Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Obey Obama

My initial reservations about Barack Obama were musical. It's the cadence. Speaking-wise, the man's got no soul. I can't tell the difference between Obama's dry, clipped over-enunciation and Dave Chappelle mocking white people. Yes, I get it: the danger he faces if he talks with too much energy or groove is that he'll be perceived as too "black." But I've recently partaken of The Audacity of Hope and after a few pages of his vanilla sentiments my vision went blurry and my body went into auto-nap mode. I guess I've trained my brain to tune out after 30 seconds or more of anything ridden with cliche and Obama didn't pass the test. I have a similar problem with sermons, small talk and bar blues.

Like I said, these are musical considerations, not political. But lately it's no longer just Obama's whiteness that's turning me off, it's the branding. The feeling that we are not so much electing a leader as buying one. Obama Fever is looking like just another cultural trend - like iPods, Cabbage Patch dolls and Baby-on-Board window clings - tapping the pleasure centers of our taste-obsessed brains. Yet we treat it like political Pentecost. The American herd of consumer cows (of which I am usually one of the loudest moo-ers) have received their orders, selected Brand O and are are now happily munching that patch of grass. That's no movement.

I might be wrong, but I can't shake the feeling that people have convinced themselves Obama's campaign is meaningful for the same reason they form opinions about the moral character of contestants on reality-based TV competitions. They're presented with a media-savvy and media-vetted package in the form of a person, get a vibe, and surmise broadly about the whole based on narrow windows of feeling.

As far as the mainstream media goes, there is simply no dissent left in this matter. From the New York Times to Metro Times to Rolling Stone to NPR to the brave T-shirt endorsements of the Hollywood elite - nobody is bothering to challenge the assertion that Obama represents Change with a capital C. Nobody questioning whether or not an Obama presidency will merely be a bandaid on the severed limb of our political process, when a blowtorch is in order. And where are the anarchist impulses saying that what we really need is not tweaks but for the system to crash before we can build a new one (I actually sat next to a self-described anarchist this past weekend at a wedding and about choked on my cake when I found out she was sweet on Obama - her excuse was that that she was actually a fan of Mrs. Obama).

Last week I was wasting time at a Chicago Urban Outfitters with one of my best friends, a beautifully strange man with a progressive, ingenious mind. More than anything I have always admired this person's free thinking and consistently whacky take on the Zeitgeist. And yet, he's all about the Obama. As we wandered the rows of screen-print tees and came upon a stack of them with the famous Obama/Change logo I asked: "Doesn't it bother you that your man has a T-Shirt at Urban Outfitters?" His reply was: "Whatever it takes..."

The Obama=Change propoganda graphic is the most terrifying thing in all this, the real drinking-the-Koolaid factor. It was created by Shepard Fairey, a conceptual street artist whose anti-branding campaign Obey, featuring an ominous graphic of Andre the Giant's face above that one-word command, was stickered across urban areas nationwide in the '90s.

Fairey's message was a satire of branding and mocked the simple emotional math of advertising by playing with the fascist Dear Leader iconography of dictatorships like Stalinist Russia and Sadaam's Iraq. I was all about this anti-campaign and since then have considered myself a big fan of Fairey's gorgeous and biting work. (Last year I was doing an I-hate-cops rant on this blog and posted one of his pieces, which contrasted a wholesome-looking, grinning police officer with the caption: I will kick your ass... and get away with it.)

The fact that a talent like Fairey, of all people, would throw his weight behind something so loaded as a branding a political figure's face is really confusing and disappointing to me. That he would paint, literally and figuratively, in such broad strokes as to market Obama as a political solution - by simply playing on our want of a cure - with his rosy graphics... sucks. I can't tell if this is some huge inside joke on the part of Fairey or what. But either way, when I see his omnipresent Obama propaganda I feel as if I'm staring at murals of the Ayatollah.

Maybe I'm just a contrary person - in the past, the more liberal my friends' views, the more libertarian mine have become. But I hate that people are so casually talking about change, or looking at an Obama victory as some kind of mini-revolution. When the truth is our country is sick and all we're doing is electing a bi-racial candidate for the first time who happens to have great taste in clothes, a good jump shot, a feel-good agenda and a charming manner.

I'm not saying that Obama is bad for America. I'm saying that this election is practice for the end times. As a species we've mutated - we now have antennae in our brains that are efficient receivers of cultural marching orders. For the most part the effects of this are harmless - it just causes us to do things like spend above our means. But it also puts a ton of power in the hands of the people who beam those messages out. Should they wield it beningly, like they are now by selling us an affable Senator who tickles our liberal impulses by looking the way we feel America should look, nobody gets hurt. But it creeps me out and smells like the beginnings of some real 1984 shit.

In the 2004 election the media decided to endorse the ouster of Bush (although with less force) and they failed. I know there was much sadness amongst my friends, but I felt secretly (very, very secretly) that it was a positive sign: ignorant or not, America still can't be told what to think. Four years later, I'm not so sure.


mike said...

great take, i'm spreading this around.

The Dark Tower said...

I'm in agreement completely politics is still politics. I think any politician who campaigns is playing the game period. They say your first two years is administration the last two is campaigning.

On the one hand we've the bullshit express on the other we have loose change...

"You say you wanna revolution but wheres the plan, ya know?"

Marie Lasferatu said...

I have not been able to properly express my unease about the perfection that is, apparently, Obama. My boyfriend and I go around and around on this. He's all about Obama. My spidey sense tingles, but I just outright vomit when I see McCain. I most definitely agree, the system is a limbless dead horse being dragged down the street by a stolen pick up truck. DEAD.

man or mouse? said...

a bit of clarification on my part:

Politicians have been branding and marketing themselves since the dawn of democracy. Yes, I condone it; i think there's many shades of how misleading or harmful a campaign's brand can be. Obama has a brand, but excluding the handful of anarchists voting for him, i don't think his supporters expect some state-smashing, constitution-rewriting "change." For his center-left supporters, that would be too much change.

Still, there's a big difference in the state-sponsored branding in Stalinist Russia and North Korea, and the pro bono (although certainly campaign-approved) branding done by Fairey. He endorses Obama, and should be allowed to use his skills to that effect. Urban Outfitters is just a willing capitalist; they fully know that McCain shirts are unlikely to sell in their shopping demographic. Obama Posters in the Post Office, now that would be alarming.

If Fairey's print reminds you of propaganda posters, that's his intent: propaganda posters are the most significant influence on his style. He likes the look. In his own words: "I don't believe in the political content of the posters done under Mao or the early Soviet constructivists stuff but it's still really great to look at." (1) Naturally, some may read the image as an echo of Big Brother, despite Fairey's best efforts to place the image in a new context (the shirt might omit the text cycling on the poster: HOPE, PROGRESS, or CHANGE).

However, the big brother interpretation (or lack of?) can't be faulted to the Obama campaign or Fairey. They just want to excite and motivate people; every campaign wants that.

I don't think the branding is one-sided--lil' Bush marketed himself to great effect in 2004. His taglines were "war on terror" "culture of life" and to great effect, "flip-flopper." Equally as non-specific as "change" and "progress." There were (are) Bush shirts, with similar iconography, available through first-party advertisers on and for example. You didn't see these in UO because college kids tend to be left, but i did see people wearing these in areas north of I-696 in michigan. The sellers, and the campaign, know their audience (see or for all sorts of fun t-shirt prints).

McCain has attempted to brand himself as a hero (did you watch the RNC?) and as experienced (no on-the-job-training). It hasn't been as effective-- not because Obama is getting a media pass, but because McCain supporters are splintered: Hard-core Bush conservatives are skeptical he's a die-hard republican, moderate conservatives are turned off when he pretends to be a die-hard republican. His Grassroots support never congealed., and further splintered after the economic crisis.

Whether or not people are being told what to think must be considered both from the loser's and winner's perspective. What the fuck is a "war on terror" anyway? or a "culture of life"? I'm from the perspective that those platitudes were sold to an unquestioning public. Perhaps it's more true that the media can't effectively tell people *which* bullshit to buy.

Certainly both Obama and McCain are flawed. My ideal candidate would be a bastard cross of Jeffrey Sachs and Fareed Zakaria; but i understand McCain might be someone else's ideal candidate, as might Obama. Personally, I think the idea of an ideal candidate is fundamentally flawed. I will still expect the marketing of "ours is the ideal candidate" to be pushed by all sides every election cycle.

Again, i condone it. This season's campaign marketing is relatively benign compared to what Bush did to McCain in the 2000 primary season, or the swift-boating that sunk Kerry. It's a matter of degree. An Obama shirt? Harmless, compared to the kind of pro-jesus, pro-republican, burn-in-hell shit that fills truck stops all over the midwest.
Is Travel America a larger chain than UO? unknown.

In 2000, i was 21, unnaturalized, and without the right to vote. It was disheartening to hear so many of my peers didn't vote (in 2000 and 2004) as 'protest.' That isn't protest; protest makes noise, protest makes things inconvenient. People on the left side of politics have been apathetic and greatly outnumbered by those rallied behind religion and xenophobia. If t-shirt sold at UO gets a college student to vote, or at the least consider the political process as something to participate in, then i think that's a good thing.

love and respect,

(1) Shepard Fairey: Obey Obama, interview

Daniel said...

Man or mouse, huh? That's funny. I seem to remember knowing somebody of questionable origins and a moving Chilean immigrant story. He had long, spindly fingers like E.T., a round Koala bear face, substantial pecs and unruly nose hairs. A repulsive creature.

The Fairey thing is a bitter pill for me. I think he was making an important point and I feel that he's totally selling his own work out. I know that politicians have always used branding (Teddy Roosevelt reinventing himself as a naturalist comes to mind) but saying that doesn't mean it's a good thing - it just means it's more of the same. And that was kind of my point in a nutshell, that Obama is more of the same in a sleek package.

I'm not critiquing Obama (I merely think he has an unremarkable platform) as much as "love" of Obama. Advertising plays on simple formulas of persuasion. Create an emotional response in a person, and then present them with the name and image of your product. Then, by association, you're suppose to equate the two. It's cheating and it's a low form of communication. Manipulation really. Fairey's Obama/Change t-shirt is a cheap statement. It looks cool, takes for granted that you aren't happy with the state of the world, shows you a face and a name and hopes your mind will connect the dots. I'm sorry, but I resent it. Especially from Fairey, who should know better.

You know, I was going to pencil in Tim Gunn on my ballot, but shit, you're totally right: Zakaria in 08!

Daniel said...

Oh, and you also have the distinction of being the first person to comment on my blog (any blog?) and use a numbered footnote system.

man or mouse? said...


unfortunately, that footnote system made it only as far as 1. pathetic.