M.I.A's campaign to help greenwash H&M is a catastrophe. Edward Snowden is collaborating with Jean-Michel Jarre on a techno track. Lady Gaga visited Assange when he was first on the lam. All of this is totally horrible and wrong. Dean Kissick explains why and asks: How powerful is soft power? And what does it mean to be "radical chic" today?
Last week it was announced that Jean-Michel Jarre made a techno song, “Exit”, themed around the hunt for Edward Snowden. It features an original monologue by Snowden about privacy. Jarre explained that he approached the NSA whistle-blower, because he wanted to collaborate “not with a musician but someone who literally symbolises this crazy relationship we have with technology.”
Shortly before this, it was also announced that M.I.A made a music video for H&M, supposedly to celebrate World Recycling Week (which happens to take place just this week!) and the Swedish throwaway-fashion behemoth’s vague commitment to recycling. In the video a wholesome lady explains, “there are things we can all start doing that together can make a difference,” and then an assortment of good-looking young people all around the world dance about dressed in the latest H&M. Recycling is symbolised by some tents (M.I.A likes tents) made of colourful old clothing, as if to say: together we can save the world by buying cheap clothes made in Bangladeshi sweatshops and giving our old clothes to M.I.A to make into houses for refugees.
This is pure pop for the Anthropocene: meaningless branded content with boring music, unpleasant clothing and a corporate green-washing agenda.
All this reminded me that M.I.A has worked with Julian Assange on various projects. He once opened a concert by her with a ten-minute speech about freedom, live-streamed from his lair in which, amongst other things, he claimed that she was “the most courageous woman working, without exception.” This was insulting because it implied that a) women are less courageous than men and b) women are less courageous than M.I.A. Then, another time, Wikileaks claimed that “M.I.A is the Julian Assange of pop music,” which would have seemed insulting to Assange had it not been him suggesting it.
More specifically, all this reminded me that I once worked on an M.I.A music video that was partially funded by a brand. Events took an unexpected turn one morning when she announced that she’d written a song with Julian Assange and her concept was to film with him inside the Ecuadorian Embassy in which he was imprisoned. But things unravelled and this never happened, because international womenswear fashion houses don’t want to make branded content with creepy men wanted on rape charges, and also because it’s a logistical nightmare to make pop videos in closely guarded Latin American embassies. But the song M.I.A was talking about was “atTENTion” and later – in a glimpse through closed doors and into the process behind the music – she recalled to the Guardian that, because she was having trouble coming up with words and rhymes, Assange “came to the studio, took my computer and basically decrypted the whole of the internet and downloaded every word in the language that contained the word ‘tent’.” Here are some of the lyrics:
“We go the distance to presidents,
Throw atTENTion about my tent.
Things fall on my head like we’re mutant,
So don’t drop that ball on that paTENT.”
To be honest, she could have written these lyrics without Assange decrypting the whole of the internet for her. In any case he only came up with seven words containing “tent” and that’s including “tent” as one of them. There is another, later version of this song with eight words.
More recently Jean-Michel Jarre travelled to Moscow to meet Edward Snowden and the two of them recorded a parody-like video for the Guardian, in which the computer professional explains to the new-age ambient producer what “music” is and then what an “exit” is, all of which seems very unnecessary. But, of course, the appeal of these collaborations to Jarre and M.I.A is clear, because the presence of outlaws makes their songs appear cool, in place of any musical innovation or interesting melody and offers a path to connect to the youth – for the musicians, that is. M.I.A wishes she really were the “Julian Assange of pop music” and Jarre wishes he, like Snowden, really was a living embodiment of the technology of the day, as he once was, around 1976, when he was pioneering electronica.
Hackers are countercultural heroes in a way that musicians once were but aren’t anymore. The much-sought-after invitation to Assange’s fortieth birthday at Ellingham Hall, where he was then under house arrest, read, ‘Come and celebrate with the “Most Dangerous Man in the World”.’ As an event in the London literati’s social calendar it brings to mind Tom Wolfe’s notorious 1970 essay “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s” in which he chronicles a party hosted by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the Black Panthers. Back then Wolfe was mocking the adoption of radical political causes by celebrities, but what is stranger now is the adoption of celebrity causes by radical political figures – what’s in it for them?
Maybe they’re just bored, lonely in Moscow, sleepless in an embassy with nobody to talk to except desperate pop stars: the Telegraph, in a sentence dripping with contempt for Radical Chic, once described a trip by Lady Gaga to see Assange and noted, “the singer, who had been promoting her new perfume at Harrods next door, was seen leaving the Knightsbridge embassy building dressed all in black and wearing a pointed witch’s hat.”
Maybe they’re drawn in by the warming flames of fame, or maybe they even like these musicians? After all, Chelsea Manning smuggled classified information out of her U.S. military base to Wikileaks on CD-RWs labelled with the names of her favourite pop stars and once remarked: “No-one suspected a thing. I listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in America history.”
But most likely the allure is in becoming famous oneself. This is the conclusion that essayist Andrew O’Hagan came to while spending many months ghost-writing a memoir for Julian Assange, holed up in a country manor, only for it to go unfinished and unpublished. Towards the end of his excellent 26,468-word account of this process for the London Review of Books he writes:
A fair reading of the situation might conclude, without prejudice, that Assange, like an ageing movie star, was a little put out by the global superstardom of Snowden. He has always cared too much about the fame and too much about the credit, while real relationships and real action often fade to nothing. Snowden was now the central hub and Julian was keen to help him and keen to be seen to be helping him. It’s how the ego works and the ego always comes first.
Because ego drives celebrity, and celebrity and pop culture drives a kind of soft power that transmutes cultural influence into political influence, another interesting question is: how powerful is soft power?
Consider Kanye West and his planet-sized ego. George W. Bush revealed in his recent ghostwritten autobiography that when Kanye West said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” (on stage at NBC’s Concert for Hurricane Relief) it was the worst moment of his presidency, the “all-time low”. That was the worst moment of his presidency – worse than 9/11 – worse than Iraq. Even worse than the racist Katrina relief effort was Kanye West mentioning it on live tv. In which case celebrity soft power might become incredibly powerful (and this goes some way to explaining unlikely occurrences like Leonardo DiCaprio being granted an audience with the Pope, or Johnny Depp and Amber Heard apologising to the ecosystem of Australia). So at the moment Julian Assange and, to a lesser extent, Edward Snowden seem to be chasing a kind of celebrity cult of personality, whereas Anonymous, by its very nature, rejects the idea of a leader and appears more powerful for it, or at least more able to continue.
Today’s leading countercultural figures are hackers rather than musicians or actors or artists, but in these times of celebrity and compromised privacy, they have to choose whether they’ll be most influential as pop culture icons or faceless spirits; if they choose the former they’ll have to be, like all the best pop stars and actors and artists, very thoughtful about whom they collaborate with and to what end.—
DEAN KISSICK is a writer based in Los Angeles.