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Justice Smith in The Get Down

Dreams, Diaries, and Getting Down: Individualizing the Past Through Youth and Nostalgia

Despite its limitations, television can help viewers make sense of and shape both the world and the struggle for social change.

The bellbottoms, the crop-tops, the afros. The bright red Pumas and kung fu moves. The spray paint on subway cars and Grandmaster Flash on the turntables. Decaying infrastructure and burning buildings. Black youth that rock the block and shoot for the world.

The Get Down, the new series from Netflix, is at its best when it’s a teen drama that intertwines the historical context of black and Latino working class lives — lives so often underrepresented on television — with the incredible culture they produced in the South Bronx in the ’70s. There’s no doubt that The Get Down, with its mythic narrative, vibrant colors, and extravagant musical routines that combine the past with the present, bears the mark of co-creator Baz Luhrman.

Yet to read it solely on those terms is to miss so much of the series’ underlying argument; it’s to miss so much of hip-hop’s underlying argument. From its opening notes that use a 1996 arena concert to frame this ’70s street story, The Get Down tells us this isn’t just about music; it’s about economic inequality, entrenched racism, and the systematic abandonment of a borough. The interludes of news broadcasts and documentary footage aren’t incidental to the story, they’re integral. They’re why this story matters, why it couldn’t be told in another time, why it didn’t happen in another place.

What The Get Down does is use hip-hop — the constellation of DJs, MCs, break dancing b-boys, and graffiti writers — to tell even bigger stories about social, cultural, economic, and historical contexts. The history of hip-hop is a history of urban renewal, white flight, deindustrialization, austerity, drugs, gang violence, and disenfranchisement in the postwar era. It’s also a history of resistance and struggle. Through its teenage protagonists, the series shows how the music and these contexts are inextricable.

Making this history visible are narratives about arson, and frequent glimpses of burning buildings. The series intentionally interrupts otherwise wholesome and universal stories about young love, dreams of stardom, and parental defiance with reminders of the social context in which these teen dramas are happening. At times, these reminders of what has happened in the Bronx may feel forced, but they do important work in highlighting the everyday realities that surrounded these people.

Similarly, Francisco Cruz (Jimmy Smits), a Puerto Rican politician representing the Bronx who is both corrupt and idealistic, sometimes sounds like a nightly news report, but his exposition is as important as the images are in juxtaposing personal stories with systemic ones. This argument is extended further when Zeke Figuero (Justice Smith) — a poet and budding MC — gets an internship with the city’s Fiscal Control Committee downtown at the World Trade Center. The powerlessness of working class black and brown youth finds avenues into the halls of power, and Michael Kiwanuka’s contemporary track “I’m a Black Man in a White World” plays over the scene. Like the burning buildings, like the politician, the series, through Zeke, shows how hip-hop was informed by the race and class politics that characterized the birth of the neoliberal city.

The series also shows the grassroots takeover of abandoned spaces. Spaces that absentee landlords looking for insurance money set on fire are prime spots for partying and working class cultural production. What we hear in the music, and what we see over and over again in the city, is what Tricia Rose identifies as the dominant logic of hip-hop: “flow, layering, and ruptures in line” (Black Noise 38). The past, present, and future flow into one another, are layered on top of, and at the same time interrupt, one another. The 70s-era disco, funk, and soul songs are used for their break beats and are rapped over by wordsmiths like Zeke, manipulating the products of capitalist culture.

Manipulating time, Zeke’s words are played over records from the past. They are about the Bronx in the ’70s, but they also suggest his future as a rap superstar selling out arenas in the ’90s, while simultaneously suggesting the memory of all of this in 2016. There’s no single conception of time here; the past of the black and Latino working class Bronx collides with decades of neglect, and runs into a future where these stories are mythologized on a superheroic scale.

As much as this series is about the music, graffiti is an equally eloquent manifestation of the series’ arguments. The roar of the subway is a constant on the soundtrack. Images of graffiti-covered cars serve as interstitials between scenes and episodes, a constant reminder of the distance between the Bronx and Manhattan, between labor and capital, and deindustrialization and austerity. They are a constant reminder of how graffiti writers, like DJs and MCs, took back the city by creating art as a response to the politicians that left them for dead.

The show’s thesis is that out of neglect came an even stronger need to proclaim oneself. Hip-hop was a way of affirming the value of black life in the face of those who said they didn’t matter. Hip-hop was people of color showing that they had something to say, that they were more than statistics or burned out buildings or housing projects. In hip-hop, and on The Get Down, the South Bronx isn’t just a warzone or a ruin, but a community; it’s families and churches and crews.

This isn’t a new idea — scholars and journalists have been putting forth a similar ones for decades — but it’s a departure from discourses that dominated the graffiti writing of the ’70s, which vilified hip-hop as mere evidence of social decay, juvenile delinquency, and the inferiority of black life. The fact that the series isn’t built around a “gritty realism” is certainly a testament to Baz Luhrman’s over-the-top musical aesthetic, but it’s also a reevaluation of the South Bronx that draws not just on the burned out buildings within it, but equally on the vibrant colors of graffiti or the energetic flows, layers, and ruptures of DJs and MCs.

As much as The Get Down fits into the history of hip-hop in the Bronx, it can and should also be situated in a longer history of using seemingly trivial youth culture to tell larger stories about social change and race and class struggle in America. These series are a rejoinder to an understanding of mass media as an agent of stupidity, a rejoinder to the idea that all mass culture is identical. These series argue that music, art, and television itself are fundamental ways in which we make sense out of the world, and even out of which we can change the world. As much as they may be products of culture industries that represent bourgeois interests, these artifacts are used — in both the past and the present — as ways of making meaning out of the social forces that shape our lives.

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Shows like The Get Down, American Dreams, and The Carrie Diaries are often nostalgic, but theirs is a nostalgia for black community in the South Bronx, for the civil rights movement in the urban North, or for the queer and feminist spaces of downtown New York, respectively. Theirs is a nostalgia that challenges the easy sense of loss and the erasure of systematic injustice that characterizes earlier series like Happy Days and The Wonder Years.

Premiering in 2002, American Dreams built on the appeals of earlier series also set in the past: its tag line was “Remember the Music. Remember the Innocence”. Yet, this was a series that not only replayed the songs of the past but, like The Get Down, also placed them in historical context. While American Dreams, Happy Days, and The Wonder Years all focus on teens and the family as a locus of both adult memory and youthful identification, American Dreams was a show that used cultural history to engage with narratives of political and social change, setting its early ’60s Philadelphia teens apart from the safe nostalgia of Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage). Indeed, further distancing these teenagers from the suburban whiteness of other series is the class character of both the white, Catholic Pryor family and the black Walker family. Both families are left out of the kind of white flight that marks the Cunninghams and the Arnolds.

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Gail O’Grady and Arlen Escarpeta in American Dreams

One of American Dreams‘s most powerful moments comes in the middle of the seventh episode of the first season. In it, Usher performs as Marvin Gaye singing “Can I Get a Witness?” on American Bandstand; protagonist Meg Pryor (Brittany Snow) sings along in the audience. This scene is intercut with Sam Walker (Arlen Escarpeta) in the locker room at East Catholic High, where he’s one of only three African-American students. Dressed only in a towel, members of the football team play a prank on him by stealing his clothing out of his locker and, helplessly, Sam stands there with the white boys, including Meg’s brother JJ (Will Estes), playing monkey in the middle. Usher as Gaye asks “Somebody, somewhere, tell ’em it’s unfair. Can I get a witness?” as Sam stands by powerless.

The boys on the team are literally there to see what’s happening to Sam, but when confronted by their coach, none of them will come forward to bear verbal witness to the indignities to which they’re subjecting his black body. Sam begs, silently, for someone to tell ’em its unfair, but he’s clearly alone in this. Thus, while the scene’s representation of Usher as Marvin Gaye perhaps invokes the progress of African-Americans in the cultural sphere and reflects the tolerance of the baby boom generation, it also reveals the gross limitations of progress on both an interpersonal and an institutional level. There’s little the school can or is willing to do to defend Sam — or Usher –against the humiliations of institutionalized racism. What’s more, as Meg enthusiastically sings along to Gaye on Bandstand, JJ shows that there are limits to the racial understanding provided by simply listening to black artists. Meg can’t interfere on Sam’s behalf, and neither does JJ, whatever the sense of transracial understanding presented on the sanitized soundstage of American Bandstand.

The distance between white teens and black teens, between white culture and black culture, between white communities and black communities, returns in the season finale when racial tensions in Philadelphia come to a head. On American Bandstand, the dissonance between police violence and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels is replaced by the consonance of urban rebellion and Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child playing Martha Reeves of the Vandellas singing “Nowhere to Run”. The two groups that began in Detroit represent two very different histories of the Motor City, from the garage band to the polished pop of Berry Gordy.

Race Relations and Gender Perfomativity

American Dreams, The Get Down andThe Carrie Diaries do similar work individualizing the past through television’s demands for character and narrative.

Yet what starts out as a sweet pop song evolves into something different. “Nowhere to Run” moves from a song about a breakup into a song about the inescapability of racism, police violence, and oppression. While Motown represented the triumph of middle-class black entrepreneurship, “Nowhere to Run” is the soundtrack to something more volatile, to cities on fire and refusals of the status quo. Crowds of African-Americans strain against police batons while Destiny’s Child bridges the gap between the 21st century — or the LA rebellions of the ’90s — and the ’60s, as well as between peaceful civil rights activism and black power taken by any means necessary. White teens on American Bandstand are told to run home; black teens in North Philly have no home to run to as their streets burn. The episode concludes with a non-diegetic soundtrack of Otis Redding singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. The song at once captures the seeming inevitability of the civil rights movement and at the same time the urgent striving for cultural change to come faster and for teenagers like Meg and Sam to be agents of that change.

Like American Dreams and The Get Down, The Carrie Diaries was a television series about teenagers set in the recent past: New York City in the ’80s. As a prequel to Sex and the City, The Carrie Diaries was constantly winking at knowing fans — a narrative about Carrie’s (AnnaSophia Robb) first Manolo Blahniks, a scene where she tries her first cosmopolitan — and throughout the series, designer outfits were combined with a cheap, gold “C” necklace.

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AnnaSophia Robb and Austin Butler in The Carrie Diaries

While Carrie’s is a commodity feminism rooted in femininity as choice and in the purchase of products to perform gender, the backdrop to Carrie’s presentation of self is Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and the downtown arts scene of the ’80s. With her flamboyant boss Larissa Loughlin (Freema Agyeman), Carrie visits clubs like Limelight and Area and arts spaces like the Franklin Furnace. Carrie’s sense of fashion as spectacle and her performance of gender through clothes, as much as they fetishize commodities, also coincide with the performance art of the downtown scene. In 1984, Carrie probably represents the gentrification of that scene, and indeed her brand of feminism lacks much of the art scene’s critical commentary on the pervasiveness of consumer culture in America, but the show’s allusions to this context maintain remnants of the setting’s more radical self.

This juxtaposition of commodity feminism with downtown performativity is most conspicuous in the third episode of season one, when a still of Annie Sprinkle’s deconstruction of a pin-up photograph flashes across the screen. Narratively, in the same episode, Larissa takes Carrie to the Franklin Furnace performance art space in Tribeca. There, an artist and former porn star named Monica Penny (Adriana DeMeo) invites visitors to put a coin in a jar, after which she opens her legs to display her vagina. As Larissa explains to Carrie, “she’s not selling her vagina, she’s owning it”. When the artist offers Carrie her throne, inviting her to become the artist and to own her own vagina, Carrie runs off, explaining to Larissa that, “I said no, and that’s me, owning my power.”

Clearly, this is an easy construction of feminism in terms of choice, but I don’t think we should let Carrie’s dialogue undermine the context that the series offers by positioning this postfeminist sense of choice in terms of more radical questions of pornography, art, sexual ownership, and the performativity of gender. This kind of performance art does more than just coyly mark the series as a representation of the ’80s, it tells stories that are embedded and woven into historical and political contexts. Part of the power of The Carrie Diaries, as opposed to Sex and the City, is that the context it represents is not the elite Manhattan of the Upper East Side or any number of hot restaurants that get name-checked by the HBO series. Instead, this is an alternative downtown made up of artists and performance spaces. It may be romanticized in many ways and nostalgic in others, but this is a much more feminist and much queerer nostalgia than other recent representations of the ’80s. We must, of course, recognize the ways in which the narrative of the series — which, like Sex and the City, is regularly concerned with the traditional search for romantic love — can undermine the work of the downtown scene, but there’s also room here for Annie Sprinkle and Monica Penny’s vagina.

Entwined with Carrie’s negotiation of gender and the series’ setting in ’80s New York is Carrie’s friend Walt (Brendan Dooling). From the beginning, Walt’s interest in women’s fashion, Rob Lowe, Warhol’s Interview, and his later obsession with The Golden Girls, codes him as gay and as a character for whom coming out will be a key plot point. Much of Walt’s development parallels Carrie’s, as both are characterized by narratives of teenage becoming. Both narratives also centralize sex and relationships in that conversation. More than Carrie’s femininity or feminism, however, Walt’s homosexuality is met with the systemic limitations of being queer. This is most evident when, for Valentine’s Day, Larissa and Bennett (Jake Robinson) — Walt’s boyfriend — take Walt and Carrie to Boy, a leather and drag club downtown. When he arrives at the club Walt angrily tells Bennett that he has nothing in common with the other guys there. Walt sees himself as a middle-class WASP from Connecticut who just happens to be attracted to other men. Bennett questions Walt’s desire for a romantic Valentine’s Day and implicitly questions Walt’s conservative, middle-class identity when he asks, “Why would we want all the conventional stuff? Overpriced chocolates on February 14th, marriage, kids, the white picket fence. We’re not allowed to have that, so screw it.”

Yet by the end of the episode, an AIDS scare forces Walt to recognize his sexuality as not solely a choice over who to love, but over what society steals from him — medical care as much as family — because of who he loves. As Bennett insists, theirs is a struggle shared with a community faced with a medical crisis, social exclusion, and political oppression. Walt resists this understanding, ultimately breaking up with Bennett because he can’t face giving up his middle class dreams and not having a wedding at the Waldorf or a family with the white picket fence. That very acknowledgement, embedded as it is within the show’s representations of time and space, makes these politics unavoidable. There are limitations to constructing both Carrie and Walt’s narratives in terms of individual identity, but their connection to the downtown arts scene and the downtown gay scene contextualizes them in terms of broader politics of feminist and queer identity and nostalgia for the struggles of feminism and gay rights.

In many ways, these series do similar work individualizing the past through television’s demands for character and narrative. These representations of artists like Grandmaster Flash (Mamoudou Athie) and Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), and teenagers like Meg and Sam or Carrie and Walt, use mass culture and subculture to make meaning out of the broader world around them, to make hit songs and dance clubs speak to their experiences of being black or young or female or gay. We shouldn’t dismiss these texts as simply inane forms of mass entertainment. Rather, these series encourage us to imagine young people as agents of history engaged with their social, cultural, and political contexts in ways that move beyond easy nostalgia for a moment of innocence and a mythical home.

There are plenty of things not to like about these shows. The Get Down doesn’t really explore the Afro-Caribbean roots of hip-hop, and its female characters are excluded from hip-hop’s preserve of masculinity. American Dreams relies too heavily on a white girl as an avatar for the audience. The Carrie Diaries too strongly associates middle class femininity with sky-high heels and sparkly, full-skirted dresses. On the other hand, The Get Down also encourages us to take seriously the proclamation of self that comes with music and hip-hop; American Dreams, how black music of the ’60s was a soundtrack to civil rights and urban rebellion; and The Carrie Diaries, how to challenge an icon of postfeminism with performance art and queer spaces.

So, rather than denigrating pleasures — whether those of the past or those of the present — for not being avant-garde enough, for not being critical enough, we should also understand how these series represent marginalized people — whether black teenagers, teenage girls, or television audiences — and show how they use that which is owned, operated, and distributed by the culture industries in dialogue with social and artistic struggle. In doing this, television — racist, sexist, and classist as it so often is — encourages us to understand the everyday ways in which people make sense out of the world, and the everyday ways in which they can shape the world and can shape struggles for social change through art.

Mabel Rosenheck is a writer specializing in media and cultural criticism. She has a PhD in media and cultural studies from Northwestern University, and has been published in the Mad Men, Mad World anthology, as well as on sites such as Vice Sports and the Toast.

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