- 10 Nov - 16 Nov, 2018
POPULAR CULTURE AND AMERICAN POLITICS
- 17 Feb - 23 Feb, 2018
- A Letter From America
Part of what I take as my brief, as this magazine’s “A Letter from America” columnist, is that I should be paying attention to America and interpreting whatever is going on here for you, my Pakistani readers, from week to week. The relatively easy conventional way to do that is by doing what we all do anyway – reading and watching the media every week, then offering a “take” on the events being reported and discussed.
But I’ve lately been reflecting on that and concluding that it’s a bit of a hall of mirrors. Until further notice, everything in American public life (if that is even the right term to use) is about the President’s daily abuse of his access to Twitter and everyone else’s reaction to same, also mostly via Twitter. I might be exaggerating this slightly, but not much. It’s distracting and demoralising, to put it mildly. So my own impulse has been to move in the opposite direction: to slow down, to stay offline to the extent possible, to read books. Reading and writing books – not tweets – is what I wanted from life in the first place, after all.
A new book I’ve just finished reading is, ironically, all about how American media and public life arrived at their current sad state of affairs. Sticky Fingers by Joe Hagan connects the dots of culture, commerce, and politics over the lifetime of any American of my generation. Its main subject – the 50-year history of the music and popular culture magazine Rolling Stone and the life and career of its energetic but rather unsavoury founder, Jann Wenner – doesn’t come out looking very good. But then, neither does the culture itself. And I think that is part of the point Hagan is trying to get across in the masterful biography he’s written.
“The raw material was rock and roll, but the primary building block was celebrity,” he writes. “And at its base, Rolling Stone was an expression of Wenner’s pursuit of fame and power. He reinvented celebrity around youth culture, which equated confession and frank sexuality with integrity and authenticity. The post-1960s vision of celebrity meant that every printed word of John Lennon’s unhappiness and anything Bob Dylan said or did now had the news primacy of a State of the Union address.”
Rock music as a sociopolitical phenomenon in America long basked in a presumed righteousness that had much to do with the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, both of which were contemporaneous with the embrace of rock by white middle-class youth in the 1960s. The thinking seemed to be that if you were against the war, against racial segregation, and for rock and roll, then you were cool and groovy, or something like that. Reality was, of course, much messier, but a lot of complexity and subtlety ended up getting swept under the rug.
I was born in 1965 and grew up in the 1970s, in the time when the factions of my parents’ generation were calling a truce on the divisive political issues and rock music – and media generally – was burgeoning into truly big business. I was made to feel I had arrived late for the party. At the same time, I can now understand, my generation was being aggressively marketed to – cajoled and manipulated into buying lots of stuff, including music in the pre-digital form of LPs by bands in which music corporations had invested a great deal of money.
Looking back, one can see that the result of the 1960s and ’70s was the 1980s, the era of MTV, of very frankly commercial music and movies, and of the Reagan presidency. From our current perspective it was a quaint prototype of the Trump time we’re all now struggling to survive. Ronald Reagan had been a movie star, after all. Then in the ’90s we got the Bill Clinton period, when a booming economy papered over a lot of sociopolitical ugliness. Clinton’s aggressive and mean-spirited right-wing enemies bear a lot of the blame for the damage done then, but so does Clinton himself, whose political brilliance was largely wasted on mopping up the mess caused by his own moral weakness. And Clinton’s weakness was somehow generationally characteristic. Clinton was the first president from the “baby boom” – precisely the generation that grew up on sex, drugs, rock and roll, and Rolling Stone magazine.
So the toxic stew of celebrity worship, self-indulgent and often tawdry lifestyles (what the writer James Howard Kunstler summarises as “anything goes and nothing matters”), and imperial hubris have landed us where we are today. Sticky Fingers is deeply damning, not only of Jann Wenner himself but by extension of pretty much the entirety of American culture, both popular and political. But, anymore, where is the line between popular culture and politics? That question is the point.
I would caution myself that perhaps I’m reading too much into one biography of one man, that the life and career of Jann Wenner can’t be made to carry so much meaning. But Hagan himself draws it all together with compelling concision at the end of his grippingly written and thoroughly reported 500-page book. “The solar eclipse of Donald Trump,” he writes, “signalled the complete triumph of celebrity culture over every aspect of American life. A reality TV star with a casino and a Twitter feed. An egomaniac to rule them all. The message and the medium had merged. The message was fame, and fame was money, money was power, and power was just more fame, for ever and ever, amen.”
“Wenner had a kind of grudging respect for Trump,” Hagan continues. “Not for his politics, but for the way he bent the world to his own ego… Wenner, of course, was a pioneer of the age of narcissism. He made his generation feel good about itself – righteous, independent, young. He also hung celebrities like sides of beef in his showroom window. The man adored fame.” •
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