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A Pop Culture Love Note to America

How Run-DMC and Miami Vice inspired a British teen.

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, I read an exuberant love note to America on her birthday. The author, Roger Bennett, was born in Liverpool, England, and fell in love with the States through our TV shows and football games of the 80s. He decorated his boyhood bedroom with an American flag and the New York skyline.

As Editor of the APA journal Psychology of Popular Media, it’s my job to curate research on the psychology of popular culture. How does social media photo sharing play a role in self-image? Do love song lyrics influence our ideas about romantic relationships? What are the psychological consequences of ghosting on social media? This research offers sound evidence to help us answer questions about the popular media that is such a big part of our daily lives.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay
Source: Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

The central question of my research focuses on how we understand the social world through popular culture, primarily via stories and characters. This is precisely what Bennett writes about. With my brain filled with these ideas, it was delightful to hear the story of how one British (now American) citizen saw us through the eyes of our storytelling in the 1980s. You can imagine my excitement to read someone who articulates these experiences so clearly.

American Stories

“How could I love a nation based on the largely fictional stories, images, and myths that it peddled about itself?” (Bennett, 2021). This comment embodies a perspective that I have wrestled with for years. I titled my first book How Fantasy Becomes Reality for that reason – I wanted to grapple with the paradox that fiction, and any curated unreality in the media, may be unreal. But it is also real.

“The opposite of a great truth is another great truth.” —Heraclitus

The British teen knew that these were stories that we fashioned about ourselves. At times, we produced these stories because the creators thought it was what the American people wanted to hear. Even so, no matter how easy the motives are to see through, some truth can creep through nonetheless.

Bennett enumerates the beliefs he gleaned from watching American pop culture from across the Atlantic. Watching NFL highlights to the tune of Bonnie Tyler’s "Holding Out for a Hero" inspired him. He loved how American sports fans enjoyed themselves; even if their team was losing, they could still wear costumes and drink beer. He believed that Arby’s tasted like freedom. And the casts of Dallas and Dynasty made him feel like upward mobility was tantalizingly possible, if not probable.

Seeing the Difference

On the deeper side, the teenager astutely noticed that even a show that appeared to be pure fluff could offer a valuable message. Suppose you can picture Miami Vice’s Crockett and Tubbs (the characters played by Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas), clad in their 80s fashion-forward outfits. In that case, you may see the actors virtually winking at themselves. But real people can be simultaneously absurd and profound. Maybe being simultaneously absurd and profound is the very definition of a real person.

Writers and actors can fold in meaning even on a show sometimes publicly derided for being little more than eye candy. Bennett watched Miami Vice, and what he took away from the main character, Sonny Crockett, was a man who was not afraid to be different. And that inspired him.

This is precisely the kind of thing that makes my heart beat faster because I love shining a light on how things in pop culture that appear shallow can also be profound. It all depends on the storytellers and the audience. For example, Phillip Michael Thomas was one of the biggest stars on prime-time TV in the 1980s. America was an embodiment of struggle and triumph. Somehow, a man of color boating through the waters of Miami looking cool is simultaneously absurd and profound. Again, a paradox: The sacred and the profane can exist in one space.

Walk This Way

Tracy Chapman, Run-DMC, and Aerosmith also made their way onto Bennett’s list of pop culture inspirations. Chapman’s "Fast Car" suggested that you can change a complicated reality if you are willing to make bold moves. And, as opposed to the strong-but-silent heroes of the day, Run-DMC and Aerosmith singing "Walk this Way" suggested a different heroic possibility.

They “made it clear that with a mouth like a firehose, filled with swagger and bravado, you could talk dreams into existence.” (Bennett, 2021) That’s as fine a description of America as I can think of. [Cue fireworks.]

References

Bennett, R. (2021, July 3-4). How the NFL, 'Miami Vice,' Tracy Chapman and Arby's Made Me an American, Wall Street Journal, pp. C1-C2.

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