Friday, December 12, 2008

The Ethics of Paradise

Sounds like one of those deeply etho-philosophical posts, doesn't it?

Eh, not so much.

R. and I were chatting the other day (poor man made the mistake of asking me what I thought of Chinese Democracy (the album)*--I don't, whenever possible), which led me on to the merry path of the wonders of AFD. During said ramble, I began to wax philosophical about the treatment of GNR in the "Paradise City" video, wherein the boys are featured in front of a cast of thousands of screaming fans--at Castle Donnington and at Giants Stadium. We're talking over 100,000 fans in total. Now, bear in mind that GNR was the OPENING ACT in each case, but the video treatment is masterful. Our leather-bound heroes cavort

**Drift: TG just called me on the telephone. He's in the basement....of the same house in which I sit, typing. Is this a case for justifiable homicide?**

ANYWAY, our leather-clad heroes cavort on the stages, framed to demonstrate their absolute control over the legions of fans at their mercy. R., who was one of the reasons my film class rocked last year, notes as I describe the way in which the video works as a kind of propaganda on the band's behalf, lifting them from opening act to commanders of thousands, that the film, then, seems to follow Riefenstahl's model in Triumph des Willens (which I had inflicted on the class). And, you know what? He's dead on.

If you've never seen Triumph, you should. It is a masterpiece of propaganda, and film students, in particular, have no excuse for never having seen it. While her film is certainly one of the most frightening I have ever seen, Riefenstahl's manipulation of the audience is nothing short of masterful. Take this scene, for instance, of the funeral for Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg in 1934. The high, long shots capture the sheer number of people surrounding Hitler and represent a piece of cinematic mastery that has been copied time and again, including in the final scene of Star Wars IV, where we see three figures, again surrounded by lines of evenly spaced figures in vaguely militaristic garb, parading toward a distant dais. Riefenstahl's images are nothing if not imposing here. The scope of power held by the growing Nazi Socialist Party is, according to the image, immense. These shots, along with those of the adoring crowds that line the streets for the various parades included, are far more terrifying than the words of the speeches, in large measure because we have history to tell us exactly what such adulation would allow the Nazi Socialist Party to achieve and destroy.

Nigel Dick uses similar techniques in the video for "Paradise City" to demonstrate the relationship between stage presence of Guns N' Roses and the crowd, who are, of course, not nearly as well-organized or controlled. And that, of course, was part of the point. Look at the frenzied madness this band generates! Now, unlike the scene in Triumph above, the band is never featured as the "small figures" in the center that grow ever larger until we are forced to look up at the podium in hero worship, as happens in Riefenstahl. Dick generally allows us to be level with the band, often participating from their point of view toward the crowd. The lore of this video is significant as the video was shot over two days, one day at Giants Stadium and the other (complete with footage of the band getting on a Concorde flight) at Castle Donnington for the Monsters of Rock Festival, where, during the concert and video shoot on August 20th, 1988, two fans were killed in the muddy melee of the festival, during Guns N' Roses' set. The story goes that the band decided to include the Donnington footage as a tribute to the two dead fans.

Consider that choice though in a different light. Some 107,000 people were said to have participated in that festival--an absolutely enormous number of folks moshing about in the muddy flats and pushing toward the stage. Two kids slip, go under, and are crushed. The band then includes footage of the event. Yes, it does work as a tribute, in so far as one might expect that the dead fans would have been mightily proud to have been included (however incidentally), but, if one takes a more cynical approach--the footage goes to show the bands' power in the situation. So much energy is generated--instead of the ranks of controlled German militaristic columns, we have barely controlled chaos generated by one group--and the deaths of two fans serve to emphasize the chaos and the danger of "the world's most dangerous band." Mayhem, destruction, and death, the very stuff of rock-n-roll legend; in the lore of this video, those legends become quite real in the figures of Guns N' Roses.

Dick's footage (all of which, he notes on his website, was "directed entirely by phone and headset,") further pays homage--and I've no idea if it was intentional or not, or if Dick studied Triumph directly or merely it's myriad followers--to Triumph in the shots of the empty Giant's stadium, which he then shows filling up, much as Riefenstahl does with her focus on the massive structures that were filled with or surrounded by the people involved in the shoot. Look, the images encourage, look at what we can fill with people. The empty-to-filled arena symbolizes power through the ability to call the masses forward. Riefenstahl has similar footage; take the one at right here, for instance; the crowd fills in a mammoth structure--notice how the long shot (here and in Dick's video footage at left) dwarf the structure, which is clearly quite large, and that serve to illuminate (again) the massive number of people involved in both cases, though even here Triumph illuminates the control over chaos, where "Paradise City" encourages, exposes, and revels in the chaos. And that make sense, of course, as in the first case, the government entity would desire to demonstrate their absolute authority through the images of marching rows and columns of people and flags, just as the film underscores the party's support of the German worker in the utterly bizarre (yet wholly regimented and controlled) chant sequence. Guns N' Roses, on the other hand, has no such need; in fact, it does a rock-n-roll band, particularly one that had already made its name synonymous with danger and madness through the stories of fights and drug/alcohol use and abuse (those stories would likewise be part of the Monsters of Rock legend), great good to whip chaos into frenzy. This demonstrates a form of control, but the control is not manifest here in lines, but as throngs of moshing fans who worship at the stage and threaten to break lose at any moment. "Look what we can do. Look what excitement and danger we generate."

The film and video both use air travel, interestingly enough, to underscore their themes. One of the first scenes in Triumph is an extended one shot from an airplane, showing the city below. While we are fairly used to such in 2008, imagine the power conveyed in those shots in 1934. These are ways of seeing that humans had never had ready access too; the paradigm shift involved with seeing a city from above is similar to that of the ability to see the Earth from space after 1946. And the group able to display that shift has great power. GNR, on the other hand, is working in 1988, long after such images are available, so the video instead shows the Concorde Jet, preparing to whisk the band off to Europe after the Giants Stadium show. How does this demonstrate power? The jet itself is pretty impressive, what with being both supersonic and supremely expensive to travel on, but bear in mind this little nugget: in August 1988, Appetite for Destruction had been out for only a year and a month. The first album. The opening band. Thirteen months. Follow the lore: 13 months from the streets of L.A., these guys are commanding thousands and flying the fucking Concorde. That's an estimation of significant power in a materialist world. The way in which Dick conveys this story is a masterpiece of subtlety. The Concorde shots are crosscut with flashier, color shots of Slash's solo. We see first the very recognizable nose of the plane in Black and White (pictured at left) and then we return to Slash on stage. We cut back to the side of the British Airways jet and pan along the length of it, until we see the nose again, here centered, and, in the right front of the shot, members of the band walking toward the plane (we later see them boarding). Dick doesn't need to tell us who we are watching. Look at the picture at right; Steven, Duff, and Slash walking toward the Concorde. Slash's omnipresent top hat is visible against the white truck behind him. 6'3" Duff, easy to pick out in most cases, is made more visible by the white cowboy hat he wears throughout the Giants Stadium scenes; by this point in the video, we are entirely familiar with the garb. No need to zoom in on the band here, we are simply given the opportunity to watch the exodus to the Concorde. Quiet power here.

That Axl shows up late in the video with symbols associated with the Third Reich is, I suspect, coincidental to my premise, but not to the band's consideration of its power. Propaganda, after all, drives the legends of Guns N' Roses and the Third Reich, doesn't it? And Axl is hardly the first rock musician to play in Nazi garb; Darby Crash, anyone? The chemistry of crowd control is similar in these situations; the personalities on parade, combined with a message that speaks to a working class (the GNR lore often posits the band as working-class heroes of a sort, though, according to Duff and Slash, they were the only two to hold "legitimate**" jobs during the band's formative years). We are one of you, screams the propaganda from both the film and the video, and, more importantly, we can provide control or chaos...whatever you desire.

So, what are we suggesting in this video? Certainly, one cannot credibly claim that GNR aspired to Nazi Power or were somehow influenced in that vein. The power of a stage presence that Triumph presents for Hitler and a score of GNR videos present for Axl--those are undoubtedly similar, and Dick uses a number of Riefenstahl's techniques in order to convey such.

So what is the ethic "Paradise City"? The melee and power over chaos, themes that would continue throughout much of GNR's oeuvre--consider the Wedding Party in "November Rain." The excess, then, is a part of the power and control. Huh. What that says for the 17 year wait for a certain CD (the album) and the excess and control exacted there, is anybody's guess, but, clearly, the video here serves to predict it.

*CD (the co-conspirator) wins for best review of "CD" (the song) (oh my):

As for the first thought was, holy crap this song blows goats. I listened some more and reassessed my view on it. My first assessment was insulting to goats. There isn't a creature that deserves such treatment. So, my final judgment on the song is that it sucks more than a black hole.

** I feel it necessary to point out that my use of "legitimate" may be problematic. Even Slash called Duff's L.A. job "phone theft," but that's, again, part of the lore just as much as the "Izzy the Heroin Dealer" is.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Serious 80s Kitsch

I've got a real post full of ponderment, but this bit of viral goodness came across my radar, and I had to share.

Take a few moments and watch this video, which will surpass just about any fit of excess you can imagine. And this remark comes from the Guns N' Roses fan, so, dammit, I know excess when I see it. Sadly, no dolphins were sighted in this particular video, so it doesn't *quite* live up to the bizarre world of "Estranged."**

After watching the video, I was curious enough to wonder a) who in the hell this guy was and 2) how the holy hell he affords a fleet of Gretsch guitars. Yes, yes, I am petty and jealous. I admit it. When I googled him, I discovered that there is no Wikipedia entry as of today (itself a bit of wonderment); that I am not alone in this quest--others are just as baffled as I; and, my favorite, a page that asks who Chris Dane Owens is, and answers with Great Dane worship: "My Dane is 3 years old. A total baby at home. The friendliest dog ever." Now that, my friends, is good comedy.

Here is some information about the dude--may or may not be specious. Is definitely self-congratulatory.

So, why did this warrant a post, other than the goodness of sharing? It struck me as I watched the video (in mild horror), that it's a pretty good example of the kind of 80's kitsch that I adore. The song even reminds me of 80s radio--there is a specific song rolling about my head, but I can't put my finger on it at the moment (go malaprop chick! Sheesh); reminds me of a Chris Issak song a bit--and the worshippy 80's videos of the Robert Palmer variety. Beautiful but largely expressionless women cavorting with the ostensible know the drill.

Why do adore such vapid peaons to excess and the silenced female? I'm a self-described feminist who struggles with the limits of sexuality and power in her studies of and participation in "raunch culture"; my favorite band, as I have noted before, is hardly a place to find positive female images--the lyrics are replete with degredation, derision, and dismissiveness. Yet, they are appealing (the tunes, not necessarily the images). Perhaps the possibility of being adored--for how ever silenced the women are and how ever objectified, the camera practically worships them, often viewing from a low-angle shot, rather than at eye-level or from above. Such angles, of course, generate the sense of looking up onto a pedestal.

Now, pedestals are not all they are cracked up to be. The angel typology for women is limiting; it denies women (or anyone put on a pedestal) their humanity. If I may use my favorite pedestal-perched whipping boy for a moment-->Duff openly struggles against this tendency in his fan-base and the media. His long-running" don't call me a rockstar" bit (seriously, he's been saying this since 1988) speaks very much to the denial of his humanity (aka "normal dudeness") by celebrating the image he projected (or was projected for him) at any given moment. He often uses grocery stores, as I have noted before, as his touchstone--"See, here I am. Normal."

But, I think many of us, myself included, yearn for the pedestal--to be idolized, worshipped, or somehow marked as different/better/more worthy/whatever. For instance, when a teacher finds a student who "gets it"--who isn't just sucking up, but is really engaging the material and us, we tend to get much more energetic. The notion that someone out there is genuinely interested in what we have to say affirms why were were called to the classroom in the first place. The excitement generated by such a student has carried me through several semesters, though he was last in one of my classes in late Spring.

We (not just teachers) want for someone to point out our worth, particularly when we are unable to see it clearly. And, I would argue that there is nothing necessarily wrong with wanting recognition from time to time or from desiring acknowledgement (or even the pedestal). And these videos, I think, are a kind of logical end for pedestal-desire: they are acts of fantasy, acts of excess where we can imagine ourselves as the witch or hero to be worshipped. They are also, ultimately, safe and controlled spaces, where the pedestal does not show its negative face particularly readily. If, though, the only images we see are the silenced/the perfect--if the image has only one face, that is where we get into a more pointed sociological problem. If the images refuse to accept the possibility of imperfection...that both reflects and shapes the global conversation and the incomplete image can then be damaging.

Escapist fantasies, when treated and viewed as such? Not such a bad way to spend 5 minutes. Especially if it involves laughter.

The best part of all of this is that I keep misreading the guy's name, because it is so similar to CD's. I half expected to find CD in the video, reveling in some glam-glory. Alas, no such luck.

**ETA: Realized in talking to K. earlier that this video is "November Rain" taken to it's logical conclusion. Seriously. I grant that no one jumps through a wedding cake, but it's the whole fantasy writ large.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


And this, my friends, is how you do self-effacing humor:

So here I stand…the figure of pure bad-assyness, for the rest of you to admire and fear. I am the MAN of my house and I can do as I please. I can come and go as I want, no matter the hour (one day a week- and as long as get home by 11pm- and bring back a half-gallon of milk). My little girls look at me now with awe-struck admiration. My wife looks at me with a strange new lust that I can’t quite put my finger on, but never the less, it IS lust. I’m a biker mofos, and no Johnny Law can keep me down.

Lesson: Never get between a boy and his bike; more importantly, however, don't get in the way of his wife and hers.

The original title--which was just Duff McKagan: BADASS, was better.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Whole Foods Revolver

I'm a tad slap happy today, oweing to novel-writing induced sleep deprivation, but I saw this on Flea's blog, and it reminded me of something barely related and, thus, a posting.

From Flea:

When Chris and I went to the new store last week, we noticed that due to the wretched economy, Whole Foods is now trying to compete on price a little bit, which is adorable. It's like Queen Elizabeth trying to slide herself into a Ford Fiesta and pretending like it was her idea and she's not utterly miserable about what she's been reduced to.

Whole Foods and their various relations (ours being Earthfare) are an entertaining side project of mine. That is, I love to go into the stores and slink around a bit, trying to appear as if I fit in. Now, in Athens, this is damn hard to do. In comparision to my student shoppers, I ooze yuppie-dom-->from the suit (grey, today, if you are interested, no Converses, however, since I have to interview someone later. Do have on a tre' cool Jimi T-shirt with the suit, so not too upper crust) to the Hybrid Escape.

See, folks like me, with three teenagers, cannot possibly fit the whole famdamily into a Prius. We tried; it was rather like watching the old jokes about clowns and VW bugs in action. As such, we follow our natural instincts toward the SUV (read: glorified station wagon) and get the hybrid varient of the Escape. We pat ourselves on the back because we at least didn't go so far as to buy the behemoth: the Hybrid Escalade. Not that we could have afforded it, even had we wanted to. Also, I don't think my levels of rationalization are up to the task of that beast.

So, I drive into the parking lot in my "little" Escape, hop out, and go into the store on a stealth mission, usually for Garlic Vinagrette, which no one else in town seems to want to carry. They usually spot me immediately, since 9.4672 times out of 10 I manage to gawk uncomfortably over at least one price. Also, I tend to hunt for carob-coated peanuts and raisins, which seems to upset people greatly. Carob is wonderfood for the milk allergic, dammit. I am not stuck in the 70's.

It nevertheless seems to bother the folks there.

So, I'm reading Flea and laughing because I love, love, love my little Earthfare, and Flea's Queen Elizabeth analogy was just too perfect for them too.

Then, for reasons I can only begin to imagine, I recalled the stories about the formation of Velvet Revolver, some of which involve a Whole Foods Market encounter between Duff McKagan and Scott Wieland. I make no claims about the veracity of these accounts, but the image is terribly amusing, isn't it? Consider this, Duff, who has an affinity for all things grocery store, wheeling his cart/buggy/call it what you will around the store, either chasing Weiland down (quick, he's on the organic teas aisle!) or bumping into him in front of the kale, wherein they discuss the formation of a band.

This is what happens when rockers grow up, my friends. No more Canter's Deli, complete with beer, chains, and tomfoolery. Rock N' Roll really looks aged when you ponder the possibilities here, doesn't it? I'm not knocking this--dude has to eat. Can you imagine how that conversation would go?

And why the hell does it amuse me so much to imagine the setting in the Whole Foods Market? Oh, right, I remember--the yuppie thing. It feels so short story, so fan fiction, so whimiscal. Maybe that's the thing for me here; there is a certain whimsy to shopping in the "healthy store" as opposed to the big, bad chain (even if one can't possibly afford to do all of one's shopping there). It's a health food boutique; a place to jazz up the normal fare by buying "organic" and "gluten-free"*! Or maybe just pick up your new lead vocalist!

Wait...maybe this all explains the Duff LeBon look he's been sporting of late?-->

He's giving into his aristocratic know, the ones eschewed in "Punk Rock Song" and "Greed."** Whole Foods Market is no longer enough to satiate, he needs to become the New Romantic faux-Percy Shelley- faux-aristocrat!

Or not.

I think I need to get some sleep.

*Truth be told, I am delighted to see the expansion of gluten-free products in the last few years. It's about damn time. But, you've bought them just for the kitsch value, haven't you? Admit it. Like the organic wine. Or the tofu ice cream (which has also, blessedly, improved over the years). Just to say you've tried it. It's okay, I won't tell.

**I laughed when I heard this song; it revisits the themes of "Punk Rock Song" without the snarl. I've often wondered how Duff feels about some of that song--he still does it live, though in the version I have he did not sing the part I wonder most about, regarding daughters and their pink panties. I'm thinking having daughters might make that section of the song a tad more uncomfortable, in that "someone ever says that to my girls and I'll kick his ass" sort of way.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Dirty Laundry: Anarchy, Misanthropy, Ethics and Other Fears

I have a fleet of thoughts rolling about in the ole noggin right now; I hope I can attempt to make sense of them. Many of them are personal and directly related to a particular theological struggle within my church, but I think most of them are about power.

My church is conflicted over it's mission--are we a building or are we our missions? Where does "church" exist? G. (poor man needs a better pseudonym than that) and I were discussing such after a particularly stressful board meeting, and I posited that the older members of our church cannot delegate leadership because they do not trust the successive generations to "get it done." In general, we do get the various "its" done, but we do it entirely differently that the "Greatest Generation" and we are therefore perceived as wrong or as suggesting that they were somehow wrong.

Not wrong--just different.

Then, another pseudonymless person sent me this link, wherein Bill T-B discusses the realities of church conversations; I think he's right--it's about power, not about discussion. So, let me put my cards on the table: a church that chooses a structure (no matter how beautiful it is) over human capital--and make no mistake about it, that is what this discussion comes down to--is a church that has already failed, irrespective of how many people attend each Sunday.

Speaking of which, church attendance is not limited to Sunday at 11; good, generous and worthy people show up at other times to worship in other ways and that is a Good Thing. Different is not wrong and it is certainly not divisive. It's just different.

Were I to be able to corner the building faction of the church for a moment and rant, I might say something like the following:

Look, we aren't making comment about you; we are simply trying to create a space for ourselves and our lives, which do not fit within the paradigm that has operated here for so long. I prefer an early worship with a focus on discussion; you prefer the traditional service at 11. That is not divisive; it's just different. We have college students worshiping here on Wednesday nights; they may not come to church on Sunday. So what? Good for them for finding their own spiritual paths and fulfilling their own needs. What we need is not an elevator--we can have a "church" in a tent; we need to work within our community. We have a mission and that mission is about people, not wooden beams and stained glass. Why the subterfuge? Why the insistence that we do it your way? Why the assumption that if you cannot afford to give more that no one else can either? We know you can't give any more than you do, and we aren't asking you to. We are asking you to listen to us. We are asking you to support the mission by supporting our people. We are asking you to trust us. Trust us to be good and joyful people who do the right thing, even if it looks different.

Different isn't wrong. Different is just different.

I was called (and it isn't formalized yet, so perhaps this is the shotgun to the foot approach) recently to serve as an Elder in our church, and, for several reasons, I feel simultaneously called to and unworthy of the task. So, I find myself (following the pseudonymless blog sender above) wondering: Why do we need leaders? To whom do we grant authority, and what ends do we provide to that authority?

Were this an ideal world, I'd be an anarchist. I strongly believe that were we inherently responsible folks, government oversight would be irrelevant. But, while I am a self-confessed idealist, I am also a bit more realistic than open advocacy of anarchy would allow. I believe, as Craig O'Hara suggests, that "anarchists must become 'teachers' to others without, of course, becoming leaders" (84).*

First of all, I work for the state, and, as such, absolute advocacy of anarchy would amount to shooting myself in the foot (Houston, we have a theme). Second, I don't believe that there is anything inherently wrong with a government system, except for the whole human factor. Yes, I am indeed an idealist misanthrope. Third, with respect to say, my church, leadership is needed, because there are people who, whatever their reasons may be, are willing to make choices that are not Good Things and often for very Bad Reasons.

One of the first lessons one learns in AA (or any of the other 12-step programs) is that one cannot face addiction on his or her own. Now, this does provide a delightful self-perpetuity to the whole cause, but I am not so cynical as to believe that is why such remarks exist in the AA canon. As befits a person who is a professor and college administrator and therefore must speak to strangers all the time, I am extraordinarily shy. Making a phone call is a serious production for me, often involving far more time than you might care to imagine. This would include, by the way, calling church ladies about communion bread (though, if you'd ever met some of the church ladies I mean...Ah, see remarks above). Nevertheless, I try to do at least one thing every day that scares me (you'd think I would have run out by now), so I do manage to get through most calls and meetings.

For the record, I took almost 30 days into sobriety to go to AA, because of the whole stranger-anxiety thing. Also, I failed with the AA-sponsor bit. I can mentor people (and have, with some success), but asking that of someone else? When I finally got up the gumption to ask someone, she was too busy, which happens with sponsors who are worth their salt.

Sort of like major professors, now that I think about it. Grad School as the 12-step program intended to cause addictions. I rather like that analogy.

That said, I do understand the philosophy about not going-it-alone, a difficult prospect for many situations, and a nearly untenable one for sobriety (especially in the early days). My personality being how it is, I struggled with this tenet, but I do get it. See, teachers of all stripes are significant, and not necessarily because of the subject-information they impart. The best teachers are guides, not just information banks (though, reams of information are terribly cool too and often come packaged in leader-types, such as Dr. Bill Carroll, my American Lit prof at NSU, who was one of those incredible people who had clearly forgotten far more than most of us will ever hope to learn...gads he was great). Brad, over at Hardcore Zen, has wrestled with the importance of teachers in the context of religion:

In my case, I'm absolute certain that had my teacher not told me how utterly dorkified my little "spiritual awakenings" had been, and how I was hardly unusual, let alone unique, for having had such and experience, I could have easily decided that I was the latest incarnation of God. (Warner 55)

We need leaders and guides, especially when we are stuck, scared, or beginning again. With respect to sobriety, several recent events have made it clear to me that having a local guide or touchstone is a very Good Thing, and that having a teacher is also a Good Thing in all things--someone who can point out, gently one's dork moments. So, I am a teacher-guide of literature, but what of becoming a spiritual teacher--guide (I'm struggling with the right words here--leader? Who am I to lead? Insight--sure; guidance, maybe--but I see my role within the church as one of support staff for the professional we hired--they who teach and guide me). Clearly, this is a scary time--the economy has tanked; I am hopeful about our president-elect, but I recognize that there are many who are not. So be it.

But scary times are not the times to make the easy choices; scary times are not the times to cut missions and to fail to protect people through those missions and through our choices. We must make hard choices and they need to be creative ones. They must be creative. They must be thoughtful and they must look toward a future that is not ours but that of successive generations. That creativity will demand change and demand difference--and that's okay.

Different isn't bad; it's just different.

And it isn't just my church, which is merely a microcosm, it's the whole freaking shebang. Scary times call for creative, ethical spirit and hope for the future, not retreating into the building and hoping it will all be okay.

*Currently have students writing on anarchy; I'm very excited about their opinions on the matter. Very astute thinkers, my group.

**I'll say it now, before you read the works cited list: yes, I am a dork.

Works Cited

O'Hara, Craig. The Philosophy of Punk. San Francisco: AK Press, 1999.

Warner, Brad. Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, & Dogen's Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye. Novato: New World Library, 2007.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veteran's Day

Happy Veteran's Day seems an awfully odd phrase--we invoke happiness here?

Taddyporter captures Vet's Day far better than I. Read well:

The dubya regime of chickenhawks and warmongers has exploited veterans' love of this country and pride in their service for a program of propaganda and coercion. We are told we must support the occupation of Iraq to honor the service of those who have fallen there.The country has rejected this lie. We have issued orders to our new leaders to end the occupation and get us the fuck out of Iraq. How that is done, we leave to them. We require only that it be done speedily and without further damage to our strategic position. The right will resist. They will wave the bloody shirt. They will invoke the memory of our sacred dead. Once again, its down to the triarii. Veterans can stand against this blasphemy the same way they have stood against our enemies. They can tell the story; how our mighty Armed Forces are the Shield of the Republic and must not be wasted on adventurism and buccaneering.Soldiers and sailors of the Republic! We salute you! Now, once more, veterans Up Front!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Post-English Major Concerns

As every English and Literature major knows, the most fun one can possibly have is reading the titles and subjects of conference panels, with MLA often providing the best bits of hilarity. Over the past few years, talks on alien sex have been prominent there and also food theory (one of my colleagues submitted a proposal to one such panel and was informed that her paper lacked sufficient "theoretical basis."* On food in literature. Seriously.)

Indeed, this is occasionally the only fun we are provided with.

But, my choice for Best Panel Title this year comes not from the realm of the truly weird, but merely the concisely put. So, from College Language Association's Call for Papers for 2009, I give you this:

“Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow”: Black Men’s Political Writings"

Now, my friends...quoting Funkadelic in an Academic forum...that is true beauty.

Of course, it also makes me wonder about our political and social climate--might we FINALLY see this in action?

* I mock only because I can. Great and worthy things can be said about food and, by extension, hunger in literature. Read Kafka's "Hunger Artist" because you should if you haven't and because it is a text that begs for explorations of hunger (duh). BUT, as with so many of our small stakes in literary theory, the dismissiveness regarding theory was out of line with the significance of the subject.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Dreams, redux

Melissa Etheridge is pissed and folks are assuming that she won't pay taxes now (not exactly what she said). What she said is:

Okay. So Prop 8 passed. Alright, I get it. 51% of you think that I am a second class citizen. Alright then. So my wife, uh I mean, roommate? Girlfriend? Special lady friend? You are gonna have to help me here because I am not sure what to call her now. Anyways, she and I are not allowed the same right under the state constitution as any other citizen. Okay, so I am taking that to mean I do not have to pay my state taxes because I am not a full citizen. I mean that would just be wrong, to make someone pay taxes and not give them the same rights, sounds sort of like that taxation without representation thing from the history books.

And she goes on to imagine not paying them, sort of. It's a rant; what she will do is up to her and, good grief, focusing on the taxes part rather misses the point of the rant: civil rights and equal treatment.

Go, Melissa. You are at your best when you are angry, woman. Get 'em.

For the rest of you, particularly if you haven't considered the realities of the "yes" vote in CA to Proposition 8, please take a few minutes to read Ding's take on the matter.

Now, I don't live in Cali and haven't for, oh, 31.5 years or so, but it is where I was born, and I am rather fond of it. Breathing my first breaths in California, my mother has occasionally told people, is the primary reason behind my liberal notions. She can't begin to imagine where else such ideas would have come from. *shaking head*

So, I tend to pay a good bit of attention to California politics (and Virginia as well, since I spent my formative years there--proud of the Old Dominion right now). As happy as I am about the outcome of the national election, I am troubled by this Proposition's outcome, for many of the same reasons Ding cites, and the following one in particular:


I couldn't possibly say it any better than this.

Also, the ease with which amendments can be made to state constitutions (and the frequency with which they show up--we had some real oddities regarding tax law even here)...yikes.

So, go read, my friends.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Beautiful Dreams

I cried tonight, watching the election returns come in, mostly when I saw the kids at Morehouse College celebrating. I wish I could see Norfolk State right now; I'm with you in spirit Spartans.

This is indeed a day of magic. Tomorrow, the work begins anew.

Never forget the work we must do in support of equality and justice. Never quiet the call; never shrink from the difficult choices. Never forget who came before us; never forget who stood beside us and who turned away afraid--we must reach out to them all. We cannot remain a nation divided. Most of all, never forget the ones who will come long after we are gone. We build our dreams for them.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Alert: Sex Tied to Teen Pregnancy!


In light of my recent comments regarding images vs reality and the importance of critical thinking skills, I present you with this article from MSNBC (though they were not alone in reporting on this study). As you see, the article discussed the ramifications of sex on TV and the potential correlation to teen sex (and pregnancy, more specifically). The original study, by the RAND Corporation, can be found here, though you'll have to connect to Pediatrics if you want to read more than the abstract.

I find this study conceptually flawed because I really don't buy that the images on TV are themselves destructive. Does this mean I advocate showing porn to kids as sex ed (see Duff's "Get in the Ring" post for clarification on this remark), no, of course not. Does this mean I am personally comfortable with the soft core that pretends to be teen TV sometimes? No, I'm not, but not because I think the images of teens engaging in sexual behaviors of various stripes are inherently dangerous.

Here's the problem I'm having: certainly the study makes clear that myriad reasons undergird each teen pregnancy, but demonizing popular culture seems wrongheaded. Sure, teens can get some wickedly bad ideas from TV (or music or whatever), and if they haven't been provided with the tools to THINK about what they are seeing or hearing, then, yes, problems can arise. Somewhere in here we need to give kids the resources and wherewithal to choose as wisely as possible, and, then, we have to step back.

Some of them will screw up, no matter what we teach.

I was one of those cases. I knew the difference between reality and fantasy; I knew how to use protection and where to get it. I just didn't. I wasn't trying to get pregnant, and I had no illusions that a baby would "make everything better." I was far too nihilistic for that; in many ways, pregnancy was merely one more attempt at self-destruction for me. I am fortunate that I had the support that I did with my choices, so that I am still here, pontificating on this blog and raising a tough-guy, whose life was more difficult than was strictly necessary, since his mother was (and is) still growing up during these formative years.

Here's what I kept thinking while reading the articles: we aren't putting responsibility where it most strongly belongs. Parents and schools and communities must educate. Pop culture? It shapes and reflects, true, but education and critical thinking can mitigate the problems presented by pop culture, surely. Make no mistake about it; teens bear the responsibility for their choices. And they must shoulder it. I knew perfectly well what chances I was taking when I got pregnant with my son, and I accept that I was the one who made those choices, in conjunction with his father. Not our parents. Not our schools. Not the popular images we were exposed to.

TV does not lead to pregnancy; sex does.

Most of the time, teen girls get pregnant because they failed to use protection or used it improperly (wrong time, skipped pills, etc). This is a direct correlation of events...the behavior exhibited by the teens themselves. In addition to coaching teens (of all genders) on responsible use of protection, adults (parents, teachers, whomever) must teach these kids how to think! What they see on TV does not have to translate to anything other than entertainment.

Rant over. For now, at least.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Rock N' Role Models

I'm working on another post about Fairy Tales and Rock, but I had to get this off my chest. Duff's most recent blog inspired a host of comments from the masses, and, inevitably, the "role model" card was tossed on the table. For the record: I don't buy into the responsibility of the celebrity/role model bit; each of us has to consider critically who we are drawn to, why we are drawn to him or her, and, most importantly, how media transmits the image of that person. We cannot assume that we "know" our celebrity role models; we get only snapshots from which we can glean a piece of an image, but not a whole person. If we fail to recognize the relationship between the image and reality, we run the risk of believing a fantasy or, worse, demonizing people for having human failings.

For instance, I've mentioned before that I wanted to be Duff (sort of--gender not withstanding) during the GNR heyday--the badass drunk punk with a wicked sense of humor.

Sure, why not?

But even in the midst of my "alter-universe" of teenage years, I recognized the problems his image presented in reality. He was bitterly and painfully addicted to alcohol and a host of illicit substances, even as much as he made fun of himself for it during the AFD years. Videos and concerts and, usually, interviews depicted a man living out an incredible fantasy. But, I could see the difference between what showed up on "my mama's TV screen" in his grins in "Welcome to the Jungle" and what was likely the reality. Granted, some of this awareness is due in no small measure to McKagan himself, as image versus reality is a topic he has discussed at great length over the years, nearly always beginning with the remark: I'm not a rock star. Maybe I was fortunate that my hero of the day was so direct about his own shortcomings; how many times did he say over the years that he wasn't going to live past 29?

I used to cringe when he'd show up to interviews so totally wasted as to be unable to string together a coherent conversation. I'm probably going to be excommunicated by the Duff Fan-world for saying the next bit, but there are parts of Believe in Me I simply cannot listen to because he is so drunkenly off-key. "Lonely Tonite" comes to mind readily. I love "Fucked Up (Beyond Belief)," but I've also been known to call it the poster child for "This is Your Brain; this is your Brain on Drugs" because it is fabulous during the instrumental first half...then, bless his heart, he starts singing. Granted, "Punk Rock Song" is one of my favorites, and he's not exactly "on" throughout it, but, hell, what punk songs were totally on? The album, though, does not really capture what he was capable of creatively, hamstrung as it is by his then virulent addictions. I recognized the problems his party-boy life and attendant addictions raised, even then.

I knew he could do better; I had heard him sound better ("Attitude," anyone?), so the album was a considerable disappointment . Now, Beautiful Disease and Dark Days...totally different story. Check out what he's up to now, too. He's still my hero, for some strikingly different reasons than when I was 15, though the badass punk with a wicked sense of humor is still quite relevant. Nevertheless, I can't ask that he be responsible for my holding him up as hero because it is my choice to do so, not his.

I suppose that it is remarkably easy to get caught up in the possibilities that role models/celebrities of various stripes present. I don't ask myself "What Would Duff Do," because first, that would just be a silly-as-hell way of living my life, and second, because I don't know him or what he would do in a given situation. I could imagine his response, I suppose, based on lyrics or blog posts and so forth, but these are all still projections of an image. I imagine, for instance, he would be disconcerted by the "hero" bit, but I really have no idea. Projections don't act of their own volition; presumably, however, I do. I am not an alcoholic because of Duff McKagan; I am an alcoholic because of my own choices, drinking in spite of the fact that I knew good and well that I have more than a couple of addicts on the family tree.

Furthermore, with respect to the commenter's (and several others who suggested similar notions) point, sure, McKagan lived his vices openly, which means his Internet-connected daughters have access to that youth--more so than most of our children. I imagine that the old stand-by conversation of "but look what you did as a teen, dad" could be hellacious in the McKagan household, but, based on his pattern of directness in interview situations, I imagine (again) that he's pretty straightforward on such matters. But, who knows? Most parents have memories we'd rather our kids had no access to; heaven knows that is true for me. But, more often than not, the "big ones" have had consequences that our kids are already aware of. My son and I have a pretty open conversation on the matter of teen sex, in no small part because I was 18 when he was born. What am I going to do...pretend I was somehow innocent? The McKagan kids may have more ready access into Dad's life (and remember, he long said he expected to be dead by 29, so there was potentially no expectation that kids would "someday read this," but he also said he wanted to be clean before having kids. Glad the first was an incorrect presumption and that the second came to fruition. Kudos, Duff) than the average teen, but it doesn't necessarily make the myriad talks any more or less difficult.

Yeah, GNR had quite an effect on my youth and the ways in which I imagined the world, but I had the facility to separate image and reality. The ability to recognize such critical distinctions is what needs to be cultivated, rather than castigating celebrities who fall apart in front of us or celebrating ones who do not (because, in truth, we may just be shielded from the realities of their lives).

Friday, October 24, 2008

Rock N' Roll Fairy Tales

Once upon a time, a naive young scholar wrote a Master's Thesis on Walter Benjamin and Opera. In the course of preparing said thesis, the scholar found herself gravitating toward Mozart's Die Zauberflöte coloratura, the Queen of the Night. The final product did not delve into her initial concerns about the figure, as the committee was far more interested in the theory of allegory than in the reinvention of the figure of the witch-woman in Mozart and later operas. Naive though she was, said scholar was not stupid and chose to complete the thesis on allegory and opera, rather than following the development of the Queen in later texts.

So, the Queen has been resting quietly for some 7 or 8 years now, and I think she's ready to make her return. Sort of.

Queen, if you’ve never met her (and you should), is a rather complex and, let’s be charitable, unpredictable character. During the intermission, she undergoes a transformation that moves her from what first appears to be a worried, if controlling, mother-figure to a manipulative bitch, the BPD mother from hell. She manages to embody the mother/bitch role in a single opera, though admittedly, this could be a failing on the part of the librettist, Emil Schikaneder, as much as a plot device: if you pay too careful attention, the Queen’s character makes no sense. She is, of course, a coloratura role, and such roles are conventionally associated with the psychologically unstable, but the transformation between acts is almost untenable, even by coloratura standards (heh, that was a fun phrase).

The figure of the Queen as damaged mother reappears throughout opera’s major female roles; again and again we meet the figure of a fallen or defeated woman, many of whom embody the most beautiful tones of their respective works. Catherine Clement, in her Opera, or the Undoing of Women, associates the gorgeous songs with the elimination of language for the women, particularly for Queen: “She speaks a language that terrifies and seduces, but do we have any idea at all what she is saying? She speaks not at all to reason…Coloratura is repetition stretched out on a flashy melody, in a register where the voice can do no more than emit—meaningless syllables, note after note” (73). Attempts to communicate while disassociated from languages are endemic to feminist text—see Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper” for a particularly noteworthy example. As for opera’s women, we watch the figure follow Benjamin’s prediction: “Prostitution…appears to contain the possibility of surviving in a world in which the objects of our most intimate use have increasingly become mass-produced…the woman herself becomes an object which is mass produced” (40). By the time we arrive at Berg’s Lulu, the bold figure is a prostitute.

So, I was thinking about the Queen and wondering recently about the imagined-female figures in 80s rock, where we find a great many completely voiceless, mass-produced women, and it dawned on me that she’s still around in my musical habits. I’m going to begin with the lyrics by all-male bands, but I will turn to the female groups as well, eventually (I never worked through female-composed operas…I need to do that sometime). I’ve identified several figures within 80’s rock, but I’ll begin with the one who seemed most prevalent and who charted highest: the Fallen Angel. She’s not a new addition to our modern consciousness; the good girl gone wrong (even Queen follows that trajectory in her attempts to keep Pamina from doing so) is endemic to literature and music: the simple soul taken advantage of, the prostitute with the heart of gold, and so forth. The 1980’s glam period of rock is replete with mythologies that are at once misogynistic and homophobic, and yet simultaneously androgynous. One myth particularly omnipresent in post-punk glam lyrics and videos is that of the “fallen angel”: the sweet young girl (usually Midwestern) who arrives in the big city (usually Los Angeles) only to have her dreams of stardom corrupted. We’ll look at three sets of lyrics and videos from the period: Ratt’s “Dance,” Poison’s “Fallen Angel” (duh), and Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle*.” Scores of others exit—feel free to suggest.

The first of the standard markers is the establishment of the innocence/naivety of the featured “angel,” who is most often a “small town girl” with big dreams about (usually) Hollywood. Take young Susie, from Poison’s “Fallen Angel,” who begins her video career at her family dinner table. She is a stereotypical pretty blond, looking for a way out of what is, at least according to the lyrics, her small town life. The lyrics describe her initial arrival as “she stepped off the bus out on to the city streets/Just a small town girl with her whole life packed in the suitcase by her feet” (Poison). Her innocence is further confirmed by her apparent bafflement in the face of the Hollywood’s reality: “But somehow the lights didn’t/ Shine as bright as the did/On her Mama’s TV screen” (Poison). The term “mama” and the failure to recognize the difference between the real city and the imagined one serve to paint her as the innocent arrival. Ratt’s angel has a similar arrival, coming off a “Greyhound bus,” the young woman is “not a big city girl” but has “dreams to make it big” and “have [her]self some fun” (Ratt). Unlike Poison, Ratt’s video does not feature the Angel (though it may be featuring the “fallen” ones; the video is primarily about the band, not the song’s story); instead, the video features scores of women bouncing to Ratt’s joyful beat, all the while being ogled by the men in the club. Of the three narratives, Guns N’ Roses presents the most unusual motif; in the video, the fallen angel is Axl himself, rather than the young woman referenced in the song’s lyrics. Unlike “Fallen Angel” and “Dance,” “Welcome to the Jungle” does not specifically make reference to the innocence of the angel tempted by the city, though she is apparently a fairly recent arrival, given that the lyrics suggest that she “can taste the bright lights/but [she] won’t get them for free” (Guns N’ Roses). The video, on the other hand, prominently features Axl’s “hick” arrival, complete with hayseed in teeth; Susie (no, I don’t know why I insist on calling her that***) likewise arrives in Hollywood, right off the bus. The images are remarkably similar, so much so that I would love to suggest that the Guns were poking fun at Poison, but the video for “Jungle” was shot nearly a year before “Fallen Angel.”

The second marker is the city itself and its deceptive practices that will eventually corrupt the angel. Poison suggests that the imaginary images that lured Susie to Hollywood in the first place collapse quickly, leaving her aware that “The work seems harder/ the days seem longer/ than she’d ever thought they’d be” (Poison). Later, she "turns her back on her best friends and let[s] her family slip away," while becoming "just like a lost soul/so caught up in the Hollywood scene...hiding all of her pain/trading her memories for fortune and fame" (Poison). The city, acting the part of Mephisto, draws her in first with the television images and keeps her with the "scene": the "parties and limousines" (Poison). Ratt's girl appears to fare somewhat better, though loneliness is similarly present: "It's getting late to worry 'bout a date/Still you have no one/Twist of fate you know it's too late/you turn on everyone" (Ratt). Of course, this angel need only "Dance" to eliminate her loneliness, whereas Susie ends up (in the video) riding off with motorcycle-taxi driver Bret. In "Jungle," the city's deceptions are omnipresent, and there appears to be little chance of escape (both in the lyrics and the video) except through madness or--perhaps--drug-induced escape (the video opens with drug-dealer Izzy attempting to sell to young Axl and ends with Axl, now all glammed up, walking away from a bank of TVs--yes, for the first MTV generation, TVs were quite the deceptive little devils, weren't they?-- that had formerly been featured behind a drunken Slash). The city, in "Jungle" makes any desire readily available (as is apparently true in "Fallen Angel"), providing "whatever you may need/if you got the money honey/we got your disease" (GNR). Later, we hear that the city will "make you bleed" and you'll "learn to live like an animal" before it "bring[s] you down" (GNR).

As the Mephistophelean images of the city might suggest, the Faust-angels can be redeemed or damned, based on choices they make or the overall assumptions of each lyricist and videographer. Susie, once again attired in her small-town sweater, is apparently rescued by motorcycle riding Bret (well, perhaps rescued--I think we're meant to see him as the prince, rather than the devil. He is wearing red and sunglasses, after all), which flies in the face of the lyrics, wherein "when her ship came in/she wasn't there and it just wouldn't wait" (Poison). Ratt's dancer apparently needs only to dance, where she'll "never be alone" (Ratt). "Jungle," of course, ends with a threat--that "you're gonna die," and the transformation (via electroshock therapy) of the Axl-angel seems to suggest the same. The Axl-angel we initially meet, who refuses Izzy-dealer's advances, is apparently dead and gone, replaced by the harder and more made-up Axl that ends the video; this Axl has experienced the violence and other treats the city has to offer**.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that these women are "Queens of the Night," but their dual roles of angel/whore do seem to emulate the dual role she played, and, as constructs of masculine fantasies, these angels are even more "unvoiced" than their predecessor. I plan to look into the constructions of femininity in other 80's glam lyrics, especially those of female bands, in the not too distant future. Our fairy tales, it would seem, haven't come particularly far.

*No one will be surprised to note that I find this one to be the most interesting.

**All of the band members appear in the "Story." Slash, as I mentioned, is drunk on the street, and Steven and Duff appear in a room with Axl (who is consumed by TV) and a woman with whom Steven is sharing a bed. Now, exactly what the scence is meant to indicate is a tad unclear. Yes, it's obvious what Steven's getting up to, and Axl is having his breakdown, but WTF is Duff doing in there?

Edit to add:
***Well, glory be, I remembered why I keep calling her Susie. It's the actresses' name. Go figure.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osbourne. New York: Verso, 1998.

Clement, Catherine. Opera, or The Undoing of Women. Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1988.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Open Letter to My Stepmother


I realize that I've not seen you in more than 13 years, nor have I had any contact with you of any sort in nearly as long, but you are, to paraphrase a bad song, often on my mind. I wonder what has become of you since my father's death: where you went, what happened in your career...who you've grown into, I suppose.

When I walk through major airports, I nearly always wonder if I will see you there. Sometimes, I look around, kind of hoping I will; other times, I hide my eyes, praying that I will not. A silly game, I recognize, but one that has remained constant in my adult life.

I don't know if you wonder about me or about my son, my father's grandson. Your step-grandson, when it comes down to it, though we never established any relationship of that sort, and I have no clue whether you would identify him as such or not. Perhaps this is more telling of our relationship than any of the anecdotes that periodically wander through my head. S. is 14 now, in 9th grade, and is a Cadet Private First Class in J.R.O.T.C. He's a dead ringer for my father; my grandmother is quite taken aback by the resemblance. I'm 33, an English Professor and College Administrator, and I am married, though not to S.'s father. My husband, G., has two sons.

Yes, I am a stepmother. And this, Peggy, is part of why you are often on my mind.

I've written letters in my head before, each one full of anger and recriminations, the lingering holdovers from my angsty teen years. But, this letter is to say thank you, because I learned more from you than my teen-life would have credited you with and, perhaps, more than you could have imagined.

My relationship with my stepsons is necessarily different from the one you and I shared, including the gender differences--I imagine that teen stepdaughters are quite different from my teen stepsons, Lord knows I was. That I was a teenage stepdaughter alone necessitates apologies, just for the level of drama. Of course, I managed more drama than most, I think. Secondly, my stepsons live with me a little more than half the time, whereas I usually saw you for at most four days a month, so our lives are considerably more intertwined. I drive them to school on the days they are with us, and I am at least partially involved in the day-to-day upbringing, since we are under the same roof.

When G. and I first met, our boys were 7,7, & 5 (each of us contributing a 7 year-old); I was almost 12, I think, when I first met you. Again, a pretty substantial difference. G. & I married two years later; I think I was...16 when you and Dad married? I don't recall, but that sounds about right...I know it was the year he had the first surgery, so maybe I was only 15.

The differences don't mean that I don't reflect on my experiences as the stepchild when I interact with the boys. At first, I thought I would be "Super Stepmom," crashing in to save the day. Everyone was good with this except, well, me, in the end. I had always thought of the distance between us as part of the "I don't want to be your mother" thing, but, I think I misunderstood what you meant by that when I was a teen. I had a mother; my stepsons have a mother. They don't need another one. Someone else to talk to? Sure. I've held my youngest stepson through his first encounter with grief, when neither of his parents could be there. I've waited (and waited) for buses to return to the school from field trips with my oldest stepson, so that G. could put youngest to bed. So, I took a page from your playbook--step back, observe, give advice, but don't get in the middle unless asked.

Now, that's not to say you always chose that role. We don't discuss child support and other financial issues in front of the kids in large measure because of the horror I felt when you chose to do so. We don't talk about their mother--especially not in the negative--because...yes, you chose to talk about mine and to send threats to her through me. But, I thank you for this too. You were doing the best you knew how to retain any semblance of control in a terribly chaotic situation. Would I handle it in the same way? No, but I can see now why you did.

What was it like for you, when you met my mother and I? Did you realize the level of craziness you would be subjected to, given my father's calm (at least, that is my impression of him)? You married a man with a nearly out-of-control teen daughter and an unmedicated bipolar ex-wife. Dear God, the drama you encountered. And that was just the immediates. Did he give you any clue?

Peggy, thank you for trying to do what you could with me, despite my unwillingness to accept your overtures and my terrible case of affluenza. Thank you for trying to protect my father from the drama as he died, though, again, I disagreed with your methodology. I know you were grieving, probably frightened, and we were so overwhelming at times. I am sorry that I did not take the opportunity to learn more from you; I imagine you would have been a fantastic career role model, having moved up the ranks in the military as you did.

Realistically, you'll never see this; I have no idea where you are, what you are doing, or even if you are still on this earth, but I waited far too long to say these things already. Thank you, I'm sorry, and I forgive you. I hope you have a fantastic life.

Your Stepdaughter

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My Life is an Alanis Morrisette Song

Which, means, I suppose, that my life is also good, old fashioned kitsch. Ah, Bliss.

Orrr....I'm eternally boring. Feel free to take your pick.

'Twas driving somewhere recently, and decided that I needed to listen to something other than Amy Ray and/or Guns N' Roses for just a bit. The driving gods seemed to be dictating a foray into Jagged Little Pill. You'll recall this album, I'm sure, due to it's most famous song--that Angry 90's Chick tune, "You Oughta Know." Or, perhaps you are familiar with it because some really obnoxious English teacher or journalist insisted on pointing out that while the song "Ironic" may have a few moments of cosmic irony embedded (not the least of which would be the title, assuming she was being thoughtful on the matter), that "black flies in chardonnay" are not, in truth, ironic. Gross? Yes. Annoying? Without question. Ironic? No.

And, I'm guilty of ranting about this song in class myself. And, friends, that is not what this post is about. The subject at hand is far, far worse. You see, I fondly remember the 90s and being one of those angry 90s chicks, though I lacked the great Alanis hair, and, as I already had a kid, I was rather...ummm...required to be somewhat more mature in my actions than some of my sisters, but, damn it, I identified with Alanis. I was the moron who really believed that her much older boyfriend "was the one," and that he wouldn't return to his ex if given the opportunity. Because, you (oughta) know, what he really wanted was a 20-something college student as life partner.


Anyhoo, I was listening to the lyrics, as I am in the habit these days of searching for explication songs to inflict on my students, and during "Hand in My Pocket," the horrible, sinking feeling began. Perhaps you've felt it before--the overweening identification with a set of lyrics that manages to be more neurotic than enlightening? Let's examine the facts for a moment.

First, it was this set of lyrics that grabbed me and shook me out of my drivetime reverie of lost 90s youth and frivolity:

What it all comes down to/ Is that I haven't got it all figured out just yet/ I've got one hand in my pocket/ And the other one is giving the peace sign

Now, any of you who know me IRL see where this is going, because there are few lyric sets that are more descriptive of me than this. I sign my freaking emails with "peace," for heaven's sake. Trotting out the explication: what we seem to be getting at here is that the "one hand" is symbolic for what we don't see or know. Interesting point-of-view here, as "we" could be hiding some part of ourselves (the hand) from someone else, or, as the "figured it out just yet," the naivety is all ours and the hidden hand is what we don't know (about ourselves).

Am I reading way too much into Morrissette here? Onward...

The song is (mostly*) built on a series of apparent contradictions, ones that probably describe the lives of most young folk: high/grounded, sane/overwhelmed, green/wise, and so forth. So, what we see here are my own wanderings into nostalgia--those days of happy poverty, don't you know? The lyrics wax ecstatic over the loose freedom of youth, which, since I was a teen mother, I really didn't experience, so I recognize that my life was not an Alanis Morrissette song; rather, I tended to use her lyrics as some kind of marker for my reality in my early 20s. I was certainly "green," but I had to be "wise," because I was responsible for a life other than my own.

"You Oughta Know" works in fundamentally the same way, recalling those angry days of youth when I was so self-righteous as to believe that I DESERVED him because I was me and because I was too scared (fear being the point of origin for most anger) to actually do or say anything to protect myself. The speaker of the lyrics, embodied by Morrissette, was pissed off enough and (maybe) strong enough to say and--perhaps--do something, even if the lyrics did have that vaguely uncomfortable, familiar obsessive feeling to them.**

Morrissette epitomized the voice of the 20-something woman still searching for her voice; the albums lyrics move from vapid to angry to sappy to, occasionally, provocative, rather like the average 20-something (especially those early 20-somethings--I think I was 20 when the song came out). And I started this post with the intention of making all manner of fun. Ah well.

What I realized in my insipid car-moment: "Hand in my Pocket" is still my public face, more or less (green/capable, and so forth), and "All I Really Want" (anyone who thought "You Oughta Know" was the premier angry chick song did not listen to this one carefully enough) is still the me that runs around my brain and provokes blogs such as this and the iZazen business I mentioned a few weeks ago. That me would like to be more provocative, yet she is still quite stifled by the hand that stays firmly in pocket. Goal for the decade: hand out of pocket.

In "researching" this post, I found this reading of the significance of Morrissette by BadCoverVersion; I so want to take her class. She reminded me of something, though. One part of the "YOK" lyrics that stood out to so many people was the "go down on you in a theater" bit. Public risky business as proof of...what? strength? The lyrics represent a brief diversion into raunch culture, but I am not sure what to make of that, as the other lyrics don't really follow up. I wonder how many of us believed that sexual behavior was power at that age...

Which leads me to my favorite song, which seems oh-so-very significant in light of the last. For those not already aware, my favorite song--okay, one of them-- is GNR's (I know you saw that coming) "It's So Easy." Now, it happens that the music (especially the rythym section) of the song is the root of my affection, not the lyrics, but the lyrics are worth noting. Now, like "YOK," "Easy" is a fairly angry tune. And it is nothing if not viciously misogynistic, particularly in the end, with the remark "Turn around bitch, I got a use for you"*** Yet, it is one of this self-described feminist's favorite songs; I even sing along as I drive.

I was given Appetite for Destruction for my 13th birthday, after falling head-over-heels (as rising thirteen-year-olds are wont to do) in love with "Welcome to the Jungle." Now, I liked "Sweet Child," but it was "Welcome" that made me sit down and take notice of GNR. Then, I got the album with the lovely "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics" sticker. The first time I listened to it, I didn't hear the explicit lyrics, captivated as I was by the raw, angry drive of the music. I think I even voiced that to my friend Carolyn at the time, but I might have just thought "hey, I didn't hear anything explicit." Ahem.

So, the second time, I listened to the lyrics...and quickly realized that if I ever dreamed of playing my favorite tune in front of my mother, I would lose life, limb, and every pursuit of happiness I have ever imagined. And then some. So, to the best of my memory, I never played all of Appetite in her presence. Especially not "Easy."

So, at 13, I was attracted to a song that celebrates the L.A. women that supported the GNR gang (and heaven knows how many other bands), and, for their money and homes, were in turned into stars of a sexual fantasy in which the man (lyricist/speaker) recognizes that he doesn't have to do any more than simply exist in order to get laid:

I see your sister in her Sunday dress/She's out to please/She pouts her best/She's out to take/No need to try/She's ready to make/It's so easy, easy [emphasis mine]

Axl once remarked that "Easy" was a "hippie rah-rah ya-ya" song (explain to me WTF that means, please), until he got hold of it. Okay....

Anyway, this is the example of ideal woman that I exposed myself to--and, to be fair, it is only one ideal--the whore-->"Sweet Child" posits the other ideal--the fair-haired virgin (the woman who was Axl's muse for "Sweet Child" is also the whore in some stories about "You're Crazy," so make of all of this what you will). The same woman returns in "Nightrain":

Wake up late honey put on your clothes/Take your credit card to the liquor store/ That's one for you and two for me

And, she appears in "My Michelle" as well.

And in my 20s, the angry woman of "YOK," who sells her importance because she's willing to "go down on you in a theatre." Imagine that.

This is not to say that I think for a moment that the GNR lyrics of my youth somehow shaped the decisions I later made; I don't think I've ever credited music with that much power, but I find the images I gravitated toward rather fascinating, and I wonder what motivated those attractions, other than really groovy bass lines, particularly in light of the images I would gravitate toward later (and all of which are becoming fragments of my nostalgia now).

This turned into way more serious pondering than I intended, and it probably warrants a bit of follow up at sometime. How do these images shape us?

*"Mostly" because "short" and "healthy" are hardly mutally exclusive or even contradictory. Likewise for "poor" and "kind."

** She wasn't alone. Pay enough attention to Melissa Etheridge's oeuvre--"Your Little Secret," "Come to My Window," and the like, and you will see a decidedly similar vein. Morrissette's "Your House" is even more frightening than "YOK," when you get right down to it.

***So much easier to believe that Rose wrote that part, but I've heard McKagan's "Cornshucker"--it's not like he wasn't perfectly capable of that kind of verbal abuse, even if he tended to be tongue-in-cheek about the whole thing.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Riddle Me This...

Why is it the first reaction on the part of many as the economy (slows, sours, tanks-->choose your verb according to your situation), the first instinct is to (fire, let go, cut back-->again, take your pick) social servants such as social workers and ministers? I mean, WTF?

The state economy here has "become strained," so in my work, travel has been cut back (no biggie there, necessarily) and pay raises have been threatened; notably, the final action with regard to raises will happen after Election Day.

Surprise, surprise.

And, meanwhile, the Gov was in Spain on an economic development trip. Um, hope it works?

Meanwhile, over at our local social services agency, workers have been required to take one day off a week without pay in order to cut costs. You know, because social workers need to be even more overworked and underpaid than they are. It isn't as if their caseloads will be likewise reduced by 20%. Haven't seen this hit the local papers yet...

First actions grumblings (and, in some cases, actions-->but budget season is just beginning) of local churches were to let go ministers, cut their time, and cut their benefits, which were so considerable to begin with, don't you know...And this, at the very time when such services (outreach, etc.) of be of greatest need. Members of my church want to kick AA out, because they "cost too much."

Again, I say, WTF?

Friday, October 10, 2008

History of "Punk"

Colleague Sam, who really should be counted as the culprit for many of my pontifications here, brought the following to mind recently. He walked in (in all fairness, I was in his office this time) and asked, apropos of nothing:

When did the meaning of "punk" change from meaning "prison bitch" to its current usage?
Call me dumbstruck. And, no, that's not a direct quote, but it is pretty close. So, Karen and I hopped on the ole Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to see what was what. And discovered that dear Sam was correct. Here's what we found:

1. A prostitute. Now rare (hist. in recent use).

2. a. Originally: a boy or young man kept by an older man as a (typically passive) sexual partner, a catamite (obs.). Later: a man who is made use of as a sexual partner by another man, esp. by force or coercion. Now chiefly Prison slang.
b. U.S. slang. A young male companion of a tramp, esp. one who is kept for sexual purposes.

3. U.S. slang.
a. (a) A person of no account; a despicable or contemptible person; (broadly) a person, a fellow (rare);(b) a petty criminal; a hoodlum, a thug.
b. A coward; a weakling.

4. U.S. slang.
a. An amateur; an apprentice
b. A young person, or a person regarded as inexperienced or raw. Also: a young circus animal.

Of course, I'm sure you would be stunned to discover that this never comes up in punk histories (the best online one I've found is here; he also mentions most of the books that I would recommend). Now, if we leave aside that my favorite moment is undoubtedly "a person of no account" and that I am specifically excluding the references to "punk rock" right now (which, at least according to the OED, came into use in or around 1971--Rolling Stone gets credit for the first such usage), we can first see that Sam was not merely trying to spin me up (well, he likely was, but that's another story); he was quite correct regarding earlier use of the term.*

In addition to my lives as mom, administrator, professor, and obsessive, I am, as an English major-type, an amateur linguist as well. My particular shtick is etymology--just ask my poor students who have been treated to the origins of various Sanskrit words and their relationship to Proto-Indo European. So, I started thinking about the shift that occurred to move from prostitute to "punk rock musician or fan."** From what I can tell (at least based on what the OED provides as examples and dates), the sexual meanings associated with "punk" were around as early as the 16th century, first used to mean "prostitute" in or about 1575 and to mean "passive male sexual partner" in or around 1698. Now, the conflation of terms here isn't particularly surprising, but it is worth noting that in both of the earliest uses, drunkenness is mentioned (we'll get to punk drunks in later editions).***

So, over the course of 400 years, the term shifts from "prostitute" and drunken, submissive male to punk--as in punk music? It is an interesting progression, and one worth exploring in more detail. So, I propose to do this in stages; we'll call it There and Back Again. Though I'm not sure how or when the adoption of the term took place (In '71, Rolling Stone probably was picking up on something else). What intrigues me is the close proximity of the old definitions and the new--the (un?)intentional overlaps in meaning.

For instance, the first meaning referenced in the second definition recalls the chickenhawks that coexisted with American punk (especially in L.A.)** And, heavens, who could forget the stories that were traded about the Go-Gos and Joan Jett, which pick up on similar themes of degradation. And I'm not sure that reliance on rumor versus truth is sufficient. As with all forms of popular music, one piece of the punk image was the sex (and sex was even more pointedly capitalized on by glitter rock before and glam after). Craig O'Hara devotes a good bit of time in his Philosophy of Punk to the relationship between sexuality and Punk, and no Darby Crash story is complete without references to sex and sexuality (including the beard used in Decline). Granted, sexuality and punk have been discussed in several books and articles already, but it is worth exploring here, so that will be Episode 2 of this History.

Episode 3 will pick up with the punk drunks and their stories, and, most likely, we'll wander into other addictions that permeated the scene. In the meantime, I'm going to root through some mags and 'zines to suss out when punk reappeared on the scene and from which region it came, because Mississippian Sam also pointed out that in the '50s definition 3 was oft employed in the South in reference to those chaps we now more often refer to as greasers; I think a study of the product relationship between greased hair and spiked is in order, don't you?

So, stay tuned dear readers, for we'll be seeing much from the likes Darby and his gang, the Pistols, and, perhaps, a drift down the lane to visit our friends Betty Blowtorch as we explore the developments away from degradation. And, of course, our hero Duff will make an occasional appearance, perhaps allowing us to peer from the edge of punk into glam for a spell.

* Such usage still exists in African American slang, according to the OED, though it appears to refer to any homosexual man (and, at that, appears to be fairly limited, at least in written material). It was also a term associated with hobo/railroad culture; punks were the young boys rumored to have been "kept as playthings" by hobos. The veracity of that 1973 claim is unclear for this blogger.

**This, my friends, is what I once called my "analytical nature." Don't be fooled; it's a compulsive, if charming and goofy, behavior. And, Sam knows this and thus was exploiting my obsessions. Blame him entirely.

***I realize that the words rhyme and than fact alone may account for the frequency with which they are used together.

****For a particularly mindbending fictional take on the punk/sex bit, take a look at What We Do is Secret by Kief Hillsbery; here's a sample. The novel contains the single best description of a mosh pit ever.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Speaking Discomfort

Many of you are probably already aware of this little bit of faculty ethics and free speech excitement over in Illinois. If you aren't, here's a few reactions: here, here, here, here and, oh what the heck, one more, here (particularly since this one underscores the oddity that BAM! grad student employees are now employees, not students, despite all the years of denying them that status).

Now that we are all up to speed, let's look at the issue a tad.

For what it is worth, I think this is the most ridiculous reading of ethics I've yet seen, and I have struggled with this particular issue rather directly as a college administrator. I agree with Sybil Vane (see first "here" above) that students desperately need to move past the belief that there is an inalienable right not to be offended. Then again, that's true of a great many faculty too; we are a reactionary bunch sometimes.

I, for one, think offense and discomfort are fabulous.

As AAUP pres, Cary Nelson, points out, "faculty often move back and forth between employee responsibilities and personal acts within the same time frame" (23 September 2008).* Such as, say, in this blog, where I direct my students for writing examples, but also include personal information. They'd be hard-pressed to miss my political and or religious leanings (I guess), but I also address such matters in class: I can agree with you and fail your paper, and I can disagree with you and still score the paper an A. My opinion and the quality of your writing, dear students, are entirely different subjects.

But, sometimes the knickers are in a twist for good reason. Personal remarks regarding religious and/or political beliefs in grading comments? Yeah, I can see how that would undermine a student's confidence in what was exactly was being assessed. Letters that proselytize--not so good. Gray area, but if in the classroom or using the roster to generate a mailing list, I'd still fall on the side of ethically murky (and did, when it came up)--at best. Office space is a bit personal...isn't it? I have family pictures and "wacky" posters and bumper stickers; none are particularly politically minded (I think...I'm sure some could be interpreted as such).

A button, T-Shirt, bumper sticker or participation in a rally? Such "ethical problems" (HA!) suggest that we also shouldn't have faculty sponsors for religious and/or politically affiliated student groups, yes? And, I would argue that those student groups (and rallies and what-have-you) are exactly the place for such engagement. Classroom (a closed environment) as bully pulpit? Of course not. Rallies (an open environment)? Sure, why not?

We are human beings after all. And, damn it, sometimes students need for us to be humans. Professor-people who are OCD or rape-victims or feminists or suicide survivors or teen moms or religious or who-knows what else; yes, you can be these things and still make it through to the next day AND engage in civil and sane conversation. And you can survive college, even in light of such. That's why I discuss some of my (we'll be generous here) idiosyncratic behaviors in this blog, because my students do have access to it--and they need to see that I am walking and talking the same shtick I use in class. I do write for the sake of practice; I do realize that life gets in the way of school, but I also got through those moments with a modicum of dignity and success intact.

And that goes for politics, too. Given the overall apathy of our student body, I rather enjoy seeing them get spun up about, well, anything, and allowing them to see that profs have political opinions and that (heavens above!) some of them might not even be "those damn liberals" that my students keep writing about. [Caveat: funniest admin moment last year-->two students came to see me ON THE SAME DAY to report that their professor (same professor) was overtly political and was therefore unfair. You see where this is going, right? Yes, one complained that said prof was clearly a right-wing nut and the other--same class!--that prof was clearly so far left that he couldn't possibly understand her.]

The ethical line for a state employee is nevertheless murky; when do we have to rein in our politics (or whatever) lest we accidentally or intentionally misuse the power relationship we share with students? I think what bothers me most about this conversation is the underlying assumption that differing beliefs means intolerance or unwillingness to accept diversity of opinion. That somehow my support of one candidate would translate to unfair grading practices or some other gross misuse of faculty power.

The assumption of that serious a division speaks volumes, and every one of them is pathetic.

*Favorite Cary Nelson moment: called the situation "bullshit."

Friday, September 26, 2008


This is a bit of a riff off one of slacktivist's regular posts.

I've discovered that while practicing zazen, my brain enjoys tuning into one song (usually) for the entirety of my twenty minutes. Now, I'd like to say that there is some great transcendental meaning to the song selections, but I'm afraid that is unlikely to be the case.

This is more mental jukebox (and who, exactly, has the nickels, I'd like to know), or, perhaps, as the title suggests, it's my "iZazen" on shuffle. This week's hits:

Sunday: "No More," Loaded
Monday: "Purple Rain," Prince
Tuesday: "Laramie," Amy Ray
Wednesday: ""Hey Castrator," Amy Ray and "Silent Legacy," Melissa Etheridge
Thusday: "Lucystoners," Amy Ray*

Now, the last four made perfect sense, as I had been (and am currently) listening to Stag this week, and I had played Yes I Am recently as well. I can't account for the Loaded tune, which I've heard all of twice--maybe three times--so far (as the EP doesn't hit here until next week), though I was checking out some fine pics of their show in Glasgow that night. And "Purple Rain" could be jealousy on my part, as Loaded apparently played it live the other night (oh, how I'd love to see that) and G. was talking about his niece's hatred of Prince that night as well, in response to my babbling about Loaded.

I have resisted giving too much attention to the songs, though they occasionally make me giggle. The mental musical shuffle is an interesting human habit, though. Germans (bless them) call it "Ohrwurm,"*** which translates exactly as you suspect dear readers: Earworm. I have a colleague, Sam, who often wanders into my office to ask if he is the only one with "such and such a song" in his head. Almost invariably, it is some wonderfully obscure and often obscene blues tune that he can then sing for me and anyone else who happens to be around; this is one of the joys of my job. Not a blues example (the names of which I seldom remember for long), but the other day he sauntered in asking if he was the only one with "Chocolate Jesus" playing on the mental jukebox. Safe to say, he was. On one occasion, we happened to have the same song. He didn't ask again for weeks.

In his fantastic This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, Daniel Levitin posits that the Ohrwurm is a result of the "neural circuits that represent a song [getting] stuck in 'playback mode,' and the song--or worse, a little fragment of it--[playing] back over and over again" (155). Moreover, he suggests that the song choices seem to be related on some level to the neurological mapping that forms in our teens years that tends to shape our musical tastes. Simple ditties and fragments of songs (often the refrain, I imagine) get stuck because of an apparent "predilection for simplicity"; we are driven crazy by the stuck moments, because, as he later suggests, when a musical piece is "too simple" or "too complex," we tend not to like it because it is either "trivial" or "too unfamiliar" (155; 235).

Consider the last for a moment (and Yes fans, please sit down. I know. I get it. It's delightfully complex with a hint of tobacco on the nose. You are the wine aficionados of the musical world. See, I said it. Don't really buy it, but I did say it, so calm down. That goes for you Rush fans as well). We tend toward the familiar (say, the songs of our teen years) and to the moderately complex (says the girl who got stuck on "Rise Above" last week), and my iZazen seems to be bearing this out. At the moment I sit and become quiet, the music (which is there anyway, I'm just not listening by that time) becomes obvious. Often, the songs are reflective of what I am listening to, but they also tend to emphasize what I am concerned about at a given moment. "Laramie" and "Silent Legacy" tend to pop up when I am concerned about Civil Rights--particularly for my gay brothers and sisters (which, given one of the current VP picks, I am right now); when I am angry or nervous, I often get GNR songs playing up there--in large measure because they are comforting--familiar-- to me. Sometimes, the songs are entirely random, but they do occasionally offer a bit of insight into my current state of mind (Note: stay out of my way if I'm singing anything by Godsmack. I had "Whatever" on the brain for almost the entire time I was fighting with my first major professor during my Masters Program).

I wonder if sometimes it would be worth meditating on whatever song came up during zazen practice, using them as an intuitive guide, rather than as random music in my head. That may be giving my brain more credit than is due, as we have often done with iPod shuffle, but it could prove to be an interesting exercise.

So, what are your most common Earworms?

*Best song ever for this practice. Really. And, apparently, I'm going to hear the whole of Stag before the month is out. I expect "Black Heart Today" to appear shortly. And, admit it, you totally expected that to be a list of GNR songs, didn't you?

**Duff is dressing like Simon LeBon in the early parts of the shows. I'm not sure what to do with that.

***According to Levitin, the folks most likely to be afflicted by what he calls "stuck song syndrome" are musicians (duh) and...wait for it....

Obsessive compulsives.

Really? Imagine that.

Works Cited

Levitin, Daniel. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science
of a Human Obsession
. New York: Penguin, 2006.