Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cult of Personality

At first glance the song Cult of Personality by the band Living Color seems like a wonderful addition to lessons for Black History Month or a Civil Rights unit. The song begins with quotation from Malcom X…..a snippet from his Message to the Grass Roots….a speech that was given to unify African Americans on November 10, 1963. The quotation inserted in the lyrics is: “and during the few moments we have left…we want to talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.” The quotation is a little altered from the actual speech, but it’s easy to see how Malcom X was trying to point out the differences in Black culture and how unification was needed to move civil rights along.

But is this song really speaking in a language we can all understand or is there more to the message?

Take a look at the lyrics:

Look into my eyes, what do you see?
Cult of Personality
I know your anger, I know your dreams
I've been everything you want to be
I'm the Cult of Personality
Like Mussolini and Kennedy
I'm the Cult of Personality
Cult of Personality
Cult of Personality

Neon lights, A Nobel Price
The mirror speaks, the reflection lies
You don't have to follow me
Only you can set me free
I sell the things you need to be
I'm the smiling face on your T.V.
I'm the Cult of Personality
I exploit you still you love me

I tell you one and one makes three
I'm the Cult of Personality
Like Joseph Stalin and Gandhi
I'm the Cult of Personality
Cult of Personality
Cult of Personality

Neon lights a Nobel Prize
A leader speaks, that leader dies
You don't have to follow me
Only you can set you free

You gave me fortune
You gave me fame
You me power in your God's name
I'm every person you need to be
I'm the Cult of Personality

Hmmmm…..doesn’t it appear to you that there is much more going on here than a reference to the Black community?

You have the quotations from John F. Kennedy at the beginning…..Ask not what your country can do for you…..and ends with a quotation from Franklin D Roosevelt….The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. There are also references to Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin, and Mohandas Gandhi. Notice the pairings….Gandhi with Stalin and Mussolini with Kennedy…..leaders that are traditionally good paired with leaders that are traditionally bad.

Another reason to go hmmmm…….

Perhaps the next step is to take a look at the group that performs the song. Living Color is a band that formed in 1983 and, is often lumped into the Hard Rock music category. Their music can also be termed as American Funk . Their songs often attack Eurocentrism and racism in American which is understandable since every member is black.

Watch them here perform the song:

But I’m still troubled by the references to various world leaders.

What do the actions of world leaders have to do with Black History?

Clue in on this particular section of the lyrics.

Only you can set me free
I see the things you need me to be
I’m the smiling face on your T.V.
I’m the Cult of Personality
I exploit you still you love me.

Cult of Personality…I exploit you still you love me. Slavery, of course, was exploitation in the worst possible way. While there were some very extraordinary relationships between slaves and their owners, I’m not sure the song’s lyrics are taking us in that direction.

Instead, I turn to the terrible things Stalin and Mussolini did….terrible things… yet they were able to obtain and maintain solid power. Their followers were a cult of sorts.

When we examine the media machine that propelled Kennedy and Roosevelt into the White House we see a process of publicity that was so successful both former presidents maintain larger than life personas despite various flaws in their personal and political lives.

Cults of personality actually exist.

A cult of personality occurs when a leader uses mass media to create an idealized or heroic public image using flattery and praise without a balanced viewpoint.

Cults of personality are often associated with dictatorships such as Stalin’s. The hero worship surrounding him resulted in grandiose titles such as “Brilliant Genius of Humanity”, “Coryphaeus (the leader of the chorus in an ancient Greek dram) of Science”, and “Gardner of Human Happiness”. The title of murderer would be more appropriate. Like other dictators who found themselves the proud recipient of a cult of personality Stalin was fond of having cities and towns named after him and was notorious for rewriting the history books to follow his version of events., and hang the truth.

Cults of Personality are also associated with regimes or administrations that want to radically change society utilizing revolutionary ideas. That can certainly be said to a point regarding Kennedy and Roosevelt….even Gandhi, of course.

But what does the band have to say about their song? In a recent Billboard interview lead singer Corey Glover spoke about the song with a reference to the Age of Obama. He said, “We were talking about the cult of personality around Ronald Reagan, so it’s always weird when people talk about the Age of Obama and ‘Cult of Personality’ around Barack Obama. You could look at it in so many different perspectives that it loses it’s meaning after awhile. And for us, when we play it, we’re not thinking about the Age of Obama. We’re thinking about us.”

Makes sense to me…..rock bands do have cult followings.

Ronald Reagan? Obama? Most certainly.

For that matter a cult of personality can be identified surrounding our very first president, George Washington.

Yes, George Washington.

The cult of personality surrounding our first president began soon after his death as he became the subject of mythmaking via the stories Parson Weems.spun. Remember that cherry tree yarn? Washington loaned his name to various monuments and buildings. One of the best examples of the deification of Washington is seen by thousands every year as they gaze up into the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. The picture I began this post with is the central section of the Apotheosis of Washington by Constantine Brumidi (1865). The section portrays Washington rising to the heavens in glory. The word apotheosis refers to the rising of a person to the rank of a god – the glorification of a person.

So, could I use the song Cult of Personality for a Black History activity. Perhaps…..but, I think I could get much more mileage out of it to head off down the path regarding the song’s title, it’s meaning, the various ways a cult of personality exists, and how we can avoid them.

I think the discussion would benefit any classroom across the country.

Just take a look at any gossip or political website.....we'll admire and fawn over anything.


Mike Hasley said...

Nice and thoughtful post. I like that you include the interview of the band to help explain their thoughts. It's always good to use music/video in a class and this certainly does allow for many talking points. It's a song I hadn't thought of in a while.

Thought the song is older, it nicely relates to today's media which could help teachers connect the past to today.


Georgia Road Geek said...

One of your best blogs IMHO.

One lesson that folks must learn is how dangerous a "cult of personality" can be.

Sadly, our own religion, Christianity, is not immune. Look at Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, for example.

I even know a former associate pastor at my church who had his own "cult of personality" that almost destroyed our church family. Not long after he started his own congregation with about 100 folks from our church, he was charged with (and later plead "guilty" to) child molestation. Even so, I still know people who swear he still didn't do it.

We can all become enthralled with people for various and sundry reasons, but we must realize ultimately that we are all human and thus imperfect. Only one perfect man ever walked the earth... and you know what happened to him at the hands of imperfect people.

EHT said...

Thanks for the great comments, guys. I appreciate it.

Actually, I thought this piece was all over the place and tried to clean it up, but eventually just posted it as is....

....seems that was the right thing to do reader comments always add so much more to a post than I ever could.


Micah Williams said...

This is great....I am taking this one home to my husband.

Now that I live in the extreme Deep South (and I do not say that lightly because I was born in Alabama and raised in Georgia)I see this on a day to day basis. In this area they are led around like the blind, by everything that read and hear in the news..... The examples are many but it both shocks and frightens me how they have no apparent opinions about any thing in general. It seems as though I am talking with a robot who can only spout what "the man" tells him to. Politics and religion, topics that I no longer bring up to my local friends...

It's a backwards world I live in...

Duez said...

Very interesting. While in college, I saw these guys perform @ State College in PA. It was pretty wild. A mosh pit of madness. But, I loved their music, still do.

Catchy song and very deep meaning. As a history major at the time, I was loving this song.

Nice breakdown.

Custom Term Paper said...

I loved this song it's sooo nice. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Think for yourself. Although the message may have originally been more partisan in the 1980's, the lyric is masterfully written to encompass a more "holistic" view of the ramifications of failing to listen to your inner wisdom, regardless of outside opinions...