The Changing Face of American Pop Culture
Let me preface this post by stating, I am by no means an expert of African-American culture or the psyche of African-American youth. I’m just one person taking a very broad look at the landscape, making some educated guesses and throwing out some conjecture.
It is beyond argument that over the last 30 years African-Americans have had a massive effect on American pop culture. Take a look at this list:
Music: Michael Jackson, Run DMC, Public Enemy, P Diddy, Jay-Z, NWA
Sports: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Tiger Woods
Entertainment: Spike Lee, Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Denzel Washington, Tyra Banks, Halle Berry, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith
That’s just off the top of my head, I’m sure that list could have doubled. My point is that these people didn’t just excel in their given areas, nor were they exclusively popular with African-Americans. Rather, they fundamentally changed popular American culture. It may have started as part of African-American culture, but as a white suburban kid growing up in the 80s I can tell you that many of those listed above had a profound effect on me as I grew up.
Now we have an African-American president-elect who, at least to me, doesn’t exactly match the common perception of African-Americans in this country (rightly or wrongly) from the past three decades. So, as a brand strategist/marketing professional, I ask myself, “How will a President Obama’s personal style shape African-American culture, and subsequently American pop culture?”
How does popular music change with his election? Rap music, at its heart a form of protest, will surely branch off in new directions. It’s hard to imagine Ice T (NSFW), NWA (NSFW) or Grand Master Flash writing the songs they performed in a country with an African-American president. Yet, Obama is not completely divorced from this world:
That’s a pretty savvy use of a cultural shorthand, that judging by the response of the crowd, clearly shows that Barack Obama is no cultural elitist.
Obama’s love of basketball is well documented, and in him you see a return to the Michael Jordan/Magic Johnson era. A pre-Allen Iverson era. I want to be careful here not to make a judgement on the the personal character of late-90s to current NBA players, merely on their cultural choices (clothing, tattoos, etc.). I’m not judging that either, merely pointing out the difference in styles. It’s interesting that Obama’s rise parallels that of players like Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, Greg Oden and a new generation of team-oriented players that are some of the leading lights of the NBA.
Ultimately, pop culture is a pendulum, a counter-balance that swings from the social messages of Run DMC to the party style of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, back to NWA and back again to Sean “Puffy” Combs. From John Carlos and Tommie Smith to Michael Jordan; from Allen Iverson and Dennis Rodman to Tiger Woods.
My hunch is that brands like Benjamin Bixby and music groups like TV on the Radio will grow in popularity as a post-racial trend continues. To be sure, these brands already existed, Barack Obama did not create them. He’s merely a high profile example that will legitimize and highlight those individuals and brands the mainstream has not yet fully embraced.
On another level, one of the Obama’s qualities most often praised was his calm, cool demeanor, especially when others around him seemed to be behaving erratically or thinking tactically instead of strategically. President-elect Obama is a cool guy. That’s not the only desirable quality a person or brand can have, but it is, especially in a politician a pretty compelling one. And Obama’s is a smart cool, not a Fonz from Happy Days cool.
As Obama appears on even more magazines and TV shows, his personal style will become clearer in the months ahead. It won’t be a complete departure from exising African-American culture, but it may put the spotlight on a facet that many Americans haven’t seen before.