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How Celebrities Influence Cultural Movements

Celebrities like Beyoncé influence cultural movements with controversial performances.

There’s a brand new talk, but it’s not very clear
That people from good homes are talking this year (Fashion!)
It’s loud and tasteless and I’ve heard it before
You shout it while you’re dancing on the dance floor (Fashion!)
—David Bowie, "Fashion"

You go, Beyoncé!

Jay-Z’s better half has found a novel way to deal with the hatahs calling for Law Enforcement Officers who moonlight as concert security personnel to refuse to work her Formation tour, which kicked off on March 30, 2016. Fans who have drunk the "Lemonade" can now show Beyoncé the respect she demands by swaggering up to her merch table and buying a t-shirt whose message echoes that same sentiment put forth by America’s Mayor and others: "Boycott Beyoncé"

For the proper tribute price of $45.

(Personally, I’d rather show up to her concert wearing a “no its becky” tee, but I bet there’s only one.)

Why would anyone in their right mind want to deny themselves the experience of seeing and maybe hearing Beyoncé in a live-ish setting? The controversy started with her performance of "Formation" at Super Bowl 50 earlier in 2016. Not only did she slap the NFL on the back for five decades of non-profit, long-term, irreversible brain damage, she wished the Black Panthers a Happy 50 with a foxy phalanx of Black Power wow factor, and she did it in front of an estimated 112 million people.

Most of the controversy following her performance led to discussion about what Black America—indeed, the average, reasonable citizen in general—would think if, say, Kid Rock did some mic-rockin’ in front of a huge Confederate flag, or if, say, Ted Nugent took the stage in full camo and offered some semi-automatic loving to the wife of First Black President Bill Clinton and the soon-to-be-First Half-Black President Barack Obama.

Of course, they have done that and—maybe rightfully, maybe not—people condemned them for it, because it's "racist" and "offensive" and "symbols kill" instead of "fuck you" and "sticks and stones" and "Get ready, hon, The Walking Dead’s on soon." Much of Black America’s discussion, into which sympathetic White America was invited, denied the other White America’s right to outrage about the use of black militant imagery—undeniably analogous to their own outrage about the Confederate flag—by saying Queen B’s act was one of empowerment, not one cut from the same cloth as Rock’s and Nugent’s. At its heart, though, Queen B’s act, like those of Rock, Nugent, Dimebag, Skynyrd, et al., is little more than that.

Now that she’s back on the road—with or possibly without the promise of police protection—that controversy is sure to be back in everyone’s face real soon. So we’ll bring everyone to the party by pointing out that (her own politically aware t-shirt aside) the occasional Sasha Fierce wasn’t breaking any new ground at the Super Bowl, because musicians have been wrapping themselves in the fabric of radical politics for decades. Given that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, let’s resist the urge to turn this into a debate about political ideologies and ask the really important questions: "Who Are You Wearing?" and "Who Wore It Best?"

“Who Are You Wearing?” “The Black Panthers!”

Founded in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense and their 10 Point Platform and Program should be a modern-day Republican’s wet dream: Their demands included the right to self-determination; the right to curtail the federal government and change its policies to better serve The People in terms of economics, education, housing and the basic necessities of human life; and the right to carry assault rifles in public to help them get what they want. But the Panthers are more a Republican nightmare. My guess is that’s because the folks doing the self-determinatin’, curtailin’, and brandishin’ were black.

via Vibe

“Who Wore It Best?”

Public Enemy hit the end zone with the paramilitary look of S1W—spiking sales of black M65s, no doubt—but the extra point goes to Yoko Ono, who adopted a Black Panther look in the early 70s when she and Mr. Ono were actual known associates of radicals like the Yippies (all props to Bey and Jay’s licensing fee to Black Lives Matter, of course). Not only was Yoko’s look incredibly au courant, it came from someone who had (and still has) a little bit of radical in everything she does.

“Who Are You Wearing?” “The Red Army Faction and Red Brigade!”

German journalist Ulrike Meinhof and political delinquents Andreas Baader and Gundun Ensslin fought re-emerging fascism and rampant capitalism in late-’60s Germany with fire (and guns and bombs) and, irony of ironies, curtailed the government right into passing its own version of the Patriot Act. Most of the world knew them as the Baader-Meinhof Group until they branded themselves the Red Army Faction, whose campaign of havoc, mayhem and murder continued after the trio’s (supposed) suicides in Stammheim prison and until the group’s “third generation” incarnation voluntarily disbanded in 1998. BREAKING, KINDA: The BBC reported recently that three cash-strapped RAF members have been identified by DNA as suspects in the attempted armed robbery of a bank van in Bremen, Germany, in June 2015, as well as several other crimes.

The Red Brigade (Brigade Rosse), their ideological counterparts in Italy, used similar tactics and cemented their place in history with the kidnapping and murder of former Christian Democrat Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978.

via Listal

“Who Wore It Best?”

Clash frontman Joe Strummer often wore a red T-shirt with the words “Brigade Rosse” surrounding a large star with a submachine gun and the initials “RAF,” an image taken from the cover of a handbook written by Meinhof in 1970. The Clash would flirt with all sorts of sexy revolutionary fashion, from Comrade Strummer’s “Rebel Truce” shirt to the Nicaraguan chic of Sandinista! to the Viet Nam-ish army motif of Combat Rock.

“Who Are You Wearing?” “Black Widows!”

Black Widows, also called shahidkas, are Islamic Chechen women who wear burkas to cover their suicide vests, an idea recalling the BMG’s "baby bombs," a dome covering an explosive strapped to a woman’s belly to make her look pregnant. Dating back to at least 2000 (apparently in response to losing husbands and brothers to the never-ending strife in Chechnya), Black Widows took center stage in the terrorism scene with their role in the 2002 occupation of a Moscow theater in which more than 800 people were held hostage and 170 were killed, mostly by a chemical agent pumped into the theater by Russian police to subdue the kidnappers.

via NATO

“Who Wore It Best?”

After faux-lesbo duo T.a.T.u. went the way of all good things, Russian music producer Ivan Shapovalov conspired with singer Natalya Shevlyakova to create n.A.T.o., as calculated an on-stage musical persona as Alice Cooper, David Bowie, or Kelly Clarkson. n.A.T.o. performed her first concert in Moscow on September 11, 2004; Entrance to the show was guaranteed with a ticket resembling an airplane boarding pass. Surrounded by bodyguards wearing balaclavas and toting (hopefully) fake ordnance, n.A.T.o. stormed the stage dressed in a hijab and niqab and performed songs including her first single, "Chor Javon," a not-unimpressive bit of anti-war ethno-pop sung in Tajik. One video for the song features Shevlyakova making a martyrdom tape, intercut with news clips mentioning attacks by Al Qaeda; The money shot comes when a flash of yellow light makes it appear she’s blown herself up.

“Who Are You Wearing?” “The Tamil Tigers!”

The mid-70s soldiers of the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS), seeking an independent Tamil province in Sri Lanka, were absorbed into the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers—the reported inventors of the suicide belt—who successfully captured control of the northern peninsula of that country in the mid-80s. After losing the land in 1987 and killing a former Indian Prime Minister, the Sri Lankan President and about 70,000 other people, they were finally outgunned in the early 2000s. Soldiers who weren’t killed at the end of the group’s campaign were captured and officially announced as "rehabilitated" in 2011.

“Who Wore It Best?”

That would be British-born, bird-flipping, Sri Lankan rapper and sample enthusiast M.I.A., whose father Arul Pragasam—one of the founders of EROS—was the namesake of her debut album Arular. M.I.A. is no stranger to pissing people off at the Super Bowl herself or creating controversy over the use of terroristic images in videos for songs including but not limited to "Born Free" (which shows red-headed whites being rounded up and abused by jackbooted government forces); "Paper Planes," a song about immigration; and "Borders," her take on the Syrian migrant crisis.

“Who Are You Wearing?” “The Symbionese Liberation Army!”

Possibly the world’s first group of white black supremacists—led by African-American career criminal, Soledad Prison graduate and plum-wino Donald "Cinque" DeFreeze—the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was best known for the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the robbery of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco and the death of six of its members in a shoot-out with the LAPD during which their not-so-safehouse was burned to the ground on live TV. A photograph of Hearst (by then rechristened Tania, after Che Guevara’s lover) holding a machine gun and standing in front of the group’s seven-headed snake symbol remains one of the most powerful political pictures of the 1970s.

“Who Wore It Best?”

Madonna is seen in superslinky pseudo-terror threads in the booklet for her 2003 CD American Life, a disk thematically inspired by the social and political aftermath of 9/11. While the CD cover recalls Alberto Korda’s classic photo of Che Guevara, other pics show the Material Girl more Tania than Che with the tasteful addition of guns and bullet belts (her look was definitely Hearst-inspired during a promotional performance at Tower Records in New York City celebrating the CD’s release). While it’s nice to think that Madonna’s so prescient she presented the gender fluid intersectionality between Che and Tanya as a statement on the socio-political morphing of a masculine/feminine paradigm, it was probably just a happy coincidence.

The "Patty-as-Tania" fantasy has been exploited plenty over the years. Director and Patty Hearst fetishist John Waters artistically liberated Hearst’s kidnapping in 2000 for the guerrilla filmmaking comedy Cecil B. Demented (whose poster was a slick play on Heart’s Tania pic), about which Hearst once said, "I told him I really should sue him for copyright infringement." Five years later, stand-up comic and one-woman porno niche market Margaret Cho posed for the cover of her absolutely fabulously empowering CD Assassin and its accompanying book I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight (Patty’s declaration of war from a taped communique after she "joined" the SLA) in a beret-and-olive-drab ensemble, slinging a mic the way Hearst slung a gat. Other tributes have come from unfortunately unsung musical acts like Tanya and the Revolutionaries and Patty Hurst Shifter.

“Who Are You Wearing?” “Nazis (and Commies)!”

NRA aside, no right-wing 20th century political organization has gotten as much fashion play as the Nazis. Adolf Hitler made known his intention to co-opt the Sanskrit symbol of good fortune for the Nazi party in 1925, paying an attention to the color scheme, line weight and placement of the symbol that would have made Milton Glaser proud, if, well, you know... The swastika was an integral part of the Nazi party’s visual identity, appearing on flags, armbands, badges, currency and the foreheads of its latter-day political adherents.

via Glance

“Who Wore It Best?”

Nazi imagery was a common thread in late-70s London punk-rock fashion, generally for no other reason than it pisses people off. Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and Banshees vocalist Siouxsie Sioux openly wore swastika t-shirts and armbands, respectively, while Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten’s "Destroy" t-shirt added Christ on an inverted cross to the mix. That shirt, like all things punky, was available for purchase in the store Sex, run by designer Vivienne Westwood and Pistols mastermind Malcolm McClaren, who the previous year took the New York Dolls out of dresses and high heels and put them on-stage in red patent leather in front of a Communist flag.

Hard rock and heavy metal acts got in on the fun, too, to a lesser degree. Led Zeppelin guitarist and Aleister Crowley devotee Jimmy Page wore what came to be known as the "Stormtrooper outfi"” onstage with the band on April 10, 1977, a move that shocked and confused the fans who noticed (Zep was a decidedly non-political band throughout its tenure as the biggest act in rock). One person who did notice was rock journalist Liz Derringer, who asked Pagey about it during an interview for Creem magazine in 1985:

Creem: Speaking of religion, I just want to ask you, why did you wear Nazi regalia on stage at one time? You had upset some people.

Jimmy Page: Good. How could I put this? I could have thrown this back really well, but I can’t, not with you. Yeah, well I tell you, I’d rather have the whole backstage—instead of how it is now—draped like a Nazi flag, the Confederate flag, the Japanese flag, just so people get sort of shocked out of their inhibitions. Whereby, if they need to, most people don’t have these prejudices. The past is the past, is the past, is the past. But it can shock people, and sometimes people really need to be disturbed.

Speaking of Stormtroopers, the most obvious use of Nazi symbols in rock was committed by KISS, the last two letters of whose logo bears a striking resemblance to the Nazi Schutzstaffel logo. Designed by guitarist and former art student Ace Frehley, the logo raised surprisingly little ire among the band’s critics, who always seemed more concerned with their dubious connections to Satan and any palpable musical talent, but one place where the logo absolutely would not fly was in Germany, where possession of Nazi-themed memorabilia and symbols is strictly outlawed. In 1980, the band altered their iconic logo for use specifically in the fatherland, rounding the corners of the lightning bolt to look like more like a letter of the alphabet.

The strongest criticism of the band’s potential Nazi leanings comes from Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons—who are both Jewish—against both Frehley and former drummer Peter Criss, both whom Stanley accuses of anti-semitism in his book Face the Music: A Life Exposed.

Not to be outdone by anyone, anywhere, any time, about anything, the late, great Lemmy Kilmister of Mötorhead was as well-known for his collection of Nazi memorabilia as he was for his moles and muttonchops. There are countless photos of Lemmy wearing Nazi gear onstage and off, and over the years band’s merch has featured takes on WWII German militaria with varying degrees of subtlety.

“Who Are You Wearing?” “Che Guevara!”

Ernesto "Che" Guevara is best known by people who don’t wear shirts with his face on them as an Argentine doctor determined to kick US-led capitalists out of Latin America by becoming a revolutionary guerrilla. He aligned himself with Fidel and Raul Castro and became a high-ranking soldier in the Cuban Revolution, bringing down the regime of Fulgencio Batista, installing Castro in power in 1959 and facilitating the Bay of Pigs crisis in 1962 with the addition of Soviet missiles to Cuba’s arsenal. His later search for worldwide revolution led him to the jungles of Kinshasa and Bolivia, where he was captured and executed by CIA-trained forces in 1967.

“Who Wore It Best?”

Rage Against the Machine Los Angeles agit-rockers Rage Against the Machine dressed themselves, their equipment, their stage and, most importantly, their fans in Che’s face, breathing new life into a symbol of youthful rebellion (or youthful ignorance, depending on how far back you push the goalposts) and ironically enough creating a new market demographic for Communist propaganda in the process. That RATM also turned Che into a Bolivian Hello Kitty by encouraging like-minded capitalists to plaster his mug on everything from jackets to sneakers to onesies is almost as ironic as the fact that they’re Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s favorite band. Or not.


Lemonade is Beyonce's expression of her journey of healing and knowledge. Her sixth studio album was released on April 23, 2016. It is Beyonce's second album in her visual series that encompasses both music and video in its holistic view of creativity. Her one-hour film aired on the HBO channel and coincided with the launch of the album.

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