Pop culture can be useful when connected to politics if it inspires tangible action—but the two can be like fire and gasoline when combined in the wrong way.
In a world where the Kardashians and A$AP Rocky have been name-dropped during literal impeachment hearings, it's hard not to wonder if we're living in a simulation.
Of course everything about Donald Trump's regime has had a simulacra-like quality about it, as full of glitches as any beta website. The former reality TV star has often been called the "social media president," after all, and his prolific Twitter usage grows more surreal by the hour.
We've entered an era where pop culture, social media, and politics blur into each other, tangling in every aspect of our lives. In fact, as the Kardashian, Jay Leno, and A$AP Rocky name-drops reveal, the ties between figures in pop culture and politicians have never been stronger and more influential, able to influence actual policy and political decisions.
Bernie Sanders and Ariana Grande Unite
At the same time Trump is discussing the Kardashians in one of the most high-profile hearings of all time, one of Trump's most formidable opponents is making his own ties to certain pop culture deities. Yesterday, Bernie Sanders was photographed beaming with Ariana Grande, and Grande took to Instagram to voice her support. "MY GUY. thank you Senator Sanders for coming to my show, making my whole night and for all that you stand for !" She wrote on Twitter. "@headcountorg and i are doing our best to make you proud. we've already registered 20k+ young voters at my shows alone. also i will never smile this hard again promise."
Sanders responded, "I want to thank @ArianaGrande for not only being a wonderful entertainer, but also for being such an outstanding advocate for social justice. We must all be prepared – like Ariana has shown – to fight for everyone who is struggling. It was great to meet her in Atlanta last night."
MY GUY. thank you Senator Sanders for coming to my show, making my whole night and for all that you stand for !… https://t.co/RmHtEQfVh1— Ariana Grande (@Ariana Grande) 1574283357.0
The senator has shown abnormal acumen in terms of using pop culture to his advantage, which can't entirely be said of his primary challengers. Previously, he's aligned himself with Cardi B, Susan Sarandon, and the Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. While Hillary Clinton garnered the support of thousands of A-list celebrities to no avail and put on a show of performative allyship that wound up looking like loyalty to Hollywood elites, Sanders' choice of allies feels more purposeful and genuine.
Bernie x Cardi B www.youtube.com
Then again, in the eeriest way, the same might be said of Donald Trump. His clear allegiance to Kim Kardashian and Kanye West—both figures who provoke immense ire and loathing among the masses and who, like the worst of car crashes, are incredibly difficult to look away from—aligns well with Trump's general distaste for authority and reason.
We have good reason to question celebrity alliances, as they do seem like excellent marketing for both sides. Celebrities can benefit from appearing more politically engaged through alliances to politicians, and, of course, the latter can reap the adoration of massive fanbases through a few deep connections. In some ways, celebrities and politicians seem united by the sheer amount of money and power they both amass and use to run their platforms.
But there's a long tradition of art blending with political ideology and vice versa. After all, what are politicians and performers, if not master storytellers, capable of rallying hundreds of thousands of people? When has anything been separate from politics?
Political Art vs. Pop Culture Politics
Art has always been political, used as a way of disseminating ideas and ideologies. Pop culture, in particular, is a broad mode of communication between the masses and collective values and ideas. "'Pop-culture' does not belong to just the elites and it is not officially or ideologically acknowledged as the dominant culture any level," writes Ayush Banerjee, "yet its discourse has enormous significance in the formation of public attitudes and values, as well as a profound impact on both domestic and international affairs."
Politics has also always been a theatrical game, and pop culture icons have long endorsed candidates. John F. Kennedy had Frank Sinatra sing "High Hopes" during the 1960s. Nixon famously met Elvis; and then there was Ronald Reagan, who, like Trump, made his way from Hollywood to the Oval Office.
President And King TIME.com
But in a time when silence is widely equated to taking the position of the antagonist, there's never been a time when it's been so imperative for artists to develop political alliances, and vice versa. Similarly, politicians must rely on social media and its language to channel their campaigns, as being out-of-touch with the online world can tank you as quickly as a meme can go viral.
Are celebrity relationships influential and beneficial? "If a celebrity endorsement just benefits a politician looking to boost their profile and prove their cool, then it's a lame effort to manipulate fans with short attention spans," writes John Avlon on CNN. "But if Poliwood draws sustained attention to a real public policy problem, it can serve as a gateway to civic engagement and spur political action."
Overall, the general consensus seems to be that pop culture can be useful when connected to politics if it's linked to tangible action—but the two can be like fire and gasoline when combined in the wrong way. "Politicians are not celebrities; they do not deserve fawning worship," writes Mark E. Anderson. "They are public servants, who can and should be scrutinized, and must be held accountable for their actions."
Arguably, with the rise of #MeToo and cancel culture, celebrities are being held to higher standards than ever before (which isn't saying too much, but still). Perhaps the intermixing of politics and pop culture doesn't mean that the simulation is breaking. Maybe the walls between the worlds are just falling down.
In some cases, this intermixing of pop culture and politics leads to the kind of apocalyptic cognitive dissonance that's plagued the entire Trump impeachment hearing circus. On the other hand, seeing Ariana Grande and Bernie Sanders beam together—both so full of hope for a better world—feels like the beginning of something, and God knows we all need something to get us through the next 18 months.
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