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Why conservatives need to change the way they talk about pop culture
From Girls to rap, right-wing pundits often betray embarrassing prejudices when talking about entertainment
 
Lena Dunham's Girls character wears "shorteralls," not "potato sacks."
Lena Dunham's Girls character wears "shorteralls," not "potato sacks." HBO/Jessica Miglio

In an essay for the conservative site Breitbart, Kurt Schlichter writes that conservatives, despite their misgivings, should try to familiarize themselves with the popular television series Girls. He argues that conservatives are too closed off from the cultural fabric of American life, too absent from the office water cooler, too insulated in a "closed loop echo chamber." Any veneer of open-mindedness, however, is  shattered when Schilchter describes Girls thusly:

Girls is about four young, aimless college grads living in New York. Think of Sex and the City, except Sarah Jessica Parker has doubled her weight, dresses like a potato sack, and fancies herself the voice of some undefined generation. There's sex and nudity — just not hot Homeland sex and nudity. This is the first show in the history of cable television where male viewers actively root for the heroine to keep her clothes on. [Breitbart]

Schlichter shouldn't necessarily be singled out for his blatantly sexist remarks (he's not the first), but it's rather ironic that he made them in the context of a conservative earnestly trying to grapple with a show that is popular with young people and women, two demographics that in the most recent election firmly rejected the Republican Party on issues ranging from gay marriage to women's rights.

The conservative magazine National Review also made a stab at analyzing contemporary culture this week, in a podcast on rap "music" (their air quotes, not mine), which writer Mona Charen described as a "symbol of the decline of the West if ever there was one." This is not a promising start. Indeed, as the symposium on rap unfolds, (parts of which are helpfully transcribed here by The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf), it only gets worse. Mark Steyn says "there's an absence of human feeling in these songs," while Jay Nordlinger says rap is void of melody, harmony, and "the fundamentals of music." 

This is an attempt at a wholesale delegitimization of a rich, if complicated, vein of black cultural identity. It is so oblivious of other cultures, so tone-deaf to their unique modes of expression, that it is no wonder racial minorities have largely fled the Republican Party. As Friedersdorf writes, these conservatives "reinforce the perception that their views are shaped by little more than cartoonish stereotypes. One needn't dig deep into obscure rap albums to find 'human feeling.'"  

Many conservatives have long had an uneasy relationship with popular musicians, movie stars, artists, and the like, to the point that many Republican candidates can hardly play music at their rallies without being slapped with cease-and-desist orders. Mitt Romney's team, eager for a little star power, even allowed Clint Eastwood to give an unvetted disaster of a speech at the Republican National Convention that involved the aging actor speaking to an empty chair. It's hard not to sympathize — there's only so much wattage you can get out of Chuck Norris and Jon Voight. 

There are some young conservative politicians who have shown deftness in expressing their enthusiasm for the popular arts. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's adoration of Bruce Springsteen is famous. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida can speak with surprising fluency about rap, and probably deserves some kind of prize for being the only Republican to ever plug the group Niggaz With Attitude. The point, of course, is not for conservatives to become buddies with Beyonce, but to build cultural connections beyond the old, white set. And when it comes to speaking about pop culture, the trick is apparently quite simple — you have to enjoy it. 

 

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