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."