Friday, January 17, 2014

What the Jimmy Fallon/Bruce Springsteen "Gov Christie Traffic Jam" song says about Comedy and Politics

2014 means it's time to get back to blogging.

Anyone who knows me well also knows it's no secret that I am a big Bruce Springsteen fan. It's kind of a pre-requisite if you grew up in New Jersey. Perhaps the best part of my ICA 2013 London conference trip was that it overlapped with the E Street Band's stopover at Wembley Stadium in London. The ticket stub is proudly displayed in our house.

Those who know the academic me also know that I spend a good chunk of my time researching the impact of exposure to political comedy and entertainment. Over the years I've found that exposure to political comedy is positively related to feelings of internal political efficacy or the belief in one's ability to effectively understand and participate in politics, that political comedy content can act as a gateway encouraging young people in particular to seek out political information from traditional news sources, and that viewing interviews on political comedy programs increases citizen knowledge and participation in politics. My work has also shown that there may be some benefits for the politician who can both take and tell a good joke.

The net conclusion of this extensive body of work is that political comedy is an important force in our mediated political environment and that these varied forms of hybrid media can impact our politics and our citizens.

My favorite clip from 2014 so far is this week's Jimmy Fallon/Bruce Springsteen parody of Born to Run, "Governor Chris Christie's Fort Lee, NJ Traffic Jam." The clips is a comic hit and has been making a strong political point. In case you haven't seen it, here's the video:







Why is this such great comedy?

Well first, the piece is a great parody. The Fallon version of the song makes explicit reference to the original -- straight down to the reference to Highway 9, the wrapping of legs around those velvet rims, and even the first line of the song is partially the same as the original: "In the day we sweat it out on the streets ..." As a comic form, parody is meant to serve as a copy of the original text, one that is infused with a critical take on the original form. It's no surprise that both Fallon and Bruce sport a cut-off shirt, dark sunglasses, and Bruce's red bandana. They're offering commentary on the classic performance of the song and allowing even those who aren't big Bruce fans (and memorized the lyrics to Born to Run as a kid) to quickly identify with some very iconic imagery.

The piece not only incorporates a spot-on parody but also offers a satirical take on the power and influence Christie wields as the state's chief objective. Moreover, the clip even features self-ridicule with Bruce comically remarking about the length of his live shows. Voters appreciate it when politicians are willing and able to poke fun of themselves. The same sentiment rings true for musicians and pop culture figures as well.

Finally, the clip makes use of an increasingly popular platform -- the ever-present YouTube -- so that viewers who missed the original broadcast can quickly catch the clip and share via their favorite social networking platform. To date, the clip uploaded to the official "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" YouTube page has seen 2.25 million views in just 2 short days and received over 2,000 user comments (the original appearance was Tuesday night the 14th with the video appearing online on the 15th). That's not counting the metacoverage of the parody across a range of news outlets or other cross-postings. Bottom line: the clip's viral nature has contributed to its success.

Why does this all say about politics?

While the clip is certainly entertaining, it's also making a contribution to our political -- not just comic -- discourse.

As my own research has shown, when celebrities engage in political activity, citizens, especially young voters take notice. And as the Washington Post has so aptly noted, this parody of Born to Run is not Bruce Springsteen's first foray into politics. Ever since Ronald Reagan misappropriated Born in the USA in a political stump speech, the Boss has had a fair amount to say about which candidates he supports and which politicians he'd like to see run out of office. Springsteen's push to elect both Obama and Kerry are just two recent examples.

Like many contemporary musicians, Springsteen uses his popular platform to make statements about issues as well, much like other contemporary popular musicians including Beyonce, Bob Dylan, the Black Eyed Peas (think will.i.am) and others. And we're just talking about the B's. A review of the lyrics from "We Take Care of Our Own," says it all:

"From Chicago to New Orleans From the muscle to the bone From the shotgun shack to the Superdome We yelled "help" but the cavalry stayed home There ain't no-one hearing the bugle blown We take care of our own We take care of our own Wherever this flag's flown We take care of our own"

In fact you could argue that Bruce is known for being political. As such, lending his voice to the Christie "bridgegate" controversy has all the more impact especially if you're familiar with Christie's super fandom and his reaction to their embrace in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Thus for Bruce to kick Christie to the curb is an extra big deal, especially given the Governor's status as the 2016 front-runner for the GOP nomination.

While the Bridgegate scandal may fade as we really kick the 2016 contest into high gear (can't we get through the 2014 midterms first?!?!), it's certain that this viral parody will not. Even if you're not a Bruce fan like me, it's hard to argue that the Fallon/Bruce video isn't a slam dunk for comedy and for politics and one that will reappear each time Christie makes a gaffe or is associated with a new scandal.

Let's hope 2014 brings even more great political comedy and music too!