Executives at MTV have promised that the MTV Video Music Awards will end on time tonight and not overlap with president Barack Obama's closing speech at the Democratic National Convention.
This news was delivered first not by any media outlet covering the showbiz racket, but by Politico, the U.S. political journalism outfit that covers U.S politics relentlessly. Because it matters, politically and strategically, if the vast audience for MTV Video Music Awards (MuchMusic, 8 p.m.) is distracted from Obama's speech. And because the Democrats hope that Obama is, to the MTV audience, as charismatic and compelling as MTV Awards performers Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Pink and Green Day.
In a U.S. presidential campaign year, showbiz is politics and politics is showbiz. As Clint Eastwood would confirm, were you to ask him.
But by "showbiz is politics and politics is showbiz," I don't just mean that politicians put on a show to attract attention. What happens in the United States during a presidential election year is a thing to behold. The popular culture becomes enmeshed with the political culture. And that's good. In Canada we tend to shy away from such coverage, being all earnest and sober about election coverage. And that's bad.
In the U.S., everyone is at it. The E! channel – which generally does 24/7 "news" about movies, celebrities, fashion and who is dating whom or who's-had-plastic surgery – is all over the Democratic Convention, just as it was all over the Republican convention last week.
A recent announcement about E! News declared the upcoming vote on Mitt Romney and Barack Obama as "this watershed Election Day" and promoted its coverage, which amounts to a daily segment called "Pop and Politics" covering "the cultural impact" of the election. There are reporters on the floor of the Democratic convention and apart from celebrities being interviewed – Eva Longoria, Jon Hamm, Olivia Wilde and Jessica Alba at the Democratic shindig – the point is to link political issues to the culture that E! celebrates daily.
MTV has been doing groundbreaking work in this area for years, starting in 1992. Back then, Bill Clinton appeared on MTV for 90 minutes and answered unrehearsed questions from 200 youngsters. It was probably the most sustained grilling given to the Democratic candidate that year. MTV called its coverage of the 2004 campaign, "Choose or Lose," on the basis that much of its viewer demographic – 18- to 29-year-olds – pays little or no attention to conventional political coverage and many aren't even registered to vote. MTV could easily ignore politics and stick to selling music, cosmetics and clothes, but the point of its coverage is to have its viewers understand that political issues have a direct impact on their lives. Sure, there was something bizarre about P. Diddy stalking the floor at the political conventions, but there is surely something noble too about his advocacy for young people being informed and voting.
In a way, what MTV has done over the years predated and encouraged the rise of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert – politics as something both serious and silly, but seriously deserving of attention.
Of course, coverage on MTV can slip into silliness, but on a regular basis the channel gives viewers quick lessons in the reality of politics. There are reports on the media packs that follow the candidates and on how political reporters do their jobs. Common political jargon – "electable" and "spin doctor" – are explained. There is nothing frivolous about this. Certainly nothing more frivolous that Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair or Chuck Norris going online to warn that voting for Barack Obama means the U.S. will "go the way of socialism or something much worse."
And while the Republicans have Eastwood and Norris, Obama is leveraging the power of Harold and Kumar. The Democratic Convention has made heavy use of a video in which Obama calls somebody and asks for their support. It turns out he's calling Kal Penn and John Cho, who play the charming stoners Harold and Kumar. In some of these videos, Penn and Cho are then seen working to get college students to register and vote.
In Canada, we tend to look with some amusement and condescension on the amalgamation of showbiz and politics that has become part of a U.S. election year. And we're wrong to do that. For all the occasionally silliness, the full vitality and vigour of the U.S. culture is on glorious display and there is nothing foolish or flippant about engaging the young in the political process.
As I write this, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is in court to answer allegations he broke the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. Voter turnout in Toronto in the 2010 municipal election that brought in Ford as mayor was 53.2 per cent. That was actually a huge improvement on the 39 per cent turnout in 2006 and 38 per cent in 2002.
When we have such low turnout in our largest city, we have a problem. We have a less healthy democracy than we think. We could add a little showbiz to the political process in Canada and be the better for it. The MTV Awards rock and voting rocks too. Don't mock that.