By Maura Johnston for the Tribune Media Wire
President Donald Trump’s scorched-earth rhetoric, nosediving approval ratings, and stated willingness to return the country to a point in the semi-distant past—one in which straight white men were assumed to have the ultimate power, both politically and culturally—makes the shying-away from him by Hollywood celebrities wholly unsurprising. Tolerance and forward-looking political movement aren’t just acceptable values for most celebrities to hold in the 2010s, they’re all but required.
One effect of Trump’s administration can already be seen: Artists are becoming more politicized in their public stances, eschewing the bromides of marketing-speak in favor of opposing President Trump and his surrogates on social media and in interviews. When Meryl Streep used her Cecil B. DeMille Award acceptance speech at this year’s Golden Globes to call out President Trump—not by name—for his mockery of New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, it seemed to if not open a floodgate, at least help it spring a leak. “This instinct to humiliate when it’s modeled by someone in the public … by someone powerful,” she said, “it filters down into everyone’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.”
President Trump’s response—which in part called out Streep for being a “Hillary lover”—found him on the defensive, and his calling Streep “overrated” in a tweet was laughed off by observers who had predicted that aspect of his response almost immediately after the ceremony ended.
Other artists have since followed suit, with some even taking on their fellow cultural producers. The Atlanta-born MC T.I. posted a lacerating open letter to President Trump that called out his “defining yourself as the representative for those who are and who always have been against US,” and expressing hope that he would ultimately “mend a gaping wound that has gone unattended for generations.” He also called out Kanye West and Steve Harvey for meeting with the president-elect, warning them and the public against being “bamboozled” and suggesting that they bring civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) “or somebody who can represent us” next time they took a meeting at Trump Tower.
The new political norms might be why so much of the inaugural entertainment looked like a throwback to the 1980s, the decade where Trump first rose to prominence: it featured the classical-crossover singer (and America’s Got Talent runner-up) Jackie Evancho, “God Bless the USA” crooner Lee Greenwood, the 81-year-old “Soul Man” singer Sam Moore, and Toby Keith, who in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks released a track touting the country’s ability to fight against its enemies by “put[ting] a boot in your ass.” In the eighties,government-sponsored events, like inaugurations or Independence Day celebrations, promoted an idea of culture that nodded to non-whites’ influence, but which adhered to an idea of “greatness” that was very rooted in Europe and the heartland.
Pop culture will probably not regress to a place in which Beyoncé is supplanted on the albums charts by Keith, or in which Evancho singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” takes radio airtime away from The Chainsmokers’ dour chart-topper “Closer.” (The latter, to be honest, might be preferable.) But Trump’s status as a celebrity president who is hated by celebrities helped further collapse the distinction between news and entertainment, as evinced by the moment that CBS chairman Les Moonves said that Trump’s once-improbable presidential run “might not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Moonves’s statement, which raised eyebrows in February 2016, seemed to be tacitly accepted by any network with a news division—as suggested by CNN’s hiring of Trump surrogates and former employees, or the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” cozying up to the then president-elect. NBC News has been particularly aggressive with its Trump-era rebranding, hiring former Fox anchors Greta Van Susteren and Megyn Kelly after cutting loose Melissa Harris Perry and Ronan Farrow and moving Joy Reid to weekend mornings. (That its tweaking of its schedule has also resulted in a whitening of its overall complexion doesn’t seem particularly coincidental.)
But television isn’t just obsessed with President Trump; Trump is clearly obsessed with television—and has been since his rise to tabloid prominence in the money-and-power focused eighties.
President Trump’s preoccupation with the televisual is reflected in his choice of topics for his 140-character missives—whether he’s live-tweeting Fox News segments about flag-burning or complaining about Alec Baldwin’s uncomfortably true-to-life caricaturing of him on Saturday Night Live—and wholly unsurprising given that his prominence on the national political stage was preceded—if not necessitated— by his time on the NBC show The Apprentice, the still-running reality show that was initially billed as “the ultimate job interview.” That President Trump (who was so invested in crafting his image that he would masquerade as his own press secretary when getting reporters on the horn in the earliest days of his notoriety) would ultimately be propelled to notoriety by reality TV, a roughly-massaged version of the truth that heightens conflict and turns everyday life into crudely-drawn cartoon versions of itself, was probably inevitable.
The irony of someone whose catchphrase was a spat-out “you’re fired” becoming the country’s would-be job-saver-in-chief is certainly high.
The crassness of President Trump’s signature send-off might serve as a bellwether for an increased cruelty in popular culture—although that might result in pushback like the row that erupted around the Adult Swim show Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Army. The sketch-comedy show was a favorite of the so-called alt-right—the loose conglomerate of President Trump supporters who traffic in memes and lightly -worn white nationalism— and creator Sam Hyde received adulation from its adherents for slipping in nods to that group’s loosely racist and sexist ideologies and inside jokes. After a few comedians and actors associated with the network complained publicly about the show, was yanked from the cult-beloved Cartoon Network’s block of late night programming.
Still, there’s more cruelty in store for television viewers in the Trump era: the game show Hunted, a 21st-century update of the game show at the center of Stephen King’s 1982 dystopian thriller The Running Man kicked off two days after Trump’s inauguration, looms., The show pits pairs of “fugitives” who have to stay out of sight for 28 days against a team of investigators—retired Navy SEALs, former cyber intelligence workers for the Army—who are on a mission to find them no matter what. While the prize this time out is $250,000and not a billion dollars plus bounty for any downed law-enforcement officers as it was in the book, the parallels are eerie enough. (That current Celebrity Apprentice decider-in-chief Arnold Schwarzenegger played the protagonist in the book’s 1987 film adaptation—which was set in 2017—is another dollop of irony on an already overladen pile of it.)
Television was the prime platform for President Trump’s ascendance—whether through The Apprentice or the hours and hours of free publicity that his rancorous rallies received—and it is a medium with a potentially short time between an idea’s genesis and its eventual airing, so its evolution over the coming years will likely serve as a barometer for how his presidency is affecting the country.
The first reaction from an entertainment outfit came the night just after the election, when the animated satire South Park on Comedy Central ran “Oh, Jeez,” its bewildered, yet laceratingly- funny response to the results of November 8. Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton was clearly not expected by creators Matt Parker and Trey Stone, as evidenced by the episode’s hastily written opening line, delivered by a cartoon newscaster: “And, uh, definitely a bit of a surprise here. Looks like America has voted for a change of pace. The world is in a bit of a shock, uh… is this? We’re… we’re for sure this is for real, right?”
That South Park, which has trafficked in the absurd since its launch nearly two decades ago, was so taken aback by the results of the 2016 election could be a bellwether for comedy, particularly the satire popularized by it and The Onion.
Other pop-cultural products have since geared up their responses. The January 11 episode of the ABC sitcom Black-ish, “Lemons,” was a response to the election hangover that seemed to overtake people in creative fields. Anthony Anderson’s character, Dre, plugged away at an advertising pitch with his seemingly frazzled co-workers—who, he assumed, all voted for Hillary Clinton, or at least against Trump. But as one of them revealed the reasons for pulling the Republican lever on November 8, the reaction from other coworkers was shocked and hurt, full of circular arguments that have the tang of being taken from true-to-life scenarios. The episode’s climactic scene, in which Dre talked about reconciling his love for his country with its treatment of black people, is a powerful statement on how much further this country has to go, and how the election of Trump has laid bare some of the tensions that were only bubbling underneath the surface. (It was also set to Nina Simone’s version of the horrifically poetic “Strange Fruit,” which only underscored the urgency of Dre’s words.)
Still, comedy might be far different deeper into the Trump era: the new president is not exactly known for his sense of humor, unless, apparently, it’s rooted in the outright mockery of others. That relative lack of mirthfulness would, on its own, make one wonder what comedy might look like over the coming years, but the newly emboldened Republican Party’s willingness to embody its most satirical depictions as actual policy only deepens the cunundrums of modern entertainment.
Take for instance, the statements by Maine Governor Paul LePage just before the inauguration, calling out Lewis for his comments about the legitimacy of Trump’s election. LePage told the Maine radio station WVOM, “John Lewis ought to look at history… It was Abraham Lincoln that freed the slaves. It was Rutherford B. Hayes and Ulysses S. Grant that fought against Jim Crow laws. A simple thank you would suffice.”
The statement is ludicrous on its own; it’s even more ludicrous given that it mirrored a sketch from the 1990s HBO sketch show Mr. Show With Bob And David, in which comedians Bob Odenkirk (now starring in Better Call Saul) and David Cross (The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret) sing a folk song taking partial credit for Lincoln’s actions: “Hey, you’re welcome/ Hey, don’t mention it/ Use that freedom in any way you like/ ‘Cause you’re not slaves no more.” (The two characters also take credit for other incremental bits of progress; the episode’s title is “A White Man Set Them Free.”)
Both Odenkirk and Cross noted the parallels on Twitter, although LePage did not mention having seen the show either during its original 1990s run or afterward. (It currently is available to stream via HBO’s on-demand platforms.)
Meanwhile, in December, The Hollywood Reporter ran a story about networks “shifting their program strategies” in the wake of Trump’s win. The network executives interviewed by THR talked a bit about class—and, to be clear, both scripted and reality TV have focused way too much on the well-to-do in recent years—but a sitcom featuring country superstar Reba McEntire and another starring “liberal redneck” Trae Crowder also got mentioned.
Already, the “peak TV” era of diversity-minded shows like FX’s Golden Globe-winning Atlanta and Black-ish—and other diverse responses to the streaming era’s swelling of options for distribution—stands in contrast to CBS’s entertainment programming this autumn, which re-introduced a slate of white male protagonists to its schedule (Kevin James of King of Queens was back in front of sitcom cameras, as was Matt LeBlanc of Friends). James’s sitcom, Kevin Can Wait, has performed well in the ratings, matching the numbers set by CBS stalwarts NCIS and Survivor; meanwhile the multi-cultural CW musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which accompanied its introduction of a white male character with a pointed double entendre about network-dictated demographics, is dead last in the ratings books.
The extent to which diverse or tolerant messages will be disseminated on a wider scale is still up in the air. The broadcast networks and their cable counterparts are owned by conglomerates that have their own agendas—chief among them making money, the process of which will be at least in part regulated by Trump’s federal government. Getting in the crosshairs of the president, whether because of an episode of a variety show or a scathing news report, could be a liability for any mega-conglomerate looking out for its bottom line, and the president has shown a unique willingness to use his public platform to try to make major corporations toe his policy line, be they automotive manufacturers or defense contractors.
Take, for example, Comcast, the parent company of NBC Universal: it became a target of Trump’s after the release of the Access Hollywood audio that put the ugly phrase “grab her by the pussy” into the national lexicon, and its flagship network NBC airs Saturday Night Live, which has been a frequent topic of Trump’s Sunday-morning tweeting because of its unflattering portrayal of the president-elect by Alec Baldwin.
In October, Trump said that the 2011 acquisition of NBCU by Comcast “concentrates far too much power in one massive entity that is trying to tell the voters what to think and what to do… We’ll look at breaking that deal up, and other deals like that.” Similarly, he’s made noise about the proposed merger between AT&T and Time Warner because of CNN, a Time Warner subsidiary that Trump sees as unnecessarily critical of his political aspirations. When AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson made a pilgrimage to New York’s Trump Tower last week, he said the meeting was “very good”—although Trump’s tweets immediately after about CNN, which had reported on Trump’s ties to Russia earlier in the week, being in a “total meltdown with FAKE NEWS” would indicate that he had less sanguine things on his mind.
Music is probably another instructive example of where the disconnect between what media consumers want and what international conglomerates are willing to offer may be further divided in the Trump era. There’s a wide divide between the pop music put out by top-40 radio stations and the music consumed heavily on streaming platforms. For example,“Bad and Boujee,” the sparse track by the Atlanta hip-hop collective Migos that’s currently number one on the Billboard Hot 100, is nowhere to be found on the trade publication’s Radio Songs chart, which details the songs getting the most airplay at the nearly-totally-corporate-dominated terrestrial radio market. And the previous Hot 100 number one “Black Beatles,” by the Atlanta brother act Rae Sremmurd, is at number eight on the Radio Songs chart, where Maroon 5’s gossamer bounce “Don’t Wanna Know,” which features a pallid verse by the often-incendiary MC Kendrick Lamar, holds the number one spot.
Pop radio has become increasingly white in recent years, particularly once the rigid beats of electronic dance music took hold of the airwaves; popular hip-hop and R&B songs tend to only enter its playlists after they’ve been elevated by sales, streaming statistics, or artists who already had a foothold in the charts. Beyoncé’s politicized “Formation,” for example, grabbed headlines after the release of its eye-dropping video and its Black Panthers-honoring performance at Super Bowl 50, but it didn’t make a dent on the airplay charts despite the tongue-wagging it caused.
Corporately distributed culture tells its own stories, often distinct from the culture at large: the increase in distribution options allows listeners and viewers to rewrite those narratives as they see fit—whether by making them more progressive and inclusive or by retreating further into bubbles of in-jokes and xenophobia.
Purchasing power will ultimately dictate which stories get told as much as—if not more than—any tweeted presidential edicts might—an example of the invisible market hand of which conservatives have traditionally been enamored. Witness the triumph of Hidden Figures, the story of three black women who worked behind-the-scenes on NASA’s space-race push to send an astronaut into orbit. Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe, the movie led the box-office race for two weeks running, and bested new releases like the Mark Wahlberg Boston Marathon bombing flick Patriots Day and the spendy boy-loves-his-truck story Monster Trucks.
Hidden Figures made back its $25 million budget during its second week in the box office, which should prove appealing to studio executives, while its story about African-American women triumphing over prejudice and sexism to advance American interests should bring in those moviegoers alienated by the gore-and-superheroes offerings that have dominated multiplexes in recent years.
The success of Hidden Figures also highlights that for all its bells and whistles, most popular culture is, at its core, about people and the stories that propelled them to their current stations in life. Last week’s inauguration of Trump as the 45th President of the United States will put those stories into a new light, one both reflected and refracted by the man taking office at the White House. The old feminist saw “the personal is political” will be reframed into the cultural being political, whether the artifacts in question are about women triumphing against institutional prejudices or sitcoms focused on the travails of crabby white men with attractive wives.