Some cultural artifacts have such strong power that they can taint entire experiences. I went to LA for the first time this month, and all I could think of, is “Party in the USA”, and its iconic incipit.
From the moment the Boeing landed. The two lines rang through my head.
I hopped off the plane at LAX
With a dream and my cardigan
The zeugma here creates a levelling of the “Dream” and the “cardigan”. In other words, the semantic syllepsis brings the “dream” down to the realm of Objects, it makes it just another thing, like a “cardigan”, it commodifies it.
Miley then goes on to describe her first moments in Los Angeles. She’s greeted by symbols of wealth and celebrity, the “Hollywood sign”, “everybody seems so famous”. Her response is estrangement (“Am I gonna fit in?”).
The song depicts an individual’s initial reactions after coming in contact with the high-intensity capitalism of a metropolis like LA. Miley’s experience in a big American city is riddled with anxiety. Though she does not specify which pressures weigh upon her shoulders, upon arrival she exhibits physiological symptoms of anxiety.
My tummy's turnin' and I'm feelin' kinda home sick
Too much pressure and I'm nervous
This illustrates how the capitalist apparatus (very quickly) shapes individual needs and aspirations, and in turn our psyches. Then, something almost *magical* happens. A song comes on and instantly the stress disappears.
This, to me, is an implicit comment on the role of culture in capitalist societies. Borrowing from the Frankfurt School’s thoughts on popular culture, Miley illustrates the anxiolytic functions of mass-produced cultural commodities, in this case a pop song.
Not only does her anxiety subside, she for a moment feels at home in the Big City. The song has completed its social function. It has sedated Miley. We are reminded by Kellner that “The Culture Industry has the specific function of providing ideological legitimation of the existing capitalist societies and of integrating individuals into the framework of the capitalist system.” As she forgets the pressures, she forgets the downsides of capitalism, as “the butterflies fly away”, she slowly integrates the system.
Feel like hoppin' on a flight (On a flight)
Back to my hometown tonight (Town tonight)
But something stops me every time (Every time)
The DJ plays my song and I feel alright
Lastly, I want to focus on the choice of Britney and Jay-Z as the two cultural icons in the song. They both represent two very antithetical facets of the American Dream. Britney is the White, blonde, female teenage celebrity. Her story is not unlike that of Mary, a virgin-made-celebrity, an immaculately conceived stardom. She represents, at the time, the archetype of youthful American beauty, the “hot teen”, ambiguously young, with a poorly tacit sex-appeal. JAY-Z, on the other hand, is the black male trapper-turned-rapper from the projects of Brooklyn. He embodies the other side of the American Story: institutional racism, socio-economic disparities, etc.
I think what is astounding here is that in spite of having radically different come-ups, both of these individuals end up in similar cultural positions and serving similar cultural functions.
And both of their arts, in all their difference, both in content and in audience, are used to appease modern anxieties and make one’s entry in the system more facile.
This speaks to the system’s capacity to co-opt any object or story and making it its own. This brings to mind the concept of récupération as described by the Situationists. Any idea, figure or image, any song, can be “co-opted, absorbed and commodified within media culture and bourgeois society.”
Britney and JAY-Z affirm and perpetuate the status quo.
Both stars embody the idea of wealth and fame, they are avatars of Hollywood, of the culture industry. The dream they embody is one of becoming a part of the system, of becoming rich, of becoming known, of ineluctably becoming an agent of capitalism, of being invited to the Party.
Prins, S. J., Bates, L. M., Keyes, K. M., & Muntaner, C. (2015). Anxious? Depressed? You might be suffering from capitalism: contradictory class locations and the prevalence of depression and anxiety in the USA. Sociology of health & illness, 37(8), 1352-72.
Gerth HH, Mills CW. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press; 1946.
Kurczynski, Karen Expression as vandalism: Asger Jorn's "Modifications", in RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics No. 53/54 (Spring - Autumn, 2008), pp.295-6.
Taylor & Francis Group (1993) Textual Practice: Volume 7, p.4
Radical Media: Rebellious Communication and Social Movements, p.59.
Kellner, D. The Frankfurt School and British Cultural Studies: The Missed Articulation. Retrieved November 20, 2018, from https://pages.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/Illumina Folder/kell16.htm