Friday, December 9, 2011

Media in Politics

I wonder if Frank Luntz is a Green Day fan.  When I was in seventh grade, the band’s song “American Idiot” happened to be on of my favorite tunes, though the thirteen-year-old version of myself failed to grasp any meaning behind it.  Now however, I understand the messages Green Day is trying to convey to its fan base, and I can’t help but feel that Mr. Luntz may have been an inspiration behind the angry single.
“Don’t want a nation under the new media”
            This is the second line of the song, and could almost be a direct reference to Frank Luntz, who has made a career as a political consultant by figuring out what kinds of words trigger which emotions from people.  In doing this, he can invent phrases or terms for Republican candidates to use in their speeches, as to get a better reaction from viewers.  There’s only a teeny tiny little problem with this:  One basic rule in the media world is that media personnel must tell the truth, and a lot of times, Luntz “rewords” things to a point where it is no longer accurate.  For example in 2007, in an interview on Fresh Air, Luntz talked about his new term for oil drilling, which was “energy exploration.”  He said that this term was appropriate because, when he showed pictures of oil drilling to people, they agreed that the pictures looked more like exploring than they did drilling.  Terry Gross, the host of Fresh Air, responded to this by asking Luntz, “Should we be calling it what it actually is, as opposed to what somebody thinks it might be?  The difference between exploring and actually getting out the oil – they’re two different things, aren’t they?”  And I have to say, I agree with the host on this one. 
            Similarly, Luntz has stated many times that he is good at what he does because he is a good listener, and by being a good listener, he gives people what they want.  I couldn’t agree less.  In politics, when people don’t agree on an issue, they’re typically looking for a change in policy, not a change in the way the issue is worded.  If people were really listened to, politics would be less about marketing and Luntz’s “pretty words”, and more about, well, politics.  Take the issue of global warming, for instance.  Luntz told republicans to start referring to the issue as “climate change” instead, because it doesn’t sound near as severe, and would therefore help conservatives to gain more support on the issue.  The only thing wrong with this is that it turned out the global warming actually was a serious problem, and by making it sound milder, Luntz only delayed work that needed to be done. 
“I’m not a part of a redneck agenda”
            This next line, while a bit stereotypical, does hold a little truth behind it.  A few years ago, Luntz sent a memo to President Bush, giving him a marketing tip:
The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science....Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field.
            I don’t know about you, but to me it kind of sounds like Luntz is trying to keep the truth from the people, in order to make this country into a more conservative agenda. 
Now everybody do the propaganda”
            Luntz uses a few different types of propaganda in his marketing techniques, but I’m not so sure propaganda should be involved when politicians are talking about issues.  Maybe if a candidate has to spice up his word choice in order to convince people that something is a good idea, he should spend less time changing words and more time revising his ideas.  Two main types of propaganda that Luntz uses when he’s working are name-calling and glittering generalities.  Name-calling is where you use negative words to associate with something that you don’t want people to be in favor of, like when Luntz renamed the estate tax as “death tax.”  Glittering generalities is where words with positive connotations are used to advertise something that you want people to be in favor of. 
            In the future, I hope we see politics start becoming more about the politics themselves, and less about marketing and advertising.  If Mr. Luntz continues with his work, I hope also to see a decrease in the amount of manipulation used.  I hope he sees the error of his ways if he has not already, and starts using his talent for good instead.  I want to hear political issues stated as plainly as possible, because I, Mr. Luntz, am no American Idiot.  

Monday, November 7, 2011

Going, Going, Gaga

            In a society where it is in a female musician’s best interest to wear the latest fashion trends to her concert, one would think appearing on stage as a man or in raw meat would be a no-no.  When other lady pop stars have seen unlimited success cranking out love ballad after love ballad, writing and recording lyrics questioning religious beliefs or political standpoints sounds career-damaging.  And when the same woman can choose to have an expert plan out exactly how her concert should go, down to what to say and when to say it to ensure maximum success, improvising a good amount of each show has the potential to be quite disastrous for her.  But time after time, Lady Gaga continues to do all of the above, defying the odds while risking her career.
            The other day, I listened to two students conversing about their favorite artists and their exhibits of artistic courage.  One guy was saying how David Bowie was known for appearing on stage in a skirt, which was apparently a bold move.  The girl responded by telling him about when Christina Aguilera came out with a retro album, abandoning her usual pop sound.  From what I gathered, the girl was very impressed with this risky business of Ms. Aguilera’s.  After the students finished making their points, I couldn’t help but think, if that’s considered artistic courage, then Lady Gaga must be the General Patton of the music industry.  Every move the singer/songwriter makes is sink or swim, pass or fail, make it or break it.  In other words, she doesn’t waste her time playing it safe, as most other artists do at least once in a while.  In fact, she started taking risks before she was even a well-known artist. 
            How did she do this?  The answer is simple:  By staying true to herself, which is easier said than done nowadays.  Ever since the birth of MTV, the vast majority of people have become less taken with the music itself and more obsessed with the “visual.”  Don’t believe me?  Think about it.  Would Ke$ha have been able to stay afloat back in the fifties, where she couldn’t rely on her music videos and soundboard to help her out?    On the flipside, how would someone like Buddy Holly, with his thick-framed glasses, have fared trying to record an album today?  Because of this transfer of emphasis from audio to image, less-talented, better-looking people are given the best opportunities, sucking the originality right out of music as we knew it.  But Lady Gaga refused to let record labels change her look and lyrics, which is why it took her a while to get a contract and also why she is so popular today.  When something original comes along, it generally forces people to form an opinion about it, which is why everyone either really loves or really hates Gaga and her bold ways. 
            One of the best examples of this was back in 2009 during the VMA’s.  At this point in time, Gaga wasn’t known for being as over-the-top as she is today.  She was in the middle of performing her song, “Paparazzi”, when she suddenly started bleeding and stumbling around on stage, appearing as though she was actually injured.  Since Gaga hadn’t done anything like this before, the audience started to panic, thinking something might actually be wrong with the singer.  Afterwards, people weren’t sure how they felt about this, many finding it somewhat offensive.  Which is funny, seeing less than a year later, it was probably these same people in outrage when Gaga’s music video for her single, “Alejandro” was released, mixing nuns, Nazis, and sadomasochism all together into one big, kid-friendly production.  Yes, the whole fake blood incident was likely forgotten around the same time.
            What these people are failing to realize, however, is that this is exactly what our music industry needs right now – I mean, let’s be honest, Justin Bieber, Britney Spears, and Lil Wayne don’t exactly reach the same intensity level or emotional depth that was achieved by Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, or The Beatles.  Something is definitely needed, something off-the-wall, jaw-dropping, inspiration-sparking, and thought-provoking that is going to give the rest of today’s artists a little kick to get started, and Gaga has just shot off the pistol. 
I hope that in the next few years, these changes will start becoming apparent, because I personally am growing weary of listening to all these empty songs by manufactured artists.  I hope we see more people like Gaga bringing fresh and innovative ideas to the industry’s table, so that simply being creative is no longer considered controversial.  In other words, I hope we will see the music industry return to what it used to be about – meaningful lyrics, talented musicians, and a whole lot of originality.  

Friday, October 7, 2011

Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott?

“Everybody knows when you go to the show
you can't take the kids along.
You've gotta read the paper and know the code
of G, PG, and R, and X,
and you gotta know what the movie's about
before you even go.
Tex Ritter's gone, and Disney's dead,
and the screen is filled with sex.”

-Statler Brothers, “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott”

This quote represents a thought that I hope has crossed more minds than just those of the Statler Brothers. Being a child of the nineties, most of the movies that have been out since my birth have been tainted with unnecessary and alarming sex and violence. There used to be a time when a family could go to the theatre and Mom and Dad didn’t have to have their hands ready to cover their offspring’s eyes in order to preserve their innocence. In fact, when movies were first being made, there was a code of conduct that said an on-screen kiss could last a maximum of three seconds.  Nowadays, it’s hardly considered a kiss if it only lasts that long. The same goes for violence; it used to be that the most violence you ever saw in a film was a shootout between John Wayne and some other unfortunate cowboy (I’ve watched enough Westerns to understand that pattern – nobody outshoots John Wayne), but the 42 or so “Saw” movies blew every one of Mr. Wayne’s gunfights out of the water about one hundred times over with non-stop gore and what I’ll refer to as “body-chopping,” for lack of a better term.  How did this happen?  How can the popular movie of the year go from 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz,” which I have been able to enjoy with my family since the day I was born, to 2009’s “Inglorious Basterds,” where, watching from between my fingers, I witnessed multiple human scalpings, a man be clubbed to death, and a Nazi soldier get a Swastika engraved onto his forehead with a field knife? 
To understand my theory on what changed the movie industry, we must go back in time.  In fact, let’s go back again to 1939.  During this time, the Motion Picture Production Code had been in operation for nine years and would continue to do its job of censoring the content of movies until 1968.  Basically, the MPPC decided what was and wasn’t appropriate for a public audience, and they were pretty strict. Along with the on-screen kiss rule, movies produced in the U.S. couldn’t show any kind of sexual relations between an unmarried couple, the mixing of different races, or even a pregnant woman. I figure that all these regulations probably made producers want to push the boundaries a bit since, as we see all the time nowadays, racy movies tend to attract a larger audience. Now, along with “The Wizard of Oz,” the other movie cleaning up at award ceremonies in 1939 was “Gone With the Wind.”  I remember a scene in this movie where a handsome, strong, Clark Gable sweeps Vivien Leigh (who was a distressed damsel if I’ve ever seen one) into his arms and carries her up the stairs and into a bedroom.  The next scene shows Vivien Leigh in bed the following morning with the covers pulled up around her, and Clark Gable sitting at the end of the bed, smoking a cigar. The producers might not have been allowed to show exactly what happened between the two that night, but the audience understood anyway.  This scene was considered racy for its time period, and people loved it.  I don’t know if “Gone With the Wind” was the pivotal point for the movie industry or not, but I do know that through the years, more and more sex and violence get incorporated into films.  The only difference is now, adding a sexual or violent scene into a movie isn’t considered pushing boundaries – it’s almost expected that one of the two if not both will be present at one point.  And to me, this is sad.  Yeah, there are some movies where a little adultery or a few punches are quite necessary to the plotline, but there are others, however, that only add it in for some confusing (and most likely perverted) reason.  Take, for example, “Black Swan”, which I had originally been planning on watching with my dad.  I really enjoyed that movie, but there was this one, out-of-the-blue sex scene that wasn’t at all needed to make it a good movie.  It was a little part, but it was so racy and uncalled for that I was highly grateful that my father wasn’t in the room. 
Don’t misunderstand me – it’s not like I think the MPPC should come back and control what does and doesn’t make it into theaters.  I really do believe that there are some instances when scenes that are a little hard to watch do belong in movies to get a point across, but more often than not, those moments can be left out of the final product.  I hope that one day, things will start turning around and movie producers will be able to do what they did once before, and make movies that don’t wander so far off the plot trail and into barbaric territory.  Maybe there could be some sort of code of conduct that decides how long a sex/violent scene should last, or if it should make it into the movie at all.  I take pride in the fact that when I watch a movie, the determining factors of whether or not I liked it revolve more around emotional truths, original ideas, or other things that leave me thinking about the movie long after I’ve left the theater.  I don’t care quite as much about how many guys Bruce Willis will have killed by the end of the film, nor do I wish to see all the intimate details between Kate Winslet and her newest lover.  I hope that one day these things will change.  I hope that in the future I’ll be able to go to the theater with my kids and without worry about what they’ll be exposed to. 

“Whatever happened to Randolph Scott
has happened to the industry.”

         Thank you, Statler Brothers.  I couldn’t have said it better myself.