Who Says "It's Only Entertainment"?

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One common response to the semiotic study of such popular media as film, television, and music is that "it's only entertainment."  If you use popular culture as a thematic topic in your composition classes, then you may have encountered something of the sort, which is why the general introduction to Signs of Life in the USA carefully describes the historical process by which America became an "entertainment culture," and why that means that entertainment in America is always meaningful.


And if anyone still wants to object that entertainment is only entertainment, I give you the 2017 Oscar Awards ceremony.


No, I'm not referring to the mistaken best-picture-announcement-heard-round- the-world (how could they have just stood around waiting for the poor producers of La La Land to complete their victory speeches before breaking in with the correct envelope?!); I'm referring to the expectation that, like the Golden Globes, the ceremony was going to be another skirmish in the ongoing war between Hollywood and Donald Trump.  And that expectation, largely due to the opening monologue by Jimmy Kimmel, was not disappointed.


With Kimmel openly taunting the president (indeed, daring him to live-tweet the event), one doesn't need to go through every joke to get the point.  Which is, that with Saturday Night Live taking the lead with regularly scheduled take-downs (and enjoying a "ratings roll" ever since the election), and major awards ceremonies becoming platforms for presidential critique, the entertainment industry is emerging as the foremost institution of political opposition in the country.  I don't think that I am exaggerating: how often do we hear anything like it from the opposition party in the Senate and the House?


But if the entertainment industry has successfully taken up the cudgels against the Trump administration, will that action be successful itself?  Here's where things get tricky.  There is a lyric from a Tom Lehrer tune spoofing the folk-song-led 1960s protest movement called "The Folk Song Army," which goes like this:


Remember the war against Franco?
That's the kind where each of us belongs.
Though he may have won all the battles,
We had all the good songs.


There is no question that the entertainment industry has all of the good jokes (and speeches) when it comes to the anti-Trump resistance, but given that Trump's support comes from people who view Hollywood as a lot of out-of-touch elites, these jokes may only prompt them to dig in their heels (or "double down," as everyone seems to insist on saying these days) when it comes to their support for the president.  Indeed, a Washington Post report suggests that just this is happening, as 53% of those polled in a recent NBC News-Wall Street Journal national poll believe that "[T]he news media and other elites are exaggerating the problems with the Trump administration."   And "other elites," in American discourse, always include Hollywood.


Still, there is also the fact that entertainment is what Americans heed.  Donald Trump himself (as one of the new selections for the upcoming 9th edition of Signs of Life in the USA points out) used reality television as a springboard to the White House.  So perhaps the entertainment industry may indeed prove to be the most effective warrior in the anti-Trump opposition. 


This takes us back to our original premise: in America, entertainment matters.  A lot.  And that's why we teach popular cultural semiotics.


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.