Amoeblog

America Gets a Post-Racial: The Legacy of Lee Atwater

Posted by Charles Reece, August 30, 2009 10:03am | Post a Comment
The latest issue of The London Review of Books has an excellent essay, "What Matters," by Walter Benn Michaels (author of The Trouble with Diversity). In analyzing the recent arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Michaels answers my fellow blogger Eric's question of "who's black?" with another, more telling question: "who's poor?." To wit:

Gates, as one of his Harvard colleagues said, is ‘a famous, wealthy and important black man’, a point Gates himself tried to make to the arresting officer – the way he put it was: ‘You don’t know who you’re messing with.’ But, despite the helpful hint, the cop failed to recognise an essential truth about neoliberal America: it’s no longer enough to kowtow to rich white people; now you have to kowtow to rich black people too.

[...]

In the US, one of the great uses of racism was (and is) to induce poor white people to feel a crucial and entirely specious fellowship with rich white people; one of the great uses of anti-racism is to make poor black people feel a crucial and equally specious fellowship with rich black people. Furthermore, in the form of the celebration of ‘identity’ and ‘ethnic diversity’, it seeks to create a bond between poor black people and rich white ones. So the African-American woman who cleans my office is supposed to feel not so bad about the fact that I make almost ten times as much money as she does because she can be confident that I’m not racist or sexist and that I respect her culture. And she’s also supposed to feel pride because the dean of our college, who makes much more than ten times what she does, is African-American, like her. And since the chancellor of our university, who makes more than 15 times what she does, is not only African-American but a woman too (the fruits of both anti-racism and anti-sexism!), she can feel doubly good about her.

In the words of our first "post-racial" president's speechwriters, it's the economy, stupid (or, rather, the racially stupid economy -- even its staunchest proponents this side of Ayn Rand will tell you that capitalism is amoral). As the harbinger of racial peace through commercial success, a prescient Arsenio Hall managed to signify our current climate through one particular performance that bridged the old racial divide in popular culture, that of the poor black's blues and the poor white's country:


Randy Travis is what the corporate media like to call an "independent thinker," that is, neither strictly Republican, nor Democrat. Why, back in 1991, when Linda Accurso complained to the Federal Election Commission that Travis' televised performance of "Point of Light" was an unfair advertisement for George Bush, Sr., the FEC essentially ruled that, nope, the singer was operating on his own. This was despite the song being written at Bush's request, its sharing a poetic phrase with a popular speech of Bush's, and its video being produced by Bush's media consultant, Roger Eugene Ailes (now the American president of Fox News Channel). Surely, the song was just about promoting the everyman (and -woman) in our armed services. "If that ain't country ...."

And just like any good capitalist would recommend, B.B. King has always been more concerned with promoting the blues than any particular ideology. As told in Charles Sawyer's apologia, back in 1968, King responded to the question "What do you think of Ronald Reagan and what do you think of the Black Panthers?" with, "Well, I hear the Panthers feed breakfast to poor children and anyone who does that can't be as bad as they are made out to be [and] I think that Reagan was a pretty good movie actor." It was this sort of ideological independence that would result in King's celebration of his friend, the recently deceased Lee Atwater, aka the Boogie Man, at the Republican convention in 1991 (coincidentally the same year as the Travis fracas).


Atwater was the campaign adviser for Bush's 1988 successful bid for the presidency and he knew something about the kind of abstraction that could make anyone a fan of the blues (or country). Divorce it from its context, thereby making it an appealing product to anyone, regardless of ideology. Consider his take on the Southern Strategy:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can't say “nigger” -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “nigger, nigger.” -- from here

But never mind that, nor his use of the Willie Horton scandal, nor his help in devising the Revolving Door ad, Atwater was a big fan and promoter of the blues and black music in general and, most importantly, in abstracto (to which the above album with whom could be called "some of his best friends" attested). One might say he was our first post-racial politico, his racist campaign strategies having little effect on his aesthetics or the friends he kept. Is it cynical to suggest King (as well as Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes and the others lending their talents and credibility to Atwater's album) had more in common through his wealth and success with Atwater than with the people affected by the man's propaganda? Back in the early part of the 20th century, in the openly racist South, Hank Williams learned guitar from Tee Tot, a poor bluesman who played on the street. Then, at the beginning of our post-racial era, the blues and country came back together to appear on The Arsenio Hall Show, only this time represented by wealthy proponents of both genres. Since Atwater, even the Republicans have become more diverse, but along with Michaels, I ask, what does this progress really m

Watering (Down) the Avant-Garden: Pierre Henry and Sampling

Posted by Charles Reece, July 20, 2009 10:35am | Post a Comment

The recent issue of The Wire caught up with one of the fathers of sampling, musique concrète maestro Pierre Henry. He's been down on the contemporary state of electronic music for awhile. The article begins with a quote from a 1997 interview:

"Today I feel less inspired[.] We're living at a time where everything is controlled, planned and codified and even popular music isn't popular any more, it's imposed upon us."

And he's not any more positive now:

"I think it's a big mistake to call today's music electronic music[.] People do things with computers and samples but it's not the same approach as the way I work, or how Karlheinz Stockhausen worked in his electronic pieces. There is not the same craft, and it's not progress."

Suggesting by implication that the sound collages of El-P, the world creation of Tod Dockstader, Matmos' technological music, or even Björk's omnivorous use of the sounds she finds do not involve a high level of craft just seems wrong-headed to me. The "problem" was better stated in the older interview: codification. When a revolution takes place, there will then follow a prolonged period in which people work under the new order. Not everyone can be Chairman Mao (nothing's more ironic and true in this regard than Maoism -- the revolutionary figure par excellence was used as the ultimate criterion by which the subsequent potential equality of all others was to be judged). Thanks to the revolution of Mssrs. Henry, Stockhausen, Varese and Schaeffer, electronic music has now become a genre, whether Henry likes it or not. Why? Consider Thomas Kuhn's distinction between normal and revolutionary science as they pertain to working within what he called a paradigm:

Mopping-up operations are what engage most scientists throughout their careers. They constitute what I am here calling normal science. [Its] research is directed to the articulation of those phenomena and theories that the paradigm already supplies. [p. 24, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd Edition]

[S]cientific revolutions are here taken to be those non-cumulative developmental episodes in which an older paradigm is replaced in whole or in part by an incompatible new one. [p. 92, ibid.]

The paradigm is that relatively stable period in which scientists have an interpretative matrix through which discoveries are understood. As more and more anomalies are unable to be mapped onto (explained away by) the matrix, a scientific discipline will reach a crisis, at which point a revolutionary interpretation or discovery might be made which, with enough supporters, becomes a paradigm shift.

I'd suggest that something similar happens with genres of music -- or any art, really. A musical discovery, such as musique concrète, won't fit any known genre, or system, of music at first, and might even be irritating noise to the vast majority who encounter it, but once it begins to accrete followers, it's only a matter of time before its methodology is codified, and commercialized. That is, with an art form's acceptance comes the potential for market exploitation. Is there a better example of this than how William S. Burroughs' cut-up method can now be found at any check out lane at a corporate book store in the form of magnetic poetry? (Making literal Laurie Anderson's Burroughs-esque mandate: "You pick up the pieces. You connect the dots.") Through his own revolution, John Cage helped codify noise as music, which has now been turned into a trendy sub-genre of rock and roll -- likewise, Eliane Radique's explorations in drone.

The difference between scientific and musical revolutions is that sciences keep moving and genres begin to eat their own tails. Take Henry's approach to sampling:

"When I borrow material [...] it is to reconcile an existing form with new forms of today. I try to find connections between these older forms with the techniques that interest me now, and the form that emerges from that dialogue becomes the material of a piece."

I happen to believe bringing this formerly avant-garde method to pop culture -- as The Beatles, Zappa and hip hop did -- was an innovation in itself, but with sampling now our present day ontology, all subjects have become de-historicized, present without any attachment to time or place. Henry's historico-moral concern has been left to lawsuits, where borrowing is nothing more than making sure the "original creator" is paid. The "newness" had surely worn off by Fear of a Black Planet. With sampling now one of our fundamental forms, part of our Being, I don't much see how Henry or any artist could re-historicize subjects through the technique. The only "innovation" left to the artist is coming up with a sample no one else has used; the revolution is the order of things.

FAITH RESTORED

Posted by Charles Reece, June 14, 2009 10:53pm | Post a Comment

The above is the only remastered vinyl that I've been willing to pay 40 bucks for. What can I say? I'm still a fan, and it makes me pleased as punch to see these guys playing together again. But it's without these two:

    
Jim Martin                                   Chuck Mosley

I didn't much care about the band after guitarist Martin was given the boot, and still don't. So, here are my favorite songs from the Big Jim-era albums that Faith No More played live at the recent Download Festival in Donington Park, UK:

Introduce Yourself's "Chinese Arithmetic" (coupled with a version of "Poker Face" from someone named Lady Gaga -- she's popular, evidently):


The Real Thing's "From Out of Nowhere":


Angel Dust's "Midlife Crisis":


And while mining the web for info about the reunion, I found this 2005 interview with Metal Hammer (it's still around!), where Roddy Bottom, Billy Gould and Mike Patton dish on their erstwhile guitarist:

Bottum: “Jim Martin had always been very conventional in what he wanted to do with the band, very much a fan of guitar music only and metal specifically. During the recording of Angel Dust it became apparent to both him and us that we were heading in very different directions.”

Continue reading...

COULD SOMEONE DIRECT ME TO THE CROSSROAD?

Posted by Charles Reece, February 8, 2009 09:44pm | Post a Comment
I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
I went down to the crossroad
fell down on my knees
Asked the lord above "Have mercy now
save poor Bob if you please"
-- Robert Johnson, "Cross Road Blues"
Corporate-manufactured popular music aka The Mainstream is like a ninja, everywhere and yet hidden to me. The best place to hide from my ears is on the radio, out in the open. Thus, out of curiosity, I caught a bit of the Grammy Awards tonight. (It's still on as I write this: Smokey Robinson is currently teaming up with Jamie Foxx).  Here's something that I saw:
I've never been a fan of Stevie Wonder. In fact, I hold him responsible for the moribund course R&B has been on since he first appeared -- all that meaningless vocal gyration that's called winning on American Idol.  Just when I thought his music couldn't get any less soulful, he surprised me with the above. That's little Stevie performing with Generation Next's version of the Hanson Brothers. I'm guessing the Jonas Brothers are some spin off from a NIckelodeon or Disney Channel show.  Why is it that the more famous and successful a star gets, the more likely he or she has no concern for artistic integrity? I can understand why some up and coming bar band would be willing to sell one of their songs to an ad agency, but a rich artist who doesn't need the money? Hell, a Grammy appearance probably doesn't even pay, rather it's about exposure -- as if Stevie fucking Wonder needed exposure!  Anyway, his appearance reminded me of an old essay by John Densmore, drummer for The Doors.  He wrote:
Apple Computer called on a Tuesday--they already had the audacity to spend money to cut "When the Music's Over" into an ad for their new cube computer software. They want to air it the next weekend, and will give us a million and a half dollars! A MILLION AND A HALF DOLLARS! Apple is a pretty hip company...we use computers.... Dammit! Why did Jim (Morrison) have to have such integrity?

I'm pretty clear that we shouldn't do it. We don't need the money. But I get such pressure from one particular bandmate (the one who wears glasses and plays keyboards).

Continue reading...

Marxist Tales 3: Falling Stars, or When Art Imitates Art

Posted by Charles Reece, January 5, 2009 11:00pm | Post a Comment

Madonna falling in Rio back in December got me to thinking, naturally enough, about Mulholland Dr.'s use of "Llorando," Rebekah Del Rio's Spanish cover of "Crying." There's a lot of gravitas to gravity -- with one slip, the reality of artifice can be exposed. At the club Silencio, when the character of Del Rio (played by Del Rio) falls, but her singing continues, David Lynch is playing around with Bertolt Brecht's epic theater and his notion of estrangement. By having the work remind the audience of the layer of representation intervening between them and the emotions they're experiencing, Brecht hoped to create a more politico-rationally engaged experience -- that is, one of empathy, not sympathy (the former being of intellectual understanding, not the latter's identification).


However, Lynch turns estrangement on its ear by using lip-synching as the emotional crux of his film. If you'll remember, the scene occurs at the point where the fugue world of Betty is fracturing, and the reality of Diane is seeping in. Diane had killed her lover, Camilla, out of jealousy, replacing her in the dream with the amnesiac Rita. Of course Rita can't remember who she is, because she's a manifestation of Diane's oneiric state, a displacement of Camilla, with all the bad stuff repressed. As Rita, she's a ghost, pure desideratum, or Diane's objective (objectified) correlative of the real deal. (In fact, the same applies to Betty; she's Diane's idealized self.) Just as the illusion of the film's representational quality is most exposed (Lynch's "eye of the duck" scene), Betty and Rita begin sobbing -- and (provided the Silencio sequence works properly) the audience along with them.


Lynch has the audience identifying with his characters' experience of the distancing effect. The more one becomes cognitively aware of what's going on (say, knowing what's coming next in the narrative through repeated viewings), the more the emotive impact of the scene. The two dream projections, Betty and Rita, are doppelgängers of Diane, and (through identification) reflections of our own contemporary existence in what Guy Debord called the society of the spectacle. We all exist as objectified projections of others while projecting our own images on them in return. The rub is that often what we desire and who we believe ourselves to be are thoroughly mediated by spectacle (our own images are no more our own than the other's image of us). Being made aware of specular (representational) mediation as Brechtian theater attempted hardly solves the contemporary dilemma between what's real and what's merely manufactured. Awareness of artifice is no longer sufficient to counterprogram mass desire (if it ever was), since a lip-synching existence has become an object of dreams. Gravity's truth hasn't hurt the fanbase of the following stars, any more than that of Madonna's.

Beyoncé


Shakira


K-ci & JoJo

The show goes on independently of the stars, just like a perpetual motion machine. Increasingly, we're less likely to feel shame at the antics of Milli Vanilli, instead dreaming of getting such a choice gig. What's really most prized, the face or the voice behind the face? Beyoncé can actually sing, but that's not really why she's famous. Her voice is a phony justification for her star image. The what's-their-names behind Milli Vanilli could sing, too, but fat lot of good that does them now. In other words, "hips don't lie."

Anyone under 60 probably has some level of sophistication regarding the construction of images, but this generalized awareness can lead many to be skeptical of an image's falsity. Living in an age where the medium is the message creates a parity between the real and illusion, making such a determination an agnostic guessing game of which is which. Consider that there was much debate on YouTube as to whether WWE impresario Vince McMahon was really hurt during the obviously staged destruction of the set around him:


As professional wrestlers will tell you in these supposedly sophisticated times, just because wrestling is pure commodity, staged for our entertainment, doesn't mean that they don't really get hurt. These wrestlers acknowledge the truth in Lynch's film: artifice is painful, regardless of whether we know it's false. Aware of the image people have of him, Pauly Shore pulled an Andy Kaufman-esque stunt playing into the mass desire of wanting to see him get punched:


Clearly, Shore was inspired by the internet infamy achieved by Glen Danzig when his macho image got neutered:


Whereas Danzig was probably embarrassed, Shore's intent was, like Madonna's voice in Rio, just to keep his fading stardom continuing as long as possible -- that is, regardless of whether he looked like a coward or a wimp. Being seen is the desire, 'as what' is irrelevant. (The strategy can work.) That's why we can see former Guns 'N Roses drummer Steven Adler sucking on a bong, crying about how Slash hasn't called him on Celebrity Rehab. And it's why some dumb fucker on Cheaters or COPS will sign a release form. When the dream being bought and sold is nothing more than cheap spectacle, devoid of content, where does that leave us? Somewhere in the precarious space of this young actress playing Helen Keller:


Feeling sadness at Diane's awakening to the role she's been playing out in her slumber demonstrates that there's something very real in her identification with images. Del Rio's falling begins to ground Diane's imaginary weightless existence with the moral ramifications of the choices she made in pursuit of the fantasy. Here, Lynch uses the identification with fiction in its most enlightened sense, to reflect our current state of being. As a dialectic between mass media and identity, eventually the desired spectacle will trip over reality. To borrow an analogy from Plato, we can either lift the stick out of the water to see that it's not actually bent, or we can continue to leave it there.

Parts I and II.

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