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'General Clark, Madonna is on the line.'

By Clayton CollinsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 19, 2003



In 1988 we had Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle that he knew JFK, and that Mr. Quayle was no JFK. This year's pre-election identity disputes - still Democrat-vs.-Democrat at this point - may soon have candidates fighting over who knows Busta Rhymes, and who's hippest to the hip-hop artist's lyrics.

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Pop culture and presidential politics have overlapped for years. Kennedy himself appeared on the set with Jack Paar, father of all TV talk-show hosts. A generation later, President Clinton's bids to prove he was plugged-in included an MTV appearance in which he famously weighed in on boxers versus briefs.

But some of today's candidates seem even more determined to proclaim specific pop- culture allegiances and claim vital minutes of America's water-cooler chat time. And some experts say that reach is becoming a stretch.

With clear political distinctions tough for candidates to make, "hijacking culture and brands is the easy win," says Marian Salzman, executive vice president and chief strategy officer of Euro RSCG Worldwide, a New York advertising and corporate-communications firm.

Whether it's hijacking or just hitchhiking, there's a whole lot of it going on.

Wesley Clark quoted the OutKast song "Hey Ya!" to a student at Bowdoin College. ("Shake it like a Polaroid picture," declared the former NATO supreme commander, who picked up an endorsement from Madonna on Tuesday.) Howard Dean, a professed fan of rap-reggae star Wyclef Jean, also publicly hinted at his coziness with the pop term "metrosexual" - code for a very well-groomed urban male - before backing away from it, calling himself unclear on its meaning.

John Kerry dropped an "f-bomb" during a Rolling Stone interview early this month, either impassioned about President Bush's handling of Iraq or - as some critics have charged - calculating that the word would resonate with the magazine's aging-rocker readers.

Al Sharpton has made his own statement with a "Saturday Night Live" appearance.

Some observers say the surge in pop-culture references, and in candidate's "regular guy" behavior, is not about chasing any particular voter demographic. Rather, they say, it's about trying to notch broad, mass-media hits at a time when media interest, reflecting popular interest, runs more to entertainment than to serious debate.

"It's nice to think that we would be made a culture by sharing philosophy or religion or some aspiration," says James Twitchell, a professor of English at the University of Florida who writes extensively about American culture. [But] the lingua franca is no longer philosophy or even politics. The lingua franca is pop culture."

Choosing a reference that reflects particular, recognizable characteristics, he says, can offer a candidate an easy handle.

Pop culture first galloped into political discourse during the Clinton era, Mr. Twitchell says, "with Roger Ailes and the concepts of marketing as a way to make instant contact with your consumers, which is really what voters are." Lately the trend has gathered more speed.

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