“If you want to send a message,” movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn once said, “call Western Union.”
Translation: The job of entertainers is entertainment. Leave politics to the politicians. Controversy just alienates the audience.
But Goldwyn is dead 30 years, and in 2004, his maxim has been buried with him. This year more than ever, artists are using their art to make a difference in the electoral process — to inspire voters to follow their lead at the polls.
“Fahrenheit 9/11” has smashed the box-office record for documentaries. In arenas around the country, music stars are performing with the hope they’ll get people to vote — the way they want them to. Even punk rockers have gotten back into the act, while painters and sculptors have been infused with an election-year muse.
Some of the politicization of entertainment is neutral. “America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction” by the writers of “The Daily Show” tops the best-seller list, while Jon Stewart’s Comedy Central program mocks both candidates equally.
But many in the entertainment industry are sending a partisan message, and they’re not relying on Western Union. Lopsidedly, their candidate is John Kerry over President Bush. Still, it remains an open question whether they will sway any voters.
But does it sway the voters?“It is more likely that someone who hears a celebrity speak out for a specific candidate will form a new opinion about that celebrity as opposed to forming a new opinion about the candidate,” maintains Robert Thompson, a professor of media and culture and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. “Political opinion tends to run deep, and one celebrity is unlikely to change that in any but the most fickle and truly undecided.”
Kevin M. Scott of Elizabethtown (Pa.) College also doubts Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Vote for Change” tour will change any minds. But he suspects it “might get a Kerry supporter to become more involved, volunteer time, and this might lead to more voters.”
And that winds up being a de facto rebuttal to the criticism it’s all just “preaching to the choir,” says Kathy M. Newman, associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.
“As a wise mentor once pointed out to me, most preaching IS to the choir,” she says. “In other words, like the preaching of a favorite pastor, political culture energizes the base, cleanses the soul, reinvigorates the congregation, allows time for reflection and contemplation, and provides a gathering place.”
Terry Paulson, a psychologist and author of “The Dinner: The Political Conversation Your Mother Told You Never to Have,” sees the rash of movies, concerts, book, comedy tours and TV shows as “a reflection of suppressed anger over the contested election of George W. Bush in 2000 that has finally been free to surface.”
“The ‘selected not elected’ mantra that was so strong early was silenced by the need to rally in support of a leader facing the 9/11 tragedy and a war against terrorism,” Paulson says. “But the questionable war on Iraq and the lack of weapons of mass destruction has unleashed that early anger with a passion that spills over into popular movies and a public ready to see them.”
So entertainers can help frame and propel election year discourse.
A lesson from Michael MooreJim Farrelly, director of film studies at the University of Dayton and pop culture expert, credits Moore “with teaching the media how to cover a president and his politics with both insight and panache.”
“His early assault on President Bush ... has clearly shown that a popular culture icon is better equipped to capture and expose the mendacious world of politics to viewers in ways that no seasoned anchorperson or prize-winning, live and on-the-scene journalist is even willing to attempt.”
Moore and his fellow filmmakers — with such movies as “Silver City,” “Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry” and “Bush’s Brain” — have their work complemented by the likes of “The Daily Show,” Farrelly notes.
“Add to the mix the antics of Letterman, Leno,” he says, “and you’ve got a TV version of ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ playing in our living room five nights a week.”
Certainly “celebrity politics” is not a new phenomenon in American history. During World War II Hollywood stars sold bonds, entertained the troops, even enlisted. In the 1960 presidential election, Frank Sinatra famously supported John F. Kennedy.
But in the past, celebs typically would simply speak out on their pet topics — not use their art to rock the vote. At the 1973 Academy Awards, Marlon Brando refused to accept his best actor Oscar for “The Godfather” to protest treatment of American Indians, and Vanessa Redgrave collected her statuette for 1977’s “Julia” while railing against “Zionist hoodlums” challenging her pro-Palestinian sympathies.
In the late 1960s and throughout the ’70s and ’80s, many of the world’s biggest music stars organized concerts that attacked the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, world hunger, environmental destruction and corporate greed.
But for a long time, people in the entertainment industry bent over backward to be apolitical, too.
Going out of their way not to alienateThe old Hollywood studio bosses, including Goldwyn, were careful not to engage in politics except to frame a “perfect” America through their movies, points out Allan Saxe, a University of Texas (at Arlington) associate professor of political science. “They went out of their way mostly not to alienate anyone,” he says. “They understood the importance of Hollywood and the effects it could have.”
Hartwick College political science professor Andrew Seligsohn in Oneonta, N.Y., sees one of the most important developments during the 2004 presidential election as the willingness of entertainers to support specific candidates, rather than issues. In the past, he says, they “sought to avoid the impression that they are shilling for someone.”
Syracuse’s Thompson sees that change, too.
“One could argue, for example, that a great percentage of the rock ’n’ roll music industry during the late ’60s and early ’70s was all about politics,” Thompson says. “It was the soundtrack of the counterculture during the Vietnam era. The difference here, of course, was that most of the counterculture was supporting neither candidate in, say, 1968.”
Even as they voice support for the man they want to see in the White House, celebrities generally offer less “politicized entertainment” than before, argues Mark Rubinfeld, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.
“There are less truly original, thought-provoking, countercultural movies being produced by Hollywood. There are fewer rock stars and movie stars who are willing to openly challenge the American political system or, for that matter, the American economic system,” Rubinfeld says.
Without a doubt, songs about bling-bling and bedding down women abound — as do movies that are all about explosions and special effects. The No. 1 prime-time TV program is a typically apolitical police procedural (“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”). And bookstores offer tons of tomes in the nonfiction section that can take you away from it all.
But Carnegie Mellon’s Newman disagrees with the notion that people really want “escapist” entertainment.
“Entertainment, in order to be successful, has to connect with something that has meaning in people’s lives,” says Newman, who specializes in media studies and wrote “Radio Active: Advertising and Consumer Activism, 1935-1947.”
Even the popular 1957 romantic musical “The Pajama Game” starring Doris Day and John Raitt was about a strike in a textile factory, she says.
And Thompson concurs: “Although films and entertainment do feed an escapist appetite, escapism and relevance are not mutually exclusive. ‘All in the Family’ was probably the best example of that.”