Wherein I rail against a specific podcast in order to make some bigger points about music, criticism, gatekeeping, and cultural bullying.
  1. A TALE OF TWO PODCASTS

I am an enthusiastic person. I get excited about cultural objects (books, musicians, painters, movies, you name it) and then go on recommendation sprees. If you are even casually acquainted with me, I have probably breathlessly tried to convince you to watch or read something at some point (if I breathlessly recommended Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest to you, I am sorry; it started out a lot better than it ended).

In late 2017, I went on a recommendation spree for Tyler Mahan Coe’s podcast about the history of country music, Cocaine and Rhinestones. It had sprung up out of nowhere as this fully-formed, beautiful thing. At the moment I became aware of the show, the most current episode was a close read of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” wherein Coe went deep on both the lyrical content and Haggard’s wider biography and public statements to determine just how literally the song was intended to be taken (a subject near and dear to me, since the a fight over the sincerity level of Hag’s culture-war songs once nearly broke up a band I was in). I love (older) country music and well-researched cultural history; the whole thing could have been cooked up in a lab by scientists working from extensive notes on how to craft the most enticing possible podcast for me.

There are several specific things about Coe’s approach to Cocaine and Rhinestones that I admire and enjoy. One of them is his methodology; every episode features direct engagement with primary sources (the music itself, public statements by the artists and their families, police records, and so on), along with an admirably up-front assessment of the reliability of given sources (not all of Charlie Louvin’s stories hang together).

More than that, though, the show is built around a fantastic generosity of spirit. When the country music industry has been shitty to people on gender or ethnic lines, Coe calls the industry out. When a received story about a person has unfairly gained currency, Coe pushes back- for instance, his careful arguments against the idea that Buck Owens habitually screwed people over in business dealings, or that Wynnona Judd was a talentless puppet of producers. The podcast succeeds because, over and over, Coe meets artists where they are, taking their work in the spirit it was offered up. One of the defining features of country music is gatekeeping over the issue of authenticity, which Coe dynamites as a bullshit excuse to marginalize artists for no real reason. The very agreeable impression one gets from the show is of a very knowledgeable, passionate guy who loves music with an open mind and wants to tell you about it; when Coe announced a Patreon program to support the show because he wanted to make it his life’s work, it was a pretty easy sell. What music lover wouldn’t want to support this work?

I want to make this plain: in light of everything I’m about to say, I remain an all-in fan of Cocaine and Rhinestones. But it turns out that Coe has another podcast. The other one is a joint project with a guy named Mark Mosley; the show is called Your Favorite Band Sucks. The format is pretty much what you’d expect: each episode, the two of them pick a band and rail for 45 minutes or so about how and why the band sucks. Episode one was the Beatles. Episode two was the Rolling Stones. At this writing, they’ve just dropped one attacking the Beastie Boys. Previous targets have included U2, the Police, Sublime, Nirvana, Steely Dan, and Radiohead.

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or Postmodernism is Closer Than You Think

So, right now social media is aflame with talk of Jordan Peterson, the latest half-bright pile of mud to figure out that there’s money to be made telling angry young men that they’re right and special. Peterson and the controversy surrounding him are too dull to get into here, but I bring him up because part of his program includes bemoaning postmodernism and accusing it of destroying our morals, corroding society, corrupting the youth of Athens, yada yada yada.

I yada there because this isn’t a new thing. Howling incoherently about postmodernism has turned into a byword of the American right, especially its angrier, weirder wings (for instance, the vague acquaintance from high school, now blocked, who swooped into a facebook thread about the US withdrawal from the paris climate accords and told all of the participants that we were postmodernism-poisoned liberals and cultural Marxists who should kill ourselves). And I say “incoherently” advisedly; I just finished a master’s in art history, wherein I spent a lot of time talking and reading about postmodernism, and I can assure you that very little of it had to do with a vast liberal conspiracy to undermine the work of brave patriots like Alex Jones.

So what’s postmodernism? That’s a complicated thing to lay out, actually, for several reasons. For one thing, postmodernism manifests itself differently in different cultural spheres; architectural postmodernism isn’t exactly the same thing as literary postmodernism, and both are slightly different from postmodernism in visual art, and so on. This is a thing—THE thing—about culture, that answers are usually more complicated and boundaries more fuzzy than we’d like. But that’s the way it is. Anyway, in all of these spheres, postmodernism is (as the name would imply) a cultural reaction to modernism, which in turn was a reaction to (or at least existed in the context of) the romanticism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Again, I’m simplifying the hell out of things here, but hopefully in a useful way. Speaking really broadly, modernism was a push towards a theoretical rational order, often marked by form-follows-function minimalism. Think the paintings of Piet Mondrian, or the geometric glass buildings of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, or the sparse, structured prose of Ernest Hemingway. The uniting theme here is a desire to pare things down to their essence, and (generally) to make the world make sense in terms of rational, quantifiable systems.

Postmodernism (once again, speaking really broadly) rose from the recognition that the world couldn’t really be contained, described, and modeled in the tight, orderly boxes demanded by modernism. And it can’t, for reasons too complicated to get into here, but 20th century developments in math, physics, and culture all ran into some kind of uncertainty or incompleteness on the outer fringes. (Thus, the squishiness of defining postmodernism is both ironic and kind of the point.) Where modernism implies (if often between the lines) a crystalline objective order to everything, postmodernism recognizes the semiotic implication that just about everything in human culture exists in relation to something else (this, I guess, is what drives the political right nuts, if they see it as a push back against tightly-strictured, clear, rational morality handed down by god; I submit that postmodernism isn’t really the problem in that model). Think of it this way: how do you define a word, any word? You do it through other words. Which in turn are defined by other words. It’s a giantic, neverending web of connections that sort of resembles the surface of a waterbed rather than a crystalline bedrock. Which sounds bad and confusing, but the good news is that by this part you’ve read more than 500 words-dependent-on-other-words about the subject and hopefully picked up some kind of informational content; in other words, it turns out that human culture gets along just fine without fixed points.

Anyway: a few hallmarks of postmodernism emerge from what I just said. One is a (usually) playful sense; you can think of postmodernism as a trickster Bugs Bunny character constantly tweaking modernism’s rules-bound Daffy Duck. Another, reflecting the whole interconnected-web-of-referentiality thing, is a propensity towards reference (see the previous sentence for an example; by the way, ever notice that Bugs Bunny is essentially an animated Groucho Marx, even repeating some gags?). Finally, especially in literature, architecture, and film/TV, postmodernism shows an obsession with form and playful tweakings of it.

Which brings me back around to the American right. I’ve noticed a persistent love among people on the right for the movie Blazing Saddles. Jason Lewis, now a tea party republican congressman from Minnesota, often played the theme from Blazing Saddles during his time as a right-wing radio shouter in the Twin Cities. Conservative moaners about political correctness love to hold up Blazing Saddles as a movie that couldn’t be made today because the mean liberal scolds would kill it for being too un-P.C. The overlap between these people and people who decry postmodernism is for all intents and purposes total.

Which is dumb, because Blazing Saddles is a profoundly postmodern movie. It openly takes the constituent chunks of old-fashioned westerns and playfully remixes them, critiquing them in the process. This is the essence of postmodernism. It’s highly referential- some of the jokes don’t make sense unless you know about lawsuits Hedy Lamar filed. It deconstructs itself- look at the last act of the movie, where the action spills off of the set where the movie’s being filmed and takes over an entire movie studio. It’s hard to find a more postmodern moment than Slim Pickens, maybe-and-maybe-not breaking character, yells “Piss on you, I’m working for Mel Brooks!” before beating up Dom DeLuise. Honestly, if someone ever asks you what postmodernism is, you can give them a pretty good answer by just telling them to watch Blazing Saddles and think a little bit about what they’re seeing.

I’m not saying that Mel Brooks and his crew sat down and said “we’re going to make a movie that’s a massive exercise in postmodernism, and also includes fart jokes.” I’m sure they didn’t; that’s just not the way things work. Labels like these are almost always worked out after the fact, except for weird vanguardy cases where someone’s writing a manifesto. It’s more accurate that the cultural moment constantly moves forward and seeps into everything that’s created, and some time after the fact someone looks at it and says “yeah, that’s postmodernism” or “hey look, all of that stuff is similarly ornate, let’s call it baroque” or “boy, sure seems like some kind of rebirth, a renaissance if you will,  happened in Europe there.” Postmodernism started popping up in at least the 40s and eventually came to be the dominant cultural mode of the west in the back half of the 20th century, continuing into today.

Which is to say that people moaning that postmodernism has made immoral soyboys out of all of us don’t know what they’re talking about. They are, ultimately, fish unknowingly complaining about the water they’re swimming in. And if, after complaining, they tune into any cultural product more sophisticated than Little House on the Prairie, they’re being pretty hypocritical.


(Postscript: since I brought it up and then just left it there, and someone’s bound to ask: the “it couldn’t be made today because it’s so un-PC” belief about Blazing Saddles has nothing at all to do with Saddles’ status as a profoundly postmodern movie. It’s a profoundly postmodern movie that happens to be about American race relations; Infinite Jest is a profoundly postmodern novel that has nothing much to say about race relations. Just because a work is one thing doesn’t mean anything about the other thing. Anyway, I don’t know that I buy that statement to begin with. The original possibility Blazing Saddles had a lot to do with Mel Brooks’ clout and production capabilities at that moment; the movie was pushing boundaries then, too, just as it would be now (even if the boundaries in question are different). Anyway, several movies come out every year that are more intentionally offensive than Blazing Saddles (and generally not as good). People who live in a world where multiple Human Centipede sequels have been filmed don’t have very strong legs to stand on when they talk about stuffy atmospheres stopping movies from being made.)

(Post-Postscript: another good moment of unacknowledged 1970s postmodernism was pointed out by pal Max Sparber, who observed how weird/great it is in the theme from Shaft that the backup singers get angry at the lead singer and then reconcile in admiration for the subject of the song, all within the text of the song itself.)

Public Enemy, 1987

I’ve been a Public Enemy fan for a long, long time. They were one of my primary gateways into hiphop. Loved the production, the politics, the interplay between Chuck’s and Flav’s voices, the whole package. And the aesthetic. Let’s not kid ourselves, Public Enemy has a very distinct aesthetic.

It’s a very militaristic aesthetic. Uniforms, military signifiers, a lot of berets. The guys in the berets, of course, are the S1Ws (for “Security of the First World” in PE parlance). Theoretically, they’re PE’s security force. Functionally, they dance at shows and look cool at press events.

Anyway, Public Enemy is a smart band and Chuck D is a smart guy in particular. This isn’t random. This resonant look came from somewhere. It’s naggingly familiar.

Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers

Chuck D

 

It’s naggingly familiar because it’s pretty much a direct visual quote of the distinct aesthetic of the Black Panthers. It’s clearly not an accident.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Panthers, for what it’s worth, were very savvy about the use of imagery. They were great at mass communication; I’ve seen some fascinating presentations about their use of visual art in their newspaper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, OK. A militant rap group borrowed some visual tropes from a militant political group. So what?

Well, the interesting thing is that the Panthers pretty clearly borrowed a lot of elements of their look – the military signifiers, the regimentation – from the Nation of Islam. If you’ve read this far, you probably already know who the Nation of Islam are; if you don’t, they’re a major combination Black nationalist/religious group. They have supporters and detractors, but you can’t really minimize their importance in the history of 20th century America.

Members of the Nation of Islam

Muhammed Ali in NOI regalia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s where it gets really interesting… the Nation of Islam, in their turn, clearly borrowed a lot of their imagery from Marcus Garvey, the pioneering pan-Africanist / Black nationalist who was active in the early part of the 20th century.

Marcus Garvey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These pictures of Garvey are from 1924. The one on the right was taken by James Vanderzee, a prominent Harlem photographer.

Marcus Garvey

Marcus Garvey, photo by James Vanderzee

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, OK, we can trace this thread of visual signifiers for Black militancy back to the 1920s. What of it?

Well, here are some paintings of heroes of the Haitian revolution, the only successful rebellion by African slaves. Pretty obvious thing to hearten back to if you’re Marcus Garvey.

General Toussaint Louverture

Jean-Jacques Dessalines

Henri Cristophe

 

 

 

 

 

Pictured above, we have Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Cristophe. Those uniforms look a lot like the uniform Marcus Garvey was wearing, which of course inspired everything after.

 

 

 

(By the way, do Michael Jackson’s bedazzled military uniforms make more sense now? They should)

 

So… Public Enemy is old news. Barely a band now. What does this have to do with today?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, Beyonce’s 2016 Super Bowl Halftime show wasn’t that long ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that freaked some people right the fuck out.

This imagery is obviously still present, and still powerful.

–Fin–

Oh, but:

Emperor Napoleon, by Jacques-Louis David

Huey P. Newton of the Black Panthers

One of the recurring themes of my adult life has been my getting the itch to go back and take a look at some book or movie or album that I loved when I was younger but haven’t re-engaged with for a while. The vast majority of the time, I walk away from the revisit shaking my head and telling myself that hey, it’s no crime to have liked something bad or silly when you were younger.

So, recently I got the revisit urge for Lord of the Rings. I was pretty sure I knew how this was going to play out; I hadn’t read Tolkien since 2002, and I did vaguely remember not digging it at the last go-round. Which had been a bummer- these were foundational books to me in the 80s and 90s, but my turn-of-the-century reaction had been that the books were humorless, and trite, and just generally kind of bad.

A few things have happened to me since 2002, though. Big-picture, I’ve lived an adult life, with attendant ups and downs. More directly relevant, I’ve gained a historical consciousness, reading a ton of history (both cultural and political) and particularly boning up on World Wars 1 and 2.

And that’s the key. While I think there’s a lot of valid criticism that can be aimed at Lord of the Rings, I absolutely loved it on this reread, and a great deal of that love is based on my fascination with the way that Tolkien’s experience in World War 1 is smeared onto every page of the book (even beyond the physical descriptions of places around Mordor sounding almost word-for-word like descriptions of Western Front battlefields). Tolkien was at the Somme, arguably the most disastrous and harrowing British military experience of the 20th century. As he points out in the preface to The Fellowship of the Ring, by 1919, most of his close friends were dead. British tactics at the Somme were, essentially, to hop up out of somewhat-safe trenches in waves, charging into a maze of barbed wire covered by German machine guns. You’d watch the wave ahead of yours go over the top and get cut to pieces. And then the officers would blow their whistles and your wave would go. Tolkien survived the war because a serious illness brought on by lice bites took him off of the firing line. But he saw a lot of people he knew die. And, as a junior officer in WW1 infantry, he was trained to order men to immediate, useless deaths and display leadership by joining them.

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