Sunday, March 11, 2012

Nothing Matters And What If It Did?

When I was a graduate student at The Catholic University of America, I took what I thought would be a seminar on Aristotle's Politics. The professor was one of the most popular, well-respected scholars teaching in the School of Philosophy. I'd taken a course on moral philosophy from him and the seminar was to be the first of two parts, the second being a seminar on Hobbes' Leviathan. The problem, however, was that there were almost thirty people signed up for a graduate seminar. It turned from an intimate discussion of issues within a classic text to a long, tedious line-by-line exegesis. About half way through the semester, a student interrupted the monotone presentation of yet another ridiculously boring read-through with a simple question: "Who was Aristotle writing for?"

The professor paused and said, "Why, he was writing for the ages."

At that point, I realized I would get nothing out of the rest of the class.

No one, certainly not Aristotle, ever does anything for the ages. Aristotle didn't because the very concept would have been unintelligible to him. The Greeks had no such concept. We, who supposedly have some kind of historical consciousness, are led to believe that if our lives are to have meaning, we are to make a mark that lasts. Even an ahistorical hyper-romantic like Richard Rorty wrote in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity that the best any of us can do is add a line or two to the poem of the world.

Neil Strauss's Everyone Loves You When You're Dead: Journeys Into Fame And Madness has an "Epilogue" that, if anyone had been paying attention, was redundant. Setting out eleven "lessons" that shaped the structure and narrative framework of the sprawling set of interviews - bits and pieces that span two decades, 228 in all - they all return to what Strauss says was the impetus behind the formation of the book: Does what we do have any meaning?

A long-time rock journalist and critic, working with publications as various as The New York Times, Spin, Esquire, Maxim, and The Village Voice, Strauss has also published works written in co-operation with Motley Crue and Marilyn Manson, Dave Navarro, and porn/pop phenom Jenna Jameson. The subjects span from Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Bo Diddley through Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Eric Clapton, and Bruce Sprinsteen to Snoop Dogg, Wu-Tang Clan, The Backstreet Boys, Lady Gaga, and The White Stripes. Some of the subjects, like Trent Reznor, Clapton, Springsteen, and Snoop Dogg, and Marilyn Manson, seem held-together (except, of course, Reznor was in the midst of a years-long heroin addiction; even for that, the parts of his interview seem the most honest even if self-deprecating). Others, such as Jonathan Davis from Korn, Julian Casblancas from The Strokes, Twiggy Ramirez from Marilyn Manson, Question Mark from Question Mark and the Mysterians, rapper The Game, and Christina Aguilera are, variously, neurotic, drunk, coked up, schizophrenic, and too self-absorbed to comprehend how much of a flash-in-the-pan he is. The end result is not so much an exploration of the single meta-question that drove this work as a series of quick-cut presentations that, while interesting in and for themselves, accumulate weight over time. The question of meaning, makes itself clear from page one, where a drunken Julian Casablancas dodges an interview by getting so stupidly drunk, the interview becomes a lesson in and of itself of the dangers and threat posed by fame.

In our capitalist society, the question of meaning is usually relegated to an interesting non-sequitur. For the people whose interviews are within the pages of this book, however, the question of the meaning of their work is paramount. One story Strauss catalogs, the loss and recovery of a set of costumes from a Country Music Wax Museum that closed in the 1980's; the costumes were all original sets of clothing donated by various figures from Jimmie Rogers and Johnny Cash to Barbara Mandrell and Minnie Pearl. Quite apart from the monetary value, the historical significance of sets of clothing can be debated.

Or can it?

Reading the back story to the search and discovery of the clothing, I couldn't help but think, "Wow, all those old costumes. First they were gone, now they're back." I think most anyone, even someone not particularly interested in country music, or pop culture more broadly, would agree this is an issue of significant importance. It's a connection, a very real connection, between people. The black shirts Johnny Cash would wear; the hair and bell-bottoms Barbara Mandrell was famous for; Minnie Pearl's hats - these are symbols that tell us who these people were as performers. They signify what they meant to us and for us.

Some of the people whose interviews Strauss includes got lost somewhere along the way. Either through drugs or fragile psyches or chronic, untreated mental illness or (as in the case, say, of Brian Wilson) some combination of all three, what made them who they once were is destroyed. Like everything else in our capitalist society, the producers of our popular culture have become disposable commodities; planned obsolescence isn't just about a new car model every year. No one expected Chuck Berry to continue performing in to the first decade of the 21st century. No one thought The Beach Boys were creating a template for pop music writing and production that would continue even as the technology for music production exploded. No one thought Trent Reznor would make it through his years of rage and heroin to win multiple Academy Awards for soundtrack composition.

No one thought an illiterate share-cropper from Mississippi named Otha Turner would, at the age of 91, be one of the last in a legacy of fife-and-drum performers who would be able to continue his legacy of a dying, marginal musical form that has roots to African fife-and-drum rituals because a few enterprising, interested journalists and musical ethnographers would insist listening to him was important.

Yet all these things, and so much more, are indeed important. They have meaning because, despite the totalitarian insistence of capitalism that meaning is irrelevant, a question best left to drunk college students or stoned-out bohemians who have nothing of substance to contribute, all these - and so much more - tell us who we are.

Nothing makes that more clear than the chapter entitled "Cannibalism Is The Answer". Holding a mirror up to America over the past couple decades, we see an ugliness of racism, idiotic superficiality, and triumphant over-coming that boggles the mind. Whether its the Skullbones Amphitheater in Tennessee, with its booths selling racist paraphernalia, Paris Hilton being Paris Hilton, or the failing and triumphal national tour of Iceland's only indigenous country western band, we see the many contradictory realities of who and what we are shining back at us. Perhaps Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat shows this most clearly. Crossing the many lines of performance art, entertainment, and social commentary, we see and hear who we are and the result is both hilariously funny and incredibly sad. In a rare interview as himself (until that time, Cohen only interviewed as his characters Ali G and Borat; Strauss got a glimpse at the man behind the curtain and discovered, as he did with Stephen Colbert, the sanity behind the madness) Cohen shows Strauss that the keys to unlocking the many doors we would prefer remain closed lie in being able to make us laugh even as we are disgusted at what we are seeing. In a short snippet of an interview with Hanson, we see a rare moment when a group of teenagers display more wisdom than far too many adults; rather than discuss their personal religious beliefs as a way of labeling and pigeon-holing themselves, they only want to talk about the music they make (the fact they had both more musical merit and talent, and displayed this singular maturity also tells us something about who we are; we would far rather label a group of musicians as a way of restricting them, even dismissing them, than hearing what they have to say as musicians).

Strauss's book is a monument, despite its pedantic epilogue, to the importance of popular culture even as it quickly becomes more historical product than lasting statement of historical significance. Whether it's a lost free-jazz artist living on the streets of New York City, Britney Spears being astounded at a con-job, or the nine-year saga of the writing and production of Cher's last number one song, it's all important because we see who we are in the midst of what is both best and worst about ourselves. The things that will last, the things that are popular, the things that define us at any given time become touchstones, signifiers of the panorama of American (and, more broadly, western) culture.

Virtual Tin Cup

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