The Construction of Civic Identities in Pop Culture

“I said, ‘Well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles.’ ” — “Excursions,” A Tribe Called Quest

A fever dream in 15 steps.

  1. This past weekend, Ukrainian singer Jamala won the globally popular 2016 “Eurovision” Contest. A turn from the saccharine love ditties that often take the competition, the winning song, “1944,” is a harrowing narrative of historical deportation of under Stalin’s soviet regime:

When strangers are coming
They come to your house
They kill you all
And say
We’re not guilty
Not guilty

  1. A week earlier, the album “Hopelessness” by Anohni was released. Its opening song also relies on pop melodies for pointed political critique; “Drone Bomb Me” is an indictment of the violence perpetuated by U.S. unmanned aircrafts across the globe. (A statement last week on her Facebook page found Anohni railing against the current election cycle in a post titled “AMERICANS, YOU ARE BEING USED.”)

 

  1. Two and a half months prior to the release of her album, Anohni released a statement in light of her decision to not perform at the Academy Awards even though she was nominated for her song “Manta Ray.” As part of her lengthy essay, Anohni explained: “As a transgendered artist, I have always occupied a place outside of the mainstream. I have gladly paid a price for speaking my truth in the face of loathing and idiocy.” Though the Academy Awards did not feature all song nominees due to “time constraints,” non-nominee Dave Grohl was featured prominently. What role does one’s identity play in how their identities and agency are enacted?
  1. Equally committed in enacting a personal and collective articulation of inequities in U.S. politics, Beyoncé was allowed the opportunity to share her work in the most mainstream of public venues three weeks before the Academy Awards. Performing her then hours-old single “Formation” at the Super Bowl, Beyoncé’s was a performance that placed black female power front and center in an era of #BlackLivesMatter.
  1. The militant overtones of the performance, for me, echoed the late ’80s era of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation. (Jackson is an artist who also placed herself problematically in the sphere of public discourse 12 years before Beyonce’s powerful performance; she is largely credited for inventing the concept of the “wardrobe malfunction” during that year’s halftime show.)
  1. Beyonce’s performance, like most things discussed on the internet, made some folks angry. However, the people in question were the police. Officers across the country called for a boycott of the singer’s currently-in-progress tour as a result of her “anti-police” message. (They made good on this vow last week, protesting the tour’s opening Houston date last week.)
  1. And the police were just as much in the crosshairs of Beyoncé’s vitriol on her recently released album Lemonade as her (allegedly) fickle husband. As part of the visual album that was released weeks ago, one memorable sequence finds the mothers of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin holding pictures of their dead sons. All of these men died unarmed in the past few years. Two of them at the hands of armed police officers.
  1. But, back to Eurovision. This year’s Eurovision contest had one of the most complex voting systems the contest has seen in decades. A quick scan of responses to this year’s politically charged winner suggests that (like U.S. police officers) a bunch of people are mad on the internet. Their votes were not sufficient in this year’s byzantine rules. When votes are rated disproportionately and a series of judges have their own set of “super” votes, one has to wonder if “fairness” is even a part of how this voting process was enacted.
  1. A month prior to the Eurovision finale, the U.S. equivalent of the contest took its final bow. After 15 seasons, “American Idol” is no more. It has ushered in numerous copy-cat talent shows. Created by former American Idol judge, Simon Cowell, “X-Factor” was one such copycat show, for instance.
  1. Four years ago, the second season of “X-Factor” featured pop-star Britney Spears as a judge.
  1. Last week, I listened to and read New York Times critics discuss the fact that — for more than eight years — Britney Spears’s every action has been under the legal control of a court-enforced conservatorship. As the New York Times authors write:

According to the arrangement, which is typically used to protect the old, the mentally disabled or the extremely ill, Ms. Spears cannot make key decisions, personal or financial, without the approval of her conservators: her father, Jamie Spears, and a lawyer, Andrew M. Wallet. Her most mundane purchases, from a drink at Starbucks to a song on iTunes, are tracked in court documents as part of the plan to safeguard the great fortune she has earned but does not ultimately control.

Largely, I don’t think the public should care about such a situation. However, one has to wonder to what extent the court costs, filing fees, and clerkships involved in handling a high profile conservatorship costs voting tax-payers. When someone can release new albums, raise two sons, tour the world, and perform night-after-night in Las Vegas, the nuances of the conservatorship seem troubling for youth understanding of identity and agency today.

  1. But back to “American Idol” and “Eurovision” and voting. “Idol,” too, has had its share of voting mishaps. Most memorably, nine years ago the website votefortheworst.com and “shock jock” Howard Stern rallied individuals to “corrupt” the American Idol voting system by voting for Sanjaya Malakar, a singer regularly blasted by the show’s judges for his subpar performances. With hundreds of thousands of votes flooding the system, Malakar would finish seventh on the show.
  1. Which brings us to Boaty McBoatface. In case the checkered history of Boaty McBoatface is somehow unfamiliar to you, let me briefly recap. Last month, the will of the people was heard. In an effort to build “public engagement” in science, the British government’s Natural Environment Research Council launched a contest to crowd source the name of it’s more than £200 million research ship. With thousands of entries, one entry — receiving more than 100,000 votes — was far and away the winning name: Boaty McBoatface. But, the will of voters was not to be.
  1. Sir David Attenborough is, perhaps, the most universally liked public figure Britain could muster for the name of a boat. Except, of course, for the fact that Attenborough’s is a name that now flies in the face of democracy. The name painted on the vessel, somehow a Jolly Roger-like message of ownership. Beware.
  1. So, we started this fever dream of a post reflecting on a pop song in Europe and we end with the name of a vessel that will eventually find its way to the arctic. The global narratives of youth voice, performance, and agency proliferate everywhere. How voting matters (or is made convoluted) in silly contests shape how we understand the world around us. (It’s a good thing that the U.S. election isn’t run similarly to how reality show competitions are run…)

Who is seen and what messages are conveyed in mass media shape public discourse. As much as will be written (on this blog and many others) in the coming months about the lessons of the U.S. presidential election for young people, let us not lose sight that civic identities are reinforced and constructed in nearly everything that young people encounter. And, if this list of 15 stopping points in recent history is any indication, the intricacies of problematic civics has a way of repeating itself.

Banner image credit: Nat Ch Villa