By John Weeks
Initiating discourse on the subject of white privilege can be difficult, especially in our politically divided and contentious times. For those of us who regard white privilege as a prevalent part of today’s social reality, what should we do when confronted with those who deny its very existence? I’ve found that showing them the music video for the popular Panic! at the Disco song “High Hopes,” and providing a close reading, can help people see that, although white privilege is often rendered invisible to those who wield socio-cultural power, it is nonetheless a real thing.
In ‘High Hopes,” the video depicts a young white man (the band’s lead singer) walking up the side of a glass skyscraper, apparently through the exclusive force of earth-defying gravitational power. As this opening scene suggests, white male power symbolizes white privilege par excellence. In spite of his talent and hard work, white male power is well aligned with the economic-social system. His upward assent along the skyscraper indicates that the entire symbolic order — the pattern of rules and regulations underlying social interactions — has been carved out in his image. While the white hero makes his ascent, a diverse crowd gathers on the sidewalk to gaze in awe at him. The non-white, non-male, and non-youth onlookers stand mesmerized by the raw power of the young white man literally on the rise.
In my favorite scene, the white male hero waves through the glass window (or glass ceiling) to a white woman standing on one the building’s floors. Pause the video. The woman is depicted with an open cupboard behind her filled with dishes and a coffee maker. She is literally relegated to the kitchen while the hero continues his upward climb.
At the video’s midpoint, the man with “High Hopes” is semiotically associated with the gods as sunlight and park trees envelop him. Recall Odin hanging from the World Tree and Christ hanging from the cross. Recall Odysseus escaping the cave of the Cyclops by hiding under a ram, an animal associated with the divine power of the sun since ancient Egypt. By evoking such imagery, the skyscraper-scaling hero is a modern day Christ, sacrificing himself for the people below. That a white man stands at the center of this video is an evocative symbolic representation of what Jacques Derrida called “phallogocentrism,” the privileging of the masculine (phallic) point of view as the foundation of cultural reality. “Phallogocentrism unites an interest in patriarchal authority, unity of meaning, and certainty of origin,” writes Jonathan Culler in On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism After Structuralism (p. 61).
When the lead singer makes it to the building’s summit, he is joined by his full band for the video’s climax. Note the images painted on the roof. The sun, the moon, an eye, a circle, and a triangle. The message is clear. The white man stands at the high center of the symbolic order. The white woman remains beneath him (she is white after all), on a lower floor in the kitchen. Non-white people are relegated to the street, all but excluded from the symbolic order.
And this is just the video’s imagery. We haven’t even looked at the song’s lyrics yet.
“Had to have high, high hopes for a living / Shooting for the stars when I couldn’t make a killing
Didn’t have a dime but I always had a vision / Always had high, high hopes / Had to have high, high hopes for a living / Didn’t know how but I always had a feeling / I was gonna be that one in a million.”
As depicted in the video, it’s not surprising that the rock band leader had a feeling things were going to work out. The entire social order is structured to encourage a good outcome for the white man.
“Mama said / Fulfill the prophecy / Be something greater / Go make a legacy / Manifest destiny /
Back in the days / We wanted everything, wanted everything / Mama said / Burn your biographies
Rewrite your history / Light up your wildest dreams / Museum victories, everyday / We wanted everything, wanted everything.”
The prophecy to be fulfilled in “High Hopes” is that of the white man’s privileged place within the symbolic order. Manifest destiny speaks for itself, with all its historical implications. Manifest destiny was a 19th Century American policy of continental domination. In his 1845 essay “Annexation,” the American journalist John O’Sullivan accused European countries of possessing, “… a spirit of hostile interference against us, for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions” [italics added]. Burning biographies and rewriting history is, of course, in the white man’s interest. Having engaged in centuries of racist, mercantilist, genocidal practices, the white man would now like to live peacefully in a multicultural, urban environment. Museum victories? What’s that? Well, the museums are shrines of the white man’s symbolic violence. Since the white man as such wants everything in his conquest for power and domination, the massive symbolic violence of the Renaissance has helped the white body prevails as the default standard of beauty.
And notice the lyrical invocation of the Great White Mother: the maternal order of the Real, the womb from which the symbolic order is born. The white mother is fully in the white consciousness of clouds, encouraging her son to conquer the world with absolutely no doubt that he will.
Let us recall the words from Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son” to see how a black mother might address her son differently.
“ Well, son, I’ll tell you: / Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. / It’s had tacks in it, / And splinters,
/ And boards torn up, / And places with no carpet on the floor— / Bare. / But all the time /
I’se been a-climbin’ on,”
When deconstructing “High Hopes,” it’s important to point out that we’re not criticizing the band Panic! At the Disco or anyone who worked on this music video. It’s a great band. It’s a fun song. It’s an entertaining video. It’s also a powerful message about the way white privilege works in rock music and in everyday life. The takeaway is that the structural racism and sexism of our society is so pervasive, so omnipresent, that it constantly emerges in our culture. It’s in our movies, our television shows, our music videos. It is everywhere. And that’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to actually see it.