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Why I Have to Watch

Even Canadians are caught up in Obama inauguration hype, sort of.

Vanessa Richmond 20 Jan 2009TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media.

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Bono sings David Foster's ode to America.

The Obama election has captured the world's imagination like no previous one. So Canadians, like people in most countries, will be tuning in to the big ceremony and its reverberating celebrations. Inaugural stories currently dominate every media format from TV and radio, to blogs, tabloids and serious dailies, and everywhere I go, it's what people want to talk, and gush, about. Apparently, so do I – well, the talking part.

I'll be tuning in because after a couple of years of romance and a whirlwind three-month engagement full of promises and speeches, the vows are today, and I can't resist rituals and parties. And it seems others can't either. In these cold and dark economic times, I've heard many others say they'll be basking in the computer monitor's warm glow (often at work) as it flashes inspiring images from Obamaland.

And I'll be watching because I love a good story; I cover pop culture for a living. I watch movies and TV, and read fictional and non-fictional stories about people all day. This one's Shakespearean in scope, and like most Shakespearean comedies, ends with a wedding, of sorts -- time for vows, dance and drink.

I'll also be watching because after the tents and bibles and gowns have been put away, and the honeymoon draws to a quick close, I have the party-pooping sense that things will start to fade. It's hard to keep the flame afire when life's energy starts to feed unglamorous, un-mysterious and unpopular tasks like paying the bills, and keeping the bickering kids quiet. So, now is a cultural savouring moment.

But like a good Canadian, I'm also suspicious of all this hype and excitement, and trust more the ordinary and unadorned. So with others above the 49th parallel, I'll be tuning in to the drama and celebration, but partly to catch a last, melancholy glimpse of the glitter before it fades into somewhat disappointing but hype-free dust.

Nothing to fear but... overexposure

And check out that glitter. Not surprisingly, American domestic media is infatuated with the story, covering it from every angle, and in every genre, including, most tellingly, in the tabloids. Almost psychic (thanks to some technological gifts like web analytic tools that help track and predict reader behaviour) in their perception of what people want most to read about, the tabs are telling almost no other story right now, despite famous births, divorces, arrests and awards ceremonies. The top story on Us Weekly is about Ben Affleck saying he'll camp out at the inauguration, and the top photo gallery features inaugural gowns.

In People, almost half of the cover stories are about the ceremony, including one about how Oprah hosted her star-studded talk show from D.C. yesterday, showcasing the world premiere of what's getting called the country's new anthem, "America's Song," produced by David Foster (from Canadian) with some musical help from will.i.am, Faith Hill, Mary J. Blige, Seal (from England) and Bono (and, yea, Irish). Most tellingly, Oprah cried during and after the performance, inspired by the election and everything that's come with it.

Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher premiered their star-packed Internet video, in which celebs pledge to be the change they seek. I got downright shivery and emotional during that one, which set off the alarm bells in my cynical brain that chanted "sucker," "sucker," "sucker."

Even Jennifer Lopez, queen of self-promotion, says she's starstruck by Obama, that he brings her to tears, that he makes her excited, and that he's the biggest A-lister in the world right now. Need we look further for proof of the hype machine?

Canadian media a-twitter

But it's not just the tabloid, readership-whore publications fixating on the moment. In the Globe and Mail, our national newspaper, the paper is so confident Canadians will be tuning in, they're devoting prominent space and resources to the ceremony, including live-blogging the event via Twitter.

And even our own government-funded media site features not only a quarter-page ad for coverage of the ceremony, but has devoted every one of its thumbnails to an inauguration-related story. From a Canadian in Washington sharing her story, to economic analysis, the CBC is trying to lure us in to spending our inspirational moments and clicks there.

But two stories there comfort me into thinking I'm not alone in my unappetizing sangfroid. First, an EKOS poll released today found that "Canadians feel the love for Obama, but are lukewarm to his plans."

No surprise in the first part of that statement. In fact, only 3.8 per cent of Canadian respondents have a negative view of the Democratic president-elect compared to 81 per cent who approve, an "outstandingly high" number compared to the opinions Canadians held of George W. Bush throughout his presidency.

And Canadians are resuming their cordial feelings towards the U.S., in general. In fact, Canadians are so excited by Obama, that our estimation of Harper and other politicians suffers by contrast. Forty-seven per cent of Canadians generally -- and more in the under-45 crowd -- agreed with the statement, "Watching the excitement surrounding the inauguration of Barack Obama and comparing it to our own political leadership, I feel disappointed with our options."

But Canadians are worried about his plans when it comes to NAFTA, Afghanistan, and the economy. Not exactly small issues.

And secondly, Heather Mallick writes that she's trying to avoid disillusionment by not getting illlusioned in the first place. But that's easier said than done, especially in the middle of a world-record setting media excitement storm.

What if, no, we can't?

American politicians get elected not just for their qualifications, but for their ability to fire up the hype machine. Even in this election, Obama pulled ahead of McCain due to his charisma as much as his credentials (which is why Sarah Palin's addition to the ticket caused such a stir -- but her empty charisma proved no match for Obama's double threat). But the irony of creating too much excitement is that inevitably disappointment and disillusionment follow, in greater proportion. Then it's even harder to get things done.

I'm with Mallick -- I'm trying to avoid getting swept up, but it's hard. I love a good story. I want real change. And, sure, celebration is an important part of that, and symbolic change can spur deeper change, I know. But the more hype and inspiration and tears and singing there is, the more wary I am that the only change we'll see is that from fantasy to reality.

How about you? Will you be watching? Why? And are you inspired or wary or both?

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