Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Changeling:Pop iconography and Barack Obama

Organically — the way all real phenomena emerge, from a tsunami in the South Pacific to a nor’easter along the eastern seaboard — Barack Obama has become the first rock-star president of the United States. That fact is meaningless if you’re not a fan of rock music, have no sense of its velocity into the wider culture, and don’t believe that its erratic, flamboyant, unpredictable and potentially dangerous nature tells the story of the postwar American dynamic.

But if you’re at least open to rock culture’s potential for social and cultural change, you can see how what’s about to unfold in Washington five days from right now will be the most small-d democratic political expression of the same viral populism that’s made rock, in the words of journalist Mikal Gilmore “such a great adventure and such a great disturbance in our culture, our arts, and our values.”

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John F. Kennedy, for all his √©lan and youthful drive, could never have been the first rock-star president. His ascendancy, in fact the whole arc of his presidency, preceded many of the sensibilities of rock culture we embrace today, and overlooked most of the others. The cultural dimensions of Kennedy’s presidency owed more to Palm Springs and Boston than to Muscle Shoals or the Mississippi Delta. Of all the myriad figures of culture that attended the Kennedy inaugural gala, there wasn’t a rocker in the house.



It’s been widely thought that the title rightly belonged to Bill Clinton, the saxophone-wielding, Ray-Banned politician who Elvised his way into the White House almost a generation ago. But Clinton’s rise to the presidency, while it had its insurgent moments, didn’t really have insurgent origins. For Clinton, and not least of all because of his race, his presidential campaign borrowed from rock ‘n’ roll when it suited the campaign. The unpredictable (and therefore uncontrollable) aspects of rock culture were something he dabbled in, capably but occasionally.

When he takes the office on Tuesday, Barack Hussein Obama becomes fully the beneficiary of the kind of pop-cultural iconography our culture has granted to only a few, to fewer still who were African American and, to this point, to no one who’s been president.

Like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, the next president has already attained a place in the iconosphere that, ironically, transcends the office itself. Think of it in visual terms: Any U.S. president of modern times except Bill Clinton would have been a fitting subject for a portrait by Yousef Karsh. Clinton’s portrait, of course, would be done by Annie Leibovitz. If he were still alive, Obama’s portrait would be done by Andy Warhol — one of those legendary multi-panel works, with different interpretations of the same image awash in color and Warhol’s jagged, freewheeling swatches and squiggles that vividly alluded to the energy and mystery of the subject on the canvas.

(The work of Obama portraitist Shepard Fairey stands in nicely.)

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Obama’s campaign exhibited a sense of rock style and immediacy that wasn’t grafted on at the last minute; the rebel aspects of the rock esthetic were basic to the campaign. From the audacity of even running for president to the grassroots proliferation of a Web-based fundraising apparatus that grew money like a virus in a petri dish to a primary-season soundtrack that spanned Motown and U2, Barack Obama brought rock ‘n’ roll to politics and politics to rock ‘n’ roll. Signed, sealed and delivered.

As with that of the music’s best ambassadors, Obama’s appeal finally spilled over the banks of rock even more widely into our everyday world. The folks at Ben & Jerry’s, whose brands of ice cream have been their own tasty salute to culcha’s movers & shakers (a scoop of Cherry Garcia, anyone?), recently released Yes Pecan, B&J’s tribute to the 44th president.

The artists and writers at Marvel Comics, discovering that Obama was a fan of Spider-Man comic books when he was a kid, have put him on the cover of half the run of the latest Spider-Man edition. It’s expected to sell out in … well, guess what? They’re already gone.

The challenge — the political danger — for Barack Obama isn’t so much in maintaining this level of adulation as much as maintaining this level of passion and energy on behalf of a wider social purpose. He said it many times during the campaign: that his bid for the American presidency was less about him than it was about all of us — U.S.

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There’s a downside to pop iconography; it can be suddenly, weirdly perishable, subject to dissipation when least expected. A misstep real or perceived, one false move on the highwire and … in an instant, the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream isn’t selling anymore.

Even though Obama has more convincingly wed the right-now! aspects of pop culture to the more procedurally-driven ways of politics than anyone in American history, it doesn’t mean the marriage won’t have its frictions.

Some fissures between Obama and his earliest supporters farthest on the left have emerged, with them crying “abandonment!” saying he’s walked away from the core principles that won their votes and got him elected — failing to see the distinctions between campaigning and governing, roughly the difference between playing in Washington Square Park and Carnegie Hall.


Americans are an impatient and fickle lot, and they will demand results — especially from a candidate who adopted one of the simplest words in the language as the central plank in his political platform. Change is now more than a campaign meme or part of a slogan; it’s what the country will expect, and the sooner, the more tangible, the better.

We just hope this country’s patient as Obama adjusts to his new role on a bigger stage. We hope they’ll cut a brother a break while he tunes up, does a mic check and hits that first chord with a band he’s never worked with before, in front of an audience the size of a nation.

The house lights go down on Tuesday. Rock ‘n’ roll.
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Image credits: Obama: Obama for America. Yes Pecan: Via GOOD magazine Web site (www.good.is). Spider-Man cover: © 2009 Marvel Comics. Obama crowd in St. Louis: Via The Huffington Post.

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