrett and Michael Jackson. The background vocals are prominent for the "Andrae Crouch Choir", which greatly contributed to its popularity. The use of Gospel choirs in pop songs at the time was introduced and popularized - a trend taken up by such artists as Mariah Carey or Madonna in "Like a Prayer".

The musical composition, the lyrics’ theme and structure of "Man in the Mirror" can be analyzed in the tradition of the protest songs pattern. The songs of the civil rights movement as "used to create unity, strength and identity" are looked into in the article "Protest Songs and Social Movements" on http://www.everything2.com. They work "by creating a "we" feeling that appeals to the psychological need for similarity to other humans" (Protest 2003). Citing R. Serge Denisoff the author of the study lists his five primary goals of the protest-propaganda song of persuasion: pointing to some problem in society, usually in emotional terms; presenting a solution to that problem in terms of action and a desired goal; reinforcing the value structure of individuals involved with the movement; attempting to recruit individuals by arousing outside sympathy and support; and creating moral unity and uniqueness in its world view. "Man in the Mirror" fits the categories - it tells of the soar wounds of modern society, sees the goal or solution in personal change first of all, pleads to the inherent humane values of the audience, aims at moving them to the point of reaction, relies on the unifying element of the dream for a better world in the heterogeneous listeners.

We have a simplified lyrics pattern, the emphatic chorus lines containing the message are repeated more than three times, a self-reflective image is projected "man in the mirror" which stands symbolically by the explicit "I’m" . The first lines are declarative: "I'm Gonna Make A Change,/ For Once In My Life/ It's Gonna Feel Real Good,/ Gonna Make A Difference/ Gonna Make It Right" revealing the problem and describing the situation as well as the speaker’s determination to alternate that. From the emotional peak when the choir joins in onwards the song makes a sudden turn with the urgency of the imperative clauses: " You Gotta Get It Right,/ You Got The Time/ You've Got To Stop It./ Yourself!/ I've Got To Make That Change,/ Today!" The last stanzas of the lyrics apply the syntactic mechanism of parallelism and even stronger and more abrupt imperativeness: "Stand Up! Stand Up!/ Stand Up!/ Stand Up And Lift/ Yourself, Now!/ Come On!/ You Know It!/ You Know It!/ You Know It!/ Make That Change!" reminiscent of Martin Luther King’s "Let freedom ring...".

The dramatic effect of protest songs exist in their subtle and yet powerful appeal. Key words describe the drama - "change", "time", "realize", "difference", etc. The audience is given a goal, something to accomplish - the value of success, challenge, unity function on an inspirational level.

The music video to "Man in the Mirror" is synchronized with the emotional charge of its music and lyrics. The first thing that captures the attention is that there is not any footage of Jackson singing (only some occasional pictures). It is like a documentary collage featuring footage of historic events loosely strung together, rather patched, sewn together to illustrate the concept not seeking coherence but ruthless manifestation. A gradation of feeling akin to the song’s development takes place.

The song opens with a minimalist introduction of the musical theme, the voice only being backed-up by a rhythm-following finger snapping - characteristic of Jackson songs but especially strong here as if resembling the simplicity of a heartbeat. The problem is ushered in- humanity’s indifference to social injustice, its flaws and wrong-doings. The pictures are bleak and dreary ones -famine, poverty, homelessness, unemployment, oppression, racism and segregation, injustice, the insanities of war, dictatorships, street violence, civil confrontation succeed each other in an escalating progression of intense violence and despair, interspersed with inclusions of bright figures highlighting the theme of sanctification and victimization (Martin Luther King, the Kennedy brothers, John Lennon).

The musical climax is marked by the inclusion of a gospel choir while the visual culmination explodes with the horror of nuclear power an actual explosion is shown and the Chernobyl disaster at the point where the key of the song shifts to a brightening footage expressive of hope and peace, picturing a positive take - progressive political leaders working for unity and agreement (Gorbachev, Lech Walesa), the budding results of mutual efforts for aiding the African continent ("USA for Africa"), again Martin Luther King Jr. King (who is the only one to be seen in all the three stages of the video pointing to his centrality in Jackson’s message ) , Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa.

The third section of song is a trailing coda visually enhanced by the emphasis on the potential, importance and strength of the common people - American values are put forward in the a child-rescue scene (success requires unity, the respect for policemen), the role of protestant religion, the impact of non-violent social protest, the beauty of the ethnic diversity in the future generation (children of different races playing together and hugging each other), the musician activists and their campaigns (Willie Nelson’s "Farm Aid", Bob Geldof’s "Live Aid") environmental causes. The final take zooms in the planet Earth from open space - a distanced view urging for appreciation of the privilege of life.

 

The US "ONE" Campaign

In April 2005, a commercial begins airing in the United States with a variety of celebrities supporting the "ONE Campaign" which is the American version of "Make Poverty History" - the British campaign waged to raise awareness and pressure governments into action to battle absolute poverty. Religious leaders (Pat Robertson and Frank Griswold) , singers (among them Bono, P. Diddy and Jewel), various actors (Brad Pitt, Susan Sarandon, Al Pacino) take part . At the end of the video Tom Hanks’ voiceover comes forth with the statement: "We're not asking for your money. We're asking for your voice." accentuating the fact that this is not a fund-raising initiative but one pleading for awareness.

The ONE Video

The ad is exquisitely shot, almost as if it were a sophisticated black and-white director video. But here the monochromic atmosphere is far cry from seeking the arty kind of impact. The black-white opposition functions on the basic level of simplicity and minimalism in tune with the occasion, purpose, and concept. The participants are dressed down in casual pure-white outfits; the background is toned down to a neutral unobtrusive grayish. All this setting sharply contrasts with the camera angle and the sharp precise rhythm of the text. A close-up frames the faces of the speakers, creating a feeling of involved intimacy, as if this was an eye-to-eye private conversation penetrating our personal space, invading it to engage us. No fashion statements or die-for make-up and hair-dos - the celebrity figure here stands for any given ordinary person but the special status helps to ensure a large television audience. At the same time the well-known faces speak of the power of common people enhancing the contrast - "a nurse, a teacher, a homemaker". The video is edited so that the text of the message comes in parts (each speaker uttering a small fragment of a sentence) which make up the whole. An interval of three seconds marks the death of a child from extreme poverty (in another of the campaign’s videos, these intervals are marked by the celebrities finger-snapping each three seconds without speaking, the text typed in black fonts against a white background) and the overall rhythm of speech grows hectic as it accumulates tension. The total length amounts to a minute, moreover, an impressive one. The time duration is even less than that of a music video so the task is even harder but the effect is greater - as if a flash of revelation passes before our eyes. "One person, one voice, one vote at a time" - the American myth of coping together is heavily exploited - the diversity of people united in the old tradition of "E Pluribus Unum".

The symbol of the campaign is a white cotton or plastic wristband - but is the act of sporting it real activism or is a symbolic stance that eventually turned into quite a hot trend for the summer of 2005. Criticism of the campaign affects also the western image and treatment of Africa- once more being patronized as the feeble retarded child in need of guidance and support. Is it justified to empower western educated people to interfere in societies they don’t know in depth? Is the problem with corrupted or weak governments in Africa taken into account? Are developed countries pursuing further interests like cultural hegemony or new markets? The abundance of celebrity spokespersons has raised the question of their motivation. Some consider their humanity as the next-in-line PR-mechanism to keep them in the public eye.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Chuck D 2005: Chuck D. About the Program. // Get up, Stand up. PBS, 09.2005 <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/getupstandup/about.html> (06.06.2007).

Jackson 1988: Jackson, Мichael. Man In The Mirror. CBS 651388-9. 1988.

McLuhan, Fiore 1967: McLuhan, Marshall & Fiore, Quentin. The medium is the massage. New York: Bantam Books. 1967.

Protest 2003: Protest Songs and Social Movements. // Everything2, Apr 28, 2003 <http://everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1456809> (06.06.2007).

Fishwick 1985: Fishwick, Marshall William. Seven pillars of popular culture. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Friends 2003: Your Friends At Stylus Magazine. // Stylusmagazine, 14.04.2003 <http://www.stylusmagazine.com/feature.php?ID=45 (06.06.2007).

Chi 2006: Chi, Frank. Pop culture has replaced activism. // The Bowdoin Orient, March 31, 2006 <http://orient.bowdoin.edu/orient/printer.php?date=2006-03-31&section=2&id=4> (06.06.2007).

 

REFERENCES

 

 

© Kalina Daskalova
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© E-magazine LiterNet, 06.06.2007, № 6 (91)