Wed. March 21
Tyranny, Insanity, and Pop Culture
It was rather disconcerting for me to come across this article from The New Republic on the pop-culture tastes of dictators–I don’t know about you, but the less I have in common with these mass-murdering tyrants, the better. But, as it turns out, I (and millions of other Americans) are into the same music, movies, and celebrities as some of history’s worst dictators. Does this simply speak to the universal mass appeal of pop or is there something darker going on, something about pop culture that appeals to those extreme impulses in our nature that are better left buried deep in our souls?
As I pointed out yesterday, the critic Nik Cohn wrote that “sanity, of course, is the purest poison to everything pop.” Right. As the ancient Greeks knew, insanity–the suspension of reason, the indulgence of our passions–is at the heart of all art, high and low. Is there a connection between the tyranny of our emotions and political tyranny?
With that question in mind, allow me to take you on a tour of the world, one pop-culture-loving dictator at a time.
Bashar al Assad:
The Syrian dictator’s recent purchases on iTunes include music by LMFAO, Chris Brown, Right Said Fred, and New Order. Of course, picturing Assad dancing to “I’m Sexy And I Know It” is an image that most of us would prefer to block from our minds.
The diminutive and departed former leader was a noted film lover, with over 20,000 DVDs in his personal collection. His taste in movies can hardly be considered highbrow, however, with titles such as Rambo and Friday the 13th listed amongst his favorites. Not just content to watch movies, he once kidnapped a top South Korean film director to make a bizarre version of Godzilla entitled Pulgasari.
Mao, near the end of his life, was advised by his doctors to stop reading due to cataracts, which began his interest in movies—particularly those of Bruce Lee. Because Hong Kong was still a protectorate of the U.K., Lee’s films were not distributed in isolationist Mainland China and Mao would have to specially send somebody to retrieve the films and bring them back. Mao was such a fan that he was said to have exclaimed “Bruce Lee is a hero!” and his aides feared returning the film reels back to Hong Kong in the event that Mao would want to watch them again.
Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi has become the poster boy for eccentric dictators. He had a major crush on U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a crew of exclusively female (and exclusively virginal) bodyguards—and he also loved American musicians. He paid top dollar for musicians such as Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, and Lionel Richie to perform private concerts for his family.
The Serbian war criminal was a noted admirer of Disney and Frank Sinatra songs, though we’re guessing that the man who spent his later life trying to expand Serbia’s territory by military force preferred “My Way” over “It’s a Small World.”
In 1974, Bowie launched an elaborate tour of North America. . . .Bowie also developed an obsession with cocaine during this period, and it took him into frenzy, delusion and terror. He lived for a time in a Manhattan town house, but after a tense conflict there one night with Jimmy Page, Bowie believed that the Led Zeppelin guitarist – who owned the English home of late black-magic philosopher Aleister Crowley – had put his soul in peril. He moved to Los Angeles and continued to disintegrate, staying up for days without sleep, sustaining himself on a diet of milk, peppers and cocaine, studying occult literature and practices. He phoned Angela in London, asking for her help: Witches intended for him to impregnate one during Walpurgis Night. He later said Satan was living in his indoor swimming pool. David needed an exorcism (“I really walked into other worlds,” he later said), and Angela got him one – though it was by way of a long-distance phone call. “David was never insane,” Angela wrote. “The really crazy stuff coincided precisely with his ingestion of enormous amounts of cocaine, alcohol and whatever other drugs.” In any event, the rite may have helped break Bowie’s fear of a fiend possessing him. “It was time to get out of this terrible lifestyle I’d put myself into, and get healthy,” he later said. “It was time to pull myself together.”
In late 1976 . . . He became intrigued by Third Reich history and Nazi mythology. He had said years earlier in an interview, “I believe very strongly in fascism.” In 1974 he told Playboy, “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars. Look at some of the films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger.” In Strange Fascination, Buckley reports that customs officers detained Bowie at the Russian-Polish border in April 1976, and seized a collection of Nazi memorabilia. When an assistant later criticized him for his interest, Bowie grew infuriated. “F– you,” he said. “I changed the world! Kiss my arse” – then broke down and cried. The worst moment came in 1976, when Bowie arrived in an open-top Mercedes-Benz convertible at London’s Victoria Station and was photographed giving what some people wrongly thought was a Nazi salute. The reaction in England was furious. Bowie was sickened when he saw the photo. “I’m NOT a fascist…,” he told Melody Maker in October 1977. “That didn’t happen… I just WAVED… On the life of my child, I waved.” The longer Bowie stayed in Berlin, the more he came to understand the ruin that fascism had done to Germany and Europe. He was repelled by nationalists and racists, and was horrified to see his name made into a swastika in graffiti. He later called his interests “ghastly,” and said he had been coming out of a year of terrible duress. “I was out of my mind, totally, completely crazed.”
BOWIE: . . . I’d love to enter politics. I will one day. I’d adore to be Prime Minister. And, yes, I believe very strongly in fascism.
PLAYBOY: Some psychiatrists would call your behavior compulsive. Does the fact that there is insanity in your family frighten you?
BOWIE: My brother Terry’s in an asylum right now. I’d like to believe that the insanity is because our family is all genius, but I’m afraid that’s not true. Some of them–a good many–are just nobodies. I’m quite fond of the insanity, actually. It’s a nice thing to throw out at parties, don’t you think? Everybody finds empathy in a nutty family. Everybody says, “Oh, yes, my family is quite mad.” Mine really is. No f—ing about, boy. Most of them are nutty–in, just out of or going into an institution. Or dead.
. . .
PLAYBOY: You’ve often said that you believe very strongly in fascism. Yet you also claim you’ll one day run for Prime Minister of England. More media manipulation?
BOWIE: Christ, everything is a media manipulation. I’d love to enter politics. I will one day. I’d adore to be Prime Minister. And, yes, I believe very strongly in fascism. The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that’s hanging foul in the air at the moment is to speed up the progress of a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny and get it over as fast as possible. People have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership. A liberal wastes time saying, “Well, now, what ideas have you got?” Show them what to do, for God’s sake. If you don’t, nothing will get done. I can’t stand people just hanging about. Television is the most successful fascist, needless to say. Rock stars are fascists, too. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.
PLAYBOY: How so?
BOWIE: Think about it. Look at some of his films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger. It’s astounding. And, boy, when he hit that stage, he worked an audience. Good God! He was no politician. He was a media artist himself. He used politics and theatrics and created this thing that governed and controlled the show for those 12 years. The world will never see his like. He staged a country.
Really, I would like to be Prime Minister, but I think I’d have to set up my own country first. I don’t want to be Prime Minister of the old country. I’d have to create the state that I wish to live in first. I dream of one day buying companies and television stations, owning and controlling them.