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Pop Culture Presidents: Campaigning in the Entertainment Spotlight

March 26th, 2008 4:23pm EDT
Barack ObamaThe general election isn't until November, but already the competitive campaign season has tested the candidates. They need to be well-versed on foreign affairs, the economy, the war in Iraq and... pop culture? That's right, ladies and gentlemen. America's love fest with entertainment and celebrity just segued into a politics-meets-pop-culture frenzy.

Like any modern celeb, the candidates have to show a strong presence on the Internet. Especially prominent on the web is Senator Barack Obama. His public speaking savvy and themes of hope and change translate easily onto the pop culture stage - especially YouTube. Just look at Will.i.am's celebrity-laden "Yes We Can" video in support of Obama. The instantly iconic vid has even turned up its own set of spoofs (most of which take digs at Republican nominee, John McCain, and the GOP). The quick circulation of the video goes to show how YouTube is fast becoming the playground for politics junkies - and how Americans are voicing their opinions through entertainment mediums.

Ultimately no candidate should feel too comfortable in this Age of YouTube. Hey, even third party runner Ralph Nader is taking some hits.



Getting in on the action is BarelyPolitical.com. This YouTube channel spoofs all the candidates, but Obama's pop culture style has offered them some especially juicy fodder. Unless you've been living without television or Internet for the last year, you've probably seen their "I've Got a Crush On Obama" video, which became a fast YouTube sensation last summer. Some of the BarelyPolitical crew's more recent efforts include "Super Obama Girl," and, in honor of St. Patrick's Day, "Barack the Shamrock O'Bama?!?!" Although the site takes aim at all the candidates, they've clearly gotten a lot of mileage out of Senator Obama. Perhaps his YouTube stardom says something about the senator's rising status as a pop culture icon.



Still, don't think Obama's rivals have given up the pop culture spotlight just because he's been so successful there.

The press has been accused of going easy on Obama while taking harder punches at Hillary Clinton and John McCain. And, assuming this claim holds water, it might also be said that YouTube is playing nicer with Obama than with his rivals. Whereas many videos centered on Obama are supportive and inspirational, most of the videos focusing on Senators McCain and Clinton rip their politics and policies (often through parodies and montages). You might even say McCain and Clinton are getting virtually manhandled. And YouTube - well, it's a huge pop culture outlet that the candidates can't ignore. So Clinton and McCain have found their own ways of getting in on the celebrity spectacle.

McCain, for instance, announced his presidential bid on "The Late Show With David Letterman." And who could forget the "Sopranos" parody that Hillary (and Bill) Clinton offered up last year to announce her campaign song? McCain channeled his inner diva to sing Barbra Streisand tunes in a memorable SNL skit; and Clinton made fun of her poll numbers, clothes, and cackling laughter when she gabbed with Amy Poehler in her own SNL appearance. They have both been guests on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (McCain's been on the show ten times!). And both consistently yuck it up with their supporters on the campaign trail, tossing out jokes and YouTube sound bites at frequent turns.



All this is to say, the presidential hopefuls play into the pop culture spotlight however they can. They make their way onto YouTube and float around the late night talk shows. There's also that little thing called "celebrity endorsements." Every campaign wants big time stars to jump on their bandwagons and help them draw a crowd of adoring fans (AKA "voters"). Hillary's got the likes of Elton John, Steven Spielberg, Barbra Streisand, Eva Longoria Parker, America Ferrara, and Jack Nicholson in her corner. Barack has Robert de Niro, Scarlett Johansson, Halle Berry, and George Clooney - and, of course, the big kahuna of celebrity endorsements, Oprah Winfrey (cue the "Hallelujah" chorus). John McCain's backed by a buff duo of Sylvester Stallone and Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. Although the jury's still out on exactly how much influence celebs hold when it comes to persuading voters, they certainly help their favorite candidate get an extra smidgen of attention. And, in close election years, every little bump can help come Election Day.



An especially interesting trend is how Americans get a kick out of seeing their politicians as sources of entertainment. Just look at the programming the networks launch - Comedy Central's "Lil' Bush" focuses on President Bush and pals but mocks politicians across party lines. And it's hard to imagine a current episode of The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, or SNL without at least a mention of the election. Then there's the 24-hour news networks who cover the campaigns like there's no tomorrow (the title of CNN's "Ballot Bowl" coverage seems to indicate that electing national leaders is something akin to the playoffs). With the candidates speaking to packed arenas and fainting fans, you're starting to hear more comparisons between our politicians and rock stars.

So what does this fusion of politics and pop culture mean? Maybe it says something about how much Americans fawn over celebrity. Maybe it says something about the age of YouTube, in which anyone can direct his or her own home campaign commercial. Maybe it just adds a little glitz to the campaign trail.

Only one thing is for sure. The American people are looking for a leader who can face the tough challenges that await this great country - and if that person could sing, dance, be funny, and hobnob with Hollywood elite, that would be nice too.



Story by Chelsea Fogleman
Starpulse contributing writer
writer