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Jacob Blickenstaff / Starz Digital via The New York Times

November 22, 2016

STANTON | Sharon Jones and the Upside of Echo Chambers

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Last Sunday, John Oliver concluded the third season of Last Week Tonight with a cathartic send-off to the year in a segment so eloquently dubbed, “Fuck You, 2016!” If you haven’t seen the episode, I’ll give you three guesses as to what it’s about. In a year that began with David Bowie’s death, the state of affairs never bothered to resettle on any form of status quo — opting instead to perpetually tumble further downhill. The general mood on campus following Election Day has seemed to oscillate somewhere between vitriol and despair, to the extent that a casual “How are you?” serves as an invitation to air out grievances rather than go through the motions of small talk. And whether in tone or subject matter, the election results have pervaded a large portion of the Daily Sun’s output because, well, what else is there to think about?

As the White House proceeds in its transition to high-stakes reality TV show, pundits have made much of the modern media’s role in President-elect Trump’s ascent. Executives at CNN have expressed regret over airing uninterrupted Trump rallies early on in the election cycle, while CBS Chairman Les Moonves earned himself a footnote in history textbooks for his boast that Trump’s candidacy “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” The real story, though, has surrounded social media “echo chambers,” otherwise known as the newest buzzword that journalists toss around.

The theory goes that — because of Facebook algorithms that steer people’s newsfeeds toward stories similar to ones they have already “liked” — social media users have insulated themselves from ideologies that oppose their own. The Sun’s reliable contingency of aggravated online commenters might articulate such a phenomenon as an extension of the “brainwashing” taking place at today’s elite universities. But now that the former CEO of Breitbart News has the president-elect’s ear, this “echo chamber” has revealed its insidious potential to heedlessly reinforce dogma, proving that it should have no place in political discourse. However, rather than dismiss social media entirely, let’s also stop to consider its role in helping us to process the year’s other events.

Tragedies have occurred in just about every aspect of public life throughout 2016, but the acute pain of iconic performers passing away has struck time and again. At this point, the go-to reaction has shifted from shocked sadness to a beleaguered “Who’s next?” Bowie, Prince, Phife Dawg, Alan Rickman, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, the list goes on. Each of these hurt in its own way, and each was met with an outpouring of shared grief and celebration of life — often expressed through the unique platform provided by social media. A few of these outpourings (Phife Dawg, Alan Rickman) likely afflicted my newsfeed more than others, algorithmically prompted onto my computer screen by my unabashed “liking” of a few Harry Potter fan pages. The most affecting among these posts, though, have focused on those artists’ whose appeal transcended the demographic confines of age groups, political views and music tastes. In particular, Sharon Jones’ death last week provoked a beautifully unified response from a spectrum of people who may never agree on another topic.

“It is hard, now, to imagine another contemporary artist with as broad and as undeniable an appeal,” wrote the New Yorker’s Amanda Petrusich in her postscript on the singer. “To love Sharon Jones is simply to be a hot-blooded human.” For those unfamiliar, Sharon shot to stardom over the last two decades as the frontwoman for the Dap-Kings, a soul-funk outfit committed to a late-1960s sound that might have faded from popular music without them. Their records have sold well, but the band carved out its niche as an incomparable live act, using retro flare to back up one of the most charismatic performers I’ve ever seen grace a stage.

While her music alone endeared her to listeners of all types, Sharon’s unlikely rise to stardom and ultimately fatal struggle with pancreatic cancer (as documented in this year’s Miss Sharon Jones!) made her a source of inspiration and embodiment of resilience. After years spent working at Rikers Island as a correctional officer while performing weekends with a wedding band, Sharon finally made it big with the Dap-Kings at the age of 40 — a feat unheard of in a notoriously sexist industry. As she tells it on “I’m Still Here”: “I had to work as a prison guard, tell the men to do what they’re told/’Cause some record label told me I was too fat, too short, black and old.”

In 2013, Sharon received her diagnosis — three years after losing her mother to cancer. In a matter of months, she started performing again, all the while receiving treatment for the disease. Even when reduced, her stage energy was a force to be reckoned with, and her work over the last few years exemplifies an almost superhuman dedication. “Happiness is the most important,” she said in a 2014 interview with Noisey. “I’ve been out here. I’ve gone through things. You have to be happy. You have to feel that you’ve done something in life. And I think over the years, that’s what we’ve accomplished.” Her death may have come amidst divided, uncertain times, but Sharon’s life and legacy provided a greatness that we can all agree on.

Chris Stanton is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at cms459@cornell.edu. Really Terrible, and Such Small Portions! runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.

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