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Same Tune for Politics, Music

February 21, 1988|PAUL GREIN

It's primary season and one thing's for sure--it's only rock 'n' roll. But I like it.

From the first straw polls and caucuses until the last vote is counted on Election Day, I'm happier than a 15-year-old at a Bon Jovi concert.

I'm paid to analyze the weekly pop music charts and to handicap the annual Grammy Awards, but I keep on top of election-year statistics strictly for pleasure. And in some ways, it's even more fun. After all, there's a new pop chart every week, but presidential elections come along only once every four years. And whoever's No. 1 on Election Day stays there for 208 consecutiv e weeks --hell, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston combined couldn't do that.

Please don't think me flippant to liken the process by which we select our nation's chief executive to the standards by which we measure the popularity of our pop stars. But the dynamics in both fields are pretty much the same. Washington image consultants and Hollywood PR execs would no doubt agree on what's important for their clients' careers: projecting a consistent image, maintaining momentum, making each media appearance count, avoiding overexposure.

And it's really no different for Jesse or Janet Jackson, George or Kate Bush, Pat or Robbie Robertson--or either Paul Simon. They're all hoping to get a big "bounce," whether it comes from a primary victory or a hit record.

When the media pores over the early returns from the New Hampshire primary, is it fundamentally any different from pop pundits scrutinizing the chart entry position of a new album by Michael Jackson or Bruce Springsteen? We've become accustomed to instantaneous information and want to identify winners and losers now .

This "Who's Hot and Who's Not" mentality may be harmless enough when applied to pop charts or TV ratings or box-office grosses. But do we really want that "infotainment" approach to govern the way we select the leader of the free world?

We may not, but you better believe that's the way it is. Part of the reason is economic: It's so expensive to mount a presidential campaign--or a promotional campaign for a new record (or movie or TV show)--that backers want to cut their losses as soon as it becomes clear that success is out of reach.

So the gulf between the nation's capital and the entertainment capital continues to shrink.

Item: VP George Bush seeks to overcome his "wimp" image by squaring off with Dan Rather.

Item: Former Wham! leader George Michael seeks to shake his "teenybopper" image by releasing the R-rated "I Want Your Sex."

In both cases, the strategy is the same: A public figure takes a calculated risk to correct a perceived image problem.

In both pop and politics, perception is more important than reality--and you're in trouble if you don't live up to media expectations. President Lyndon B. Johnson beat Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, but not by a wide-enough margin to satisfy political pundits. Likewise, the Bee Gees' 1979 follow-up album to "Saturday Night Fever" hit No. 1, but was perceived as a failure because it didn't measure up to "Fever" sales levels.

Both worlds are hard on front-runners, who, risking overexposure, public backlash and stepped-up press scrutiny, have nowhere to go but down. Sen. Edmund Muskie was the Democratic front-runner through most of Nixon's first term, but ran out of steam in early 1972; Peter Frampton's career went into a tailspin after the enormous success of his 1976 album, "Frampton Comes Alive!"

Both fields can be cruel and unforgiving on fallen heroes. A presidential candidate who misses the brass ring or is buried in a landslide is shoved to the background as much as a lapsed pop superstar. When was the last time you heard from Walter Mondale or Helen Reddy?

There are other case studies where the same basic principles apply in both arenas.

They were perceived as too radical for mainstream tastes: Goldwater in 1964 or McGovern in 1972; the New York Dolls in the '70s or X in the '80s.

They were perceived as too dull; not exciting or flashy enough: Ford in 1976 or Mondale in 1984; Christopher Cross in the early '80s.

They made smashing comebacks when they were thought to be finished: Nixon in 1968; Tina Turner in 1984.

They were gifted but self-destructive : Nixon and Hart; Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison.

They were hurt by being too closely tied to an unpopular era : LBJ and Humphrey with Vietnam in 1968; the Bee Gees and Donna Summer with disco after 1979.

Some political pundits have speculated that, deep down, presidential candidate Gary Hart and Hollywood heartthrob Warren Beatty would have liked to reverse their roles. It wouldn't be that big a switch: Look how easily Ron and Nancy made the transition from Hollywood sound stages to the world stage--or how comfortably JFK floated in star circles.

Ah well, as they say in Washington: "There's No Business Like Show Business." Or as we election junkies in Hollywood say, "Happy Days Are Here Again."

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