Media and Public Perception by Meg Lacy

I found the Kalichman and Hunter article on “Magic” Johnson a fabulous analysis of the influence celebrity disclosure has on public attitudes and perception of HIV. I also thought this article provided a helpful framework for understanding the way other media, such as music, shape public perspectives on HIV and social change at large. Of all of the assignments for this week’s discussion, I found the two songs from the 80’s (“It’s Christmas Time” and “We Are The World”) the most compelling content for analysis. These songs, devised to raise money for Africa, strike me as interesting for two reasons (besides, of course, the plethora of mullets). First,
I’m interested in these pieces of media because of the way they seamlessly employ religious language and imagery as an impetus for secular social change. And second, these pieces of media “mediate” particular (and diverging) understandings of the relationship between Africa and the United States, shaping public attitudes concerning the role America/Americans play(s) in global change, similar to the way celebrity disclosure shapes public attitudes of HIV in the US. 

Religion and Media
As a theology student, I find it interesting that the lyrics of both “It’s Christmas Time” and “We Are The World” employ religious language and imagery in secular media. At the risk of stating the obvious, “It’s Christmas Time” is secular media embedded in the language of a Christian Holiday, Christmas. While many might argue that Christmas is now a secular holiday, the lyrics of this song make explicit spiritual claims. Rather than mentioning gifts and Santa, they define Christmas as a time “we let in light and we banish shade.” Prayer is also states explicitly in this song as a means to a better world. Likewise, “We Are The World,” makes two fascinating religious references. The first locates our shared humanity in our shared identity as a part of a religious family—“We’re all apart of God’s big family.” This is followed by an explicit claim on truth, “you know the truth, love is all we need.” While religion has no monopoly on love, the use of a truth claim to advocate for love seems a very religious thing to do! I find religious language and imagery in these songs interesting because of the assumed association of religion/justice/care/love. That is, for these lyricists, religion seems to be the obvious framework for compelling people to love and care for others (ie, those with AIDS in Africa). Now a quarter of a century later, I wonder if this religious language would be rendered ineffective, or even counterproductive. While secularization theory would certainly suggest that religion was on its way out the door in the 80s, it is arguable that religion had more clout in the public sphere in the 80s than now. Would the use of religion in media now be a useful tool for shaping public attitudes, or a detrimental/irrelevant one?

Media and Articulations of Social Change
While both songs share a common notion of religion as pertinent to care/social change (rather consciously or unconsciously), they diverge in their conceptions of what this change looks like. Each song envisions a different relationship between America and Africa, and each vision has the capacity to influence public perception and discourse on HIV and America’s role in foreign aid. “It’s Christmas Time” sets up a clear us/them dichotomy. Nearly every stanza makes an us/them claim. That is, “pray for the other ones” (Africans), “here’s to you [Americans], here’s to them [Africans], “thank God it’s them instead of you.” I appreciate the sentiment of this song but must take issue with its emphasis on charity rather than justice. This song sets up an us/them discourse that envisions a world in with wealthy westerners should offer charity to those less fortunate by “feeing the world,” a largely destructive and rejected conception of social change. On the other hand, “We Are The World” offers a much more mutually beneficial conception of change. The lyrics of this piece hold in tension the responsibility one has as a privileged westerner and one’s intrinsic connection to those experiencing injustice—“it’s time to lend a hand…change is gonna’ come when we stand together as one…we’re saving our own selves.” This conception of change reminds me of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s insistence that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  (Letter from the Birmingham City Jail).

It is important to note these diverging conceptions of social change because they contribute to public attitudes and conceptions of change—particularly America’s role in global discourse and aid for HIV. As I consider these two diverging conceptions of change, a more recent lyrical articulation of injustice comes to mind. The Raise Hope for Congo Campaign (a sector of the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress) recently released a compilation album assembled to raise awareness concerning women and children who have experiences extreme violence in the ongoing conflict in Congo. Although this justice issue is in many ways different from that of HIV, it is similarly an international issue, which requires response and accountability from the West (and, likewise, other nations). The concept of partnership in this album strikes me—it articulates a new way of conceptualizing the role of the West in global politics and aid. Partnership can be seen merely in taking a look at the artists who contributed to the project. Among American artists such as Norah Jones, Sheryl Crow, and Damien Rice are Congolese women and men who have chosen to partner with Western artists in order to raise awareness concerning their country’s plight. Partnership is also reflected in the lyrics of many of the songs. Below I have provided some of the words for the album’s title work, “Raise Hope” (written by Omekongo Didinga & Shahin Shahida).  The idea of “partnership” may not have been possible 30 years ago, but it is now, and I am encouraged by this clear articulation of new conceptions of global change.
Together with the Congolese
We can change this direction
If you decide to raise your conscience
And each one teach one
Reach one in your grasp
We can make an army of change
An army of conscious consumers
Not soldiers of the same old sympathetic solution
For political and profitable prostitution
The true resolution is the empowering of our women
The center of our land must be made whole again
The backbone of our nation must be realigned
When our women can stand proudly
Our country will once again have its spine
The heart of our future
Lies in our young girls
The pride of our lives
Lies in our young boys
Congo’s future lies in our hands
If you can just understand
That we’re all in this together
So lets raise hope
And take a stand for our land

Here is a link to the album, for anyone who is interested:


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