The Pop Culture Tastes of Dictators

It was rather disconcerting for me to come across this article from The New Republic on the pop-culture tastes of dictators–I don’t know about you, but the less I have in common with these mass-murdering tyrants, the better. But, as it turns out, I (and millions of other Americans) are into the same music, movies, and celebrities as some of history’s worst dictators. Does this simply speak to the universal mass appeal of pop or is there something darker going on, something about pop culture that appeals to those extreme impulses in our nature that are better left buried deep in our souls?

As I pointed out yesterday, the critic Nik Cohn wrote that “sanity, of course, is the purest poison to everything pop.” Right. As the ancient Greeks knew, insanity–the suspension of reason, the indulgence of our passions–is at the heart of all art, high and low. Is there a connection between the tyranny of our emotions and political tyranny?

With that question in mind, allow me to take you on a tour of the world, one pop-culture-loving dictator at a time.

Bashar al Assad:

The Syrian dictator’s recent purchases on iTunes include music by LMFAO, Chris Brown, Right Said Fred, and New Order. Of course, picturing Assad dancing to “I’m Sexy And I Know It” is an image that most of us would prefer to block from our minds.

Kim Jong-il:

The diminutive and departed former leader was a noted film lover, with over 20,000 DVDs in his personal collection. His taste in movies can hardly be considered highbrow, however, with titles such as Rambo and Friday the 13th listed amongst his favorites. Not just content to watch movies, he once kidnapped a top South Korean film director to make a bizarre version of Godzilla entitled Pulgasari.

Mao Zedong:

Mao, near the end of his life, was advised by his doctors to stop reading due to cataracts, which began his interest in movies—particularly those of Bruce Lee. Because Hong Kong was still a protectorate of the U.K., Lee’s films were not distributed in isolationist Mainland China and Mao would have to specially send somebody to retrieve the films and bring them back. Mao was such a fan that he was said to have exclaimed “Bruce Lee is a hero!” and his aides feared returning the film reels back to Hong Kong in the event that Mao would want to watch them again.

Muammar Qaddafi:

Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi has become the poster boy for eccentric dictators. He had a major crush on U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a crew of exclusively female (and exclusively virginal) bodyguards—and he also loved American musicians. He paid top dollar for musicians such as Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, and Lionel Richie to perform private concerts for his family.

Slobodan Milosevic:

The Serbian war criminal was a noted admirer of Disney and Frank Sinatra songs, though we’re guessing that the man who spent his later life trying to expand Serbia’s territory by military force preferred “My Way” over “It’s a Small World.”

The connection runs the other way, too, of course. Not only do autocrats love pop culture, as many of us do, but some of pop’s biggest stars are rather enamored by the politics of certain forms of dictatorships. Just last month, Rolling Stone ran a cover story on David Bowie, who famously said “Rock stars are fascists, too. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.” February’s Rolling Stone retrospective on Bowie argues that he “made rock & roll safe for glitter gods and space oddities–but he was really trying to hold on to his sanity.” The reporter, possibly without realizing it, really drew out the link between Bowie’s descent into madness and his flirtation with fascism.

The points Bowie makes (key excerpts here) are disturbing, but interesting. They reveal the workings of the mind of a megalomaniac. And maybe that’s what, at bottom, both dictators and pop stars like Bowie share in common: not so much their indulgence of the insane, but the unrelenting urge to control every aspect of our lives as they try to keep that insanity–ultimately, a loss of control–at bay.

  1. Stuart Creque

    My take is that the dictators aren’t so different from the rest of us. They wanted things their way and had unique opportunities to impose their will on the people around them. Where (I hope) most of us are different is in our empathy for others in the specific – remember that dictators often fancy themselves to be empathetic toward “mankind” or “their people” in the abstract.

  2. Mel Foil

    One typical dictator’s delusion is that if the people aren’t happy, they’re just not being entertained enough. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of the dictator to keep up with what all the cool kids like…as long as it’s not freedom.

  3. tabula rasa

    Doesn’t this suggest that popular culture (the secularization of culture) has no mediating influence on the will to power? 

    For that one needs to look for something with a lot more muscle, such as the return to the transcendent moral code of Judeo-Christian culture.  

    We might be able to swap favorite Sinatra CDs with these dictators, but the real difference between them and us (or least some of us) is that we pay allegiance to a higher power and the moral code he has given us. 

  4. Leporello

    It would be interesting to know how many tyrants educated before WWI  - when education was more classical and when it was broadly understood that certain entertainment is unworthy of the attention of educated men – also had low tastes.

    What did Lenin and Trotsky like to hear and watch?  Was there any difference in the tastes of Lafayette and Robespierre?    

    There was the idea among the ancients that power only enabled tyrants to be more greatly tyrannized by their own base desires – that is, that tyranny was slavery for everyone, ruler and ruled – and that free men had more properly ordered souls.

  5. Frozen Chosen

    Hey, even blood-thirsty dictators need to take a break from oppressing people and murdering their advesaries once in a while. 

    Have you seen what passes for entertainment in most third world/commie countries?  Makes sense they would go for the American culture.  Democracy, dictatorship, doesn’t matter – they all love the American pop culture.

    Wasn’t Bin Laden watching Golden Girls when the Seals put a bullet in his noggin?

  6. Foxman

    There were addendums to many of the titles of the pieces i.e.

    Dances With Wolves – Then Takes Their Pelts

    Back in the USSR – Now STAY or Your Family Goes to the Gulag

    Some Like it Hot – if The Chairman says so

    Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – and Oppresses the Masses

  7. The New Clear Option

    To his credit, Bowie’s been up front; he’s always been a lad insane.

  8. Aaron Miller

    Hitler (a fan of Wagner and Goethe) was as successful as he was in consolidating power in part because of his skills as an artist, particularly in regard to iconography and passionate rhetoric. You have to admit, the Nazis had some snazzy uniforms.

    I imagine Obama listens to Ace of Base.

  9. Wylee Coyote
    Aaron Miller:  You have to admit, the Nazis had some snazzy uniforms.

    I can’t remember which comedian observed this, but imagine signing up for the Waffen-SS and getting your uniform issued to you:  it’s black, and has skull-and-crossbones symbols on the collar.

    You’d have to say to yourself, “You know, I’m starting to think we aren’t the good guys.”

  10. Underground Conservative

    What did Lenin and Trotsky like to hear and watch?  Was there any difference in the tastes of Lafayette and Robespierre?    

    Trotsky was an avid writer and dabbled in poetry. He also loved to influence playwrights and their productions. Lenin mostly walked in his free time. Otherwise, he was a pretty serious guy.

    And by the way, Putin loves Abba and Medvedev loves Deep Purple.

  11. Glenn the Iconoclast

    Hitler watched The Great Dictator twice, although it was banned in Nazi Germany.

    Joan of Arc was quite popular in Stalin’s Soviet Union, but Soviet theaters didn’t show the final reel.

    As Mark Steyn reminded us, Cathy Seipp died five years ago, which caused me to re-read some of her columns.  I came across one I hadn’t read before, written in October 2001, where she posited (insincerely) Gilligan’s Island as the answer to “why do they hate us?”

    “Somewhere in the world, someone right now is watching the show’s central idea that, as Cantor puts it, “a representative group of Americans could be dropped anywhere on the planet – even in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – and they would still feel at home - indeed they would rule.” Unfriendly countries probably find this infuriating. But friendly ones don’t seem to mind.”

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