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“The times are tough now, just getting tougher / This old world is rough, it's just getting rougher / Cover me, come on baby, cover me” – Bruce Springsteen, “Cover Me” (1984, Born in the USA)
“Karaoke Machine Backs out of Performing at Inauguration,” wrote Andy Borowitz, the New Yorker’s resident satirist on January 15, 2017, in the week leading up to Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States. Amidst daily reports of A-through-C list celebrities refusing to participate in the reality king’s real life coronation, the notion of a karaoke machine abruptly withdrawing from the festivities rang uncannily prescient a day later, when a Bruce Springsteen cover band—Jersey’s own B-Street Band—backed out of their contractual commitment to play the Garden State Inaugural Ball in Washington, D.C. Citing their reverence for Springsteen, and overwhelmed by the backlash from members of his original E Street band, not to mention his legions of fans, the group opted out so as not to be “construed…as disrespectful or ungrateful” to their one true Boss and his music.
The majority of Americans who did not vote for the new president relished in the irony that stars were refusing to fete someone who rose to power by hosting a reality show in which celebrities had to ingratiate themselves to him, in order to become his “apprentice.” Bill Clinton reunited Fleetwood Mac for his first inaugural, and swayed gleefully with his white man’s overbite to their finale performance of “Don’t Stop” (his campaign song), as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand, and countless other A-listers took to the stage to sing along with the chorus. Barack Obama’s first inauguration was unquantifiably “yuuuge,” as the new president might say, with Aretha Franklin singing the “Star Spangled Banner,” and the real Bruce Springsteen sharing the bill at the concert at the Lincoln Memorial with U2, John Legend, Jon Bon Jovi, and Beyoncé among other luminaries. Meanwhile, Donald J. Trump, a man with his name brandished atop tall buildings, and seared into vacuum-sealed steaks, couldn’t even secure his personal friend, Paul Anka to sing “My Way” for his inaugural dance, settling for Tony Orlando, sans Dawn, instead.
All of this—the low-wattage at his inauguration, and the diminished crowd-size as a result—don’t really matter, of course, even if his blustery Tweet-storms and the “alternate facts” peddled by White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, imply otherwise. Being popular doesn’t matter anymore in this country, as his minority victory attests. Hillary Clinton closed-out her campaign with massive crowds stoked by celebrity guests and surrogates that propelled her to the third largest popular vote total, and more votes than any white male candidate ever received in the history of U.S. electoral politics. (Only Obama, in both 2008 and 2012, tallied more votes than Clinton in 2016). Beyoncé, Bon Jovi and Bruce be damned: Trump won the presidency by 77,744 total votes in the three critical swing states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
In the wake of this popular repudiation that still amounted to a victory, and his inauguration as the nation’s 45th president, Trump’s defensive responses heralding a win “for the PEOPLE,” and an inaugural program pitched (albeit by default) to those very same “real people” who voted for him in rural and exurban districts, are more telling of certain fundamental truths about the Untied States than nearly everything the new president and his propaganda team have slung at the public thus far. The “Red State vs. Blue State” divide that seeped into the collective consciousness during the 2000 election, has now become our doxa. Certain assumptions about how this plays out culturally, particularly in entertainment, have recently been verified by televisual metrics and big data.
Shortly after the election, in December 2016, the New York Times published an interactive map and search feature mining Facebook data by zip code to sort the 50 most “liked” television shows on the platform, which ended up clustering into “three groups with distinct geographic distributions.” As Josh Katz of the Times notes, “they reveal a national culture split among three regions: cities and their suburbs; rural areas; and what we’re calling the extended Black Belt — a swath that extends from the Mississippi River along the Eastern Seaboard up to Washington, but also including city centers and other places with large nonwhite populations.”
After reviewing the data and interactive maps, and tinkering with the zip code search engine, I noticed several distinct patterns. "Red state" entertainment and popular culture (better geographically scaled to counties, zip codes, and rural vs. urban designations) tend to be reality driven, unsurprisingly resulting in our first reality show president. Reality shows contain stalwart re-performances of vaudevillian forms of entertainment from a “great” American past, from church-trained singers, twirling baton girls, and dancers, to ventriloquists and other variety acts. Procedurals, military-themed and first-responder shows (medical, fire, police) were also popular in red counties.
Meanwhile “blue state” entertainment skews to “quality” scripted programing, sitcoms with writers’ rooms surfeit of Harvard alum, and American transpositions of “foreign” (mostly British, Israeli and Australian) dramas airing on cable, often premium. Blue state, or more accurately, “urban” entertainment lays bare urbanity’s euphemistic function as code for "black,” while "humor" retains its association with Jewish comedians, writers and entertainers. Popular entertainment in “blue America” is cosmopolitan, LGBT-friendly, and "multicultural," in the 90s sense of the term. A simple search of my own, current zip code—a historically Latinx, but now gentrified creative class neighborhood in Los Angeles, called Echo Park—reveals the most popular shows are Modern Family, Family Guy and The Simpsons, while the least popular are Duck Dynasty, NCIS and the reality vocal competition, The Voice (which, full disclosure, I watch with some fervor).
While this data largely reinforces some of the “red” vs. “blue” taxonomies cultural observers, armchair and academic alike, have made leading up to and after the 2016 election, I want to conclude by reframing “reality” as a powerful minority discourse (in the purely descriptive sense) —one that acknowledges and accepts its unreality, but reinforces its contemporary function in validating Truth, or more ephemerally, triumph. As the television scholar, Lynne Joyrich deftly argues in “Reality TV Trumps Politics,” this election cycle bore out the political realization of television’s reality format, imbricating its logics of competition, and its structures of feeling. She writes: “Within this medium logic of reality televisualization, arguments and proofs don't matter, policy positions and reasoned discourse don't matter, a sense of division between truth and fantasy, real and unreal, and action and appearance doesn't matter. What matters for a candidate is what matters for a ‘contestant’ on reality TV: constructing oneself as a strongly profiled persona—a kind of branded, celebrified image (‘Winner!’)—while also communicating clearly defined personae for one's opponents (‘Lyin' Ted’ or ‘Crooked Hillary’).”
Of course, to recognize the power and efficacy of “reality” as genre, medium, and platform, is not to suggest it is our only recourse, or pathway to the popular minority who turned out in the counties where it counted. I am in agreement with Joyrich when she notes that, to observe these operations at work does not demand our oppositional replication of this format, though that wouldn’t necessarily hurt in some cases. Nevertheless, we have to understand and take seriously reality’s logics, and by extension (I would argue), we need to pay particular attention to the affects engendered by reality competition. As a “winner” who got to pick other “winners” on his long running reality series, Donald Trump managed to flip the script in both the primaries and general election by casting himself as the underdog. This move is not unprecedented in the reality genre, as Sarah Kessler, Hunter Hargraves, and others have pointed out, nor in other “real” competitive amusements like sports. But it bears notice to everyone who doesn’t understand how a gilded one-percenter like Trump managed to harness the sentiments of struggling, white Americans.
I admit to being befuddled when, in the final days leading up to the election, Trump appeared at nearly every rally donning his red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap. Like others, I found it unpresidential, silly and unflattering. If he’s trying to convince everyone he can and should be president, I pondered, what’s up with the frat bro hat, which draws attention to his “locker room talk” and lack of gravitas? I neglected to register then, that he wasn’t trying to imitate a president. He was imitating a team player—a team leader on a squad nearly everyone expected to lose the game. The symbology drew focus away from the individual, the flawed figure, and shone a light on a red team down to its last out. In the world of reality competition, this would also liken Trump to certain underdogs on American Idol, like Kris Allen and Philip Phillips, who were clearly outgunned by their more talented competitors, Adam Lambert (a flamboyant queer with a kick-ass falsetto), and Jessica Sanchez (a Pinay diva in a ballgown). America voted otherwise, upending the logic of meritocracy.
The Apprentice aside, the nation’s biggest reality competition shows are mostly talent shows for singers, dancers, and entertainers; local talent, real people, big dreamers showing Hollywood and New York what they’ve got out in Checotah, Oklahoma, Idol-winner turned country superstar, Carrie Underwood’s hometown, or Burleson, Texas, the original American Idol, Kelly Clarkson’s hometown. (Neither of the two performed at Trump’s inauguration). The bread and butter of these talent shows is cover songs, interpretations of the “great American songbook” and the pop hits of today and yesterday made famous by other people. Trump turned the jingoistic sloganeering and populism of other eras, other candidates, and other times, and churned them out through his own karaoke jukebox, covering all the hits the rural and rust belt underclasses wanted to hear over the megawatt din of Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. All this in mind, there’s some poetic justice in the fact that the first “headliner” announced for Trump’s inauguration was Jackie Evancho, a runner-up on America’s Got Talent.
Though there are always exceptions, the contestants who win “reality”—especially when voters, not juries are involved—are underdogs. The “little guy,” the smaller states, the smaller population, donned their red caps and brought it to the ballot box to beat the odds—and the popular vote—for a win. This is, perhaps, why among the numerous documented instances of Trump supporters verbally abusing people of color and sexual minorities, you will always hear the words “WE WON” as the justification for further gloating at best, physical violence at worst. And though reality says otherwise, the reality genre at the heart and soul of red state entertainment upholds triumph and victory as ends in and of themselves.
Trump began his presidency with another cover performance of sorts. Immediately after his sparsely attended inauguration (at least relative to Obama’s and other incoming presidents’), the Trump team took to their preferred platform, Twitter, and changed the photographic banner for the @POTUS account with an image from the inauguration. Or rather, it was the image from AN inauguration: Barack Obama’s 2009 ceremony to be exact (editor's note: photo above). In this gesture of theft, with no hint of love, the new president tried to make real the alternate fact of his tremendous popularity, to enhance his all too real minority victory. I suppose that after logging the win, there remains less incentive in playing the underdog, and more in racking up the score. To this, I can only respond with the words we were never destined to hear at Trump’s inauguration without The B-Street Band playing, let alone the real Boss:
“This whole world is out there just trying to score / I've seen enough I don't want to see any more, / Cover me, wrap your arms around and cover me.”