Saturday, May 30, 2009

God Is Dead, And Nothing Is Permitted

As Jacques Lacan observed, after God is dead, nothing is anymore permitted. Or rather, although everything is permitted, it is hedonism devoid of its vitality: it is fat free and decaffeinated, deprived of its malignant property. Nothing is more heinous, it would seem, than the possibility of someone indulging in excessive enjoyment, as anymore enjoyment is perceived not as enjoyment but as excess. Rather than inhaling with deep pleasure, the postmodern individual does it without inhaling. Virtual sex is an acceptable alternative to actual sex. Although it seems utterly absurd, our media technology—televisions, CD and MP3 players, DVD players, and game consoles, for instance—are purchased on the assumption that we will limit its capabilities, deprive it of its full potential. Our televisions are equipped with V-chips, and our cable TV boxes, DVD players, and game consoles have installed in them parental control features that can block, disable, and filter information. Our CDs and MP3s exist in “clean” or bowdlerized versions which, like decaffeinated coffee, alcohol free beer, and fat free cream, have had the offensive, malignant property removed; it has been cleansed of its dirty element. Hence our technology is actually a control technology, enforcing and supervising our values and morals. The irony of all this is that the very media that once were perceived as so pernicious in their effects, that presumably required such severe restrictive legislation and policing, is now that which legislates, polices, censors, and bowdlerizes (“bleeps”). The fact is, the function of media technology is not to present us a “window” to the world, but to defend us from the world, to show us The Real, perhaps—but not the Too Real.

An example of the power of media technology to invisibly censor is the infamous Stalinist practice of retouching the photos of nomenklatura. Just a few years ago, the United States Postal Service erased the cigarette from the stamps with the photographic portraits of blues guitarist Robert Johnson and of Jackson Pollock, yet another instance of issuing a “clean,” edited version. God forbid we should see these historically significant figures as having indulged in a vice. The impulse for such bowdlerization reveals that today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism is really premised on the experience of Other deprived of its Otherness: the idealized Other, for instance, may smoke (that is, have an offending characteristic) but the practice must remain out of sight, and hence, out of mind, hidden. Depriving the Other of what makes it Other is, of course, an expression of the politics of fear, which is why the blocking, disabling, and censoring capabilities of media technology enable and enact the liberal form of the politics of fear: its purpose is to protect us from the Too Real.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Nerd and the Poseur

Last time I wrote about the movies Diner (1982) and High Fidelity (2000), both of which suggest the way that the homosocial behavior of the narrowly obsessed record collector prevents him from having neither a fulfilling relationship with, nor a serious commitment to, a woman. Although I am by no means the first person to make the observation, I pointed out the way record collecting is almost exclusively a male activity, and is all about plentitude: the size of the collection is yet another form of male competition, yet another game of one-upmanship.

Since writing the previous entry, I’ve had the opportunity to read Will Straw’s article, “Sizing up Record Collections: Gender and Connoisseurship in Rock Music Culture,” which can be found in Sheila Whiteley, Ed., Sexing the Grove: Popular Music and Gender (Routledge, 1997). Straw argues there’s a difference between what he calls a “dandy” (a person who accurately mimics the dress and behavior of the musical artist but has only superficial knowledge and no deep passion for the music itself, a “poseur”) from the “nerd.” The nerd collector possesses real knowledge and real passion (if unutterable), but is unable to mime properly the correct masculine codes like the dandy, and hence exhibits the characteristic “performative social failure” of the nerd, so “blatantly indexed” by the nerd’s “unmonitored self-presentation” (p. 8). Straw observes, “Collecting is an important constituent of those male character formations, such as nerdism, which, while offering an alternative to a blatantly patriarchal masculinity, are rarely embraced as subversive challenges to it” (p. 10).

Terry Zwigoff’s movie Ghost World (2001) depicts one such nerdy record collector, named Seymour, played by Steve Buscemi (at right in the above picture). Seymour happens to come to the attention of Enid (Thora Birch, left), a recent high school graduate who exhibits a profound sense of alienation from the culture and who takes an instant liking to anyone who seems different. She finds Seymour, a solitary, unmarried man roughly twice her age, different, primarily because of his atypical musical taste. One day, Enid and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) happen to encounter Seymour selling records at a garage sale. He recommends to Enid the vinyl LP Country Blues Classics, Vol. 3 (an actual record in an actual series). Following his advice, perhaps because she sees the record as a strangely alluring sort of fetish object being offered to her, Enid takes the record home and listens to it. As it turns out, she is drawn to the recording by Skip James, “Devil Got My Woman” (1931)—a track that, strangely, is not actually on that particular record [!] At any rate, I think we are encouraged to believe that Enid is drawn to Seymour precisely because he is a nerd, that is, he presents what Straw describes as a subversive challenge to “patriarchal masculinity.” (Remember that Enid embraces anything different.) However, Seymour tells Enid that “loser collectors” like himself basically define themselves by filling their lives with worthless junk.

It occurred to me that Seymour—a character who is not in the film’s textual source, the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes—seems remarkably similar to the nerdy Jack Isidore character in Philip K. Dick’s great novel Confessions of a Crap Artist (written 1959, published 1975, and adapted into a French film, Confessions dun Barjo, released in 1992). Socially inept, Isidore’s life is devoted to collecting “kipple,” useless bits and pieces of matter that rapidly multiplies as if duplicating itself overnight (the character re-appears in the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which, as everyone knows, was adapted into the film Blade Runner). Like the autist, Jack Isidore is fond of collecting odd and worthless minutae (autists often have improbable collections, such as old bus transfers and obscure birthdates). Indeed, I suspect most of us have known people who have collected odd items and pondered the reason why, and I am not speaking of coins, stamps, beetles, or butterflies. It is interesting that Philip K. Dick was a classical music collector, once worked in a record store, and as a young man was mocked by certain individuals for the vast number of records in his collection. In any case, later in the movie Ghost World, when Seymour admits to Enid that he is just a “dork,” she takes issue with him, saying that he is not at all a “dork,” but rather, her “hero,” perhaps because she admires the way he holds on to himself, while she herself is elusive, still forming an identity. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Enid avers Seymour is her hero, their story doesn’t end happily. By the end of the film, Enid has left town and Seymour is left only with his record collection. The film is yet another example of the way our culture represents the male record collector, a troubled, solitary individual perceived as accumulating worthless and arcane knowledge, and immersed within an incomprehensible fetishized world. Somehow, the behavior of these individuals, particularly their remorseless accumulation of records, is linked to the failed internalization of appropriate masculine codes.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Collector

Movies such as High Fidelity (2000) explore the perils of record collecting, the way that the homosocial behavior of the obsessed collector hinders, if not actually prevents him, from enjoying the pleasurable company of a like-minded female. Around thirty years ago, when visiting the local record stores was part of my daily homosocial routine, it never occurred to me to ask why there were so few women with whom I could discuss the music I loved. Of course there were many girls around, but you didn’t talk with them about Eno, Pere Ubu, King Crimson, or the Buzzcocks, for instance. I remember falling heavily for a girl who told me she loved the Pretenders’ first album, an album that I also happened to think was tremendous (still do). It didn’t hurt matters that she was pretty, intense, and had what is colloquially referred to as “tons of personality,” but I think I fell deeply for her primarily because she loved that Pretenders record. She also happened to indulge my passion for music. One night, over a couple of Margaritas, she actually endured one of my hour-long lectures on that album’s many virtues, its precursors, and its probable historic significance. I envisioned myself a connoisseur of both rock and avant-garde rock, and after we hit it off, I thought I would introduce her to my collection, hence what serious rock music was all about—Eno, Echo and the Bunnymen, Joy Division, the Residents, some later Velvet Underground, and so on, everything important, in other words, so I invited her over to my place for a serious listen. She readily agreed. So she came over to listen to some records . . . and I thought I’d fall on the floor and die when she showed me the records she brought along with her to play for me: Pat Benatar’s In the Heat of the Night, Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s An American Dream, the band’s then current hit record, and a couple others that I can no longer remember, probably due to traumatic amnesia. I was polite to her that long evening, as I endured the playing of two or three of those awful records, but the long-term effect of the evening was that she dropped in my estimation of her, because her musical taste was so bad. Our relationship was immedicably damaged that evening, and while we saw each other often for the next year or so and had some good times together—we both loved dancing to reggae, the music then having a mild resurgence in local clubs—I knew any serious romance between us was over. What a naïve, pompous fool I was.

Looking back, I think I was very much like the character Rob, the narrator of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1995), the novel upon which the movie released in 2000 was based. Near the end of the novel, Rob is introduced to the CD collection of his girlfriend’s friend. The narrator is confronted with “the sort of CD collection that is so poisonously awful that it should be put in a steel case and shipped off to some Third World waste dump. They’re all there: Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Kate Bush, Pink Floyd, Simply Red, The Beatles, of course, Mike Oldfield (Tubular Bells I and II), Meat Loaf . . .” (p. 279). While I’ve mellowed somewhat since then, I perfectly well understand the sort of disdain being expressed in that passage, as that sort of attitude was mine at one point in my life. So, too, was the inability to engage in any meaningful romance with a single, available female. Predictably, there was no sting of truth, as there should have been, in the memorable scene in Diner (1982), when the Daniel Stern character rebukes his wife, played by Ellen Barkin, for misfiling one of his James Brown records. Several of my friends and I went to see that film when it was released, and while I can’t speak for the rest, I was actual siding with the Daniel Stern character in that scene rather than his poor wife: how dare she treat his filing system as capricious! How dare she put the record in the wrong place!

Record collecting, like home video collecting, is all about plentitude: the more you acquire, the bigger your collection, the more masculine you are (and we all understand the Freudian phallic symbolism implicit in that remark). Besides High Fidelity and Diner, few movies have explored the psychology of the white male collector. The only other movie besides these that I can think of that understands the fetishistic psychology behind collecting is Free Enterprise (1998), which probably owes a debt to Diner in the way it accurately depicts the homosocial activities of a group of males seeking to maintain permanent adolescence. Free Enterprise is not about record collectors, but home video (laserdisc) collectors and completists. Unfortunately, the film was finished just months before the DVD boom (made now, it would probably depict the lives of high-definition home video fanatics), but in its depiction of white male nerds (one of the characters happens to be black, but he is not one of the two primary protagonists) and of the obsessiveness of the completist collector—one character had his power shut off because he couldn’t pay his electric bill, because he preferred instead to spend the last of his money on the latest laserdisc issue of Dawn of the Dead—it ranks with both Diner and High Fidelity as movies wielding the sting of truth (I know because I belong to both worlds, as many of my generation do). Free Enterprise works well in showing how its characters’ love of the movies is connected to an idealized past, but happily its protagonists are willing to let go of their self-indulgent behavior long enough to make a serious commitment to a woman who loves them. Sometimes, nerds can become men.

Monday, May 25, 2009


In Richard Brooks’ film, Blackboard Jungle (1955)—the movie that demonstrated the appeal of rock ‘n’ roll to Hollywood studio heads by virtue of its use of “Rock Around the Clock” on its soundtrack—there is a white male character, Josh Edwards (played by the late Richard Kiley, right), who is a jazz music collector. A nerdy, bespectacled mathematics teacher, he collects “Swing” music. There is a scene in the movie in which Edwards, along with his fellow teacher, Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford, left), are sitting in a bar having drinks (pictured), listening to Stan Kenton’s “Invention for Guitar and Trumpet” (1952). Inspired by the recording, Edwards tells Dadier (nicknamed “Daddy-O” by his students) that he is going to play some of his valuable jazz records for his students. Daddy-O warns him that the students may not like his kind of music. In response, Edwards tells Daddy-O that he’s going to do so anyway. He says it took him many years to collect his records, and that “half” the records can’t be replaced. They are good records, and perhaps he can win over the recalcitrant students with music.

His plan fails, of course. The students, led by the villainous juvenile delinquent Artie West (Vic Morrow), smash Edwards’ rare and valuable records, despite his desperate pleas to stop. Soon after this terrible event, we learn that Edwards is so emotionally devastated by the students’ act of iconoclasm that he resigns his teaching position. Apparently, he resigns because he takes their smashing of his records as a personal affront. His mistake, of course, was to presume that the students would share his musical taste and also his enthusiasm for record collecting. But what the audience understands, though, is that they smash his records because he is a weak teacher, a pushover: the destruction of his property occurs not because of the records themselves, but because he is a weak male authority figure. The symbolic affront is to his (male) authority as a teacher. In contrast, the film’s protagonist, Richard Dadier, is shown to be a strong authority figure: he is intense, committed to teaching, and has the courage of his convictions, unlike Josh Edwards, who means well, but fails as a male role model for his students.

Proper masculine role models most certainly were the subject of many Hollywood films of the 1950s: Rebel Without a Cause, for instance, released later the same year, is also concerned with the issue. The association between a passion for music, record collecting, and weak masculine identity (“nerdiness”) is a cultural trope that continued on well into the 1960s. Along the way, though, late in the 1950s, the issue was revisited again, in Elvis’s film Jailhouse Rock (1957). In this film, released just two years after Blackboard Jungle, Elvis shows his disdain for jazz music when he is invited to the home of his female manager’s nerdy parents, who happen to be playing jazz music for their party guests. Asked his opinion of the musical career path of a particular jazz artist, Elvis rudely storms out of the house, telling his hosts he doesn’t know “what the hell” they are “talkin’ about.”

In 1966 (by which time Elvis was no longer the cultural force he was in the 1950s), during which time the Beatles were the most popular band in the world, John Lennon made his infamous remark about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus Christ. (I’ve written about this remark before, in a blog in which I argued that what Lennon really meant by his remark was that the Beatles were more popular than Elvis, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it. For John Lennon to have averred that the Beatles were more popular than Elvis would have been more blasphemous to him than the remark he made about being more popular than Jesus.) One wonders whether the backlash that occurred in response to Lennon’s vituperous remark isn’t somehow bound up, in America anyway, with the association of musical taste with weak male authority. After all, in Jailhouse Rock, Elvis didn’t say he loved music, he indicated rather a strong distaste for jazz (and snobbery), which isn’t the same thing as saying he loved rock ‘n’ roll music. Following John Lennon’s remark, in August 1966, there were a number (the precise number of which I do not know) of record burnings and the smashing of Beatles records around the United States. Thus, in 1966, a significant portion of the American population responded to John Lennon’s remark in the same way that the juvenile delinquents responded to Josh Edwards’ playing jazz records in Blackboard Jungle: by smashing his, that is to say, the Beatles, records. The motive seems uncannily the same: to undermine the Beatles’ cultural capital as authoritative male role models. The hope was to undermine their credibility in the same way the students undermined Edwards’ credibility in the 50s film.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Auto Erotic

Inspired by the title of Lester Bang’s June 1980 truculent review of Grace Jones’s Warm Leatherette album, titled “Grace Jones Beats Off” (included in Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader), I thought I’d write a brief blog on la petite mort, the little death, the supposed loss of consciousness that follows a particularly massive orgasm. Since the title of Lester Bangs’ album review refers rather obviously to, well, beating off, I thought perhaps I’d assemble a playlist devoted to the subject, referred to in the Bible as “Onanism” (named after a rather frequent male practitioner), and, in a song that audaciously merges the sacred and the profane, titled “Icicle,” Tori Amos calls simply, “getting off.” Over the years, many rock and pop songs have been dedicated to the subject of autoeroticism. Perhaps no song has better expressed, poetically speaking, the subject of autoeroticism than Fleetwood Mac, with its song “Rattlesnake Shake,” from the album Then Play On (1969):

Now, I know this guy, his name is Mick
Now, he don’t care when he ain’t got no chick
He do the shake
The rattlesnake shake
Yes, he do the shake
And jerks away the blues

In fact, Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac once performed “Rattlesnake Shake” in a rather apt location, the Playboy Mansion, with Hugh Hefner in attendance, as revealed by this video. But if you can’t, anatomically speaking, “do the shake,” do as Cyndi Lauper does, do the “she bop”: “I’ve been thinking of a new sensation/I’m picking up good vibration.” Here are a dozen songs on the subject of autoeroticism. I’ve omitted some of the more common titles, such as Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up,” and the Vapors’ “Turning Japanese,” which the band avers isn’t about the autoerotic subject at all. I have titled this playlist after the name of a mythical band of my own creation. I rather like it. After all, early on in its history rock & roll was sometimes referred to as bop.

She Bop And The Rattlesnake Shakes:
Tori Amos - Icicle
Chuck Berry – My-Ding-A-Ling
The Buzzcocks – Orgasm Addict
Devo – Whip It
The DiVinyls – I Touch Myself
The Dresden Dolls – Coin-Operated Boy
Fleetwood Mac – Rattlesnake Shake
Cyndi Lauper – She Bop
Britney Spears – Touch of My Hand
The Undertones – Teenage Kicks
The Violent Femmes – Blister in the Sun
The Who – Pictures of Lily

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Night Movies

Bob Seger’s song “Night Moves” is so famous that it scarcely needs an introduction. Having heard the song on the radio yesterday while running errands, I realized I hadn’t listened to it for quite a long time. Returning home, I was compelled to find out what people have said about it over the years. A web search turned up dozens and dozens of references to the song, but I found myself amused by what I found on a website known as Songfacts. Here is the link to the Songfacts discussion of the song, but before I discuss the assertions to be found there, here are the lyrics:

I was a little too tall, could’ve used a few pounds
Tight pants, points, hardly renowned
She was a black-haired beauty with big dark eyes
And points all her own sittin’ way up high
Way up firm and high
Out past the cornfields where the woods got heavy
Out in the back seat of my ‘60 Chevy
Workin’ on mysteries without any clues
Workin’ on our night moves
Trying’ to make some front page drive-in news
Workin’ on our night moves . . . in the summertime
In the sweet summertime

We weren’t in love—oh no far from it
We weren’t searching for some pie in the sky summit
We were just young, and restless, and bored
Livin’ by the sword
And we’d steal away every chance we could
To the backroom, to the alley, or the trusty woods
I used her, she used me, but neither one cared
We were getting our share, workin’ on our night moves
Trying to lose the awkward teenage blues
Workin’ on our night moves
And it was summertime
Sweet summertime . . . summertime

And . . . oh, the wonder . . . I felt the lightning
Yeah, and I waited on the thunder
Waited on the thunder

I woke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off? I sat and wondered
Started humming a song from 1962
Ain’t it funny how the night moves
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose
Strange how the night moves
With autumn closin’ in
Night moves . . . night moves
Night moves . . . night moves
Ain’t it funny how you remember
I remember, I remember, I remember . . .

Here are some of the assertions one can find on Songfacts, followed by my rebuttal:

“Fact”: Bob Seger revealed in an interview that the “song from 1962” he refers to in the lyrics is “Be My Baby” by the Ronettes.
PROBLEM: “Be My Baby” wasn’t released until August 1963. Assuming this interview with Bob Seger ever took place at all, one might conclude that Bob Seger is either lying or he has a bad memory, but there’s another way to interpret his claim, which is to interpret it as a proverbial “Freudian slip.” Since the song tries to invoke the nostalgic past, or at least a teenage nostalgic past, Seger’s revelation that he was inspired to write the song after seeing George Lucas’s American Graffiti, released in August 1973, may be true. The tagline on that film’s 1973 theatrical poster is, “Where were you in ’62?” Seger’s confusing the year of “Be My Baby” with the tagline of American Graffiti reveals the way the song draws from motion picture images, from re-presentations of the 1960s, to make sense of the past. What all this reveals, of course, is that the song is really about time, his alienation from the past of his youth (“summertime”) and the weight of age (“autumn”). This sort of high romanticism is characteristic of Seger’s best music.

“Fact”: The song is autobiographical. “The girl had a boyfriend away in the military, and when he came back, she married him, breaking Seger’s heart.”
PROBLEM: “We weren’t in love—oh no far from it . . . we were just young, and restless, and bored.” The lyrics operate at such a high level of generalization (“black-haired beauty with big dark eyes”) that any specific reference to a flesh-and-blood human female is impossible. Change the line to “raven-tressed beauty with pale skin and big dark eyes” and you have one of those dark, mysterious, and provocative women that populate the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Moreover, the actual time period when these activities—by rather stereotyped teenagers, I might add—took place is as elusive as are the period settings in the stories of Poe. Because of the broad level of generalization, the time period could be the 1950s as easily as the 1960s—and that’s just the point. The images in the song are drawn from representations of the 1950s and 60s—that is, from later movies that are set during this historic time period. If the song is about the singer’s memory, curiously, it is a collective memory, not an individualized or specific one.

The problem with this autobiographical reading is that if he and the black-haired beauty with big dark eyes were “Trying to lose the awkward teenage blues” (the singer assumes we all know what he means by this, that we are all drawing from the same source of cultural knowledge), what is the age of the (unrepresentable) boyfriend away in the military? After all, teenagers having sex in the back seat of an automobile is painfully stereotyped teenage behavior. For teenagers, like most people, it was a whole lot easier then, as it is now, to have sex in bed, or on the living room floor for that matter. For some reason, however, the singer and the black-haired beauty with big dark eyes (according to the autobiographical reading, the proverbial mouse who played while the cat was away) preferred the back seat of a Chevy, an alley, or a backroom. Obviously the memory the song is about isn’t about “unrequited love” at all, but about the pleasures of transgression, of illicit sex. “Neither one cared” because they both equally relished the deliciousness of the illicit relationship. So the song is arguably about a memory that may have been, an erotic fantasy that occurred with a girl-who-never-was. The problem with those who prefer the autobiographical approach is that they mistakenly believe there exists a clear window with an unobstructed view of their subject. No such window exists, just as no memory exists apart from desire. The point is, the lyrics may be a representation of past experience, but that doesn’t mean they are literally autobiographical. It’s possible to argue that the song succeeds precisely because it captures a collective form of experience, not the experience of a single individual.

“Fact”: He really did screw the black-haired beauty with big dark eyes with the boyfriend away in the military in the back seat of his ‘62 Chevy. BUT . . . 62 (three syllables) didn’t fit lyrically, so he changed it to 60 (two syllables).
PROBLEM: How do we know it was actually a Chevy and not a Ford? After all, most biographical information about Bob Seger indicates he was born in Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit; Ford Motor Company is based in Dearborn, a suburb of Detroit. Why not sing “62 Ford,” since his birth took place in a hospital named after the automobile-making benefactor Henry Ford? “62 Ford” has the same number of syllables as “60 Chevy.” Why does he say a Chevy rather than a Ford? Well, because “Chevy” rhymes with “heavy,” as in, “where the woods got heavy.” But he could have written the lyrics as follows:

Out past the cornfields where the woods became dense
In the back seat of my ’62 Ford
We were just young, and restless, and bored
Workin’ on our night moves

If this revision doesn’t seem as poetic as the lyrics in the actual song, that’s because it isn’t, although Ford rhymes with bored, and who knows how many times he re-arranged the lyrics? The point is, does it make any difference whatsoever whether it was a Ford, Chevy, Dodge, Nash or Rambler? Apparently, “Chevy” has something more all-American about it than “Ford,” and we all know that Chevrolet later used Bob Seger’s song “Like A Rock” for an advertising campaign. Perhaps the Chevrolet division of General Motors appreciated his reference to “Chevy” in the multi-platinum selling “Night Moves,” and decided to repay the favor. So much for his allegiance to Ford Motor Company and the Henry Ford Hospital in which he was born.

A friend of mine, now retired, once told me an anecdote about going to the movies. He had just seen the James Dean film, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and upon exiting the darkened theater was amused to notice that fellow male viewers of the film were standing in the lobby practicing their best James Dean imitation. His anecdote is illustrative of the power movies have over our imaginations and the construction of our identities. It is interesting that Night Moves is also the name of a 1975 film starring Gene Hackman—even the title of Bob Seger’s song is derived from a movie. The lesson: Artists are notorious liars (although perhaps not intentionally so), and therefore the last person you should trust to explain the meaning of an artwork is the artist himself.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On The Town

Raymond Williams observed in his classic, The Country and the City, “’Country’ and ‘city’ are very powerful words, and this is not surprising when we remember how much they seem to stand for in the experience of human communities.... In the long history of human settlements, this connection between the land from which directly or indirectly we all get our living and the achievements of human society has been deeply known. And one of these achievements has been the city: the capital, the large town, a distinctive form of civilisation. . . . On the city has gathered the idea of an achieved centre: of learning, communication, light. Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness and ambition . . .”

F. W. Murnau’s justly famous film Sunrise (1927) realizes the contradictions Williams identifies in a rather revealing way: a (naïve) country bumpkin goes to the big city and his life is almost ruined by a wicked temptress. Only the last-minute realization of his deep love for his guileless wife prevents him from certain destruction at the hands of the city woman, the femme fatale. Hence while the city is associated with sophistication and learning, it is also associated with temptation and corruption–feminine guile. In Pretty Woman (1990), for instance, the film that made Julia Roberts into a Hollywood star, the city is also associated with corruption, its opening scenes set on Hollywood Boulevard, with its long parade of hookers and prostitutes. The city woman from Sunrise is among them somewhere.

The word town is derived from the Old English tūn, meaning enclosure, village, or town; the word city is generally used to designate a community of greater size, population, or importance than a town or village. By way of analogy, town is to city as creek is to river, or sea to ocean, although city and town are often used interchangeably, and in any case both actually refer to some geographic place of some indeterminate size. Since the size of the population is irrelevant, to refer to one’s town or hometown is to refer to a community in which one’s identity is remorselessly known and rigidly fixed, a place where one is “stereotyped” and boxed in. In his song, “Small Town,” John Mellencamp sings:

No I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
eah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be

But this is a myth, of course: since anonymity in a small town is impossible (unlike the liminal space opened up by the anonymity of New York City in Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s On the Town), people will never let you be just what you want to be. Here’s Gene Pitney:

If we stop to gaze upon a star
People talk about how bad we are
Ours is not an easy age
We’re like tigers in a cage
What a town without pity can do

He goes on to ask, “Why don’t they help us, try to help us/Before this clay and granite planet falls apart?” In a small town, as in a big city, the familiar “townspeople” can very easily transform into the members of a faceless and hostile crowd, as they do in, say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The horror realized in that film isn’t that people are replaced by pods, but that anonymous crowds aren’t supposed to exist in small towns. It’s not surprising, then, that popular music expresses the same ambivalence toward the town and city: songs like “Downtown” may talk about the fun of being where the action is, but songs like “Poor Side of Town” talk about the hope of escaping rigid class distinctions.

Twenty Songs On The Town:
The Beach Boys – Leavin’ This Town
Petula Clark – Downtown
Rick Danko, Jonas Fjeld, Eric Andersen – Wrong Side Of Town
The Dream Academy – Life In A Northern Town
Steve Earle – Guitar Town
Billy Joel – Uptown Girl
Lipps, Inc. – Funkytown
Gene McDaniels – It’s A Lonely Town
John Mellencamp – Small Town
Roy Orbison – Uptown
Gene Pitney – Town Without Pity
Chris Rea – Windy Town
Stan Ridgway – Lonely Town
Johnny Rivers – Poor Side of Town
Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes – Love On The Wrong Side of Town
Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town
The Stray Cats – Rock This Town
U2 – Red Hill Mining Town
The Vogues – Magic Town
Bill Withers – Lonely Town, Lonely Street

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

About Ten Perfect Pop Songs

Yesterday, I came across this list put together by guitarist Jay Ferguson, in which the artist has assembled what he considers as the ten perfect pop songs ever recorded. While I found the list and his accompanying discussions quite fascinating, I also found myself wanting to take issue with his choices, but then I remembered that the whole purpose of lists is to be provocative. Early punk rockers were fond of posting lists (I Like…/I Don’t Like…) for precisely the purpose of being provocative, and they were frequently successful. Since we live in an age of aphorisms (statements of personal taste) rather than one of axioms (universally accepted truths that are potentially falsifiable), it is impossible to post a list consisting of “the ten perfect pop songs” without the list appearing as capricious, nothing but a highly individualized statement of personal taste.

So what makes a perfect pop song? Rather than appeal to formal qualities only (melody or hook, for instance), I think the perfect pop song must 1) have achieved some degree of notoriety at inception (it was successful, controversial, provocative, etc.); and must 2) have transcended the historical moment in which it first appeared. These criteria thus allow for the inclusion of the “one-hit wonder,” many of which have remained remarkably persistent over the years, but also allow for a certain “timeless” quality in the song, in the sense that it has demonstrated an appeal to more than one generation. The real trick is to limit oneself to ten—why? Why pick only ten flavors of jellybeans when you’re in a store with literally dozens of flavors? Thus to limit oneself to ten is really just a parlor game, but that’s fine. I’ll play—but because I’m recalcitrant, I’ll list eleven instead. The following list tries to avoid naming only what I would consider my “personal favorites,” and also tends to avoid naming only rock ‘n’ roll songs.

One of the things that struck me about Jay Ferguson’s list of the ten perfect pop songs is that he did not list any songs by perhaps the most famous pop singers of all time (in America at least), figures such as—to name a very few—Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, and Patsy Cline. My list tries to acknowledge these figures. After all, Louis Armstrong created the image of the pop singer as artist in the first place, and without him establishing this image, the whole idea of “ten perfect pop songs” would be literally unthinkable. And how can you ignore Frank Sinatra, one of the most highly successful and popular singers America has known, and who created the idea of an album being a unified whole, not a haphazard assembly of 2-3 minute songs? Limiting a list to so very few is rife with problems, but nonetheless here is my list of eleven perfect pop songs:

1. What A Wonderful World, Louis Armstrong
Armstrong’s rough, gravelly voice is instantly recognizable and is known world-wide. Despite the limitations of his voice, he was a great singer, and “What A Wonderful World” has proved its durability by being a hit single several times over several decades—when it was first released in 1968, when it was re-released in the early 1970s following his death, and a hit again when it appeared on the soundtrack to Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). Remember that it was Armstrong’s version of “Hello, Dolly!” in 1964 that knocked the Beatles off the top of the Billboard chart, which they had so long dominated.

2. It Never Entered My Mind, Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra’s album In the Wee Small Hours (1955) is one of pop music’s finest records. Every song on the album is an expression of a different dramatic persona. Sinatra approached a song like an actor approaching a role, seeking to express not himself but a character, with the song being like an inner monologue. There is no singer today who hasn’t been influenced by Sinatra’s use of the microphone; whether he or she is conscious of this fact is irrelevant. I love this song for its dramatic idea and for his phrasing—pop music at its finest.

3. Yesterday, The Beatles
The success and durability of this pop ballad goes without saying. Certainly it is among the greatest of Lennon-McCartney’s pop songs. If the Guinness Book of Records is correct, “Yesterday” has the most cover versions of any song ever written. Most certainly it gave rise to the short-lived Sixties genre known as “Baroque rock.”

4. Smoke From A Distant Fire, The Sanford Townsend Band
Session players and songwriters Ed Sanford and John Townsend struck gold with this one huge hit, and what a song it is. Again, I love the idea of this song, in the same vein as the Righteous Brothers’ “You've Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” except it is more raucous and less lugubrious. If one were to make a list of those pop songs ideally suited for Top 40 radio, most certainly this would be one of them.

5. Kentucky Rain, Elvis Presley
The music made by Elvis during and after his 1968 “comeback” has to be some of the finest music of his career. In this song—and every song on 1969’s From Elvis in Memphis for that matter—his singing was strong, dramatic, and heartfelt. I loved this song when I first heard it forty years ago, and I still do—it is impossible for me to turn off the radio if this song is playing. It features a great arrangement, a strong melody, and of course wonderfully emotive vocals.

6. (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, Aretha Franklin
Former President Bill Clinton named Aretha Franklin “a national treasure,” and songs such as this flawless pop recording indicate why he did so. She of course has many hits and many fine albums, but this song is an ideal demonstration of her voice.

7. She’s Got You, Patsy Cline
Make no mistake: Patsy Cline was a pop singer, not a country singer, and man, could she sing. She recorded many fine songs, but I’ve always liked this one (this, and “Poor Man’s Roses”) the best. The song structure is very economical, to be sure, but the lyrical content is more about loneliness than heartbreak—and that’s what Patsy Cline’s voice could capture so very well—loneliness.

8. 867-5309/Jenny, Tommy Tutone
Perhaps it’s a “one-hit wonder,” but I think this is very nearly a perfect pop song: a great hook, chiming guitars, a driving rhythm, and a brilliant idea—improbably, a love song to a fallen woman the singer has never met.

9. Everybody Plays the Fool, The Main Ingredient
This is a pop song that is warm, genuine, melodic—and carries the sting of truth. Although by no means a group known primarily as being a one-hit wonder, “Everybody Plays the Fool” became The Main Ingredient’s biggest and best-known hit, and an auspicious beginning to the group’s Cuba Gooding, Sr. period. Gooding’s lead vocal has a humanness to it that the best pop singers have always had.

10. Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, Willie Nelson
There’s no doubt in my mind that Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger is one of the all-time best pop albums ever made—and no, it ain’t “country.” Willie Nelson is a great songwriter, not a great country songwriter. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” is a sparse, haunting ballad that rests on the painful truth that love is either waxing or waning (in this case the latter), and features only Willie’s distinctive voice and his old, battered, Spanish guitar.

11. Rainy Night in Georgia, Brook Benton
Is it possible for a song to break your heart? If it is, this pop song from 1970 does it to me. “Rainy Night in Georgia” was written by Tony Joe White, but Brook Benton got the hit from it. Haunting, melancholic, impossible to turn off if it is playing on the radio, “Rainy Night in Georgia” is nothing less than perfect studio production coupled with superb pop songwriting. It is also a perfect realization of the so-called “sympathetic fallacy,” in which nature seemingly reflects one’s inner state of mind (psyche).

Monday, May 11, 2009

Teacher's Pet

The role of the teacher can be best understood as someone who provides the student with two kinds of knowledge. Following Gilbert Ryle, these kinds of knowledge are knowing how and knowing that. A teacher who “knows how” may teach a special form of craftsmanship (knowing how to make, build, play, design, or draw something), or may teach a specialized vocation (how to install, repair, rebuild, or fix something, for instance). But the form of knowledge of knowing that is different than knowing how: just because I know how to ride a bicycle, for instance, doesn’t mean that you know how to ride a bicycle, while on the other hand, you and I may both know that it is cold, rainy, and windy outside, and therefore not the best time to learn to ride a bicycle. Most teachers are entrusted with their students’ minds, to teach students the way to know that something is true or false (“practical reason” or rationality): mathematics and formal logic, for instance, but also history and politics (“political reason”), and so on.

Within the institution of schooling, teachers are the people entrusted with the minds of students. Hence teaching is, as Tracy Kidder has observed in Among Schoolchildren (1989), one of the few occupations in which any form of measurable success rests on the skill and inspiration of those people “at the bottom of the institutional pyramid” (p. 52). In this sense, teaching is much like police work, and perhaps it’s no wonder, therefore, that both types of people are depicted as virtuous and dedicated, on the one hand, or tyrannical and hypocritical authority figures on the other. These contradictory representations of the teacher are reflected in popular music, in which the male or female teacher often has a special form of attraction distinct from the (repressive) institution itself. The teacher has been the subject of erotic fantasies, in which the pupil desires the teacher to teach a form of knowing how that is not the academic subject itself (“Abigail Beecher,” “Teacher’s Pet”), a figure of hypocrisy (“Society’s Child”), a brutal authority figure instilling mindless submission to power (“Another Brick in the Wall”), or a highly idealized father figure (“To Sir With Love”). Books have been written exploring the depiction of teachers in the movies (see Ann C. Paietta, Teachers in the Movies; McFarland, 2007), and while I know of no book doing the same for popular music, no doubt the range of representations is quite similar. The first movie to link rock music, the school, and the teacher is, of course, Blackboard Jungle (released March 1955), the film that, as Thomas Doherty has observed (Teenagers and Teenpics, p. 76), was also the film that alerted Hollywood filmmakers to the way rock music could contribute to a movie’s appeal. No rock recordings could have represented the teacher in any fashion prior to 1955.

Songs About Teachers And The Lessons Learned:
Abba – “When I Kissed the Teacher”
Chuck Berry – “School Day”
Alice Cooper – “School’s Out”
Freddie Cannon – “Abigail Beecher”
Doris Day – “Teacher’s Pet”
Elton John – “Teacher I Need You”
Janis Ian – “Society’s Child”
Hall & Oates – “Adult Education”
Lulu – “To Sir With Love”
Pink Floyd – “Another Brick in the Wall”
The Police – “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”
Van Halen – “Hot For Teacher”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Kiss Kollectibles

An interesting comment left in response to my blog entry yesterday concerning popular musicians who have appeared in comic books indicated that the rock band Kiss also appeared in a comic from Marvel, issued around April 1977, written by the late Steve “Howard the Duck” Gerber. The comic was notorious at the time because the red ink used in the printing of the comic was mixed with blood taken from each Kiss band member, a story authenticated as true by Apparently Marvel published a second Kiss comic in 1979, but without the garish sensationalism that the marked the publication of the first, and in 1997 Image began publishing Todd McFarlane’s Kiss: Psycho Circus, obviously an attempt to revise Kiss’s cultural capital by avoiding the juvenilia that marked the band’s first appearances in the comics. Apparently Kiss comics have become a cottage industry of late, with Dark Horse publishing a Kiss comic book series authored by X-Men writer Joe Casey in 2002. I suspect that the sheer amount of Kiss-related merchandise probably rivals The Beatles; I couldn’t begin to name to vast number and kinds of product tie-ins and memorabilia available, but most certainly these products are distributed world-wide.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

From Big Band To Rap

Moments after posting my entry on Jack Kirby and Paul McCartney this morning, my friend Dion Cautrell sent me an email with a link to today’s press release announcing that Marvel Comics has teamed up with Eminem to create a limited series comic featuring the famed rapper and Marvel’s provocative vigilante, The Punisher, in Eminem/Punisher: Kill You. Apparently Marvel discovered Eminem is a fan of The Punisher, and worked out an arrangement with the musician to issue a comic coinciding with the release of his new album. Click the link on my blog entry from earlier today (below) to go to my initial discussion of the relation between rock music and the comics. I admit to being hard-pressed to think of another popular musician appearing as himself in an original comic book story; I’ve previously cited Alice Cooper’s From the Inside, a comic featuring Alice as well as characters from his 1978 album of the same title. I don’t think the now defunct “Rock ‘N’ Roll Comics,” published by Revolutionary Comics, qualify, as they largely consisted of a rock star’s or rock band’s biography told in graphic novel form.

The only other popular musician I can think of who appeared as himself in a comic book with an original story is big band leader Kay Kyser, who appeared with Batman and Robin in DC’s Detective Comics #144 (February 1949; pictured), in an episode entitled “The Mystery Broadcast.” Kay Kyser’s band was one of the most popular of the big band era, and no other bandleader of the swing era can boast such an extensive filmography as Kyser. Although hugely popular during the late 1930s and the 1940s, especially with his “College of Musical Knowledge” radio show, Kyser permanently retired from the music business shortly after Detective Comics #144 appeared in 1949. He hosted a TV game show sponsored by Ford Motor Company in 1950, but retired by the end of that year, largely explaining why he is virtually unknown to “Baby Boomers.” The fact that he appeared as a character in a comic book suggests just how popular he was at the time.

Magneto and The Crimson Dynamo

Early last month I wrote about the connection between comics and popular music, observing that it’s unusual to see a reference to comics invoked in the context of popular music. I mentioned that one of the earliest explicit connections I remember between comics and music, revealing that the two could come into confluence, was Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Magneto and Titanium Man,” from VENUS AND MARS (1975), a song about two obscure villains from the Iron Man comics.

I have been told that a couple of days ago, over at The Cool Kids Table blogspot, “KP” posted a picture of famed comics artist and occasional Iron Man writer Jack Kirby with Paul McCartney, taken backstage at a Wings concert around 1976. As it turns out, KP found a link to a Beatles photo blog (the link to the photos is available by clicking on The Cool Kids Table blogspot link above) that has several pictures of the backstage meeting between Kirby and McCartney. KP also posted an excerpt from an interview he conducted with Lisa Kirby, daughter of the artist, in which she says the former Beatle introduced her father to the audience during the concert, then went into “Magneto and Titanium Man.”

Many thanks go to my friend Dion Cautrell for finding this information and sharing it with me.