The James Clayton column: Obama wins the culture wars

Did Oprah Winfrey, among a clutch of entertainment stars, help swing the election Obama's way?

Off the back of Barack Obama’s election victory in the USA last week, British TV institution, Jeremy Paxman, in order to get an expert opinion of what it meant for black people in politics, turned to rapper, Dizzee Rascal. Much of the focus in the media on this bizarre encounter discussed Paxman’s snide political-incorrectness and Dizzee Rascal’s out-loud announcement that maybe he should run for Prime Minister, but no one appeared to flag up the urban artist’s explanation of Obama’s success.

Obama embraced hip hop; that’s the way he got through to the kids,” stated the grinning Dizzee as he writhed across the screen responding to Paxo’s patronising line of inquiry (either he had ants in his pants or he was doing a sat-down alternative to streetwise swaggering). Our man Rascal is probably getting ahead of himself if he reckons that the USA is going to remould its system as a harmonious hip-hopcracy with an admin that drops rhymes instead of bombs. Nevertheless, the youth demographic were decisive in the election of Barack Obama and a sense of hip hop credibility was a part of that. Musically, it wasn’t just hip hop in such performers as Kanye West, Black Eyed Peas and P. Diddy that helped the new president-elect, but a whole range of cross-genre figures from Bruce Springsteen to Stevie Wonder, Vampire Weekend to John Legend and many more.

Alongside the musicians, Obama had film stars, TV personalities and a vast panoply of popular culture and art figures rocking the vote and rallying the masses to make the Democrat candidate their choice at the ballot box. To hit back at Obama’s army of cultural activists, fighting in John McCain’s corner you could find Arnold Schwarzenegger, who came out to critique Obama’s “skinny legs” and claim his choice candidate as “a real American action hero” on the basis that he’d spent several years in a prison in Vietnam (as one observer noted though, Gary Glitter did the same. It’s not necessarily an indicator of good standing). Ultimately, not even Arnie’s brawn could beat back the waves of Obama endorsements offered by the usual Hollywood liberals and other entertainment personalities. McCain had Conan the Republican, but Obama had what political scientists conceptualise as ‘the O Factor’ – the influential major league approval of Oprah Winfrey. If Oprah gave her seal of approval to drinking bleach, the American population would leap off their sofas, swing into the bathroom and glug down gallons of cleaning product satisfied in the knowledge that if the O-Mighty recommends it, it must be righteous. Up against that, all hope for McCain: terminated.

Clearly, Barack’s blaze of glory was not based on such fripperies as policy stance and the perilous economic backdrop, but rather on the brilliant utilisation of the media and culture to mobilise the masses. Perhaps more influential than the showbiz endorsements – and celebrity backing is nothing new in American politics – was the grassroots activism of Obamalites and the 2008 presidential election will go down in history as the watershed point where society – traditionally, ‘the audience’ – ascended to make it happen; most of them probably screaming “yes we can!” in ecstatic frenzy. Old man McCain and his band of conservative campaigners looked distinctly un-hip in contrast to the contagious enthusiasm generated by the Democrat machine fuelled by devotees determinedly investing all their creative energies in the name of winning the election. All pepped up and empowered by digital technology, a new generation of voters hit the internet to get the word out and Obama, configured as a super-cool guy that you could kick it with, surfed the zeitgeist and reaped the rewards. Worshipped as a cult icon gazing out from street artist Shepard Fairey’s posters, the Illinois senator became an arena-filling rock star; his fanbase fizzing with full passion to push him into the White House. Politics, most often, is considered to be deeply uncool and, as such, young people are often disengaged, apathetic and ambivalent. The huge interest for this presidential run-off was in no small part due to captivation of audiences through the media and entertainment industries, accentuated and aided by the fact that we are in a 21st-century age of user-generated content and internet viral marketing.

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The biggest cultural boon to Barack Obama and the absolute decider in ‘The Election That Was Won by Web Nerds and Knowledgeable Young People’ was probably American comedian, Tina Fey’s, side-splitting take on Sarah Palin and the subsequent viral spread of the sketches around the planet. Any credibility that Palin could have mustered as the Republican vice-presidential candidate was completely obliterated by Fey’s terrific impersonations on Saturday Night Live as tech-savvy Obamalites aped their dumb enemy, and in doing so, aided their unflappable idol. Reduced to ridicule, the “Pitbull in Lipstick” had no choice but to play the fool, appear on the show and bop along as America’s top TV comics rapped about her. The Republicans couldn’t fight the flood of videos uploaded to YouTube and no amount of gimmicks, “gosh darn” folksy speeches or rallies could nix the impact of the online opposition emanating from the internet. John McCain may have revved up certain sections of his party’s support by sticking rootin’ tootin’, moose-shootin’ Sarah Palin on his ticket and digging out the Joe the Plumber character, but in the face of Tina Fey’s SNL star turn, he had nothing.

Everyone knows that John F. Kennedy claimed the closely-fought 1960 election after a TV debate showed off his charisma in marked contrast to the shady ugliness of Richard Nixon. Similarly, Ronald Reagan shot down Jimmy Carter and rode triumphantly into the White House off the back of his all-American persona and history as a B-movie actor in ‘50s westerns. As young people flocked to fight for Obama in 2008, Dizzie Rascal’s assertion that “it was hip hop what won it” is perhaps too narrow in focus, but indisputably touches upon the crucial truth about the winning of elections. It’s not the economy, stupid: it’s the entertainment industry…

James’ previous column can be found here.