Jack Solomon

Politics and Popular Culture

Blog Post created by Jack Solomon Expert on Sep 28, 2017

One of the most common objections from students whose instructors use popular culture as a basis for teaching writing and critical thinking skills in their classes is that it (pop culture) "is only entertainment," and that any attempt to think critically about it is "reading something into it" that isn't there.   Well, I think that the results of the latest round of Emmy Awards should finally put an end to any such complaints, because the sweeping triumphs of The Handmaid's Tale and Saturday Night Live have made it quite clear that the entertainment industry is now a direct participant in American politics.

 

This is a point that has been stated explicitly in every edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. (including, of course, the 9th edition, due out in a couple of weeks), in which students are taught that the traditional line between entertainment and everyday life has been so diminished that it could be said that we live in an "entertainment culture," in which all of our activities, including the political process, are required to be entertaining as well.  The blurring of this line does not simply refer to entertainers who have become successful politicians (like Ronald Reagan, Al Franken, and, um, Donald Trump), but to the way that television shows like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show have become major players in American electoral politics.

 

Lest the recent results at the Emmy's give the idea that the politicization of entertainment is a one-way street, navigated solely by entertainments and entertainers on the left, the same thing is going on on the right as well, and this is something that cultural analysts often miss, pretty simply because those entertainers do not tend to be part of the taste culture of cultural analysts.  Of course, it isn't only cultural analysts who have neglected the place of what I'll call the "ent-right" in American politics: by relying virtually exclusively on the support of entertainers like Beyonce´ and Lena Dunham—not to mention the crew at SNL and Jon Stewart—Hillary Clinton completely miscalculated the power of those entertainers who appeal to the voters who voted for Donald Trump.  The results of this miscalculation are hardly insignificant.

 

To give you a better idea of just how American entertainment is now parsing on political grounds, I'll provide a link to a New York Times feature article that includes fifty maps of the United States geographically showing which television programs are viewed in which regions of the country.  Referred to as a "cultural divide" in the article, what is revealed is equally a political divide.  So striking are the differences in television viewership that it would behoove future presidential election pollsters to ask people not who they are going to vote for (a question that the 2016 election appears to demonstrate is one that people do not always answer honestly) but which television programs they watch (or what kind of music they listen to, etc.. Who knows what the outcome of the 2016 election would have been if Hillary Clinton had a prominent country music icon on her side).

 

In short, popular cultural semiotics isn't merely something for the classroom (though it can begin there); it is essential to an understanding of what is happening in this country and of what is likely to happen.  And one has to look at everything, not only one's own favorite performers.  Because the purpose of analyzing entertainment is not to be entertained: it is to grasp the power of entertainment.

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