Last week I drew from Benedict Anderson to introduce the notion of a national imaginary — those ideas and ideals that help link us to a national community from which we are otherwise separated by space and experience. Last week I discussed football; this week I’ll consider music and celebrity culture.
You might ask why I’m not talking about movies or hugely popular shows like Mad Men. Part of the answer is that you can’t cover everything — which is actually one of the arguments of this column.
In a previous era (say that of Jefferson and the Federalist Papers, or of William Dean Howells) when the political dimension of a national identity was arguably the strongest force linking people across the land, you could cover everything. At least, culture was approached in fewer, larger and more widely accepted blocks of importance.
With the advent of mass media, however, you have an explosion of means for people to link into a network of shared experience. However, if mass media and the Internet have brought about a democratization of cultural production — so that any schmuck with time on his hands can develop a wildly lucrative blog site for a niche-national audience (I’m thinking Hyperbole and a Half and XKCD) — it has also brought about an overload of available options for the consumer.
That said, music seems a good candidate for observing our national imaginary. And where better to look than American Top 40, a show that has aired with incredibly consistency since 1970. This week, the top songs included Katy Perry’s “Wide Awake,” Demi Lovato’s “Give Your Heart a Break,” and David Guetta’s “Titanium feat. Sia.”
One element that sticks out in the videos for these hits is their fantasy quality — with the Perry and Guetta video explicitly portraying imagined worlds that overlap with reality. Though Guetta is a French artist, the popularity of his work in U.S. culture means that it shapes our national sense of self, and involves us in an international imaginary. The video indicates that one value of this imaginary is resistance to societal forces of law and order that crush the fragile individual’s power.
In Lovato’s video, we have an appeal to a hesitant lover through a mosaic of the couple plastered to a warehouse and consisting of thousands of pictures Lovato has assembled. Lovato’s video suggests that media has become an integral part of how we think of our human relationships. Rather than a verbal or written argument, her character creates an assemblage of photos that both stands in for memory and argues for a joint future.
Perry’s video is interesting because it ties directly into our use of celebrity. Of course Perry plays just as much in gossip columns as Billboard lists. And perhaps the reason we are so fascinated with celebrities is that, like TV and music, they provide a common store of experiences: drama, fashion, moral dilemmas, etc., over which we all can argue. But is it possible that celebrity culture is just a screen for working out our own issues?
Freud argued as much about dreams in his influential “Interpretation of Dreams,” in which he claimed that the actual content of our nocturnal imaginings is immaterial, while the real “work” of dreams is finding ways for the latent wishes of the unconscious to express themselves in the disguised form of fantasy. A video like Perry’s, which includes an imaginative romp through a labyrinthine dreamscape with a younger, powerful version of herself, reinforces the idea that mass media, in addition to shaping conscious values, provides a common store of malleable images through which we can each experience the catharsis of different, latent wishes.
With the imaginary and the virtual on the rise, what about what we call the actual? At the same time that we are experiencing this boom in virtual culture, we see a growth of local concern for CSA programs, local music, neighborhood recycling, etc. Perhaps the very expansion of audience means smaller endeavors have the ability to succeed. Or is this local concern a necessary anchor to our fascination with the possibilities of a virtual imaginary that allows us to engage the fantastic to an unprecedented level?
Bill Phillips is in his second year of Doctoral studies in English at Ole Miss. He is from Augusta, Ga.
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