Joel Danilewitz: Manigault, Misty and madness

Wednesday, February 14, 2018 - 5:20pm

When a former contestant on “The Apprentice” became a White House staff aide, it felt like the world was beginning to turn on its side (though, to be fair, the star of the show becoming president is probably the primary reason for why everything’s gone lopsided). When that same contestant is dismissed from the White House staff and then airs her complaints and fears about her former employer on “Celebrity Big Brother” to an E! News anchor, it feels like someone set the world ablaze.

The complaints of Omarosa Manigault (known, inanely, as the mononymous “Omarosa”), the former director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison, could be internalized in several ways, all of which indicate the bizarre state of media and news consumption.

In one aspect, it can be viewed as her warning to the American people via the popular reality television show about the hazardous ineptitude of the incumbent administration.

However, it can also be perceived as — and this is the way I processed such bizarre news headlines — that entertainment has seeped into the stratosphere of the already-hyperpartisan political climate. Or, instead of seeped, perhaps it has completely devoured it, distorting the face of politics into something that is as harrowing as it is amusing.

After seeing a headline as asinine as “Omarosa talks Trump on ‘Celebrity Big Brother’: ‘I was haunted by tweets every single day,’ I recalled how a certain entertainer prophetically tried to tell the world, or at least his fans, of this disastrous path.

Omarosa’s dark proclamation on reality TV evoked a certain album that haunted my summer days, the stinging and searing “Pure Comedy” by folk-rock singer Father John Misty. The blend of masterful cultural criticism with the resonance of someone who’s been left exhausted and beleaguered by the political climate was both cathartic and blisteringly incisive.

As though with a scalpel, Father John Misty’s clean dissection of today’s politics came from a messy place, especially in songs such as “Total Entertainment Forever,where he highlights how entertainment saturates existence, rich or poor, describing an Oculus Rift-like VR system that elucidates every desire through a screen.

Every dystopian image rendered is clearly rooted in the messiness of a culture whose politics have become circus-like. Two summers ago, after the nomination of President Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention, I saw Father John Misty at Camden, New Jersey’s XPoNential music festival.

He bitterly improvised a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On a Wire” with new lyrics slamming the fact that a “reality god” was inching closer to the White House, and that we, the crowd and proverbial “people,” were to blame for fostering an environment that commodified politics vis-à-vis an obsession with entertainment.

After the festival, which I went to solely for his appearance, I was miffed by his departure after singing one song that he didn’t really write.   

Yet his words have continued to linger in my head, and the only way to internalize the increasingly fatuous nature of our world has been through his music. It is almost as though I have begun reading every headline as inextricably tied to his omens as they manifested themselves in a White House run by clueless celebrities and far right zealots.

Though I doubt Father John Misty is the only cultural critic to point out the troubling nature of our discourse, I referenced his music in the hopes that perhaps it would shed light on how our insatiable need for entertainment has transmuted politics.

Omarosa’s warning could signify the deeply troubling nature of a White House currently teetering the world on the brink of apocalypse. But we already knew that.

Instead, her appearance on “Celebrity Big Brother,” whispering to Ross Mathews while she chokes back tears, featured the staple histrionics of any reality TV show as she exploits the fears of the American people. Do we blame the advent of capitalism for pushing for every last view out of the American people, or do we blame ourselves for permitting our minds to become sated solely by entertainment?

However, the point is that Father John Misty’s prophetic vision, one which doesn’t stand alone but, invariably, is constantly floating in my mind, has barely even been approached.

We continue to frame every political act in such overly sensationalist terms that it feels like a globe is falling off the edge with a racist, xenophobic world leader at the helm. Will we begin flouting this hedonism in the hopes that entertainment and politics will no longer be inextricable? Or are we to continue being complacent in our own decadent demise?

Perhaps this is the next move of the resistance: distilling politics and entertainment and renormalizing the culture in the hopes that we will never again elect a “reality god.”

Joel Danilewitz can be reached at joeldan@umich.edu.