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Pop and Politics: Susan Faludi, Lady Gaga and the It Gets Better Project

October 15, 2010 | 11:00 am

GAGA_GETTY_IMAGES_3_Here’s an old-fashioned idea: pop culture is bad for you. Social arbiters have long worried  about what happens to people when they fall for noisy music, movies or a hot dance craze. The latest is the esteemed progressive writer Susan Faludi.  She’s caused an uproar in feminist circles by publishing a cover story in Harper’s magazine that skewers young feminists for not respecting their elders. One thing she blames for their brattiness is pop. 

“American Electra:  Feminism’s Ritual Matricide” is an oddly personal lament about intergenerational mistrust and mistreated legacies. Trashing young feminists’ interest in eyeshadow and queer theory, Faludi invokes the frightening specter of "the weightless, ahistorical realm of the commercial, a realm that promises its inhabitants a perpetual nursery where no one has to grow up."

Searching for a root to this problem, she settles on 1920s flappers -- scorned in their day for loving dirty blues and the tango -- and calls out every alarmist's whipping girl, Lady Gaga, as today's bad jazz baby.

I hate to take issue with Faludi, whose work I so admire. Other feminists have already rebutted her argument. But somebody’s got to speak from that weightless place, to give it some gravity.

Feminism has always tangoed cautiously with consumerism. Remember Gloria Steinem’s sunglasses, the dyed-purple T-shirts of the lesbian Lavender Menace, 1980s power suits, and the D.I.Y. zine empire of Riot Grrrl?  Sometimes the movement engaged with the mainstream; other moments imagined a different world. But in that world there was always music, a look, and a marketplace.

Today is no different. In the mainstream, pop's politics often remain at the level of the meaningful gesture; call those stances empty if you must (I don't!). At the activist level, though, pop has become a source of more than inspiration as fans and artists work out ways to embrace music's ways of shaping expression and creating community.

One example is the Crunk Feminist Collective, a group of university professors, artists and organizers working to reconcile their hip-hop roots with their progressive ideals. These "feminists of color, queer and straight" embrace the Southern slang term "crunk" -- crazy drunk, or just wild and free -- as a way of describing outspokenness and a commitment to the percussive beat of progress. “What others may call audacious and crazy, we call CRUNK because we are drunk off the heady theory of feminism that proclaims that another world is possible,” reads the group’s statement of purpose. 

Another example is Air Traffic Control. Founded five years ago by veterans of the indie and alternative pop scene, ATC is a kind of think tank offering “strategy and support for musicians creating change.”  ATC hosts gatherings that educate participants about touring responsibly, doing effective charity work, or supporting political candidates. Hands-on and plain-spoken,  ATC is focused on practical actions that can be integrated into musicians’ daily lives.

ATC and Crunk Feminist Collective both explore how political action can directly borrow from popular culture. One channels the rhythmic drive of hip-hop; the other looks to the anti-hierarchical ways of indie rock. Paying close attention to how music feeds its members, both groups suggest new ways that pop can actually become politics.

The viral-video-based It Gets Better Project also shows how pop-smart activists can effect change. The Seattle writer/provocateur Dan Savage and his partner Terry Miller spearheaded the effort in response to the gay teen suicides that have recently captured media attention. In the clips, all kinds of people, from the famous to the anonymous, offer hope to young people struggling with bullying and rejection.

It Gets Better shows how a pop phenomenon -- the YouTube response video -- can be transformed into a tool for social progress. Like a song ripe for remixing, It Gets Better changes every time a new creator steps in.

One of the best clips is by LuzLoca821, a curly-headed woman with a pierced lower lip who stands before a rainbow flag and speaks about her life -- a very different one than that of, say, that of fashion uncle Tim Gunn. "I'm gonna be real, because I'm not rich, and I'm brown, and I look like probably most of you," LuzLoca says. "It doesn't get better. But what does happen is that you get stronger."

Hearing the voice of LuzLoca821 could, for the right person, be like hearing M.I.A. for the first time, or discovering the Clash. She’s hardly a pop star; yet she’s used a pop medium to join in a conversation that includes Lady Gaga and, yes, Susan Faludi. On pop’s big playing field, every form of free speech gets on its mark and goes. You’re going to hate what some people do with it. But that doesn’t make it less important, or just air.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Lady Gaga. Credit: Getty Images

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