The Politics of Popular Culture

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Given the affinity that the current Occupy Wall Street (or Wherever) movement has with many of the protest movements of the 1960s, I am minded to take a semiotic look here at the legacy of the counterculture and, more relevantly for this blog, the connections between popular culture and the New Left. It is a virtual truism to note the at least superficial leftist tendencies of popular music since the 1960s. We’re talking rock-and-roll here, not country/western. With the exception of such performers as that gun-slinging guitar slinger Ted Nugent, the pose, if not the actual politics, of the rock star is that of the “street-fighting man” (or woman: anyone for 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up”?). Having evolved from the countercultural positioning of the Beats (whose music of choice was jazz), the sound track of the 1960s and since has often expressed the voice of an American youth in dissent against the Establishment. Given the growth in importance of popular music over the past five decades, one might expect a concurrent political effect, a leaning to the left. But that hasn’t happened. Indeed, the country has shifted so far to the right that centrist Democrats like Clinton and Obama are regarded as left-wing radicals in many quarters. So the big question is, what happened on the way to the revolution? A key to answering this question lies in noting one of the fundamental contradictions around which American society has always been structured: the contradiction between our Puritan tradition of social conformism and sexual repression, on the one hand, and our secular tradition of individual liberty and personal expression, on the other. These two cultural tendencies have coexisted in an uneasy tension throughout our history, with one side or the other achieving dominance at various times. What we call “the Sixties,” for example, was in effect a rebellion against the strikingly Puritanical upswing in American culture during the 1950s, representing a youth-led swing of the pendulum toward a free-wheeling individualism that included a hedonistic celebration of pleasure and entertainment (sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll) as a major component in its development. Somewhat ironically, the hedonistic tendencies of the New Left sixties stand in stark contrast with the rather Puritanical tendencies of the Old Left, with its old-school connections to the early labor movement, the Progressive Era (which also brought us Prohibition), and pre-Stalinist socialism. The backlash against the sixties (which has helped produce the “red state/blue state” cultural divide) has stuck with Puritanism through and through, rallying around such “wedge issues” as abortion and gay rights. Popular culture, for its part, has been more or less on the side of the Cultural Revolution (if only because, in Thomas Frank’s words, the “commodification of dissent” can be highly profitable), but that hasn’t resulted in the marginalization of right-wing Puritanism. Quite the contrary. So again, what happened? Well, there is no easy or single answer. But one explanation can be seen in the different ways that the Right and the Left today rally their forces. The Left has Jon Stewart, Neil Young, Saturday Night Live, U2 (as elder statesmen at any rate), and Lady Gaga (in her own way a Left-tending entertainer), as well as countless others. The Right has figures like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, news preachers one might call them, who appeal to anger and outrage, not pleasure and humor. After all, Jon Stewart is just plain fun. Now, ask yourself which emotion is more conducive to stimulating the kind of uncomfortable sacrifices anyone has to make in order to undertake the laborious process of winning power in America—pleasure or anger—and you will get a glimpse into the enduring power of the Right in America. The current anger being expressed in the Occupy ______  movement may mark a significant difference (though urban camping does have a certain adventurous aura of fun about it) whose effectiveness only time will tell. But the emergence of trademarked tee-shirts and other Occupy-related merchandise does not bode well. And watch out for Occupy-Aid rock concerts. Then indeed another revolution will be over.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.