Monday, April 23, 2012

Katy Perry and the Military-Pop-Cultural Complex

Reader Supported News
Naomi Wolf

Asking whether the US military's PR offensive is subsidising the entertainment industry with taxpayer dollars is not unpatriotic.

ho knew that an opinion about pop music video could get Fox News so worked up? Recently, I wrote that I was appalled by Katy Perry's new video for the No 1 hit song, "Part of Me". In it, the narrative has the singer discover a boyfriend's infidelity; she responds to this by cutting her hair and - heading for basic training to become a Marine.

The creepy parts of the video, in my mind, are many: girl power is represented as what Perry accomplishes in the rigors of basic training. Feminine impulses toward romantic revenge are depicted as rightly channeled into getting armed and being shipped to some mystery Afghanistan-like set overseas, locked and loaded. Trade in your bad boyfriend for a hot AK-47!

The whole videography of the scenes at Camp Pendleton - in which Perry crawls through an imaginary minefield, trains underwater, learns she can do the impossible, etc - is straight out of Leni Riefenstahl: the same angled, heroizing upward shots, the same fetishization of physical power, of gleaming armaments, and of the rigor and mechanism of human beings cohering into living militarized units.

There is something else about the video: it feels … like an ad; specifically, a focus-grouped, consumer-tested ad to attract more women to join the Marines. Real artistic productions, whether bad or good, are messier, quirkier, more subjective. I am familiar with the way political ads get researched and filmed (it was part of what I advised on in my time as a political consultant), and this looks like a political ad put together by DC PR insiders - like, say, the Pentagon communications team - after expensive market research has been done. In political advertising, every single image and message is focus group tested. I would bet that someone did some research on the hypothetical of a marriage or relationship breakup as a catalyst for women's military enlistment, given an economy in which the military offers low-income women some of the few options for advancement in a context in which a breadwinner may have decamped.

So I wrote that I felt that this was a piece of "war propaganda" and that, if Perry had received money or message guidance directly from the military to make the video, she should disclose that information. It might be inferred from the fact that she filmed at the USMC's California base, Camp Pendleton, that this would have contributed at least several tens of thousand of dollars in support - in the form of free sets, use of equipment, personnel time and, possibly, food and housing; it takes a lot of people a fair amount of time to make such a video. Now, to be fair, while journalists are expected to disclose any such conflicts, I have absolutely no evidence of any such transaction, and artists are subject to no such expectation. (Albeit, this would be a subsidy that you, the taxpayer, have underwritten.)

But as the military's investment of resources and development input affects more and more films, videos and even video games, should that expectation change?

This is a kind of subsidy that grows ever more common: filmmakers in Hollywood complain that the US military is increasingly investing resources in Hollywood, making sure that films that portray the US military in a positive light (think Top Gun) get full backing and in-kind help, while leaving films that show the darker side of war (think Full Metal Jacket) to struggle financially. You may notice pro-US-military themes appearing with increasing regularity in cultural products ranging from Christmas movies such as Arthur Christmas, in which Santa, in a general's outfit, is running a high-tech special ops center at the North Pole, and his elves are in camouflage uniforms, to the popular video game Call of Duty: Black Ops.

In this way, military millions - in the form of investment either in-kind, comping development, or in possible direct support, in a paper trail that we will never see - are being used to skew what we see, just as scientists in fields as diverse as geology and physics are now complaining that military millions are skewing the roster of what gets funded and what doesn't (meaning, what gets studied and what doesn't).
Surprising, too, to me was the full court press applied by Fox News, whose major advertisers include the US military and its suppliers, to attack my passing query about the video in the informal context of my Facebook community page. My "rant" was portrayed on Fox News as anti-Marine, "military-hating" and unpatriotic. A backlash seeded itself across military websites, and I got plenty of hate mail, ranging from epithets like "commie", to, randomly enough in this context, "lezzie".

To my surprise, though, when Fox News reporters asked Perry's spokespeople directly if she had been paid by the US military, they declined to comment. (Contrary to Fox News' assertion, Fox did not, in fact, ask me to comment - misleadingly, having a source of theirs contact me, not a reporter.) That is what the political consulting world calls, "a non-denial denial".

Katy (or your spokespeople), if the Pentagon never wrote a check in the course of your making this video, here's the place to say so. And my apologies will be forthcoming: I will post the straight denial in the Q&A later this week.

More revealingly, one might ask: why such a big, strategic reaction to such a small-forum question? Why should Fox News take such trouble to cast a query that arises out of respect for soldiers and concern for exploitation of women and men in the military as "military-hating'?

Is it unpatriotic to ask to examine a recent development - the strategic co-option of pop culture by the military's PR arm - and to ask to see if there are any receipts of money or to assess the in-kind support that may be involved? One could argue that if the military communications shop has had the idea of using pop star videos, as it long has feature films, to advance its message, well, that is just a good idea for them - something like product placement.

But if videos like Perry's get government support, direct or in-kind, while contrary views do not, that shifts the balance of the culture. It obscures other realities about life for our men and women in uniform, which few artists have the resources to document or publicize, compared with the Pentagon's bottomless cash flows: the way that private contractors now have bigger houses, more perks, and even more authority, outside or even on military bases, than the enlisted men and women who are, unlike the contractors, accountable to the people and often sent into harm's way; the way that 30% of women in the military will face rape, and 70% sexual assault, with little protection through grievance procedures and with a risk of retaliation; the way that military men's and women's mortgages have been preyed upon by banks; the way that soldiers and marines are cycled back for tours of duty beyond the human breaking point, to the detriment of their mental health and their family lives; the way that body armor is underfunded and rehabilitation is underfunded, and the terrible rates of PTSD that afflict our enlisted men and women go inadequately treated.

A more realistic portrayal of military life might note that no one threw them a parade after the end of the Iraq war, and no one bothered to thank them for their service. It might show how the military machine chews up patriotic young men and women and spits them out. What men and women in the army and navy today tell me directly is that they know they are fighting for corporate interests, not their country's true defense. They say they tell themselves, "I am fighting for my colleagues" - because they know they can't say that they are truly fighting for their country.

But no one who cares about those issues has the cash to make videos about that reality. No one is going to write a big check to get the message out about some of the hard truths of military men's and women's sacrifice and their exploitation. Yet that is all the more reason to demand transparency if the US military's PR arm is buying up chunks of pop culture real estate.

A glossy, seductive "war is fun when you can't get a date" pop video is over in three minutes. The truth about the darker side of military experience - trauma, injury, and the loss of loved ones - endures for ever.

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