Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
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Thursday, Nov 5, 2009

About partway through ABC’s adaptation of the Reagan-era sci-fi drama V, an FBI counter-terrorism agent, played by Steve the Pirate from Dodgeball, kicks down a door to a suspicious rusty old shed discovered while hot on the trail of a suspected terrorist. “Nothing!”, he proclaims as the interior reveals the banal components of your average quotidian shed, wishing to seek no further.


It turns out that the FBI agent was deliberately defeatist because he didn’t want his fellow spooks sneaking into his secret lair. Still, this disavowal pretty much sums up V;  a dramatic entrance (the arrival of a spaceship/flying LCD screen) and a subsequent failure to carefully examine interiors. Who would believe for one second that a counter-terrorism agent would surrender so easily on the trail of a terrorist cell recently found to be making massive purchases of C-4?


The rejection of surfaces is pretty much the thesis of V‘s first episode, but it’s a thesis upheld by the lazy sci-fi shorthand of a singular empirical reality laying beneath the surfaces. We know the good guys are good, because they know what’s really going on, whereas the suckers pledging a dogmatic “devotion” (the show’s big buzz word) to the new movement are apparently just dupes lured in by the Id-drive to fuck galactic travelers or the desperation-drive to accept anybody offering peace and prosperity in a time of turmoil.


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Tuesday, Oct 6, 2009
How slow is too slow for non-violence? One girl counts to five and voila!

The video beating and subsequent murder of Derrion Albert is incredibly disturbing. In surfing for the video, I stumbled upon a very young girl who left her response to seeing the raw footage, and reading what she called ‘racist’ comments left on the web about Albert’s death, as well as direct racist comments (“monkey”) towards her—a child.


YouTube user sepulturantera posts the comment:


and btw if you wanna know what killed him, its the countless other useless niggers that watched the other apes with the boards…


“What if that were you, or your son, or daughter,” the young girl asks in her posting, then counts to five, giving viewers the chance to get rid of their racism. YouTube is much more apt at protecting music industry copyrights than protecting children from cyber-terror. This girl is young, and it hurts my heart that she has to learn about this aspect of our society. No, we cannot just count to five and expect to rid our society of racism, no more than we can erase our commitment to violence. Our society’s tolerance for youth violence is already incredible, but sitting here surfing the net, it’s just sad to realize what youth today are exposed to at home. And yet it’s great that the net exposes this murder—perhaps these youth will be the ones to finally create change.


Jozen Cummings’ article “The Beating of Derrion Albert Is Must-See TV”, on TheRoot.com was a common sense reminder:


So let the video of Derrion Albert’s life-ending beating get as many views as the video of Kanye West jumping on stage in the middle of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech (as I write this, this one currently has 1,959,026 views). Let #derrionalbert be a trending topic on Twitter and make sure it stays there as long as #musicmonday or #jayz. Blog about Derrion Albert like you would your own relationship woes, remix the video of his beating by layering it over Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” to drive the weight of Albert’s loss home, or get a camera, record your own thoughts about this horrific tragedy, and in the words of YouTube, “broadcast yourself.” But most importantly, watch the video. It hurts, it’s disgusting, but it might be the first step we need to avoid seeing a sequel anytime soon.


Folks tend to forget that we’re always about moving forward, and must therefore always re-frame our pain and anguish into something that sparks us into action, and fuels efforts for change. Like Jozen Cummings’, “I [too] winced when I saw the wooden railroad plank being smacked against Derrion Albert’s head.” Yet, do we worship death, or life? Do we simply mourn, or shake things up to refocus ourselves on life?


Photo: Nadashia Thomas, 6, a cousin of Derrion Albert, holds a sign beside a poster of Derrion Albert at Fenger High School in Chicago, Sept. 28, 2009. A vigil for Derrion Albert was planned outside of Fenger High School. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Photo: Nadashia Thomas, 6, a cousin of
Derrion Albert, holds a sign beside
a poster of Derrion Albert at Fenger
High School in Chicago, Sept. 28, 2009.
A vigil for Derrion Albert was planned
outside of Fenger High School.
(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)


Our society relies so heavily on martyrs, and even invents a menagerie of superheroes to descend upon us as our saviors. Yet, I believe that we could earnestly use the net to spread the message of change so that fewer and fewer of us have to be sacrificed in order for folks to get the message. What happened to Emmett Till had been happenin’! What happened to King—both the good Rev. Dr. and Rodney—had been happenin’! And even Homer Plessy stood, or sat rather, for what was already a probable cause to abandon racism: the trouble with reinforcing ‘race’ (because sometimes we can hardly tell white from Black, so therefore race cannot matter).


But, alas, “they keep on sayin’: Go slow” And we go slow, too; we all seem to sit and stew until somebody—literally someone places their body on the line—gets arrested, beaten, mutilated and/or shot. We are a society that has even preferred placing kids on the front lines of our massive discomfort over race can class, and potentially crossing the boundaries of those rigid social lines. Even the multi-culturalism celebrated in schools tends to fizzle out over time, another myth betrayed by the web: Take a look at old high school pictures of integrated schools, versus the parties and families in which we live now, where we’ve gone back to Black and white, rich and poor. Our social lines are as rigidly divided along class as before the Civil War, and as racially segregated as we were after the Second World War, thanks to suburban sprawl, leading to these concentrations of chronic poverty where the Derrion Alberts live and die. No wonder that our films and media are, too, more retro than Technicolor.


Now that marching and mass movement of people as forms of protest are out, and the age of video coupled with the web is upon us, what us gon’ do! This been happenin’, so what us gon’ do? Wonder what lynching would have looked like on a Nokia!?!


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Tuesday, Oct 6, 2009
As much as the mammy stereotype may persist alongside images of the domineering Black (southern) mother, Good Times could not deny the dignity of feminine leadership.

Do the right thing. Here’s one for your healthcare debate: “Our government can’t do sh*t!” This episode of Good Times (’74-’79), “The Evans Get Involved”, made the same statement, but didn’t stop there. Government should be able to stand up—must stand up—on behalf of the people, who will stand up regardless (because that’s who we are). But if we’re so capable as individuals, what makes us think that we hold no collective responsibility.


“The Evans Get Involved” is groundbreaking. This is just a nine-and-a-half-minute excerpt. The whole show runs over three, maybe four episodes. The infamous intro/outro of Good Times  is clipped, uploaded like a series of other Sit-Com intros from the late 70’s, early 80’s when we were settling into terms like urban decay and renewal.


Temporary lay offs. - Good Times!
Easy credit rip offs. - Good Times!
Scratchin’ and surviving. - Good Times!

Hangin’ in a chow line - Good Times!

Ain’t we lucky we got ‘em - Good Times!*


I can imagine that for the ‘70s crowd, the show was chock-full of ghetto fabulous stereotypes and archetypical characters. The comedic tension between Sis-Bro duo Thelma and J.J. closely mirrors that of Fred Sanford and his sanctified sister-in-law on the show Sanford and Son (’72-’77). Dear Ms. Rolle eventually quit the show in shock and resistance to those same clichés about poor people and Black people: single, domineering mother, sex-sillified P.I.M.P. sons, welfare hot mamas like that of Penny, and so on. I mean, it’s a family show where they killed off the father. Even Bobby (Patrick Duffy) and J.R. Ewing’s (Larry Hagman) dad made ethereal guest appearances after the actor had died in the evening soap opera drama Dallas (‘78-‘91).


Larry Hagman, of course, played a supreme patriarch in the hit show I Dream of Jeannie, where a scantily clad, Arab-wannabe, female slave bid his every wish, falling over herself to please her “master.” What kind of patriarchal wet dream is that? The same as shows like Dallas and the rest, where money reigns supreme—just like in the world of Bling!


Mmmmmm

Just lookin’ out of the window.
Watchin’ the asphalt grow.

Thinkin’ how it all looks hand-me-down.
Good Times, yeah, yeah
Good Times


In this one episode, the number of social messages transmitted is incredible. The episode centers around Janet Jackson’s character, Penny. Penny, barely reaching tall-actor Jimmie Walker’s chest, is a heavily abused and neglected child raised by a young ghetto mamma. Penny inappropriately transfers her need for love to J.J., even interrupting the man’s dates, hanging onto him like a—dare I say—moth to a flame. Actually, Penny was more attracted to her mother like a moth to a flame; her mother heavily bruises her and burns the child with an electric iron. It’s pitiful and difficult to watch, but whom else to speak on behalf of children if not popular culture. Indeed, this was prime time TV.


How good are these times? And to what end to we owe any responsibility to act collectively? The nosey neighbors stood up for the neglected child; they witnessed her beating up her doll after J.J. rejected her affections, claiming that if the dumb kid (the doll) were better, then the man would have stayed. The episode dug deep. Indeed, the entire series was as thoroughly dope.


Penny made up all sorts of lies, creating a fantasy life for herself far away from the living hell of the Chicago projects. No matter how good-spirited the folks remained, and no matter how many times the neighbor Willona calls the building handy-man, Bugger, the reality of the ghetto is never absent. The irony of the show, of course, is that they lead lives much happier than the wealthy soap opera characters. The Evans family, their neighbors, their friends, the love amongst them, was truly a picture of the ability to choose happiness in one’s life.


Unlike Alice in any wonderland, this was the ghetto—the asphalt grows. Poet Gwendowlyn Brooks, a Chi-town native, imagined an entire universe on that asphalt, and places like the Golden Shovel. Why sho’: We REAL cool. We…


Unlike any wonderland, it’s the people who have to pull ourselves out of fantasy, and create a reality well above ground. Higher than the sky! Indeed, who shot J.R.? One of his own damn relatives (not to be named—go Google it and learn about the season cliffhanger that made television history). That’s some shit, when family is killing one another. We’re supposed to stick up for one another. But the show, for all it’s glory, reflected the greed of the era—the Reaganomics that convinced many Americans that the best we should do is run off like cattle ranchers and make a buck (and screw the girl—any girl), by any means necessary. It’s a man’s world. And that’s something else that made Good Times different.


As much as the mammy stereotype may persist alongside images of the domineering Black (southern) mother, Good Times could not deny the dignity of feminine leadership. The mother Florida, the neighbor Willona, the sister Thelma, and even the little brother Michael, all resisted a typical sort of patriarchal power and leadership. Shows like The Honeymooners (’55-’56), All in the Family (’71-’79), or even The Flinstones (’60-’66) made direct puns at archetypical patriarchs like Archie Bunker—a decrepit, grouchy patriarch. Yet somehow he always got the last word. The only real critique was that the patriarch in those shows was crude.


The world of Good Times was something different altogether. The clip here, for example, makes great mockery of the facts of the faults of government:


  • The doctor who failed to lobby on behalf of the abused child, in spite of the loud pleas of another citizens simply standing up.
  • The policeman, who, like the Dr.’s nurse who wanted to make Penny take her turn in line, just followed procedure.
  • The thirsty social worker who had to fill out the forms while Penny was probably being punched and ironed. “On the rocks,” she insisted for her beverage.
  • The unseen and unmentioned teachers and school staff who failed to notice Penny’s bruises, scars and loveless behavior.

The social worker was so caught up in her paper-work that she drank from a fishbowl, and suddenly she took an interest in Black vernacular. They missed Penny, her mother took her and scrammed.


This is business as usual in America, ‘cause our government can’t do nothin’. Least, that’s what people think, and seem to be saying about health care and well-fare (not to mention welfare) today. Our independence and individualism has been warped into some maddening excuse NOT to take any responsibility for ourselves, collectively.


N.I.M.B.Y. (not in my back-yard) was our motto by the end of the Reagan era, the period that Good Times predicted, mocked, and made fun of. Yet, one wonders if it indeed takes Swine Flu or some other virulent agent to convince us that the well-fare knows no borders. Gender, race, and class can divide us, but our selfishness will conquer us. Good Times’ message was things must change—lest things fall apart. And even in those times, there are Good Times.


Good Times.

Any time you meet a payment. – Good Times.
Any time you need a friend. - Good Times.
Any time you’re out from under.

Not getting hassled, not getting hustled.
Keepin’ your head above water,
Making a wave when you can.


People die in basic American procedures, even the policeman in this clip of Good Times showed that. The officer entered, demeaned the Black man, moaned about doing his duty, and virtually spat on the black man again. The officer administered justice, with the threat of an extended baton, over all the Black women wrestling around him. The child was just incidental. And all this was Black-on-Black crime. It was also groundbreaking to show that we can even hate ourselves, act as pariahs, even outside the purview of “Massa”. The oppressed, epitomized by this community in the midst of urban poverty, turned in on itself.


Of course, later on we get outright gang-banging flics like Colors (’88), starring Sean Penn, Robert Duval, and Don Cheadle. Shortly thereafter there’s John Singleton’s classic Boyz in the Hood (’91), with Cuba Gooding, Jr. Lawrence Fishburn, Angela Bassett, Ice Cube, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long, Regina King, Chris Tucker and Tyra Ferrell (of School Daze, Poetic Justice, and Jungle Fever). Gang-banging images and films, including gangsta rap, all depict and reiterate the even lower standards of how the decedents of slaves will treat one another—brother killing brother over a pair of shoes. Sisters knocking off sisters because she looked at her wrong.


The background of Good Times was this pension to destroy one another. But, inside the Evans’ home, the hate was only in the form of Thelma and J.J. constantly playing the dozens. But this was a slapstick, prime-time sit-Com, so everyone had mad jokes. Indeed, Good Times = ROFLMAO.


“Honey, you don’t own the rights or patent on scufflin’,” pins Willona when Penny’s mother barges into the Evans’ stiff brick walls trying to find her little, abused, run-away child. Chip Fields gave a stellar performance in this scene, lamenting over how hard it was to be a poor, teenage, single parent. And it’s hard, agrees Willona, who was raised by a young single mother, too. “All my life, I had to fight,” Miss Sophia says in The Color Purple—Penny’s mother mimicking the same rhetoric. But, different from Miss Sophia: “I can’t keep a man on ‘count o’ Penny,” Penny’s mother says as she breaks down from her rage to sob and cry, feeling sorry for herself. We had lost something over these generations.


Like the Bamabara versus the Fulani in Mali, two ethnic groups that are paired to play the dozens, or regional family names like Kone vs. Traore, which are paired similarly. When members of these disparate ethnic groups or families meet, they crack jokes. There are standard jokes like Sho dunna (bean-eater, which implies that the person farts a lot and stinks). Thelma and J.J. fill seasons of scenes with their arguing and insults. Yet, ultimately the wisecracking takes away all the tension, and they are therefore able to be civil to one another when it counts.


Civil, distinct from cordial, which is what we certainly still have in the South, implies much more than any loose definition of friendliness. If anything, ‘friendliness’ in the Evans’ sense could be better explained by the song “One”. Then, Mary and Bono sing: “We’re one but we’re not the same. We’ve get to carry each other. Carry each other”.


Willona eventually adopts Penny. The handy-man gets involved, and so does the Evans family—who now lives alone as three siblings while their mom and new step-father stay out west. The community will raise Penny, and we get to enjoy the major dramatics of this talented young actress ever more in re-runs.


*Good Times’ theme song lyrics, thanks to http://www.cfhf.net/lyrics/good-time.htm.


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Monday, Sep 28, 2009

Death, where is thy drop off the radar screen? The industry, phenomenon and force of artistry known as Michael Jackson is very much alive, if not its namesake. Columbia Pictures is readying release of Michael Jackson’s This Is It, a film of Jackson in rehearsals for the tour that will never be. The film is set for theatrical release Oct. 28, but advance tickets are available as of Sept. 27 (a smart marketing approach on Columbia’s part, one that seeks to extend the frenzy of a live Jackson show into the multiplexes for what will be nothing less than a cinematic wake).


But the Michael behind Michael, the mystery of the man behind the machine, was the subject of an often-moving segment of “Dateline”, aired on NBC Friday night. “The Michael Jackson Tapes” explores Jackson’s inner hells and private joys, all chillingly documented in his own voice. Programmes consisting largely of crawl lines of words transcribed from audiotape have rarely been this emotionally compelling. Ironically, in its reach for the mysteries of this incandescent figure, the hour-long programme only deepens those mysteries; by the show’s end we’re more familiar with the how; the why of Michael Jackson remains as elusive as ever.


The tapes belong to Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, a longtime friend and advisor Jackson met in 1999, a man who saw the singer through some of his most turbulent times, including the troubling years after his lacerating child molestation trial. Boteach got Jackson to open up, to some degree, on any number of the behaviors that made Jackson a target of opportunity for comedians, bad tabloid newspapers and, let’s be honest, all of us.


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Thursday, Sep 24, 2009
HBO's vampire show managed to grow its ratings and expand its universe in the second season. So why was it so frustrating to watch so much of the time?

True Blood season two wrapped up over a week ago, but I was a little behind on the episodes, so I just finished watching the finale the other night. And I think it’s worth discussing the high points and low points of the season on what has become HBO’s most popular show. Obviously, when talking about the season in total, major spoilers will appear throughout. So if you’re waiting for the dvd release, I’d recommend you skip this entry.


While the first season of True Blood started off slowly, with a few too many “Look, we’re on HBO and we can show explicit sex!” scenes, it gradually rounded into form and became a highly entertaining, engaging show. Season 2 started off intriguingly, as Sookie and Bill dealt with new teenage vampire Jessica, Jason was recruited by the Fellowship of the Sun, and Tara continued to spend most of her time with the mysterious benefactor Maryann and Eggs, a fellow recipient of Maryann’s generosity. On top of that, Lafayette was revealed to be alive, but trapped in a dungeon underneath the vampire bar Fangtasia. And at Merlotte’s, Arlene was getting over the death of her latest husband by cozying up to Gulf War vet Terry while new waitress Daphne was showing herself to be maybe the worst waitress the bar had ever seen.


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