Listen to this track by New York-based hard rock paragons Living Colour. It’s “Cult of Personality”, their biggest hit to date and most recognizable track taken from their 1988 album Vivid. The song was a top twenty song on Billboard’s Top 100, winning the band a Grammy for best hard rock performance, and with a smattering of other awards besides. Since its release, the song has been used across multiple media for many years, from use in video games to (rather ironically considering its subject matter) WWE entrance music.
Despite its sheer scale, the writing of “Cult of Personality” came out of a simple jam during a rehearsal when guitarist and bandleader Vernon Reid played the central riff while playing an entirely different song. From there, a signature hit was born, with central themes spanning the course of a tumultuous twentieth century. It namechecks world leaders with jarring contrast. Joseph Stalin and Gandhi are lined up right next to each other. The voice of Malcolm X starts the song, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt closes it (with a brief interjection from JFK). That’s a pretty broad cultural spectrum.
In an increasingly polarized political landscape all over the world by the end of the eighties, where did this song place on that spectrum? Besides the immense central riff that’s been mentioned, I think this is the song’s central strength; that it doesn’t choose sides along any political lines. That’s not really the point of it. Instead, it tackles a bigger subject, which is all about human perception, our tendency toward myth-making, and other tendencies that make it easy for the right person to use them to influence our judgement when it comes to the facts, pushing us in certain directions for good or ill. How relevant is that today? All too much.
It’s this kind of human tendency to mistake our perceptions for facts when the right buttons are pushed that fed this song. “Cult of Personality” submits a number of examples of how populations have responded to strong personalities who have sought to change the world through sheer force of will and by means of emerging technology and focused messaging. This song suggests that our greatest hopes for liberation and positive change, and our most fearsome, dehumanizing, and cruel impulses to oppress others have often sprung out of the very same social and psychological mechanisms. Our drive to follow narratives based on powerful cultural myths as wielded by the right storyteller is a double-edged sword in that way. Sometimes, a world-changing narrative is powerful because it’s true. Often, it’s powerful because it isn’t, but we wish it was. Sometimes, it’s an out and out harmful sham. All it takes is the right storyteller to unlock it.
If anyone knows about this phenomenon, it’s rock stars playing for throngs of screaming and ferociously loyal fans who hang on their every word. What would rock music be without its own myths, iconography, and celebrated figureheads? What would it be without the exchange of energy between idols and worshipers until there is very little divide between the two? How many times during a performance of this song over the years has this irony occurred to any single audience member? I’m guessing not many. Because when at a show watching one’s heroes on stage, awareness of these kinds of dynamics is at the opposite end of the sheer visceral experience of the event. There is often very little difference between a mosh pit and a political rally in this respect. That’s the parallel this song draws very effectively.
As a species, we are susceptible to the strength of a single figure or figures who wield a compelling message with the help of the right system to deliver it. When that message takes hold, we as a species often reflexively pour our unquestioning faith into those who deliver it and conveniently dismiss any mitigating elements that threaten its validity. Sometimes, a figure who commands this kind of power can help us focus on a need for change, to inspire us to raise our voices for a just cause, to seek a sense of meaning or liberation, and even find a connection to others. These are positive things. At other times, this very same drive to follow charismatic leaders can lead us down the opposite path to blind hatred, unthinking obedience, false certainty, and even to collusion in violence against others. It is our strength and our weakness. It’s at the heart of both our drive to create meaningful community and our historical pattern to form warring factions to destroy each other.
Our current global political atmosphere is tainted by cartoonishly villainous figures like Donald Trump and his flatterer minions, putting themselves forward as put-upon heroes who seek to restore America to a half-conceived Utopian state. This taps into a set of powerful cultural myths that are actually nothing more than mirages, fading away when the distance is closed between them and any measure of critical thinking. All the while, the Donald Trumps of this world war against the most vulnerable of society, many of whom attend their rallies, wear their slogans as badges of honour, pledge their allegiance, and thereby fuel the ambitions of these leaders to dismantle those very things that sustain the screaming throngs who venerate them. This idea of the cult of personality is more pertinent than ever in 2017. It is an era in which perception is revealed to be more important than facts for a disturbingly large percentage of the population.
The only guard against this is the self-awareness of our human tendency toward easily digestible narratives, images, and symbols in the form of “strong” leaders. Instead, we must do the hard work of unpacking hard truths and facing stark realities ourselves, and challenge our leaders to do the same on our behalf. That is the harder road. In our era, it appears to the one less traveled.
Living Colour are an active band today. You can learn more about them and their more recent movements at livingcolour.com.