Showing posts with label Woodstock. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Woodstock. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Generation Jones, or Killing By Category

The mass media is fond of “sound bites,” utterances that, putatively, compress a great deal of information within a few words or a short phrase. The sound bite is a wonderful example of the way technology impacts the form messages take, in the same way, for instance, that cell phone texting has led to verbal constructions such as “THX” (thanks), “OMG!” (Oh My God!), “TBH” (To Be Honest), “L8R” (later), and so on. In the early days of internet discussion boards, there arose a phenomenon referred to as “flame wars” (another sound bite), the mutual misunderstanding of a series of messages that eventually culminated in vicious ad hominem attacks and name-calling. The so-called “flame war” is yet another consequence of technology impacting communication: e-mail and other forms of electronic communication tend to emphasize what rhetoricians call the “perlocutive” dimensions of a message (the meaning, the “point”) rather than the elocutive dimensions (how the message is worded and phrased). Just as eloquence is a consequence of literacy, so too is the sound bite a consequence of the (electronic) mass media. It’s an example of what Marshall McLuhan meant by his slogan, “The medium is the message.” I’m distrustful of sound bites, although I use them. The problem is that they distort and reduce the complexity of issues and problems, and because they are short and often alliterative, they are easy to remember, and hence to repeat. As a consequence they are frequently invoked and get passed around perhaps too easily, and give their user the illusion of intellectual mastery of a topic or issue that he or she knows actually very little about.

I instinctively distrust someone who doesn’t wish to debate or argue. When someone tells me something is “clear” or “obvious,” then I immediately know it isn’t. To tell me that something is “clear” or “obvious” is, in effect, telling me the discussion is over, that the conversation is ended. Imagine my reaction, then, when a reader of my previous blog, which I titled “Dead Elvis” but which was about how both “dead Elvis” and “Woodstock” are now collective constructions (those who remain or come after have the right to speak for those who are gone), left a comment calling my blog “interesting.” When someone tells me something I’ve written is “interesting,” my reaction is the same as that when someone tells me something is “clear” or “obvious”: I immediately know it isn’t. So an “interesting” blog is really “not interesting,” or, more likely, poorly written and argued, or intellectually shallow, simplistic, and probably just plain wrong. Of course, he or she may be right about my previous blog, for while I had, of course, heard of the “Baby Boom Generation” and “Generation X,” until I read the comment I had never heard of the sound bite “Generation Jones”—and that’s just what it is, a sound bite, a consequence of the mass media disseminating a phrase which gives its user the illusion of mastery of a tremendously complicated issue:

Arguably, the biggest legacy of Woodstock is its huge impact on the real children of the sixties: Generation Jones (born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X). This USA TODAY op-ed speaks to the relevance today of the sixties counterculture impact on GenJones:

Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten a ton of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. In fact, the Associated Press' annual Trend Report forcast [sic] the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009.

My initial reaction to the comment was that the phrase, “Generation Jones,” as opposed to “Baby Boom Generation,” is a distinction without a difference. Moreover, if commentators have picked up the phrase so quickly and it is moving with viral-like speed through the media, then I’m immediately suspicious, because it is not the function of the mass media to educate. The function of the mass media is to amuse, entertain, and inform (e.g., gains and losses on the stock market, relative humidity, weekend box-office receipts, baseball scores, amounts of rainfall, etc.), and, perhaps most importantly, to inculcate individuals with the “proper” values (one aspect of advertising). That is to say, the primary function of the mass media is not to give us the truth, but to disseminate hearsay, conjecture, assumptions, speculations, opinions, and theories, and to reduce tremendously complex issues to matters of assent, that is, “for” or “against,” as if issues are that simple.

For a sound bite such as “Generation Jones” is not particularly informative or insightful. It may be generating a lot of heat within the media, but I suspect very little light. What’s more, it is an essentializing concept. The whole point of my “Dead Elvis” blog was to avoid the limitations of an essentialist understanding of the “Woodstock generation.” Essentialism, Trina Grillo writes,

is the notion that there is a single woman’s, or Black person’s, or any other group’s experience that can be described independently from other aspects of the person—that there is an “essence” to that experience. An essentialist outlook assumes that the experience of being a member of the group under discussion is a stable one, one with a clear meaning, a meaning constant through time, space, and different historical, social, political, and personal contexts. (qtd. in Sherene H. Razack, Looking White People in the Eye, p. 157)

In other words, to essentialize is to kill by category. For in fact, multiple scripts determine people’s lives, and their complex interaction cannot be comprehended by essentializing concepts such as “Generation Jones.” However, I invite all those who care or are interested to read the article on Generation Jones available through the link above, and I thank the reader for taking the time to write the comment on my previous blog.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dead Elvis

Elvis Presley died 32 years ago yesterday (August 16). Preoccupied as it was with selling Woodstock this past weekend, the mass media failed to commemorate Elvis’s death with similar aplomb. Indeed, so far as I know, there was no mention of the fact that while the Woodstock festival as going on, precisely at the same time, Elvis was at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in the midst of doing four weeks of sold out shows, making some of the finest music of his career. (His successful return to the stage is the subject of an excellent new book by Ken Sharp, pictured at the left.) By the end of October 1969, “Suspicious Minds” would reach No. 1 in the charts, the culmination of Elvis’s so-called “comeback” after eight years of making largely mediocre films—25 of them since he was discharged from the Army in 1960. He made 27 films 1960-69, but The Trouble With Girls would not be released until September 1969, and Change of Habit, his final dramatic feature film, would not be released until November.

For those who care, Elvis Presley shall always be a daunting hermeneutic enigma. The Woodstock festival and Elvis are similar in that they have both become collective representations, but the fact is, the Woodstock festival simply doesn’t hold the same daunting, elusive mystery as Elvis does. In his book, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, Greil Marcus calls the invention of dead Elvis, “a great common art project, the work of scores of people operating independently of each other, linked only by their determination to solve the same problem: who was he, and why do I still care?” Because dead Elvis is a collective representation, it both legitimizes and subverts “Elvis” the man. Perhaps the whole issue is irrelevant, except that Marcus can’t get past the vast amount of cultural expenditure invested in constructing dead Elvis. Nor can I. But a great deal of cultural production has gone into the invention of “Woodstock” as well, and the event, too, has been both legitimized, and subverted, the past four decades. The difference between the two cultural emblems, though, is that dead Elvis is largely perceived as an exemplar of tastelessness (inauthenticity), while Woodstock is perceived as a genuine expression of cultural yearning (authenticity), of a generation’s “innocence.” What are the reasons for these distinct cultural perceptions?

The reasons underlying these perceptions are astutely explored in an essay by Linda Ray Pratt, “Elvis, or the Ironies of a Southern Identity,” which can be found in Kevin Quain, Ed., The Elvis Reader (St. Martin's Press, 1992). In one of the best pieces ever written about Elvis, Dr. Pratt, writing as a Southerner herself, discusses Elvis with the kind of understanding and empathy that those outside the culture often lack. She makes so many acute insights that it is impossible to list them all here, but here are a few insights that may help explain why Elvis is held in such contempt by so many. Writing about Elvis in the context of Southern culture, she says:

C. Vann Woodward has said that the South's experience is atypical of the American experience, that where the rest of America has known innocence, success, affluence, and an abstract and disconnected sense of place, the South has know guilt, poverty, failure, and a concrete sense of roots and place.... These myths collide in Elvis. His American success story was always acted out within its Southern limitations. No matter how successful Elvis became in terms of fame and money, he remained fundamentally disreputable in the minds of many Americans. Elvis had rooms full of gold records earned by million-copy sales, but his best rock and roll records were not formally honored by the people who control, if not the public taste, the rewarding of public taste.... His movies made millions but could not be defended on artistic grounds. The New York Times view of his fans was “the men favoring leisure suits and sideburns, the women beehive hairdos, purple eyelids and tight stretch pants”.... (96-97)

Observing that Elvis “remained an outsider in the American culture that adopted his music,” she goes on to say:

Although he was the world's most popular entertainer, to like Elvis a lot was suspect, a lapse of taste.... The inability of Elvis to transcend his lack of reputability despite a history-making success story confirms the Southern sense that the world outside thinks Southerners are freaks, illiterates . . . sexual perverts, lynchers. I cannot call this sense a Southern “paranoia” because ten years outside the South has all too often confirmed the frequency with which non-Southerners express such views. Not even the presidency would free LBJ and Jimmy Carter from the ridicule.... And Elvis was truly different, in all those tacky Southern ways one is supposed to rise above with money and sophistication. (97)

Regarding the deification of the dead Elvis, she observes:

The apotheosis of Elvis demands . . . perfection because his death confirmed the tragic frailty, the violence, the intellectual poverty, the extravagance of emotion, the loneliness, the suffering, the sense of loss. Almost everything about his death, including the enterprising cousin who sold the casket pictures to National Enquirer, dismays, but nothing can detract from Elvis himself.... Greil Marcus wrote in his book Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music that Elvis created a beautiful illusion, a fantasy that shut nothing out. The opposite was true. The fascination was the reality always showing through the illusion--the illusion of wealth and the psyche of poverty; the illusion of success and the pinch of ridicule; the illusion of invincibility and the tragedy of frailty; the illusion of complete control and the reality of inner chaos.... Elvis had all the freedom the world can offer and could escape nothing. (103)

Her final, acute insight is painfully true: by saying that Elvis could escape nothing, she means escape the Southern mythology, both what he inherited as a Southerner by birth, and what someone from the South is perceived to be by non-Southerners. The contempt for his Southern cracker origins may have been why he was never allowed to be the great actor he could have been. Even Jimmy Carter as president couldn’t escape the stigma of being from the South: the mass media was brutal on him, his brother Billy, and even his daughter Amy.

It is widely accepted as fact that over the years many people have claimed to have been at Woodstock although they actually were not, as if being there is a badge of honor, symbolic cultural capital like having received a wartime medal of valor. One wonders whether Woodstock would still have its aura had it been held in Mississippi or Alabama. I suspect not, for “Woodstock” has had the fortune of being attached to no place (it wasn’t actually in Woodstock, it was on a farm), while in contrast, Elvis has never escaped the widespread stigma of being from the South.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Woodstock In The Year 2525

It should be rather obvious that this weekend’s 40th anniversary of Woodstock is producing a torrent of recollections about the event, on the assumption there’s something worth remembering, or that hasn’t been remembered before. For the fact is, we all know what there is to know: that it was a financial flop, that there were heavy rainstorms, overcrowding, overdoses, and lots of very hungry people, etc., etc. What it’s really about, of course, is merchandising—Woodstock has been sold for 40 years now—and has become one of the most heavily mythologized events of the 1960s. The event has come to “represent” the Sixties, even though it occurred in August 1969, at the end of the decade, yet more evidence that in the popular imagination what is referred to as “The Sixties” is primarily composed of events that took place from 1968 on.

Assuming that somehow “The Sixties” can be understood exclusively by the events defining youth culture at the time, what was the No. 1 hit on the Top 40 charts the weekend of Woodstock? Was it a song by The Beatles? The Jackson 5? Jimi Hendrix? Janis Joplin? Actually it was by none of these artists or groups. The No. 1 hit in the country the weekend of Woodstock, according to Joel Whitburn’s Top 1000 Singles 1955-1990, was Zager & Evans’ “In The Year 2525 (Exordium & Terminus),” and had been at that spot since July 12. In other words, assuming popular music “reflected” the times like a mirror, what preoccupied most people was the annihilation of the human race, not nude bathing and port-o-potties. (Let’s face it, if there were indeed 300,000 people on Max Yasgur’s 600 acre farm for seventy-two hours or so, there was a whole lotta excrement goin’ on.) And what song finally knocked “In The Year 2525” out of the No. 1 spot? The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” How does that song “reflect” the times? Neither Zager & Evans nor the Rolling Stones were at Woodstock, at least not as performers. Neither was the group that knocked the Rolling Stones and “Honky Tonk Women” out of Number 1: The Archies, with “Sugar, Sugar.” And by then we’re almost into 1970, and images of crazed hippies (Manson et al.) replaced images of mud-and-rain-drenched hippies in the mass media.

History has impressed upon us by now virtually all the names of the 32 acts at Woodstock, but do we know the names of the acts that were invited but declined the offer to perform? According to digitaldreamdoor, the acts were as follows; this list is more revealing of the times than the bands who actually did perform.

The Beatles – They couldn’t come together
Led Zeppelin – Better paying gig
Bob Dylan – Didn’t like hippies
The Byrds – Turned it down because of a fracas during a performance earlier that year
Tommy James & the Shondells – Apparently misinformed about the size of the event
Jethro Tull – It was no big deal
The Moody Blues – Unknown; perhaps still searching for the lost chord
Mind Garage – Thought it was no big deal, and anyway had a better paying gig

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Blu Blues at Woodstock

I finally had a chance to screen most of the material included on the recently released Blu-ray edition of Woodstock (1970)—the 40th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition and BD-Live with Amazon Exclusive Bonus Content version, to be precise, that I ordered from Amazon about a month ago. Touted on as “one of the most impressive Blu-Ray releases of 2009 or any other year,” the Collector’s Edition has lots of what is called, in marketing lingo, “value-added content.” The box (enclosed in a protective plastic sleeve), for instance, is designed to resemble a faux fringe leather jacket, while inside there’s an iron-on patch with the familiar logo, a Lucite paperweight with pictures, a reprint of the 60-page Life Magazine special issue about the 1969 event, a reproduction of a three-day ticket, and some other memorabilia (of the miniaturized and simulated sort). Such materials make the event no more “real” than it ever was, but serve as an illustration of the conceit that an important social and cultural event presumably can be fully represented as a series of fragments, making the past seem as visible and proximate as the world you see outside the window as you eat your daily breakfast.

To be honest, I was most interested in the Amazon-exclusive bonus content included on the Blu-ray edition, that is, the additional concert footage consisting of performances by the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe and the Fish, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Johnny Winter, Mountain, and others. Screening the film this time, though, and having viewed the additional footage, I had a rather strong experience of déjà vu, as it occurred to me that many of the artists and bands who’d appeared at Woodstock had already (earlier) appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, e.g., Janis Joplin (with Big Brother and the Holding Company), the Grateful Dead, Country Joe and the Fish (duplicating a couple songs at Woodstock previously performed at Monterey), Jimi Hendrix (ditto), the Butterfield Blues Band, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Ravi Shankar, as well as musicians such as Stephen Stills and David Crosby, who’d appeared at Monterey in different bands. Woodstock has always been pitched as a more significant and historic “cultural event” than Monterey, a perception that unwittingly reaffirms the widespread (mis)conception that “The Sixties” consists of events that occurred from 1968 to the end of the decade. It seems to me that the difference between Woodstock and Monterey is all about “authenticity,” which event is seen as the more “authentic” representation of “The Sixties.” My subjective impression is that Woodstock has won out as the more “authentic” event of “The Sixties” . . . but, as Simon Frith has observed, “authenticity” has always been premised on the opposition between “music-as-expression and music-as-commodity.” Hence Woodstock is generally perceived, historically, as being all about “music-as-expression” (expression of historical moment, crystallization of sensibility, and so on), while Monterey has been viewed as being all about “music-as-commodity.” I offer this observation purely as speculation, not as accepted fact.

In any case, this time around I noticed the number of blues and blues-based bands that appeared at Woodstock: Canned Heat, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joe Cocker, Johnny Winter, Paul Butterfield, Mountain, and Ten Years After—but, ironically, how few black blues artists were represented (none). Black artists were represented at Woodstock, yes, of course; that’s not my point. Blues music was well-represented at Woodstock, but was played exclusively by white musicians—Canned Heat, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (one of the few bands with black musicians), Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, and—the whitest of all—Johnny Winter, who gave the best blues performance at the festival (“Mean Town Blues”), in my view, based on the footage included on the bonus disc. By no means am I claiming that the blues played by white artists is “inauthentic,” but viewing the Woodstock material this time was a painful reminder of the way white people have historically exploited black people, particularly in the popular music industry. Black music is the ghostly presence of Woodstock. I do not make this observation as a so-called “white liberal,” but as someone who is simply stating a central tenet of the American musical industry. About 99% of those who attended the Woodstock festival were white kids who had the wherewithal, as well as the leisure time, to be able to burn a weekend listening to rock music. The documentary associates primitive behavior (lack of regimentation, nudity, communal bathing, nature worship, fucking in the tall grass, non-Western religious practices, magical thinking—the “no rain, no rain” chant”—and so on) with authentic expression. Monterey has not had this sort of mythology attached to it, but that ought to make the point(s) I am making all the more obvious. Of course I love the music, and the documentary itself is an example of great filmmaking, but speaking for myself, I have few illusions that hippies (middle and upper-class white kids with lots of disposable income and leisure time, still possible in the 60s) are worth all the ideological obfuscation that have been granted them through the Woodstock documentary. Would that I could believe otherwise.