Performing Arts

I Read the News Today, Oh, Boy

Listening to the NRA's Wayne LaPierre speak around the massacring of children without missing a beat, it's easy to agree with Lewis Black that this century is starting to look just as physically dangerous as the last one—even if, as Steven Pinker claims, it's actually more peaceful.

"The feuilleton is a phenomenon of urban culture, related to the proliferation of the popular press and the expansion of the public sphere in the modern metropolis. [It] was an unaffected form of writing which required 'neither plot nor deep feelings nor tortured originality…', to invoke [A.V.] Druzhinin's peculiar allusion to fictional literature. Instead of a unified narrative, the feuilleton offered a random collection of fragments on topics ranging from theater to art exhibitions, to popular spectacles."

-- Katia Dianina, "The Feuilleton: An Everyday Guide to Public Culture in the Age of the Great Reforms"

Lewis Black: The Rant is Due

The feuilleton was the journalist's stand-up routine, and maybe it gave the comic and late-night host his "Let's see what's in the news today" strategy. While this gave us Chris Rock and Conan O'Brien, we have to remember that it gave us Jay Leno, too, and thus: the feuilliton giveth, the feuilliton taketh away.

Onstage recently in Columbus, Ohio, Lewis Black clenches his entire body so tightly you expect—want—him to explode. His stuttering keeps you waiting, its crescendo suspending the room, and either lands with a cynical thud or lifts off into a nearly unintelligible… well, a rant. A speaking-in-tongues, you might say. No one is safe. Revising a familiar joke, he outlines the differences between "dumb" (Democrats) and "stupid" (Republicans). Nothing is going to change after tonight, Black warns us right away, and then delivers maybe the best line of the night: "The 21st century is turning out to be just like the 20th century, only in hi-def."

The rant is way overdue, and it's comforting to see Black tearing apart the Social Security tax code, which spares the wealthy, and remarking on John Boehner's Day-Glo hue. The only time the show sags is during a less toothsome tirade on the kids' technology, the Facebook and the what-not. I'm old enough to agree with him, but it's an easy mark, too easy for him, too easy for everyone else to agree. Behind us some moron whistles loud enough to call in the herds from Delaware County. But God love the hecklers. Somewhere in this belly of the show—20 minutes, tops, before Black digs it out—a male voice in the balcony shouts, "Let's go get a beer!" Either the man's companion is hard of hearing, Black grumbles, or "maybe this is all just moving a little fast for you."

Sharon Olds: Stag's Leap

Earlier this same evening, Sharon Olds reads from her gorgeously mortal poems, including some from Stag's Leap, her newest book. In an aside, she alludes to her days as a young poet when she was told in rejection letters that her writing was "too feminine", code for "These poems about the body and sex make me uncomfortable".

I would like to get Olds and Black onstage together, to compare notes, to talk rhythm, delivery. The poet and the comedian—this poet, this comedian—understand timing: pauses, delays, falling forward, hesitations, repetitions. Their words, their payoffs ride on breath, rising out of the throat, regulated by the diaphragm. In their own manners, both say "No" to silence and its oppressiveness, to easy or false speaking (which are usually the same), and since each uses the instrument of the body, maybe the body is where dissent begins. In Stag's Leap, early on, in the poem "Unspeakable", it's the narrator's husband who wants silence, who doesn't want to talk about why he's leaving her after 30 years of marriage. Olds writes:

…He shows no anger,

I show no anger but in flashes of humor,

all is courtesy and horror.

American Top 40

I was going to write that I miss Casey Kasem's American Top 40 show, but thanks to my superb research skills, I've discovered that this show is still on the air.

Why did I think I missed it? Because of the shape it gave to American pop music, no matter how flawed that shape was? No matter how conservative and boring most of that music was?

The feuilleton once existed to shape cultural taste, just like Pitchfork only for a general audience. And so, some reviews of new and/or Top 40 songs:

Bilal, "Back to Love", from A Love Surreal—Better than "Starfish and Coffee" but not as good as "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker". Soul embodied through voice after voice, most of them Bilal, smooth, pinched, in-the-clouds and overdubbed into science-fiction layers of existence. When, near the end of the song, he lets the word "love" fall and fall, we realize he's just toying with us. Homage-to-Pitchfork rating: 89.43

Taylor Swift, "I Knew You Were Trouble", from Red—Sitting at number one on American Top 40 as I write these words, this songs is essentially a late 1700s cautionary tale about the dark, handsome stranger and the ingénue who falls for him. "Stay at home," it says, "and don't try anything new, or else you'll end up dying in a snow drift of pneumonia." This song, its lyrics, and Swift's voice are just as generic. Homage-to-Pitchfork rating: Pneumonia-and-a-half

Ivan and Alyosha, "Be Your Man", from All the Times We Had—Put the lyrics out of your mind and be washed away. Otherwise, it's 1962 all over again in terms of pop's verbal ambitions. It's pretty twee. At least songs like this one, the Lumineers' "Ho Hey", and Delta Rae's "Bottom of the River", drenched in reverb and room to frame the singers' voices, sound like they were performed by human beings and not machines. Take what you can get these days. Homage-to-Pitchfork rating: Three billion stars.

Housecleaning

In a recent column, "Music, Meaning and Money", I criticized pop music used in commercials. By the time the piece was published, an exception had come to mind: "Into the Wild" by L.P. Nothing can contain this song, not even the cornball Citibank commercial or the Thelma and Louise rip-off video, and yet, for me, this is a confounding performance, as humane and joyous as it is overproduced and mechanical, all of it woven into… well, maybe the epitome of pop.

None of it would work if not for L.P.'s voice. Sure she sounds startlingly like Neko Case, but there's something more vulnerable in L.P.'s squeaks and bellows, something always at risk of coming apart even when she seductively dips into the lower register. If Case's voice is a tornado, confident and elemental, L.P. sounds like she's successfully riding inside of a tornado and having a whale of a time. Even the risky pause-then-emotional-swell into the chorus works because the singer-songwriter born Laura Pergolizzi counts through the empty space, a human moment that reins in what could easily become an inhuman spectacle. In the superior live version found on the "Into the Wild" single, L.P. chuckles as she says, "One, two…".

The chorus' hook, "Somebody left the gate open"—the only lyrics you actually hear in the commercial—were enough to grab me when I first heard it through television speakers, likely because they took me to another place altogether: the Reverend B.W. Smith's sermon, "Watch Them Dogs", featuring the feist dog, the Doberman, and an unlocked gate. I have no idea what "Into the Wild" is about, other than a leap into freedom and the fear the comes with it; you don't need the jumbled, stream-of-consciousness lyrics to hear that. In "Watch Them Dogs", the gate opens not to freedom but consequence. You cannot run along the fence yapping at the big dog and not expect that one day the gate will be left open.

In the Age of Great Reforms

"The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

– Wayne LaPierre, National Rifle Association CEO, 21 December 2012, in the organization's first official response to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.

"Their paranoid fear of a possible dystopic future prevents us from addressing our actual dystopic present."

– Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, 8 January 2013

"You're the one who thought psychopaths were so interesting. They get kind of tiresome after a while, don't you think?"

– "Hans", played by Christopher Walken, in Seven Psychopaths

Listening to the NRA's Wayne LaPierre speak over, around, and through the massacring of children without missing a beat, it's easy to agree with Lewis Black that this century is starting to look just as physically dangerous as the last one—even if, as Steven Pinker claims in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, it's actually more peaceful.

But when LaPierre delivered his condescending and delirious advertisement and the statement quoted above, instead of the past, I thought of the future—or at least the dystopian future of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road. Talk of "good guys" and "bad guys" would barely pass muster in the most juvenile of mainstream superhero comics, but in The Road, McCarthy's unnamed protagonist uses the phrases to instruct his son.

You're tempted to agree: after all, cannibal hordes are scavenging the deserted highways. But throughout the novel, the angelic if not Messianic boy begins to see through his father's persistent explanations. Eventually he pleads with him to show compassion and, finally, the man accepts his son's wishes. There's a difference, McCarthy suggests, between surviving and living, between being human and being humane.

I don't know if LaPierre has read The Road, but parsing through his rhetoric and that of the NRA's leadership, it's clear that he anticipates a collapse of social order. In comments delivered a week after the murders in Newtown, LaPierre warned:

"…that our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters—people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can ever possibly comprehend them. They walk among us every day. And does anyone really believe that the next Adam Lanza isn't planning his attack on a school he's already identified at this very moment?" [italics in original transcript]

This could be the voiceover script for a zombie movie's trailer, but instead it's the CEO of one of America's largest cultural organizations speaking as responsibly as he can about violence, mental illness, and our desire to live peacefully.

From McCarthy's restraint throughout the The Road, his writing's numbed and ordinary language and simple sentences, you get the sense that he'd rather not have to write this book, that he laments having to put this world to the page. If the novel is notable for the further paring down of McCarthy's prose—where once he was Faulknerian, now he's Hemingway without the machismo—and for bringing genre into fine literature (which is apparently all the rage now, something we're discussing, as if it's a new idea), its realism and austerity is also responsible for making every other post-apocalyptic, dystopian novel and film appear to have been written by a sugar-hyped 12-year-old boy. There are other examples of smart and perhaps more realistic end-of-times novels—Bernard Malamud's God's Grace comes to mind—but none sap the fun from the apocalypse like McCarthy's The Road.

If McCarthy laments civilization's passing, LaPierre and his outspoken brethren seem to embrace its coming demise. When else will they with their AR-15s be able to prove themselves? Certainly they'd claim otherwise. Our civilization is already devolving, they clamor, and guns in the hands of the "good guys" will help turn that around.

But listen to the words as they emerge into the public sphere, or go find them in semi-public chat rooms and forums. Listen to the self-importance, the victimization, the extreme defensiveness, and the fear, yes, but also to the salacious ("They walk among us!") and downright sexy imaginings of a future where everyone is armed, where "good guys" never have to worry about being wrong.

Usher in a new tribal, barbaric age and you usher in a simple heroism more attractive and less ambiguous than the boring and often frustrating constraints of being a citizen in a society. You'll get to do just as you please and become the hero of your own story. Your enemies will be clearly defined because, as "bad guys", they're clearly marked (somehow), and you can cut through them as efficiently and without concern as you do in, well, in one of those video games LaPierre scolded in his press conference.

The question of violence in video games, or art, isn't just about representations of the body, but of embodiments: creating the realistic sense of a human thought and spirit within a frail, flimsy body, with the additional reminder that you only get one. Is it damaging that in video games you can spawn a new body without limit? It would be if I believed any of it was close to real.

The first task of The Road is to convince you that it is utterly real, or, as the critic James Wood wrote in a review of the novel, "what…this world without people look[s] like, feel[s] like". Maybe its second task is this: as with other works of art set in our future, The Road is not only a warning of what we might become, but a diagnosis of what we already are. Wood dismisses this idea in his review, but I can't. The Road is a metaphor for the present.

Do we eat people? I once asked a class when I taught this book.

I'm guessing LaPierre and his buddies would reply, "Yeah, if that's what it takes."

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-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

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