Ironic Authenticity: Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping

Curator's Note

Reverend Billy is the bouffant-hairdoed, Jimmy-Swaggart style preacher (created by performance activist Bill Talen) who presides over the Church of Stop Shopping. Together with his choir, Billy holds regular performances, stages stop-shopping interventions at retail corporations like the Disney Store, Walmart, and Starbucks, and stars in a recently released documentary called “What Would Jesus Buy.” What is striking about Reverend Billy’s use of irony is its extreme earnestness. The over-the-top character is engaging and amusing (and allows the performer a little more license to rant and rave in public than is granted your average citizen), but the cause he espouses is also deadly serious. The irony is not in the service of ridicule or a snarky superiority; rather, there is a more complicated form of play involved. While the character is exaggerated, Billy nevertheless preaches with genuine emotion and conviction, co-opting the real power and allure that the preacher-figure exerts. The journalists and commentators who have profiled Reverend Billy all remark on the real passion he summons forth in his flock, as savvy cosmopolitan types yell “hallelujah” with abandon. And Bill Talen himself, as this interview illustrates, clearly thinks of his work as a type of crusade, seamlessly incorporating his own convictions into the character’s “theology,” though he maintains a safely ironic gap. Reverend Billy’s act offers liberals the chance to abandon themselves to a type of committed fervor, while still remaining skeptical of organized religion and power. While I think it is unlikely that Billy is converting any committed conservatives to his cause, he plays to those who already share some of his anti-consumerist assumptions. Some would dismiss this as merely “preaching to the converted,” but this critique ignores the fact that the so-called converted may still be apathetic, unconnected to a larger movement, or simply in need of validation. Reverend Billy, it seems to me, aims to actively politicize and energize his base, offering them passion and purpose tempered with a knowing wink. The question is how to measure the efficacy of this project.

Comments

Catherine Burwell's picture

Not knowing much about

Not knowing much about Reverend Billy beyond the name, I really enjoyed this clip. In fact, was intrigued by your post right from the outset, with your title’s claim for an “ironic authenticity.” I think it points towards the idea that the use of irony needn’t be (and often isn’t) cynical, but is rooted in deeply-felt convictions and knowledgeable critiques. And, moving to the idea of reception again, arguments that the consumption of ironic texts only leads to cynicism overlook this desire for change and the possibility – as you suggest at the end of your post – that politically-significant counter publics may in fact converge around such texts and performances.

Ian Reilly's picture

This is a fabulous clip

This is a fabulous clip (“What would would Jesus buy? [Answer] I don’t think He’d buy anything in a Staples”)! What strikes me about Reverend Billy’s broader political project is how the irony at work in his performances functions on a number of different levels. I’m thinking of how irony “happens” through the performativity of Reverend Billy and his choir, but also how this type of spectacle (one more akin to the kind of “ethical spectacle” Stephen Duncombe describes), produces - or has the potential to produce - politicized bystanders. Like Amber, however, I also wonder about the impact - or efficacy - the ironic activist practices of people like Bill Talen have on the culture at large. Does irony open the door to critical inquiry as quickly as it closes it?

Viveca Greene's picture

I haven’t seen the film

I haven’t seen the film but I saw Revend Billy perform in 2000; every holiday season since then I find myself yelling his term “shopocalypse” (usually as I exit a store trying to maintain control of five shopping bags: an act of what Sloterdijk would label “enlightened false consciousness”).

It’s great to hear Rev Billy discussing what he’s doing and why, and to read Amber and other presenters’ thoughts. I’m interested in irony as it’s used as a rhetorical strategy: how ironists flatter and court their viewers by, as Amber puts it, “offering them passion and purpose tempered with a knowing wink.” What does the winker know though? My sense is that he/she believes many of us are suspicious of the overtly (unapologetically? unplayfully?) ideological, especially when it’s packaged media texts. I suspect that much of the trust Jon Stewart, for example, has earned is the result of his continual insistence that we not take his show too seriously; as he reminds us, his show is on Comedy Central and airs just after the one in which puppets make crank phone calls (I don’t even know if it does; I just trust him).

Later this week I’m going to address a political campaign ad that arguably attempts something similar, and I hope we can compare the clips then. The efficacy of these strategies is certainly an important question and, for me, part of figuring out how to measure it (for whom are they effective and in what sense?) concerns discerning the appeal of these modes of address.

Ted Gournelos's picture

Yes, this is both a

Yes, this is both a brilliant and a brilliantly chosen clip, I think. It does have the potential to galvanize a base, like Amber has pointed out elsewhere in regards to the Yes Men. But I wonder what potential such actions have? Does irony as a political tool have the same counter-hegemonic force as irony as a political voice? In other words, can irony be used for a sincere and containable message without degenerating (or evolving, maybe) into polemic or dogma? This seems to be the same issue we find with much of Michael Moore’s work. And it also tells us a great deal about the limitations of irony as “possessed” by the left (particularly the center left). Does galvanizing also polarize, and if so, what kind of political atmosphere does it construct? Without empathy I fail to see how there can be much progress, and I’m as wary of the sincerely galvanized left (e.g. Adbusters) as I am of the sincerely galvanized right (e.g. Christian evangelicals). Sometimes it seems like admitting the persona as the mask of an artist, as does “Rev. Billy” in his film, ends up subverting the very irony through which his message might become thought-provoking. Thoughts?

Amber Day's picture

Thanks for all the great

Thanks for all the great comments! So much to think about.

Much as others have touched on, I am particularly interested in the ironic political address because I do see it as particularly successful in the contemporary moment for attracting politicized counter-publics (particularly on the left). It is also why I have been attracted to some of the other figures who have been mentioned here (The Yes Men, Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and Jon Stewart). All have been able to attract a huge amount of attention and committed fans, and to be reported on by other media, significantly impacting wider public debate. Whether or not then they are speaking primarily to those who already shared some of their assumptions (or were open to their brand of critique) seems beside the point. Sometimes we need reminding of what we already ostensibly know.

In Reverend Billy’s case, yes, the address is a form of polemic, though it is one that many are happy to absorb because of its ironic, humorous edge.

My one nagging reservation, as Ted points to, is the question of increased polarization. In the end, though, I think I would conclude that while this mode of discourse is clearly not sufficient in itself for sustaining democratic exchange, it may still be a necessary one. If the issues involved are discussed only on the far margins of the public sphere (if at all), or if they are attracting little enthusiasm, perhaps we need a Reverend Billy to get us fired up and talking about them.

Jonathan Gray's picture

Amber, I'd highly recommend

Amber, I’d highly recommend checking out Mark Thomas too, of England. He managed a really neat medium between a Moore/Yes Men/Billy-ish playfulness, comedy, and pranksterism, and a serious political critique that let a few more people take him seriously, and a few less people consider him an annoyance. I wish I had clips, but surely they exist out there somewhere?

Ted Gournelos's picture

I'd like to make a quick

I’d like to make a quick plug as well…Walid Ra’ad, an artist operating out of New York at the moment, does some fantastic work with his atlas group (www.theatlasgroup.org), in which irony works both with and outside of humor and very emotionally/politically charged topics and settings (e.g. the Lebanese civil war or academic conferences).

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