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.”
The connection runs the other way, too, of course. Not only do autocrats love pop culture, as many of us do, but some of pop's biggest stars are rather enamored by the politics of certain forms of dictatorships. Just last month, Rolling Stone ran a cover story on David Bowie, who famously said "Rock stars are fascists, too. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars." February's Rolling Stone retrospective on Bowie argues that he "made rock & roll safe for glitter gods and space oddities--but he was really trying to hold on to his sanity." The reporter, possibly without realizing it, really drew out the link between Bowie's descent into madness and his flirtation with fascism.
The points Bowie makes (key excerpts here) are disturbing, but interesting. They reveal the workings of the mind of a megalomaniac. And maybe that's what, at bottom, both dictators and pop stars like Bowie share in common: not so much their indulgence of the insane, but the unrelenting urge to control every aspect of our lives as they try to keep that insanity--ultimately, a loss of control--at bay.