a literary journal +

Month: March 2011

Punk Rock Saved My Life

‘Punk rock changed our lives.’ – D. Boone
A couple of years before I went to high school an ad played in heavy rotation on the local rock radio station.
‘Hello America,’ said a woman with a British accent. ‘This is London calling.’ A track played behind her as she kept repeating the catch phrase and then the track took over a few seconds before the spot ended. The track had an attack that sounded like very few of the stadium rock anthems that filled the AOR airwaves in 1979. I hadn’t heard anyone like the vocalist, either. He had rasping delivery that made Bob Dylan sound like Perry Como and I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. I wanted that record though but it was my friend Ray who had the money, so he bought it. It was London Calling by The Clash. Some A&R men had decided that punk rock would be the next big thing in music (boy, were they wrong) and The Clash were going be the ones to break it. Well London Calling didn’t sell in America but me and Ray wore that record out. Even with the lyrics printed on the album sleeves every song was a cipher. Who was Jimmy Jazz? What were the guns of Brixton and the Clampdown? It didn’t make sense to us but the music did. It was fresh, it opened a way.
My coming to a (semi) adult consciousness took place in the Reagan years when I was on the wrong side of everything. Reagan America turned the world upside down. A song about the sufferings of a Vietnam vet in his indifferent homeland became the anthem of America triumphant. A film about a Vietnam vet hounded by law enforcement became the story of American resilience defeating the foreign menace. My brother watched Rambo a thousand times and hung an American flag and a cross over his bed. He was an Eagle Scout, then a ROTC frat boy, and then a soldier. I didn’t understand. Didn’t they watch the movie, didn’t they hear the lyrics to Born in the USA? The Official Preppy Handbook became a primer for dress and deportment to my high school peers. Irony had been chased out of the building. Money mattered again in America. The greatest athlete in the world, a man whose physical genius and ferocity on the basketball court left you gawking, was a bland simulacra off it, the perfect corporate shill. I was quick to sneer at this obsession with money but the preppies had connected to something deep in American culture, deeper than I could understand. Money made America’s heart beat, had given the country its biggest sexual charge since Ben Franklin started hopping around his printing press. After a brief interlude of hippie indulgence – and maybe the the wealthiest generation in history anywhere – money had risen again. Yet money meant almost nothing to me (to the dismay of friends who would have appreciated me paying for more of the beer). I was lost in my own country. Yet The Clash gave me something to hold on to, and friends who felt the same way as I did.

Entasis Hates Madmen, Part Deux

RA: Sir, the most interesting, to me, part of your discussion is the fascination of ‘hidden identities’. The threatened interior or the impossibility of there being an interior, a self. I just think Mad Men doesn’t as well as some of the others. Even Dollhouse, which I enjoy, yet realize that it’s half treacle.
‎| There are two dialogs here, one is about the show, one is about the critique. I love the show enough to not care what the critics say. I didn’t even read the critique. Like I said, I like the show and no critic, with a name or without, c…an sway me. Furthermore, I didn’t know I was pregnant, the first time, and I was skinny. Not unlike the (TV) fat Peggy. I think it is absolutely reasonable to believe she didn’t know. I will admit, there are some nutty things in MM. Some may not be reasonable, but, how often is TV reasonable, really?
RA: Very unlike Peggy, Ms. Jo. It isn’t the nuttiness, it’s the fact that it ploddingly serves a plot point. It’s Peyton Place without the hysteria. And we’re supposed to take this seriously, as in fact the show takes itself very seriously. If you’re going to use something like that, you have to embrace the foolishness of it, play with it. But we’re just clubbed with self-importance. And that, yes, is a middlebrow hallmark. Give me high or give me low!
JM: From what I understand, Peyton Place was life-changing awesome. But, we wouldn’t know that. LONG before our time.
P.S. Hysteria is overrated.
GM: The reason you find it impossible to believe that I was entertained is because you’re looking for causality and, unable to find it for reasons that are just as arbitrary as the reasons anyone prefers one flavor of ice cream over another or …one color more than another, you necessarily make a move that’s reductive, dismissive: “Well, I trust your judgment, so this must be about some emotional need that’s being met.” It’s similar to the move Mendelsohn makes in his review, but it is *this* move, specifically, that is problematic for me. “Well, he likes vanilla, but I can’t stand the blandness and ordinariness of vanilla, so clearly his preference for vanilla is due to his troubled childhood and the fact that any intense flavors associated with a creamy treat from his early life recalls the turmoil he suffered years ago.” Good grief. This post could go on and on — the idea that content determines audience is very suspect to me, because all dramas are rehashes anyway; also, that you assert Mad Men’s problem is that it takes itself too seriously seems amazing considering shows like “The Wire”, “Battlestar”, and “The Sopranos”, that made self-seriousness their entire rhetorical mode, justification, and raison d’être. In fact, I don’t even think we’re really arguing yet, because we’re not really talking about the same thing.
However, I’ll close this with the assertion that the business of finding how or why an audience is attracted to something seems like specious doings to me and is nearly always speculative. Only THAT someone finds something interesting — or in the case of Mad Men, that a little cable show has attracted as much interest and commentary as it has — is what’s most interesting. People I know and respect like “Jersey Shore”, a show that I find incomprehensible. But that so many are interested in the show says something that’s probably worth noticing. Anything else seems like “Blue is my favorite color!” “Really? Because my favorite color is orange! You must be in need of gentle comfort …”
RA: Well, at least we seem to clarified our argument to the extent of finding the specific issues that our disagreement hinges upon. The first major issue is of course, that I find ‘Mad Men’ not particularly well done, and you feel the opposite. Fair enough. But is it enough to simply leave it at that? Perhaps, if you believe that aesthetic disagreements are based on opinion, and that one opinion is just as valid as another. So if someone says ‘Rent’ is as great a dramatic work as ‘King Lear’, then well, the conversation ends there. Yet since I’ve spent much of my life trying to determine what makes certain works of art great, and others terrible, I would disagree with this perspective (or if I did agree, I might shoot myself in the temple). I was disappointed by ‘Mad Men’ when I saw it. I had trouble understanding why it was such a cultural phenom, but even more distressing was how wrapped up some of my quite intelligent friends were in it. Mendelsohn pointed to some of the shortcomings that I’d noticed in my viewing. Now, we can argue about his specific criticisms, and perhaps we should (since that gets to the important issue of ‘close reading’, the center, for me, of making useful aesthetic judgments). It’s funny that you bring up Battlestar and The Sopranos since both of them collapsed under the weight of their conceits eventually – just not as quickly as Madmen.
You go on to criticize Mendelsohn for trying to provide psychological reasons for the show’s popularity. But then you say that what makes a show like ‘Jersey Shore’ interesting is that it has ‘attracted so much interest and commentary’ even if you find it incomprehensible. But doesn’t that lead you to want to provide reasons for why it has attracted so much interest and commentary? And couldn’t those reasons include elements of the zeitgeist, psychology, etc?

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