A "cult of personality" is when a political or religious leader is exalted, allowing that person to lead with unquestioned authority. This leader is often charismatic and authoritarian; examples include Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and Kim Jong-Un. They're dangerous because they can get away with anything; they can tell their people that one and one makes three, and will be believed (or at least acquiesced).
In this song, it's US president Ronald Reagan with the cult of personality. He was in his last year in office in 1988 when the song was released.
The most popular song by Living Colour, "Cult of Personality" opens and closes with famous quotes:
And in the few moments we have left, we want to talk right down to earth in a language that everybody here can easily understand.
This is Malcolm X from his "Message To The Grass Roots" speech in 1963. The point was to unify African Americans.
The ending quotes start with John F. Kennedy's famous:
Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.
This is from his inaugural address in 1961.
Both quotes are from men who were assassinated. Most of the song seems to be denouncing idolatry, but there is the one stanza containing the line, "A leader speaks, a leader dies." Living Colour also seem to make no distinction between good and evil, as each time they mention a hero, they pair him with an enemy: Mussolini and Kennedy; Stalin and Gandhi.
The final words are:
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
This is a quote from Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural address on March 4, 1933. Roosevelt used the address to announce his "New Deal" program and encourage the citizens of the United States to overcome their economic problems as they emerged from the depression.
Living Colour doesn't have a standard songwriting method, but guitarist Vernon Reid usually has a hand in it. This song is a group composition, with William Calhoun, Corey Glover and Muzz Skillings credited on the track along with Reid.
Long before they recorded it, the band performed this song live. It was during these performances that they got the idea to incorporate speeches into the song, as Corey Glover would sometimes ad-lib the "Ask not what your country can do for you" portion when they played it.
The music video was directed by Drew Carolan, a photographer who was a friend of the band. Footage of the band performing the song was shot at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City two days after their European tour ended and a day before they hit the road for their American tour. In a Songfacts interview with Corey Glover
, he said, "It felt like it was a continuation of the tour, really, because we were playing a gig, except we were playing the same song over and over again."
Living Colour, and this song, owe much of their success to MTV, which was at the peak of its powers at the time. In the book I Want My MTV
, it was claimed that Epic Records, who had both Living Colour and Michael Jackson on their roster, refused to release Jackson's "Smooth Criminal
" video to the network until they agreed to put the "Cult of Personality" clip in heavy rotation.Dan Beck
, who was head of marketing at Epic, told Songfacts: "The promo people might have alluded to holding something back, but that would have had to go all the way to the top, and I would have been aware of it happening. I was a part of pleading our case for 'Cult' with MTV, and I was able to give them retail store reports from Colorado (I believe pre-Soundscan) that showed that the album was selling from just a couple of spins on the Colorado Music Channel, which was a local video outlet. We had no radio airplay at that time. I give MTV credit for even considering that info, and it was good info. It really was a true indication that we had a reactive song and video on our hands."
The song got a big bump when the band performed it on Saturday Night Live on April 1, 1989. On May 6, the song hit its US peak of #13.
A key element in the video is the little girl transfixed Poltergeist-like to a television. Corey Glover told Songfacts about the concept: "The little girl watching television was like a foreshadowing of the world that we lived in, that people got their information from television, not from actually being in the world. We were all "children of the television age." Our information came first-hand that way, and that's what the video was trying to talk about: the seminal moments in your life that for the most part you saw on television."
Director Drew Carolan added: "The Hammerstein Ballroom was available for a controlled performance but I have to admit I was nervous because the stage was so big. I was used to seeing Living Colour perform at places like CBGB, Tramps and the 930 which are tiny. The Super 8 footage helped intimate the performance, but quite honestly Corey's performance was so explosive and him feeding off of Vernon's guitar playing and the rest of the band negated any concerns that I had of the space. As the video performance culminates, the images become faster and faster, overloading the child's comprehension. She shakes her head in disbelief of what she sees and reaches out and shuts it all off!"
After Living Colour signed to Epic Records, the label released the Vivid
album in May 1988 and issued "Middle Man
" as the debut single in the UK, which was followed by "Glamour Boys" in July. "Cult of Personality" got its UK release in October, and in February 1989, it was issued as their debut single in America. By the time the song peaked on the Hot 100, the Vivid
album had been out for a full year.
Singer Corey Glover discussed with Billboard magazine how this track can be reconsidered in the age of Obama. He explained: "We were talking about the cult of personality around Ronald Reagan, so it's always weird when people talk about the Age of Obama and 'Cult of Personality' and the Cult of Personality around Barack Obama. You could look at it at in so many different ways and from so many different perspectives that it loses it's meaning after a while. And for us, when we play it, we're not thinking about the Age of Obama, we're thinking about us."
At the MTV Video Music awards, "Cult of Personality" took the trophies for Best Stage Performance, Best New Artist and Best Group Video. The ceremony took place on September 6, 1989 while Living Colour was on tour as the opening act for The Rolling Stones. They were playing Pittsburgh that night, so Mick Jagger presented them with the awards backstage at Three Rivers Stadium.
The opening guitar riff in this song has been used on TV to intro sports shows and was also in a Nutri-Grain ad in Australia.
Linda - Sydney, Australia
This won the Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance at the 1990 ceremony. Living Colour won the same award the next year for their album Time's Up.
This was used in the movies Say Anything... (1989) and The Proposal (2009).
Living Colour re-recorded this song for the video game Guitar Hero 3 with a faster guitar solo.
Guitarist Vernon Reid told Guitar World (1988) that he nailed the frenzied wah-wah solo on the first take. In 2015, it landed at #23 on the magazine's list of greatest wah solos of all time.
The band wanted to use the "free at last" portion of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech to open this song, but they couldn't secure the rights (that speech is not in the public domain). Vernon Reid came across the Malcolm X speech when found it for sale by some street vendors in Harlem. He bought a copy, and they used a portion of that speech instead.
John F. Kennedy's speeches don't often show up in songs, but he was so popular as president that in 1962, a satirical album called The First Family by a comedian named Vaughn Meader went to #1 in America and won the Grammy for Album Of The Year. After Kennedy's death, John Fitzgerald Kennedy: A Memorial Album was released, comprised of his speeches and tributes. It sold 4 million copies the first week it was released.