(OR BASICALLY, HOW POLARIZING AMERICAN POPULAR CULTURE CAN BE)
by Pael Balbaboco
In the words of the now iconic Lady Gaga, from her song “Monster”, “I wanna just dance… He ate my heart and then he ate my brain.”
Maybe this is exactly how popular culture affects people – we are being enveloped in the loving arms of its contents and meanings, and as an effect, it affects how we think, how we socialize, and how we express ourselves.
What’s Out There?
Photo from RetroWaste
According to Poster (2008), it is a practical fact that people, commodities, and cultural objects circulate around the planet and do so with ever-increasing intensity. McAdams (2014) supported this statement by opining that the pervasiveness of the Internet in the 21st century drastically increases the speed of communication, which facilitates the sharing of cultural items from person to person through mobile devices and social media. She further added that this can cause pop culture items to explode in popularity almost instantaneously.
With the increased dispersion of popular culture items, abetted by new media technologies (mobile devices and social media), it is easier for these items to be widely known and/or recognized around the globe. As an effect, these popular items don’t only become household names, but also catalysts of power and global leadership.
A-pop, You Guys
Photo from RetroWaste
Take for example American popular culture. Hammond (2014) opined that American popular culture is hard to ignore – it affects nearly everyone’s daily lives, acting as a social glue for society, allowing individuals to consider difficult subject matter and provides a strong economic engine as it encourages new purchases.
Moreover, McAdams (2014) expressed that the global dominance of American pop culture amounts to cultural imperialism and has the potential to dilute local cultures. Today, to spread popular culture using social media (or new media) is also to push for globalization (or maybe, global domination). But to support Hammond’s claim, Lyons (2005) expressed that the driving force behind globalization is motivated by economic interests.
However, we cannot deny the fact that popular culture has positive effects to its audience (although we are not trying to point out here that globalization and global cultural dominance using popular culture and social media pushes and fosters negative effects only). Yes, it is fact that globalization using popular culture is driven by consumerism and economic mechanisms, but popular culture can also “allow individuals the freedom to assess and form opinions about topics with as much depth as they choose to give the subject” (Hammond, 2014). More so, popular culture, the American in particular, “allows people to consider, express views on and evaluate issues that they might normally avoid” (Hammond, 2014).
Photo from Guinness World Records
Photo from Huffington Post
Photo from Black Butterfly Lifestyle
Popular icons (items) like Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, and Beyoncé are some of the biggest names in the American popular culture sphere which have become frontrunners in talks about pushing for social change. These icons, as always seen on any media platform (I prefer calling them multimedia icons, in all honesty), have become spokespersons in their own rights, for the rights that they are pushing for.
A 2014 article written by Liz Dwyer for TakePart.com listed down the top ten social issues that Americans talk about the most on Twitter. The list included equality between men and women at number 8, political freedoms at number 5, and freedom from discrimination at number 2. Let’s see how the popular culture muses, or multimedia icons, I have mentioned talk about these issues and how they affect people – in the light of their artistry and most importantly, popularity. (Or do they really talk about such issues?)
Taylor Swift Has More Blank Spaces
Photo from Teen Vogue
Sporting a new do, channeling a young Anna Wintour with the dark blonde bob and full fringe sans the bumblebee glasses, we all know Taylor Swift as the country singer-songwriter who writes songs about her friends and past lovers (and eventually turned into doing “pop” music maybe because that’s where the money really is.) Her biggest hits are chart-topping songs such as Love Story, Teardrops On My Guitar, Fifteen, and Blank Space and Shake It Off from her most recent album, 1989. (Trivia: Taylor Swift had expressed registering “1989” as her trademark; and this woman is not “streamable” on Spotify. Bummer.)
We’ve all heard Taylor sing songs of heartbreaks and break-ups. (I’m still waiting for her to write a song about a sexy tractor or a broken mechanical plow.) Some would say that Taylor’s way of revenge to her exes is by singing about them (and basically proclaiming before the crowd that she’s a repetitive victim of misogynistic lovers). And some would comment that “No. Taylor is singing for every woman to be proud of what they’ve gone through.” (Yeah, yeah. From one lover to another.) But Taylor is not just about that. She’s not just about herself. She’s also about supporting the minorities.
But just when you think that Donald Trump only disturbs and distresses the minorities (or the “others”) of the United States of America, you’re wrong. A successful artist like Taylor Swift has also become a victim of the Trump.
In a television interview, Swift was quoted saying, “One thing I do believe as a feminist is that in order for us to have gender equality, we have to stop making it a girl fight, and we have to stop being so interested in seeing girls trying to tear each other down. It has to be more about cheering each other on, as women.” (Do me a favor and watch the music video of “Bad Blood.”) Now that Taylor Swift claims that she is a feminist, where is she then during the Women’s March against the Trump? That’s practically where people rooted their “hate” for Taylor. During the Women’s March last January 22, big American popular music artists like Rihanna, Zendeya, and Miley Cyrus joined thousands of women on the streets of the United States to show their opposition towards Donald Trump. But where is Taylor?
Taylor was on Twitter, tweeting “So much love, pride, and respect for those who marched. I’m proud to be a woman today, and every day. #WomensMarch♀” After that tweet, she was trending instantly. People were not happy about it, including some of her fans. One tweeted, “As a fan of yours, this is some bullsh*t. You do not get to pick and choose when feminism benefits you. @taylorswift13”
In a Huffington Post article, Rebecca Bohanan (2016) discussed Taylor Swift and her “brand of feminism”. According to her, Taylor’s brand of feminism has very little to do with the actual political feminist movement. She added that Taylor Swift… asks not what she can do for feminism, but what feminism can do for her. Here are some other arguments that Bohanan made in resistance of Taylor Swift’s feminism:
- Swift has not publicly supported funding Planned Parenthood, Hillary Clinton, the Equal Rights Amendment, or any other piece of feminist legislature.
- Swift has built an image around working with women (see: her model friends in the “Bad Blood” music video), but when she accepted the Grammy for Album of the Year earlier this year, there were no female producers with her on stage.
- Swift is all about female friendship, except when a woman has dated a man she also once dated, like Camilla Belle, Katy Perry, Demi Lovato, or Kendall Jenner — then the women are “buried,” as her ex Calvin Harris recently put it, for the benefit, seemingly, of Swift’s self-esteem.
- Swift doesn’t like it when the media talks about her writing songs about her exes, yet she’s built an entire career on songs written about guys (and sometimes girls) she likes or dislike.
- Swift is the only woman to cry “misogyny” when writing about relationships is brought up in the press – because it gets her more press.
What am I trying to point here?
Popular culture, specifically music, knows how to mystify a person. It’s like, whatever your purpose is, popular culture is like fairy godmother sprinkling you fairy dust. I am not saying that indeed, Taylor Swift is a play-doll feminist, but if ever she is, her music compensates for this faux-feminism she’s supposedly banking herself into. People still listen to her songs. Even after she pulled out 1989 from iTunes, Tidal, and Spotify because that’s her way of “standing” for artists like her who works hard for her craft, it still made good sales, because people love her, because she sings songs that people can relate to – hurtful, self-sacrificing, always the victim. Because men hurt her, and we hate misogyny, so we hate men. Isn’t that what we’re all about? We don’t want to be blamed, so we make it a point that people see us as the ones who got hurt – and maybe, that’s what Taylor wants to.
Gaga’s Not Crazy After All
Photo from Billboard
Born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, Lady Gaga is a force to reckon with (she has all the gay troops behind her, fam). Lady Gaga came to the spotlight in 2008 with her debut album The Fame that was both a critical and a commercial success, producing popping hits like Just Dance and Poker Face. Three years later, Lady gaga released Born This Way – the album that tagged her as the Mother Monster to her Little Monsters; and also the album that supposedly connected her to the LGBT community, with the hit song Born This Way.
Just recently, Lady Gaga was the featured artist in Super Bowl 2017’s halftime show. People were crazy (in a good way) about it. Nico Lang wrote an article for Salon, headlining “The Super Bowl’s big queer milestone: Lady Gaga was the first singer to reference LGBT people during a halftime show.” However, people were wondering why the Gaga didn’t go political on this performance. Some said that as a Clinton supporter, she should’ve used this opportunity to oppose Trump.
Back in 2016, Beyoncé was on the Super Bowl stage with 30 black women in Black Panther hats as a protest against police brutality, which became a big issue that year. (Read: Young black men again faced highest rate of US police killings in 2016) This year, we all heard about Lady Gaga riding a big truck on the streets of New York with a big placard saying “Love trumps hate.” Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl performance might also be a statement – “I just released a new album. I was asked to perform in the halftime show. I won’t be paid. So might as well, I’ll bring back my LGBT advocacy and earn money. Yay!” Or maybe it’s just me who’s thinking that way.
I am a big Lady Gaga fan. I was shrieking like a little girl when she sang a medley of her songs – Poker Face, Born This Way, Telephone (I think we all anticipated a pregnant Beyoncé to appear and sing with her), Just Dance, Million Reasons, and Bad Romance. As much as people are dancing about it, some people were also a little frustrated with her Super Bowl gig. Lang (2017) said in his article that many fans were disappointed that the 30-year-old, who famously wore a meat dress to protest “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” didn’t take on the POTUS. This totally makes sense. Trump don’t like people and his main wingman, Pence, was a known LGBT discrimination advocate even when he is a governor in Indiana.
But did we exactly witness in Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl stint? I would love to present the argument that this is Lady Gaga’s call to all LGBT people to gather together and speak against the administration. Putting LGBT issues on the main stage at the Super Bowl served as a powerful message of queer solidarity in the face on an unprecedented wave of challenges from our government (Lang, 2017).
Fallon (2017) wrote in The Daily Beast, “At a time when gay rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, minority rights, and civil rights at large are at risk, when LGBT struggles and queer violence, depression, suicide rates, and acceptance continue to dominate political and cultural conversations, it meant something for Lady Gaga to sing those words on that stage in front of so many eyeballs.” referring to the song Born This Way. “It was a quietly subversive performance that made a loud impression,” Fallon added.
And we were not wrong. Lady Gaga was quoted, saying, “The only statements I’ll be making during the halftime show are the ones that I have been consistently making throughout my career. I believe in a passion for inclusion, I believe in the spirit of equality, and [I believe] the spirit of this country is one of love and compassion and kindness, so my performance will uphold those philosophies.” So what’s the best way to lure everyone into a performance, but to sing about what you’ve been singing about almost entirely your whole career? Right?
I have always been impressed with the Gaga. Her monstrous vocals, live performances, tireless dance numbers – proves that she is an artist. But when your previous album (Artpop) is a flop because it’s too artsy and “right there + in your face” and your new album (Joanne) doesn’t sound the old you, so people are having a hard time identifying to it, and you were asked to perform in the Super Bowl (plus the fact that you are not paid), and that you will be watched all over the globe with the help of media (social media to be specific), will you not take the chance of actually making it a commercial show, instead of what people are expecting of you? To be loud about your political oppositions?
However, Fallon (2017) noted that the performance “made some of us feel seen, and, even if briefly, safe. Empowered, perhaps.” And I guess that’s what matters.
Lemonade Is Too Beyoncé – It’s Too Black
Photo from Highsnobiety
When Adele won this year’s Album of the Year in the Grammys, I was like, “Yeah, yeah. 25 is a deeply moving album. Sa totoo nga, saulo ko ang sequence ng tracks eh. And I always skip “I Miss You” because I don’t feel like listening to it.” That’s what’s running in my mind. But some were more critical about the win, asking “But how about Queen B’s Lemonade? That’s an intensely well-thought album. Beyoncé deserves the award.”
While this is being asked, Adele did her job – by splitting her Grammys trophy in two, dedicating the other half of the award to Beyoncé because she was her icon, and that Lemonade was, the words of Adele, a soul-baring and monumental album. However, some people were arguing that Lemonade was too black to win a Grammys.
Newman (2017) wrote for Forbes an article posing the same question. She also asked if Lemonade was “simply too political” for the Grammys’ voters? Right after Adele’s win of Album of the Year, the hashtag #GrammysSoWhite was all over Facebook. People were upset. Newman added that “for the past three years, an album by a white artist has won over an album by a black artist for album of the year, even though, without fail, the black artist’s album had greater social relevance and critical acclaim.” But is that what it takes for an album to win the Album of the Year award at the Grammys? That you have to be political? That you have to have social relevance? Can’t albums, like Adele’s, that features songs of emotions and love and bitterness and longing, win the award and get away with it without the “because you’re white” backlash?
In a 2016 article for AVClub, Ashley Ray-Harris talked about Beyoncé’s Lemonade, headlining “Beyoncé’s Lemonade isn’t a breakup album, it’s a black album.” She added that “Lemonade is a collection of experiences and signifiers centered around black womanhood. Specifically, Lemonade looks at a version of black femininity that is rooted in Southern traditions and customs.” Ray-Harris, with Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin references in her article opined that Lemonade’s devotion to femme blackness isn’t new to pop culture – black female artists have been sharing their experiences and stories.
But why did Lemonade not win that freaking award? We can argue that the American public still imposes a certain level of blackness to Black people to be accepted. There are just Black “expressions” that are either too much or too little, and people will get at you because of it – music, poetry, film, traditions, language, etc. Maybe Lemonade is too black to be socially-acceptable. It didn’t make much of a roar (unlike Katy Perry’s Roar). It’s also not on Spotify. So how does an album like Lemonade, that did not make much noise, make people uncomfortable for it not to win?
Maybe because it is Beyoncé after all. She is Beyoncé. And she has the power to keep quiet but still relevant. (Holler at Michelle and Kelly!)
So, What Now?
Photo from RetroWaste
McAdams (2014) opined that American popular culture comprises the tastes, preferences, customs and behaviors embraced by the broad mass of the American public at any given point in time. American pop culture, like the popular culture of any society, functions to bind together large masses of diverse individuals into a unified cultural identity. As much as American popular culture is all over its own landmass, its cultural items are also enjoyed by audience overseas. American cultural contents of the popular also enjoy admiration and fanaticism to foreigners (I would like to say the “easterners” but that’s just bad).
American pop culture has had a major influence on our country and around the world (English, 2014). These items make so much impact to our lives that we are also affected that…
Taylor Swift did not march during the January 2017 Women’s March against Trump and that she’s taking advantage of feminism when it only benefits her…
…Lady Gaga was breathtaking during her Super Bowl 2017 halftime show performance, but she did not go political and that dismayed people…
…Beyoncé’s Lemonade should’ve won Grammys’ Album of the Year over Adele’s 25, but it’s too black so the voters gave it to a white artist.
Maybe that’s just how popular culture (with globalization) is. It allows you to connect to people you are not directly and physically with; with people you only see on social media (or media in general). It creates a love-and-hate relationship between cultural icons and audiences… and frankly, maybe that’s okay.
Maybe it’s okay to hate the artist, but not the art. Maybe it’s okay for us to let popular culture eat our hearts… and then our brains.