Saturday, January 27, 2007

Unplugged vs. Plugged In--Part 2

Last week, I posited a definition for the difference between "plugged in" and "unplugged." This week, I'd like to apply the Marxist idea that everything is political, and think about the political implications of my definitions. I would assert that to be "unplugged" implies a politics of the self, an essentially anarchic ideology, while the "plugged in" implies a politics of community.

I'm particularly fascinated in the application of these political definitions to music. Acoustic ("unplugged") music is generally rooted in an ideology of isolationism. The history of the blues is the history of political evolution of oppressed people in America. Cutting and pasting from Wikipedia:

According to Lawrence Levine,[24] "there was a direct relationship between the national ideological emphasis upon the individual, the popularity of Booker T. Washington's teachings, and the rise of the blues."
Obviously, the early bluesmen had no choice but to play acoustic. However, it is noteworthy that the "Great Migration" of Mississippi bluesmen to Chicago resulted in a transformation of the genre from acoustic to electric, at about the same time that Washington's ideology was being supplanted as the dominant ideology of black intellectuals by DuBois's. The bluesmen of the "Great Migration" obviously had a choice about whether to remain unplugged, and their decision to plug in flew in the face of white musical purists who believed they were sacrificing authenticity. In fact, the degree to which black blues players in the pre-War era resisted white expectations is somewhat comically documented in Marybeth Hamilton's recent book "In Search of the Blues." White folklorists would "discover" a bluesmen, bring him north, then watch in dismay as he abandoned a repertoire of "authentic" songs in favor of playing country or folk hits. While the folklorists saw such a move as an abandonment of authentic identity, I see it as an embracing of an authentic political identity. In short, it was a rejection of marginalization.

So what of the white folk singers? Why didn't Tin Pan Alley undergo the sort of transformation that occurred to the blues scene in Chicago? First, they didn't need to work at constructing a viable collective identity. Second, though they may have supported collective economic strategies, they were even more concerned with personal political freedom. Woody Guthrie wrote "This Machine Kills Fascists" on his guitar, not "This Machine Unites Workers of the World."

Of course, on the surface, Bob Dylan represents the ultimate challenge to my thesis. He supposedly "plugged in" at the same time that he moved away from a politics of community to politics of self. After all, when he played acoustic guitar he wrote Civil Rights and Anti-War songs, and when he plugged in he wrote abstract surrealism. I'd have to write an entirely new essay to explain this paradox, but suffice it to say that my reading of the situation is that for Dylan, the abstract and the surreal represented the truly universal--as it did to the Beat poets and other emerging members of the mid to late 60s rock intelligentsia.

The Grateful Dead help to illustrate this point. Based on musical antecedents, by all rights, the Dead should have been an acoustic band (and notably, Jerry Garcia did a lot of solo acoustic work). Yet not only were they electric, but they pioneered a technologically advanced "wall of sound" in concerts. Of course, one doesn't need to be a Deadhead to know the degree to which collectivity was celebrated by this outfit.

Electric music is obviously the dominant template today, so I think it is significant whenever a band gravitates toward acoustic material. I think this says something about the band's likelihood to remain a band. Bands that are interested in "unplugging" are probably comprised of members who want to go solo and explore a politics of individuality. The Beatles were doing a great deal of acoustic experimentation during the "Let It Be" sessions, and Nirvana and Alice in Chains had acoustic swan songs.

How does all of this fit into last week's conversation regarding punk and metal? If metal is a politics of the self, why isn't metal unplugged? I would argue that metal is symbolically unplugged. I think the rite of the "power ballad" is the return of the repressed acoustic spirit of metal. And while I spoke of the "plugged in" nature of first wave American punk, I believe that much early British punk was actually "unplugged." We see Woody Guthrie's anti-fascism re-emerge in Johnny Rotten, explicitly stated in "God Save the Queen." "Anarchy in the U.K." espouses the ultimate in ideology of self. Yet it is not Rotten, despite his perverse charisma, who has emerged as the historic face of the band. It is Sid Vicious, who in many gigs, would bring his electric bass on stage. However, due to Sid's lack of talent, the bass would usually be...unplugged.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Plugged In vs. Unplugged (Part 1)

I've recently read articles profiling early punk rockers David Byrne and Patti Smith. I came away with the same general impressions from both articles 1) If they had come around a few years earlier or later than they did they wouldn't be regarded as punk rockers and 2) For being aging punk rockers, they are both pretty "plugged in."

What do I mean by "plugged in"? My definition of "plugged in" is "having an intense interest and curiosity about life, society, and cultures." A cultural polyglot, if you will. The more I think about it (and research it), most of the survivors from the American punk generation fit into this category. The New York Dolls' David Johannsen would certainly qualify. I went to the website of X's John Doe, and found him ruminating on bugs:

This morning I found a 4" praying mantis on the railing, carried it around for several minutes showing DJ & Exene. What a marvel-alien thing they are, w/ dozens of shades of green, a cross-hatched pattern on their back & that crazy way they swivel their heads. There are a few things I like about the south.
This is a perfect example of what it means to be "plugged in." John Doe is 52 years old and he still marvels at the "crazy way they swivel their heads." His interest in and awareness of geographic uniqueness is also indicative of someone who is "plugged in."

What makes first generation punks the type of people who become "plugged in"? Every documentary or essay on the history of rock treats the punk movement as a crucial reaction to and rejection of the bloated, cynical, greedy, corporate structure rock 'n' roll had supposedly evolved into by the mid to late 70s. I've heard the term "rock's mid-life crisis" as a referent for this phenomena. But I think to refer to punk (particularly American punk) as a reaction to corporate rock is to sell it short. To use words like "rejection" and "reaction" suggests a negative motivation behind the movement. What if the punk's supposed rejection of mainstream conformity was concomitant to a larger spirit of affirmation--of accepting and exploring what the world truly had to offer?

I would like to contrast this spirit of being "plugged in" to the realm of metal. I am certainly not the first person to set up punk and metal as binary opposites. But I can't help but compare the spirit of inquiry present in the first generation punks with the seemingly deadened sensibilities of first generation metalheads. Ozzy Osbourne is, of course, the poster child for what I would call "unplugged"--a state of being in which the self is distanced from the world around it. The reality show "Tommy Lee Goes to College" is also an interesting case study. The show is a variation of the archetypal "fish out of water" formula--with the Motley Crue drummer out of his element in a rural educational institution. Why do we like to see Ozzy and Tommy Lee in reality shows? Why do we find these scenarios funny? I think the humor comes from the tension that comes into play when the "unplugged" individual is forced to interact with an outside environment they don't have the ability to assimilate to. We laugh at the novelty of the strategies that they employ, but we also cathartically recognize ourselves. It can be awfully hard to find the outlet sometimes.

Coming next week: how electric vs. acoustic music figures into the discussion

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Strange Case of the Grateful Red

Bill Walton has a podcast. I've always enjoyed listening to Walton's over-the-top posturings on NBA broadcasts, so when I saw this new entertainment option on, I thought I'd give it a shot. Unfortunately, the podcast was a bit too over the top for me (I guess I prefer Walton held in check by constraints such as having to comment on a game or having to share the mic with others--this medium gives him a little bit too much freedom).

Bill Walton is undoubtedly a weird guy, but I don't think people realize how weird he actually is. I can't think of anyone else whose ideological influences are so contrary. I heard Walton give a radio interview a couple years ago (the term interview is used loosely, as there was a lot more "A" than "Q") in which he couldn't stop gushing about the importance of John Wooden in his life. He actually proceeded to recite John Wooden's pyramid of success. Wooden, of course, is the archetype of the American coach--stern, authoritarian, and no-nonsense. The guy actually lobbied to make slam dunking illegal when he had Lew Alcinder.

Walton boasts of a close relationship with Wooden to this day. Meanwhile, he used to boast about his friendship with Jerry Garcia. I think I read that he claimed to have attended more Grateful Dead concerts than played in NBA games. If the Grateful Dead were a basketball team, it would be really interesting to see how they would match up with Wooden's Bruins. By halftime, The Dead basketball team would probably have dispensed with trying to score points and would be seeing how creative they could get with their passing and dribbling. Their defense would be non-existent.

The odd thing is that Walton seems completely comfortable and at home living amongst two paradigms. You've got the ultimate template of discipline versus the ultimate template for freedom, and somehow Walton manages to espouse them both equally.

Yet Walton's weirdness doesn't stop there. He actually manages to find the nexus between Wooden and Garcia--and then makes himself the antithesis of them both! The one thing Wooden and the Grateful Dead had in common was a rejection of artifice. To be sure, they had different ideas of the authentic, but they were both purists in their own way. Wooden rejected any attempt by an individual to draw attention to himself in a team sport. His teams were truly teams. Likewise, the Grateful Dead were a rock 'n' roll democracy; they might have had some rough spots between members over the years, but as far as rock bands went, they were remarkably functional as a unit. On-stage, the Dead were as co-operative as any of the Bruins championship squads. Wooden and the Dead were both about substance over style. Even if it had been a common practice back in Wooden's days, his teams would have never turned out the lights to introduce the starters. The game was the spectacle, and nothing would distract from it. Likewise, the Grateful Dead never were known for elaborate stage shows that distract from the music.

In Walton's post-playing career, he has carved a niche for himself as the NBA broadcaster most likely to offend or outrage. He is not above hyperbole ("That was the worst pass in the history of Western Civilization"). The very podcast I referenced in the first paragraph is evidence of his willingness to adopt a persona of artifice in order to entertain. For a guy who trumpets his vegetarianism, he sure is full of a lot of bull.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Oh What a Tangled Web We Weave

There is a tension in our culture regarding the art and practice of lying.

We take for granted that public figures lie all the time, but the degree to which we choose to hold them accountable when lies are exposed differs based upon the arena they participate in. For ease of classification, I will use USA Today's four-part color-coded system to analyze how liars are regarded by the media:

1) News--While it is true that a President was impeached for perjury less than ten years ago, "lies" and "politics" are two words often juxtaposed in such a way that we are desensitized to the association. Corruption and bribery still gall us, but not lying for the sake of political convenience. Consider the case of President Bush admitting that he lied about Donald Rumsfeld's job security, then getting a pass (on that topic) from the same media corps that doesn't hesitate to grill him on other topics.

2) Life (Entertainment/Pop Culture)--Nobody takes anything anyone in the entertainment industry says at face value, so there is no outrage when prevarications finally come to light. This is particularly the case with celebrity couples, who constantly deny dating rumors and break-ups. I would like for someone to ask Jennifer Aniston: "Why did you lie about dating Vince Vaughn?" or Nick Lachey/Jessica Simpson: "Why did you lie about the strength of your marriage for months?" I would like to see the utter shock in their eyes.

3) Money--Martha Stewart was unable to successfully code switch from the entertainment world, where falsehood is accepted, to the business world, where it is not. If it comes to light that anyone in the corporate world has lied about anything, they are not part of the corporate world much longer (unless you have already established yourself in the entertainment world).

4) Sports--The sports world contains an interesting tension on its own. It is governed by the same vague middle class morality that governs the corporate structure (think of NBA dress codes, NFL crackdowns on celebrations, etc...) yet contains elements of the glitz and artifice of the entertainment idiom (the clash in this tension was fully realized in the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show). The Nick Saban story was evident of how lying is regarded in this community. On the one hand, he was lambasted by the media (scroll down to the bottom); on the other hand, he received this reaction upon landing at the airport in Alabama.

Now, the general public's reaction to these incidents will naturally be colored by their own experience with lying. Research has shown that most people lie and lie often in everyday conversation. According to those who have conducted the studies, the primary reason we lie is more defensive than offensive--we are protecting our self-esteem. I don't think it would be a regular stretch to say that most everyday liars don't do so because they want to, but because they think they have to.

At the same time, our culture often disseminates messages that hold to the Augustinian and Kantian notions that lying is absolutely wrong. The reason that these philosophers held that lying was wrong was because the liar breaks an implicit contract with others--and now is subject to being lied to. I think this contract, though certainly not consciously articulated on a regular basis, still holds a powerful hold on people. It is what gives fuel to our indignation when we learn that someone has deceived us. It is what gave rise to the invectives hurled against Nick Saban.

On the other hand, there is another implicit contract that I believe governs our discourse. If virtually everyone is guilty of some degree of falsehood, and falsehood is considered to be a grievous sin, it is in everyone's best interests to engage in a conspiracy of silence. Who hasn't been in a position where they were 100% certain that someone was lying to them (there may even be hard evidence to support an accusation), yet lets the liar off the hook and doesn't call them on it?

When Walter Scott made his famous statement about tangled webs and deception, perhaps he wasn't even half aware of how right he was.