Leo Ross '21

Leo Ross ’21 plans to spend his summer kicking back, playing some David Bowie, and thinking about fascism.

With his Emerson grant and advisor Peter Cannavo, Ross will spend the next few months researching the relationship between artists who use fascist rhetoric and the politics of those artists’ fans. He explained, “I’m interested in what listening to an artist who uses a lot of fascist appeals does to me as a political individual,” citing artist interactions with fans that are not “explicitly or overtly politically fascist, but [use] a lot of the same rhetoric that fascist leaders often use to connect to their people.”

Ross knows that he wants to focus on Bowie, but he is also considering analyzing artists such as Elvis Presley, Andy Warhol, and Kanye West. Calling the President a “cross-section between pop culture and politics,” he has even thought to include Donald Trump in his project.

About Leo Ross ’21

Likely majors: Government and literature

Hometown: Fair Haven, N.J.

High School: Communications High School (N.J.)

read about other student research

Still, Ross has a clear curiosity about and background knowledge on Bowie. “I, for one, am a huge David Bowie fan. I’m not a huge fascism fan,” he said, describing the circumstance that led him to create his project. Using the example of a Bowie concert shown in D.A. Pennebaker’s film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Ross explained how an artist might exhibit fascist tendencies. He stated that, at one point in the film, Bowie screams, “Give me your hands, you’re not alone!” Ross identified this as an example of Bowie using “empty slogans that the audience can put themselves into,” reflecting authoritarian sloganeering.

In doing his research, Ross primarily looks at contemporary criticisms of and reactions to his selected artists. With this in mind, he hopes to “see how political, cultural critics have understood the authoritarian imagery in their work and also to see how the average fan looks at it.” As such, Ross examines media such as online message boards, fan magazines, and newspaper articles to gauge fan dispositions. From there, he aims to “build a model” of the relationship between artists with fascist behaviors and fans.

Ross noted a lack of extant literature on the subject as one challenge to his project. While he has found sources on the authoritarian personality, the intersection between fascism in culture and fascism in politics, and relevant Marxist literature, he has not discovered works “specifically talking about the effects of authoritarian, fascist appeals separated from actual politics.” Though the absence of similar studies might make the research difficult, Ross mentioned that working within a niche allows him to set his own terms for how the project should be framed.  

Ross ultimately said that he is excited to work on the project and views it as demonstrative of his time at Hamilton. “It seems like the questions that my education has been pushing me to ask are not ones that are answerable,” he said. “So, I think I’m going to continue down this road for asking these kinds of questions for the rest of my life, and I’m excited about that.”

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