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Pop Stars and Colonial Anxiety: America at its End

July 11, 2010

I stumbled across Kesha’s Tik Tok video because of the clip which showed Israeli soldiers dancing to it in the occupied city of Hebron. That Hebron is the site of an ongoing Israeli settler-colonial project nullifies any funny aspect of this performance, at least for me. More about the Orientalism of the Israeli troop’s dancing can be found on Juan Cole’s blog here. I thought that two of the latest pop videos could help to elaborate on the colonial anxiety facing America at this moment. I say colonial rather than post-colonial because it seems to me that the post-colonial moment was born and survived in a narrative of modernization, development and independence that no longer exists.

It should be plain to everyone now that national sovereignty means nothing when capital flows across borders and the profit/loss of resources by a few corporations dictates military action and state policy more than the needs or interests of any group of constituents. Also, I do not say that we are post post-colonial because unfortunately, we have not made any progress. The humanitarian rhetoric of the 80’s and 90’s has now been shown to be a sham, advancing only the cultural “soft power,” of the US and Europe. Any gains that NGOs or humanitarian aid projects have made have been nullified by the increasing capitalization and militarization of the world. Instead, we are going historically backwards, back to a state of colonial military jostling over resource control.

Kesha’s video has a lot to say about contemporary American society. The pop star wakes up alone in a suburban bathtub. She wanders through a world populated by bemused suburbanites and faceless hipsters, their faces obscured by huge sunglasses and/or eye makeup. They don’t need facial expressions because the clothes (the red plastic cups and the Converse)  are all there is. There is nothing else to perform. Kesha, on her golden bicycle, rides past a sign saying “Money,” which she then goes on to sing, she doesn’t have. Her hipster friends live with their parents in this global economic crisis. The video ends with voices babbling indistinctly in Spanish. “We came here for a better life, but we are realizing we made a mistake.” -Tunisian migrants in Italy. Predictable flows of labour are being reversed. With them, the post-colonial anxieties they engendered in Europe and America.

(The belated feminisms of both these videos deserves a separate article, but I will mention how modern pop-stars in America, like their Sex and the City counterparts, both view and treat men as an accessory, like a ring or a pair of shoes. Men are lifeless, suits or stylishly clothed. Boys are the new… girls?)

The most interesting thing in both videos is the amount of American flag paraphernalia. It would be hard to imagine, in 1995, either Britney or Christina explicitly waving American flags. They didn’t have to. The empire was secure, it’s foundations solid and invisible. Now, 15 years later, that is not the case. (As weird as it is to be nostalgic about Jay Z and Britney, as if they were the Beatles or Elvis… At 22, I feel old.) America’s drive to civilize and develop the world through benevolent military intervention and humanitarian aid has failed, largely through it’s own hypocrisy and greed.

So, singing their way through this zeitgeist created by their parents, both Kesha and Miley are emblems of a nostalgia, for the Phoenix Sunbird, for cowboy boots, emblems of an America that once existed but no longer does. By priveleging a “real” America; Nashville over L.A. in Miley’s video, we see the ordinary American’s desire to return to something stable, a comfortable self-confidence that came from living at the center of the world. Before a backdrop of a huge American flag, Miley’s “Made in the USA” video could easily be a stage perfomance to boost the flagging morale of our troops in Afghanistan, who perhaps (unluckily for the innocent civilians around them) haven’t gotten the memo that the empire has fallen. They continue to maim and kill Iraqis and Afghans with the same bravado, acting out a mission that lives on only within them. Ordinary Americans continue to deal with the fallout from the recession and the oil spill, both huge and intractable problems that will mark the future of our country for decades. Obama has not “changed” anything and looks increasingly powerless in a world stage that is largely a prop for the same corporate interests. “It’s a party in the USA…” Oh, how we wish…

Update: Afghan soldiers dancing to Lady Gaga… (thanks Ange!)

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