Saturday, March 15, 2014

Soundtracking Senator McConnell: Mobilizing Remix in Politics

Last night, Jon Stewart invited Daily Show viewers to join in the fun of setting a two and a half minute wordless campaign ad from Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to music. As a moderate liberal democrat incensed by McConnells socially conservative republican leadership, Stewart regularly mocks McConnell on the show, often simply for his diction and appearance, which Stewart apes in the character of Cecil the Turtle from Looney Tunes.
Click the pic to see Stewart's call for remixing McConnell's campaign ad.
Aside from the obvious juvenile derision of a political adversary, Stewart's bit poses as pure Internet silliness--fun with remix culture. He shows the same few seconds of the ad with several different songs, showing how the music can change the message in myriad humorous ways. This suggests a fun and fruitful media literacy exercise lesson for any age group (hint: you don't have to use McConnell!). I'll offer some specific ideas and reflections on my experience doing similar remix activities with students (and Girl Scouts!) to develop media literacy after the jump. However, partisan political attacks aside, this Daily Show clip is more than just a call to mockery; buried in the lead is an important lesson on remix and convergence culture in politics. Stewart points out that McConnell most likely posted this 2m30s wordless ad in order to facilitate Super Pacs (political action committees) using and remixing the images in their own ads to support his campaign. Super PACs can collect and spend unlimited funds on political ads without disclosing sources of the money (as candidates must for donations over a certain amount), provided there is no collusion or communication between the politician and the Super PAC [Colbert did an absolutely hilarious series of segments exploiting and exposing how Super PACs work--a brilliant teaching resource on the topic]. Ask: How does McConnell's alleged strategy work? How does he intend to benefit? How do voters lose out in the process? So, McConnell offers these images to the public, affording him some direct control over his public image portrayed in remixed ads by the Super PACs supporting him without directly communicating with them.
[After the jump: More on this, w/ the Daily Show clip and ideas for soundtracking lessons for media literacy]

Potentially, the remixed Super PAC ads with images produced by McConnell will barrage the public in various media in the voting season without allowing voters to see who has funded the messages while McConnell maintains distance from accusations of negative messages or misinformation that may come from provocative ads. Thus, Stewart's call for his fans, who mostly share his disdain for McConnell's politics, to make a remix mockery of McConnell's campaign ad images, also calls attention to the political economy of the campaign ads. Why does Stewart pose his call to remix as "just plain fun" and not as political activism? Why does he not encourage the remixes to expose the systematic obfuscation in campaign financing rather than simply mocking a candidate's appearance? Colbert did it. Is Stewart so cynical of his audience that he believes they would rather spend time making absurd laughs for kicks (at the expense of a single Senator who is a lock for re-election), than pointed laughs to address institutional change? I'd love to hear what students think of this, and what you think your students would think. Can grassroots media culture and activism compete with big media politics? I hope so. But I would rather see more mobilization for systemic change, which I think we can add to Stewart's call to remix, by having this conversation around the clip, and following it up with opportunities for students to develop their own political remixes (soundtracking any politician they choose to critique their message and image). To get a bigger audience, you could even post your work on any political figure to the Twitter thread Stewart suggests. Your group can also follow this meme as it unfolds at Know Your Meme, to see whether/how remix culture responds to Stewart's call.

I have found that the simple act of soundtracking a common set of images with my students makes for a worthwhile media literacy experience--even with experienced media producers. While such exercises are often done as a means to practice editing software (synching images with music, editing to fit changes), the real magic comes in the reflective discussion about what works, what messages come through, what fails to communicate, and how different people find different ways to interpret remixed media. Using a common video sequence helps to focus reflection on the effect of music choice and editing for soundtracks. But you can also do this low-fi. My colleague David Cooper Moore and I did a remix lesson with a huge group of Girl Scouts in Philadelphia where pairs of kids chose music to synch with a Girl Scouts promotional ad. We had kids use a video player and an mp3 player set up on each terminal in a computer lab (but you could also use a VCR and a boom box, 80s style!--also, headphone splitters are key for collaborative editing in a lab). In pairs, first they viewed the ad without sound. Then, they listened to a bunch of song options, discussing the messages of each in relation to the message of the ad. They tried out playing the songs from different starting points to synch with the ads, made their final choices, and shared with the group. Some chose music to support the message lyrically, some chose music for the feeling and pace, and a few chose comedic juxtaposition. We viewed each, discussing the different messages created by the soundtracks, and a troop of remixers sallied forth into the world...

[Actually, we also included a bit around copyright and fair use as well, which we introduced with these school house rock style music videos; find more materials for teaching copyright and fair use from the Media Education Lab here].

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