Hear me out before you dismiss this.
Many people assume that politics is the main driving force of our civilisations. That it is people who make the laws that dictate how we live and what is acceptable.
I think they’re wrong. In fact, I believe that popular culture has more of an effect on politics than vice versa; and that any politician who understands this will wield more power than his opponents.
When George W. Bush was working on his second electoral campaign, his strategist Matthew Dowd discovered that many of the voters who Bush would appeal to liked Will & Grace, a show featuring numerous gay characters. What was Bush to do? He had just supported a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Well, he inundated the intermission within Will & Grace with adverts about his fight on terrorism. The irony was palpable, but it worked wonders.
See, popular culture tells you a lot about people. The fact that many Maltese people like Emmy Bezzina’s show and liberally use the phrase ‘shower time’ says more about them than who they vote for, particularly in a country where our political inclinations are as ingrained in us as our gender and skin colour.
Image: Emmy Bezzina
Think of the recent Michelle Muscat press conference. Her ‘my djiir’ comment, among others, sparked an almost-unprecedented backlash on the lady. Anyone following the incident could feel that there was a shift in the people’s attitude towards Mrs Muscat and all she has come to represent. They no longer liked the fact that she switched languages or the fact that she was outspoken about politics. They no longer liked the fact that she’s come to encompass the faux-pepe, the queen bees and the wannabes, either.
Not understanding this, the Prime Minister’s wife placed herself in the same place she always has, but received a very different response. The backlash wasn’t political, however. People didn’t address the real topic of that press conference, which was that the inmates hadn’t been paid a penny for their work. Instead, they commented on the way she pronounced the word ‘project’, on her henna tattoo, and on the fleeting smirk she had when she was talking about her trip being covered by the all-seeing eye that is ‘the media’.
Image: Michelle Muscat
The problem here lies with people who dismiss the rise of anything within popular culture; who fail to understand that Michelangelo, Albert Einstein, Grace Kelly and Kim Kardashian are all products of their time and the general attitude of the people who consume them and their work.
We hail some as enduring heroes and we assume others will be regretful fads – much like Aqua’s Barbie Girl was in the 90s and Eileen Montesin’s narrating the Eurovision was in the early 2010s – but in an age when popular culture has become an integral part of everyone’s lives, nothing is a coincidence or an accident.
Shyli’s Il-Patt didn’t go viral by accident; it was the result of years of indoctrination in which we were told that raw talent discovered online can lead to greatness. And so the moment we heard her sing and thought ‘hey, she’s good’, we introduced her into the Hall of Fame of local popular fads.
Image: Shyli Cassar
And it doesn’t stop at that. The divorce referendum was also a battle of cultures, and so was the 2013 General Election. Had these happened a few years before or after, the outcome might have been very different indeed.
So, my point is that while we watch YouTube videos, and read stories about Math teachers who get modelling contracts with Armani, we should look past the glamorous veneer and understand how they’re shaping our attitude to the world around us.
Why did Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball video result in her being called a slut, but we all cried when Jack painted Rose like one of his French girls? Why are we romanticising the history of Strait Street now, when a few years ago its reputation was in the gutter? Why did we feel the need to elect a Movement rather than a party in 2013? Why do we always feel the need to mention our victory of 1565? Why is smoking slowly becoming a taboo? Why did someone see it fit to throw a dead cow in the sea?
Like electricity, we may never fully understand how all this works (or why people consume things and regurgitate them without understanding the content and context), but we’d be stupid to underestimate its power.
What do you think of James’s argument? Let us know in the comments section below!