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It was also the locus of an ideological battlefield over who were the heroes and who the real villains in American life: pro-Castro and anti-Castro leftists; Russian operatives; the CIA; LBJ; the Mafia; the Camelot Kennedys — the list goes on.
We floated conspiracy theories, in other words, as a way of projecting politics.
While there were both political and pop-culture conspiracy theories in the 1960s and 1970s — Elvis is still alive, you may have heard — conspiracism as a phenomenon didn’t come into full flower until the 1990s. Message boards and chat rooms of that era gave us the golden age of political conspiracy theory, which we are still living in. ) These days, pop-culture obsessives are quick to cook up conspiracies anytime a celebrity dies, changes her appearance, or even stands next to a triangle, and ideas can now be passed from the edges of sanity to your Facebook feed in a matter of minutes, converting more of the easily influenced into paranoid believers.
They were also the birthplace of pop-culture paranoia — when doubts about the real identities of singers and actors, whether they had actually died or truly written that particular song, gave rise to real debate and “forensic” scrutiny. Not to say that pop-culture conspiracies live only in the present — they are often most delicious when they reach back in time, even way back in time, to propose we consider, say, whether it was George Lucas who actually directed Return of the Jedi (which was, you have to admit, worse than Empire) or whether it was actually Emily Brontë’s brother who wrote Wuthering Heights (exhibit A: fucking Heathcliff! Vulture has spent the past few months undertaking an exhaustive cataloguing of these conspiracy theories of pop culture.
Later, we’d “learn” that Britney Spears was a tool of the Bush administration, Katy Perry was really grown-up Jon Benét Ramsey, and J. Rowling was just an actress impersonating an author. And then there is perhaps the most interesting new-model conspiracy — most interesting because the category often includes the most plausible claims.
The meta-level lesson of all these theories is that the whole system of celebrity, which may confuse or madden you as a consumer of culture, makes sense — that the arbitrariness of, say, Miley Cyrus’s rise to fame could be explained by the influence of secret power brokers (rather than talent or popular taste). These are about authorship, and credit — that Bob Dylan stole “Blowin’ in the Wind” from a New Jersey high-school student, say, or that Paul Thomas Anderson actually directed A Prairie Home Companion.
And as a sort of “review of the literature,” the “data” below do contain some lessons and insights. First, that when viewed from a certain perspective, pop-culture conspiracy theory is the phenomenon in its purest form — paranoia without ideology, or anyway without partisanship.
And what you get when you peel back the partisanship, it turns out, are pure theories of power.
And in ways they are — people have been arguing about who wrote Shakespeare’s plays literally for centuries, of course.(Consider, for instance, “Paul is dead.”) This subcategory of conspiracy theory suggested a particular worldview: Stars were special people with special skills who had won special attention from the public that could nevertheless be maintained by special post-death stagecraft.In the boy-band and corporate-Hollywood 1990s, though, the famous started to seem a lot less special, and contemporary conspiracy theory followed suit.In the late 1960s, that is, which just so happen to be the years when the country radically polarized along the political lines we now know so oppressively well.The assassination wasn’t just a chaotic, spectacular, improbable event that Americans desperately wanted explained, even if the explanations were terrifying (conspiracy-theory culture being essentially willed into being by those for whom nothing was more terrifying than randomness and meaninglessness).This is the era of the Illuminati worldview — that everyone who is famous, or close to everyone, owes that fame to the power of a secret cabal.It is also when the theory arose that gangster rap was concocted by the private prison industry.Conventional wisdom puts the beginning of modern conspiracy-theory culture at the JFK assassination.But it probably makes more sense to think of it evolving in its aftermath, in the years following the shooting, once the shock wore off.Music, film, literature, TV, and anything else a celebrity might touch are organized by “genre” (do you like reading about zombie pop stars or Illuminati Svengalis or secret authors of famous books?) and presented pure — that is, not as investigative claims but conspiracy theories.