Sunday, October 22, 2006

Sad Songs That Make it Better

I recently came across a blog that explored the saddest songs of all time. I love the catharsis I get from a sad song. Due to the influence of Bob Dylan's "Theme Time Radio Hour" on XM, I'm starting to expand my listening tastes beyond rock, and certainly the genres of country and blues are renowned for their cathartic power. Still, my list is confined to the rock/pop genre, as these songs are the ones that have moved me when listening to them:

10. "Be My Baby" by the Ronnettes. I've blogged about this song before, so I won't say a whole lot. The pathos of the song comes when adding the context of the biographical elements of the marriage of Phil and Ronnie Spector.

9. "Smile a Little Smile for Me" by the Flying Machine. Most of the songs on my list will skew older, since even earnest songs that came out after a certain era come packaged with irony. This song manages to pull off what would otherwise be maudlin sentimentality with disarming earnestness. Call is proto-emo.

8. Anything by Syd Barrett. I've linked to the early Pink Floyd song "See Emily Play." There was a time before spaced out drug addicts wrote nihilistic screeds (not that a good nihilistic screed can't be moving in its own right). Barrett songs were a strange mixture of innocence and corruption, hope and hopelessness. Such a combination leads to melancholy. But its not an unpleasant melancholy.

6. "Standing in the Doorway" by Bob Dylan. Many great break-up songs on "Blood on the Tracks," but in all his oeuvre, this is the song that shows Dylan at his most vulnerable.

5. "As Tears Go By" The Rolling Stones. A common theme of 60s British Invasion artists was nostalgia for childhood. The British rock stars were just as eager as their American counterparts to issue in a new era, but they had more consciousness of the post WW2 culture they came from. You don't see the Byrds, as sentimental as they could be ("Chestnut Mare") reaching for childhood nostalgia. Before the Stones became a bloated arena act, they were capable of such nuance heard here. The youtube video linked to adds even more pathos to an already heart-wrenching song.

4. "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" by Nirvana. This is another song in which the context of the artist's life adds to the pathos. Even without the context though, Cobain's voice conveys an astounding depth of feeling. I'm somewhat disappointed that this song didn't start more a trend of acoustic rock re-interpretations of blues songs, but maybe its for the best. It took someone like Cobain to pull this off, and there haven't been too many Cobains.

3. "Hurt" by Johnny Cash. I'm somewhat disappointed that this song didn't start more of a trend of classic country artists re-interpreting industrial songs, but maybe its for the best. It took someone like Cash to pull this off, and there haven't been too many Cashes.

2. "Let's Roll" by Neil Young. Extremely sad but also extremely inspiring. Neil did justice to the story of Flight 93.

1. "Last Kiss" by Pearl Jam. I'm not linking to a video because this must be played in the imagination. It took about 30 years for this song to achieve perfect symbiosis between lyrics and melody. The melody that Pearl Jam provided wouldn't have been possible in the 60s, but the lyrics wouldn't have been possible in the 90s. The line "Hold me darling just a little while" is not something even an emo shoegazer would be able to come up with today, but it is pure perfection.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Obfuscation in the Culture of Sensitivity

Living in the United States today means living in a culture of sensitivity. All things considered, I think that this is preferable to the culture of insensitivity that reigned for the first couple centuries of our nation's history.

That culture served to obfuscate. Now that the veil has been lifted, we can see in plain site the ugliness that people used to be blinded to. We live in a more "enlightened" time. I cringe to use such a word, since it seems so self-aggrandizing to refer to one's own time as more enlightened than a previous era, but I like the fact that it implies that our knowledge today is a result of a better perspective (or more light, metaphorically speaking) and not necessarily the result of greater intellect.

And yet, for all the advantages of living in a culture of sensitivity, we can not escape the fact that any prevailing paradigm will bring with it a concomitant power of obfuscation which will discursively manifest itself across a spectrum of attitudes and beliefs. One such nook or cranny which has been obfuscated is the prism through which we seek to understand the drunken ramblings of one Mel Gibson.

It has been absolutely fascinating to read the various opinions about the power of alcohol to elicit speech. The mainstream media has solicited an abundance of opinions from medical and psychological experts centered around the question: "Is alcohol truth serum?" One would think that given the prevalence of the practice of alcohol consumption in our society, it would have been of paramount importance long ago to discern the degree to which we can trust the veracity of drunken utterances. Yet heretofore a hermeneutics of the bottle have apparently been the province of each individual's intuition, and it took an anti-Semitic rant by a Hollywood star to encourage a widespread exploration of this issue.

I haven't seen a consensus regarding the answer to the question, but there seems to be a general willingness to assume that anti-Semitic speech indicates anti-Semitism. And this is where I think our culture is blinding. It goes against the grain of our culture to exonerate someone of racism if there is evidence of racist speech, yet I believe it is possible.

Although the concept of "Othering" has been a basic assumption of psychoanalytic philosophy for decades, a general awareness of this principle is astoundingly absent from the mainstream. Basically, the idea is that human beings define themselves, or constitute an identity, by defining what they are not. In order to do this of course, you need an "other."

I believe that in moment's of conflict with another person, any and all attributes that separate you from that other person will immediately come to the forefront of your consciousness. In states of sobriety, we know enough to discern which of these differences are acceptable to articulate and which are not.

A few years ago I worked at a radio station which sold a large block of its Saturday schedule to a Hispanic man with a Spanish-speaking program. This man was also rather large. One day, he greatly inconvenienced one of my co-workers by belatedly announcing that he needed extra personnel to help with his show. My (skinny white) co-worker vented to me, and referred to the man as a "Fat(expletive)." I would be willing to wager that my co-worker also thought about the man's Hispanic ethnicity, but he knew that any comment referencing the ethnicity would be out of bounds. Clearly, the man's corpulence was no more relevant to the situation than his ethnicity, yet that was something that my co-worker, in this context, could invoke with relative impunity.

Now, if my co-worker was inebriated, it seems quite likely to me that he would have referred to this man as a "Hispanic fat (expletive)." Such a statement would clearly be a racist statement, but would it imply that my co-worker was racist? Does my co-worker hate fat people? This is a complicated question, and on some level there is clearly a prejudice present. But is it a prejudice that he should be punished for, particularly if it is human nature to have an innate prejudice about anyone who is different in any way from oneself?

I'm not sure I can adequately answer these questions, since in many ways I am a product of my culture of sensitivity. As we move further and further from a culture of insensitivity, it is my hope that we can move toward enlightenment, and that we will be able to know where Othering ends and racism begins.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Radical Reactionaries

The tragic Amish school shooting this week caused me to come to a couple realizations about not only Amish culture, but mainstream American culture.

First, I realized how odd it really is that that group has achieved a high level of recognition without a commiserate notoriety. Everyone knows that the Amish exist in this country, that they dress a certain way, and that they don't embrace modern technology. However, the occasional Weird Al parody or short-lived UPN series aside, the mainstream culture has for the most part avoided commodifying a group that holds great voyeuristic appeal. When one thinks about all of the fictional stories in various media about anachronistic "trapped in the wrong time" Encino Man-esque scenarios, it seems puzzling that the mainstream culture has averted its gaze from living embodiements of a different era. While some may attribute such a lack of interest and exploitation to sensitivity, I guess I'm a bit too cynical to assume a motivation that pure.

To the mainstream, the defining trait of the Amish would be their eschewing of technology. However, I wouldn't imagine most people to know the official Amish ideology regarding the use of technolgy (which holds that technology isn't evil). Most people probably don't understand that the reason for the avoidance of technology is to avoid corruption by too much contact with the outside world.

This week, technology aside, mainstream culture was exposed to another aspect of Amish ideology: the belief in forgiveness. The idea of "turning the other cheek" and "loving one's enemy" is so alien to human nature, and contrary to most cultural codes (secular or religious) that I see in a new light this community's resistance to assimilation.

Ironically, though the phrase "turning the other cheek" is clearly imbedded within our culture, I'm finding out that lacking context, many people have no idea what it actually means. I can remember a time in my youth when I wondered what the phrase actually meant, before I read the Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew. In college, a friend of mine (who was in my confirmation class several years before) asked me what the phrase meant. More recently, I've been teaching To Kill a Mockingbird to tenth-graders. Atticus Finch is certainly a cheek turner, and I asked both of my classes in discussions if they knew what the phrase actually meant. One of my classes was completely ignorant. In the other, after a lengthy pause, one of the students rasied his hand and said "If someone punches you one one side of the face, turn around and tell them to punch you on the other side." A couple of other students snickered, thinking he was being facetious.

The scary thing is that I actually teach at a Christian school, and many of my students have very strong Biblical backgrounds. They know their Sunday School lessons very well, and are not afraid to incorporate Biblical values into discussions of secular books and ideas. In other words, their lack of knowledge about turning the other cheek is not indicative of a general unfamiliarity with Biblical tenets.

I wonder if the Christian community's de-emphasis of loving one's enemy (and the concommitant positions within the Christian political community regarding such issues as capital punishment and interrogration of terrorism suspects) isn't in some way representative of the dangers of assimilation with mainstream culture, an assimilation assidulously avoided by the Amish to the detriment of their own material comfort.

I also wonder if the lack of scrutiny the mainstream puts on the Amish can be attributed not to altruism, but guilt. We'd rather not be made aware of the degree to which forgiveness is really possible.