"I got worried about the future of the country," says country music singer and 11-time Grammy nominee Ray Stevens. As a musician, Stevens wasn't too sure what he could do about the problems he saw. But he had a thought: "Maybe I can produce some records that will help get across conservative points of view."
And so Stevens set to work recording an album he describes as "full of patriotic songs and songs of political satire." By February 2011, a video version of his anti-illegal-immigration sing-along "Come to the USA"—in which Stevens dons both a cheap sombrero and an Arab headdress that appears to have been made from a sweatband and a kitchen towel—had been viewed more than 4 million times on YouTube.
Stevens was in Washington, D.C., to perform and speak at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a yearly gathering of thousands of conservative politicians and activists. At a panel titled "Pop Culture: An Influence or a Mirror?" the singer most famous for his '70s novelty hit "The Streak" looked uncertain and unprepared, but he did have one clear point. "My idea," he said at the top of his remarks, "is that we need better censors out there."
Conservative opinions about entertainment were bountiful at CPAC 2011, which also featured a panel on "Engaging Conservatives Through Pop Culture." Like Stevens, speakers often seemed confused about how to approach mainstream popular art—or, as many of them awkwardly called it, "the pop culture." They seemed simultaneously infatuated with its glamour, outraged at its moral and political leanings, drawn to its power, and jealously angry at liberal successes. Mostly, though, the right-wing culture mavens speaking before their ideological brethren seemed determined to reshape and repurpose the entertainment industry into a tool for conservative political evangelizing, creating not mere entertainment but conservatainment.
Although some took on the familiar conservative role of cultural scold, many of the criticisms were focused inward, on spotty conservative efforts to compete in the entertainment marketplace. Kevin McCullough runs a conservative media business called Xtreme Media and has long partnered with Alec Baldwin's younger brother Stephen, a 45-year-old actor who runs a "skateboarding ministry" and has starred in a series of ultra-low-budget movies aimed at evangelical Christians. McCullough told the room, "We need to stop embarrassing ourselves in the pop culture format."
McCullough also warned attendees that conservative ideas should not to be confused with libertarian ideas. In a subsequent FoxNews.com column complaining about CPAC's increasingly libertarian bent, he warned that "libertarians are the worst form of political affiliation in the nation."
"Conservative comedy sucks," the self-described conservative comedian Steven Kruiser declared on one of the panels. This was not that hard to believe after listening to Jason Mattera, the 27-year-old editor of the archconservative paper Human Events, attempt to craft a punch line out of the phrase "pimp-slap them with the Federalist Papers." But Kruiser's complaint, like his larger interest in comedic conservatism, was more instrumental than aesthetic.
Pop culture, Kruiser explained, is "the way the message gets driven." It's all part of the public relations game, and conservatives have had a hard time figuring out how to play. "The left has been brilliant with using pop culture to market themselves for a long time," Kruiser said. That leaves conservatives with two options: "We can wring our hands and whine. Or we can do something about it. We're not taking Medicare from the old people. But I am going to steal the pop culture from the lefties."
For Mattera, part of the key is subtlety. "When conservatives try to make a conservative film," he said, "it's so blatant. It's in your face. When liberals do it, it's very coy." Mattera, author of a book titled Obama Zombies: How the Liberal Machine Brainwashed My Generation, has had trouble embracing such subtlety himself. At one point he described the president as "less popular than Mel Gibson at a bar mitzvah."
All of CPAC's culture panelists agreed that conservatives had a duty to engage the world of mass culture. Even for those who made their living in the fledgling world of conservatainment, it was first and foremost a messaging platform, not a business; a mission, not an art form.
McCullough said he would be happy to make lots of money in the conservative culture business. But even that goal has its limits. Unlike the entertainers that Stevens criticized, he understood his obligation: "I would rather change the culture than get rich at this time. In the end, I want to win."
Peter Suderman is an associate editor at reason.