“In my own circle of writers and rock fans…populism had another meaning: it derived from pop.”
-Ellen Willis, Introduction to Beginning to See the Light
To be a leftist in America in the days since the last true liberal president—probably Lyndon Johnson, despite Vietnam—usually meant being in a permanent defensive crouch. With Barack Obama, the president with the most potential since Johnson for real systemic change, the left is still terrified to come out of its crouch, to expose its underbelly to the world.
Leftists snipe at each other, often in some strange desire for a purity that can never really exist. The compromise necessary to create a mass movement to elect a president is anathema to a section of the population that for a while felt itself shriveled to a tiny but ideologically-unified group. The safety of that small group is hard to leave, especially in a media culture that has made it so easy to self-select only that which reinforces your beliefs and to connect with those that think like you across state and national borders and to police out those who dare think differently.
Which came first, really? Nixon’s “Silent Majority” and the retreat of a real solid progressive movement leading to the Reagan Revolution and faux-populism used to convince people to vote to give their money to the rich, or a fragmenting media culture that killed off the chance for a true mass bond?
It is no accident that the last real pop superstar, Michael Jackson, hit the apex of his popularity in the Reagan years. There was at least an idea of a mass consensus in this country, even though no one really could’ve defined what that consensus was, and yet while we had a white man in office slowly hacking away at the rights of people of color, women, gays and lesbians, and anyone who didn’t fit into a nuclear-family, gender-binary, reactionary ideal of an America that never really existed, our number one superstar was a man celebrated and loved not in spite of his fluid sexuality, racial ambiguity, and androgyny, but because of it.
Michael Jackson: pop superstar, appealing to men and women, old and young, and subversive as hell.
And yet when this symbol of everything Reagan fought died two weeks ago, some on the left were eager to condemn others for pausing in the midst of re-tweeting news of a popular uprising in Iran to talk about the last real uniter of American culture.
Ellen Willis, social critic, feminist, and lover of pop culture, wrote in the introduction to the second edition of her collection Beginning to See the Light,
“There is a common theme in leftists’ reductive view of bourgeois liberties, their contempt for mass culture, and their dismissal of sexual politics. I think all of these antipathies reflect a puritanical discomfort with the urge—whatever form it takes—to gratification now, an assumption that social concern is synonymous with altruism and self-sacrifice.”
Yet Willis also connected that same impulse, that contempt for mass culture, to an idea that populism and radicalism were intrinsically different; that once something became popular, it was no longer subversive or radical. We can see this reaction in the critique of popular reaction to Michael Jackson and to Barack Obama.
Barack Obama has been derided for his celebrity status, but it not only put him in office, it brought two million people to Washington, DC to see him inaugurated. More than anything we’ve seen since the fracturing of mass culture brought on by cable TV, deregulated radio, and the advent of the Internet, Barack Obama was a mass culture phenomenon, and elitists on the right and the left decried that phenomenon while trying to steal for themselves the cloak of populism.
None of this is to say, of course, that figures of the popular culture are not deeply problematic: Jackson’s court cases certainly prove this. This is not an argument that one should not critique popular culture—if anything, one should take the pop culture seriously enough to engage it and critique it. To throw it out entirely in some misguided idea of purification is as silly as writing off entirely a president who might be able, with popular support, to make significant changes despite his failures on all-too-real issues.
Puritanism is always an essentially conservative tendency, even when it crops up in so-called radical movements. It is not the radical streak in feminism that leads women to police each other’s clothing and sexual behavior for proper adherence to the rules. A truly radical feminism would be a truly liberatory feminism—one that feels no need to deny women the freedom to dress how they want, enjoy their sexuality how they want, marry or not marry or have children or not, depending on what works for them. Liberation doesn’t look the same for everyone; neither does subversion.
By the same token, a true liberal movement would take a stand against sexual policing of politicians whether they’re on the right or the left—would hold true to an ideal whether or not you like the person’s politics. Far from the moral relativism the left is always accused of, this would be a solid moral stance: in favor of freedom.
Elitism too is a conservative tendency—it exists to preserve the status quo, to erect boundaries and keep the rabble out. And to decry others as not properly radical or as selling out is just as elitist as saying flat out “I’m better than you.”
Willis recognized this tendency in the left and the cultural elitists, writing,
“Changing times forced clarity upon us: increasingly we had to choose between populism and radicalism, both politically and culturally…I was, no question, with the avant-gardists, even as I missed in my nerve-ends that unique thrill of ecstatic commonality once so integral to the pleasure of rock’n’roll—and the tension struck me as emblematic of my overall situation. I still honored that commonality; I believed that it represented something real, something potentially liberating, and that aristocratic fear of the mob was death to genuine radicalism.”
Fear of the mob to some degree is eminently rational for the left—Reagan and Nixon were both elected by large popular majorities, after all. It’s easy to say that the majority of the population was deluded and that in fact the left has been vindicated in the collapse of the economy and the leftward shift of American voters. But the same tendency is coming out now, both from the right—witness the tea party protests—but also from the left, in the self-righteous declaration that Obama is just like Bush, that nothing will actually change.
Without popular support for policy changes, the cries from the right to preserve the status quo will drown out those from a self-anointed revolutionary vanguard. This will happen if the vanguard is more concerned with throwing out the people who are genuinely saddened by the death of a pop superstar, if it can’t understand the connection, the magic inherent in a country that for a few days united not around politics but around a pop song.
There’s something to be learned from this kind of cultural moment, that kind of unity and belief and inspiration. It should be admired, not shunned. As Willis said, what are we working for if not for the right to be happy, to have pleasure, to make music?