Cult of Personality

Album: Vivid (1988)
Charted: 67 13
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Songfacts®:

  • 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. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    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.

Comments: 29

  • Joe from 49417"Special" Ed from Incognito, IL, babbles outta his keister: "Perhaps one of the all-time worst guitar solos ever." &...
    "This solo is just noise that a semi-intelligent monkey could play."

    Vernon Reid's guitar solo is the BEST part of a truly GREAT song, and one of the all-time greatest guitar solos ever - evoking perfectly, the chaos & tumult wrought by the hand of man since the dawn of time, at the behest of leaders, both good & bad.

    Aside from that, comparing a black man's musical masterpiece to the "noise" of "a semi-intelligent monkey" is BEYOND offensive.

    Chris from Bradenton, FL asks: "..how could a song released in '88 be one of the greatest songs of the 90's?"

    'Cause it's JUST. THAT. GOOD.
  • Erik from SeattleThe lyrics sound like they were written by Neil Peart. Very clever and thoughtful.
  • Anonymous@Mary O. from Omaha: The mere fact that it took you 20 years to understand it, doesn't mean it's "20 years ahead of its time". This song is timeless.
  • Dzo from AtlantaWe can't change colors
    We can't change fate
    What we can change
    Is a world of hate
    Every family has problems
    You can't deny
    We all must live
    We all must die
    While we're here
    We waste our time
    On this song
    Of no facts
    On this song
    Of no rhyme
    I am not black
    But I still see
    This injustice
    How can this be?
    The foundation of
    A house
    Must be strong
    Or the house
    You build
    Won't stand long
    We are here
    To plow the lands
    Not to strike down
    The hand of man.
    Peace to all.
    Dzo
  • Random Gta Sa FanI can still hear the airhorns from the 8 figure
  • Anthony from Guadalupe, AzIt was used in the WWE as an entrance music for the wrestler CM Punk.
  • Anthony from Guadalupe, AzUsed by the WWE by CM Punk as his entrance music.
  • Just Curious from Ncwho was the little girl in the video? she could use the video for bragging rights for modeling gigs
  • Camille from Toronto, OhNever really knew what the lyrics were about and pretty much didn't care; still don't. Just liked the song and thought the video was fun to watch. Had never seen a black singer strutting around in neon yellow speedos.
  • Guy from New York, NyProfessional Wrestler CM Punk recently started using this song as his theme
  • Oldpink from Farmland, InTerrific song, even if it doesn't particularly showcase the musicianship of the band, with the exception of the singer, who certainly is rather impressive, at least in my opinion.
  • Mary O. from Omaha, NeI couldn't figure out what a Cult of Personality was either, but I was 21 and intentionally uninformed in 1988. Needless to say, at 21 I could not have cared less about Ronald Reagan. I never thought about the meaning again until I heard it mentioned about Obama on talk radio in 2010. Then it just naturally clicked. This song was truly written 20 years ahead of its time.
  • Carlito from Port-au-prince, HaitiThe guitar solo is bad ass! Beside the lyrics. I mean when you hear a kick ass song you know it...This is one of the songs that will last generations.
  • Joe from El Paso, TxI think this song is about arrogance, when you love someone but they treat you like crap, like how Ozzy Osbourne was famous for mooning the audiance when he performed.
  • Karen from Manchester, Nh"Cult of Personality" - see Barack Obama.
  • Ian from Bronx, NyThis isn't the worst guitar solo of all time. I think it was good music composition to have the first solo be more calm and the second solo to be very crazy. If you look very carefully at both solos, perhaps while reading them from the score, you could develop a better appreciation of the solo in this song. The second solo is like free jazz and it's different and respectable. It's one of the better times that Vernon Reid did his speed soloing style and I completely disagree there is clearly musicality going on here. You're not listening close enough.
  • Aaron from Seattle, WaThis song should have gotten a better standing ovation when it came out.
  • Jeff from Casa Grande, Azbravo, Nexo, bravo!!!!!!! Very enlightening. You are truly an old soul.
  • Yos from Santo Domingo, Dominican RepublicWay ahead of it's time, one of the most under appreciated tracks ever.
  • Nexo from Sigh,just a couple of points....

    gregg... you clearly have the internet, and if you google "cult of personality" the VERY FIRST THING that comes up is...

    This article is about the political institution. For the song by the band Living Colour, see Cult of Personality (song).

    A cult of personality or personality cult arises when a country's leader uses mass media to create a heroic public image through unquestioning flattery and praise. Cults of personality are often found in dictatorships but can be found in some democracies as well.

    A cult of personality is similar to general hero worship except that it is created specifically for political leaders. However, the term may be applied by analogy to refer to adulation of non-political leaders.


    moving right along...

    Ben.. this is NOT hard rock, its "funk rock" dont ask me i didnt create the genre

    joe.. the reason it says 07 and not 88 is cause its a new version with a new solo in it.. a nice segue to my next point...

    Ed.... a solo does not specifically have to "compliment" the melody.. this one specifically is meant to represent the disjointed mindset of a leader that would go through the trouble of creating a "cult of personality" in that while everyone thinks one thing is going on and that everything is peachy keen, the reality is that something very chaotic is actually going on. at least thats my take on it.

    and finally... ozzy has nothing to do with this song in any way shape of form.
  • Evan from Indianapolis, InDoes anyone know if the Guitar Hero version of the song with that new solo was put on a CD?
  • Gregg from Coralville, IaI always thought he was saying cultural personality. What the f*** is a cult of personality?
  • Michael from Morris County, NjJoe, it was re-recored in 2007 for GH3 but was originally released in 1988. Same thing with Anarchy in the U.K. accept that was released in the 70s. And i agree the singer sounds nothing like ozzy
  • Joe from KyJust a couple of things. Jay from Jackson, MS, could you please tell me if you are talking about Ozzy Osbourne (don't know who else you would be talking about), and if you are, how in the world he sounds like him. I have not heard the original recording, just the cover on GH3, but even that sounds nothing like Ozzy. And, I'm almost positive that on GH3, it says that this song was released in 2007, which was just last year. I haven't played GH3 in a while (got Rock Band for Christmas), but I could swear it said that it was released in 2007 or sometime around there. I'm not too crazy about the 90's and 00's alternative myself, and I don't know much about it, but I was just wondering.
  • Chris from Bradenton, FlNiall, how could a song released in 88 be one of the greatest songs of the 90s?
  • Ed from Incognito, IlPerhaps one of the all time worst guitar solos ever. A solo is supposed to complement the melody...which is superbly sung by the lead singer. This solo is just noise that a semi-intelligent monkey could play.
  • Niall from Nuneaton, EnglandThis has to be one of the best songs of the 90's
    I was born in 93 but i love 90's alternative nd grunge
  • Ben from Lindenhurst, Ilthis is an awesome hard rock song
  • Matthew from East Brunswick, Nj!!!! San Andreas! Terrific stuff.
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