I teach American history classes at a large university. If my life was a movie, I would play the role of the bearded white guy with a receding hairline standing in front of three hundred stinky, sweatpants-wearing undergrads crammed into a large lecture hall. I live the stereotypical Hollywood state university course on a daily basis.
This question is from one of the students who regularly filled a stadium seat in one of my classes.
I took your history 1200 class about two years ago and it left quite an impact on how I perceive American culture. Specifically, you mentioned how cultural movements are like a pendulum swinging back and forth such as the counterculture of the late 60s morphing into religious reform/self help of the 70s.
That leads into my question: what do you make of this election? Is it just the pendulum swinging right again or is this something different?
I received his email right after the election and immediately my lecture-oriented mind went to what I would put on a PowerPoint slide that would help answer his question.
My standard practice is to begin each lecture with two cultural climate slides that relate to the era in history we are studying. The first slide is crafted to help my students see the defining aspects of the cultural climate. The second slide explains how these cultural forces shaped the actual historical events and actors.
Pop culture tells us the story of history.
Take the 1970s and the example my former student mentions.
This decade was sandwiched between the optimism of the 1960s to radically reshape America in the form of the Civil Rights Movement, the New Left, and the pill. And the 1980s’ attempt to reel those forces in.
In my lecture, I would point out the film Taxi Driver as the best way to understand the ’70s. I can’t say that I recommend the movie unless you want to be in a dark mood, but that was the ’70s. The decade was marked by a sense of turning inward. Many Americans no longer believed they could change the world, so they focused on changing themselves.
I would explain to my students that this turning inward led to a culture marked by cynicism and narcissism. To feed people’s longings for personal improvement, the self-help industry skyrocketed. The example of Jim Fixx’s The Complete Book of Running or Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex both informed the reader on how they can find personal fulfillment.
With my second explanatory slide I tell my students all of the calls for social change in the ’60s resulted in the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. Other major events like the Tet Offensive, the end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iran Hostage Crisis, and the economic stagflation perpetuated the longing people felt to turn inward.
We are kinda clueless.
Marshall McLuhan, the famous Canadian media commenter, frequently cited a metaphor of a fish in water to explain the relationship between people and media technologies. He believed, “One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water, since they have no anti-environment which would enable them to perceive the element they live in.”
Following McLuhan’s logic, we don’t know what media surrounds us or how we consume it, but it is an essential part of our lives.
When I got that email from my old student, I thought about McLuhan and what we could possibly see in our own water.
So I made a slide, as I am apt to, of what this election helped me to see more clearly in our water.
I focused on three major trends in popular culture that leaked out of our media and into our election process—movies, TV shows, and music.
I only made the first slide. I will leave the follow up explanations to the smarter, more politically minded scholars, journalists, and pundits.
Movies: Never trust the powers that be.
One trend in movies is a deep distrust of power structures. The one thing that is true of President Trump is that he is the most “outside the political power structure” candidate to serve as president. He is the first person to have never held any elected office or served in the military.
This distrust of power structures appears in as many blockbuster films as Samuel L. Jackson. I am thinking of Olympus Has Fallen, all fifteen Hunger Games, and the Purge series. All of these on a basic level have to do with a sense of corruption in the political power structure.
The interesting thing about studying popular culture is that the interpretation of it is up to the individual. Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast nailed this point. If you haven’t listened to it, stop reading, come back after your three-day binge, and start back at the beginning.
In an episode on satire, Gladwell highlights its ineffectiveness as a form of critique on society. He uses the example of The Colbert Report. In his late-night style talk show, Stephen Colbert thought he was satirizing conservative media, and a liberal audience loved him for it. But the interesting thing is that conservative viewers loved Colbert’s chastisement of liberal guests.
Applying Gladwell’s observations to these films, our society has a deep distrust for those in charge. We all want social change, and what that looks like changes with the viewpoint of the individual.
TV Shows: Conspiracy theory isn’t make believe.
A second trend in our cultural water is conspiracy theories. I realize that this builds off the last point, and that is intentional. An essential aspect of the Trump campaign was conspiracy theories from Ted Cruz’s dad plotting to kill JFK to Hillary Clinton suffering strokes.
The TV shows we love and consume are rife with grand conspiracy theories, even on network TV shows like The Blacklist, Blindspot, Scorpion, 24, and Prison Break to name only a few. Also, some of the most binge-watched TV series do the same thing, e.g., Stranger Things, Mr. Robot, Making a Murderer, and The Man in the High Castle.
In all of these shows, a conspiracy theory basically runs the world. The plots thicken as the characters try to undermine or reveal the reigning conspiracy.
Interestingly, these TV shows don’t have to do a lot of setup to get us, the audience, to understand the plot. That’s because we know what we are getting into. Conspiracy theory is one of our cultural categories, so we jump fully on the binge-watching bandwagon of these shows with merely a nod that there’s a covert organization ruling the world.
Music: Races aren’t relating.
A third trend in popular culture, and in many other facets of our world, is racial unrest. The discussion of race was a central element to both campaigns. One of Trump’s rallying cries was “Build the wall!” while Hillary focused on being “stronger together.”
One arena where this played out was in rap.
Full confession: I love rap music. I really love older rap, mostly because it originated as a form of social protest. Kind of like the music of the 1960s for an older generation where Bob Dylan, CCR, and others protested their cultural climate, early rap criticized urban decay, disparate wealth, and apartheid.
Over the past few years, rap has once again taken the social criticism of race relations in America into mainstream American culture.
Are you familiar with Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. No? Listen to it, then tweet me a thank you. This record received nominations and awards for its creativity and stood out for its social critiques.
My favorite song on the album is “How Much A Dollar Cost” The message is powerful in its critique of American greed and Christianity. In the song, Lamar recounts his encounter with drug addicts and panhandlers asking him for money. He turns them away. Eventually, one of the people asking him for money says,
Know the truth, it’ll set you free / You’re lookin’ at the Messiah, the son of Jehovah, the higher power / The choir that spoke the word, the Holy Spirit / The nerve of Nazareth, and I’ll tell you just how much a dollar cost / The price of having a spot in Heaven, embrace your loss, I am God.
The album also speaks to race relations in the track “Alright” where he rhymes,
And we hate po-po / Wanna kill us dead in the streets fo sho’ / Nigga, I’m at the preacher’s door / My knees gettin’ weak, and my gun might blow / But we gon’ be alright.
Maybe more recognizable rapper for some Fathom readers is Lecrae. He describes himself not as a Christian rapper, but a rapper that happens to be a Christian.
Lecrae burst onto the Christian music scene in 2004 with his record Real Talk. He rapped about not being ashamed of his Christian faith with catchy lyrics like, “Represent! Get krunk! / If you know you’re repping Jesus go ahead and throw it up.” In 2014, his seventh studio album Anomaly took on a different tone. This shift is best represented in his song “Welcome to America.” He declares,
I was born in the mainland / Great-grandpa from a strange land / He was stripped away and given bricks to lay / I guess you could say he a slave here / But I was made in America / So I don’t know a thing about that / All I know is Uncle Sam looking for me, working on his corner so I know I gotta pay tax / Getting paid in America / I was raised in America / And this is all I ever known / If I’m wrong then you better come save me America.
At the 2016 BET Music Awards, Lecrae stepped on stage. He gave a short, one-minute, beat-poet-esque rap that embodied the feelings and experience of many African Americans, especially those of faith, and solidified his stance as a voice against racial injustice:
They tellin’ us make “America Great Again”
I’m like, “Hol’ up, when was America great again?
Was it when they took us from our native land?
Or maybe it was when they took the natives’ land?”
Let me be quiet
’Cause being silent is pitiful
It’s something I never do
After Philando, man, I’m wondering where was you?
They ask for your opinion
All you thinking is revenue
I pray to God he make you a better you
Now, I know
Some of us we don’t know who we are
We’re too content with the gold and the cars
We got low self-esteem chasing dreams
With a goal in our heart
But society then drove us apart
Look at us from sellin’ dope to our own kind
To a dope rhyme
Radio then played it more times
Paid in more dimes
To some industry exec
From a private prison
With the rap money he invest
Now, I know you’re like is this rap or is this gospel
Look, all you need to know is that I was blind
Now I’m not though
Real recognize real
If they don’t love me like ‘Pac
They gon’ respect how I’m moving
And then I’m never gonna stop
’Cause we was taken from Africa
Sold and treated like animals
Culturally denigrated and separated from families
But somehow we made it this far
And stood firm
With nappy hairs and perms
And led for two terms
Seeing Our Water
This slide isn’t meant to say that I foresaw a landslide Donald Trump victory after the first presidential debate, or that this is the definitive answer to why Trump won or why Hillary lost. If I could answer those questions, I would have a high paying job in some coastal city asking my assistant to bring me more coffee, instead of sitting in a coffee shop typing away and refilling my endless mug.
This slide is not conclusive. It isn’t partisan. It isn’t authoritative, all-powerful, or all-knowing. It isn’t supposed to be. But by examining our cultural water, we begin to understand the longings within our culture to find some sense of secure footing in our turbulent world. This slide is just a fish trying to look at the cloudy water he swims in, and trying to understand how to swim in it.
Cover image by K Pastore.