Pop Politics Revisited

Over the course of the 2008 Presidential election cycle, I wrote a series of articles tracing the phenomenon of political mashups, videos that reworked scenes and characters from famous movies in order to comment on the election, whether to support a specific candidate or to tarnish the brand of a rival candidate.  Initially, much of this work had an almost “insurgent” quality, outsiders challenging political norms by channeling popular culture iconography in order to get a signal through the noise of political discourse.  Phil deVellis’s “Vote Different” is a classic example.  By identifying Hilary Clinton with the Big Brother figure in the “1984” Apple advertisement, he not only positioned Obama as the outsider ready to shake up the system but also positioned video mashups as a subversive force for shaking up politics.

Quite naturally, these video practices eventually became absorbed into the mainstream, so much so that candidates and their party organizations began to make creative use of intertextuality in an attempt to frame the political discourse surrounding an election.  One of the most famous examples of this is Clinton’s “Sopranos” parody, which emulated the final scene from HBO’s hit show.  At the time, a number of pundits read this as misstep, asking whether Clinton wanted to be identified with Tony, the affable, but often violent and malicious, mob boss.  At the time, I argued that Clinton was instead identifying herself as a fan, someone who appreciates popular culture like the rest of us, who values family (note the presence of Bill as her chief supporter).  The reference was not to Tony himself but to the fandom surrounding the show.

Flash forward to a year later, and now the Republicans are casting themselves as the insurgent party, with minorities in both the House and the Senate (although there’s always the filibuster).  This political opposition has been shaped, rather dramatically, by the tea party movement, a highly visible and vocal coalition of voters who arguably represent a small, but significant, minority of the population.  With that in mind, I’ve become intrigued by the discussions of a recent video by the Republican Governors Association (RGA), aligning the Republican Party with Guy Fawkes and Obama with the monarchy of King James via the Wachowskis’ adaptation of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.

The video is on the front page of the splashy (and I’ll admit engaging) Remember November website, and it is ample illustration that the powers of parody and intertextuality are not necessarily ideological.  The video picks up where John McCain’s “Celebrity” video left off, but mixes the chanting crowds in that video into the protesting crowds at various tea parties across the country.  And, through splashy, menacing titles, the video seeks to defuse Obama’s “Yes we can” campaign slogan against itself by suggesting that “we” can “ignore the will of the American people” or “corrupt your representatives.”  Decontextualized comments from Nancy Pelosi and Al Sharpton help craft the idea of Democrats as a ruling elite and the tea partiers as a populist mob fighting to take the country back.  The “V” in the concluding “Remember November” icon explicitly recalls the “V for Vendetta” logo.

Of course, there are some odd things going on here.  The original V for Vendetta novel was meant as a critique of Thatcherism.  The Wachowskis updated that for the movie to criticize the war on terrorism and the use of torture (or enhanced interrogation techniques as some would have it).  Now it’s being used to fuel populist rage against health care reform and fears about unemployment and low wages (the video works primarily on an affective level, so its treatment of specific political issues is a little vague).  Others, including Josh Marshall and Steve Benen would point out that the RGA is essentially aligning themselves with a would-be mass casualty terrorist, with Marshall remarking that “Nothing shocks me anymore. But this shocks me.”

But I think that Michael Scherer’s reading of the video makes quite a bit more sense, in that the video’s “cinematic qualities” are quite impressive, much more effective than some of the lazy mashups hastily assembled during the McCain campaign.  It’s also far more edgy than most of the material coming from Republicans in previous elections.  I’d also add that the video carefully sidesteps the issue of violence, instead positioning itself in terms of the emotions.  What we see is an angry, but contained, crowd using their rights to free expression (images that were also carefully chosen to avoid any offensive, racist or misspelled images).  To echo my earlier reading, the reference isn’t to Guy Fawkes himself but to the affect, or emotion, of the film, the palpable sense of frustration at the current economic climate, or more likely the feeling of exclusion from the political process.  Although I disagree completely with their politics, I think it’s a pretty savvy piece of messaging in its attempt to cast Obama as an out of touch monarch ignoring the will of an aggrieved public.  Yet, as Scherer also points out, the video is not available for embedding and is available at only a couple of websites in an attempt to direct viewers to the Remember November website.  It’s a powerful piece of political messaging, one that seems to be embracing the volatility of the current climate and perhaps it’s also an illustration that the oppositional messaging associated with mashups is easier when your party isn’t in power.

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