clap clap blog: we have moved

Thursday, February 12, 2004
Quo Vadimus (on figh-uh lately, by the way) posted a link to this Chris Rock article a while back. It's a great little piece, albeit mainly because it contains a sort of unjustifiably large number of selections from Rock's current stand-up set.

But I've wanted to comment on this bit for a while:

But the beauty of his comedy and the reason he is pop is that though a tough moral streak runs through his comedy, Mr. Rock remains steadfastly nonpartisan.

"Republicans are fucking idiots and Democrats are fucking idiots and conservatives are fucking idiots and liberals are fucking idiots. Pretty much anyone that makes up their mind before they hear the issues is a fool, O.K.?" he said onstage at Madison Square Garden to healthy applause. "Everybody wants to be in a gang. Why don't they just fucking make up their own mind."


When I said he had talked a lot about President Bush, Mr. Rock stopped me. "I'm talking about the President. In my last special, I talked about Clinton. I haven't picked a side. I'm still where I've always been. It's my job to talk about the President, no matter who he is," he said. And a little later, worried that he'd be perceived as being co-opted, he said what generations of comics have said, "You want me to take a political stance. That's career suicide."

...Well, did Mr. Rock think that Republicans or Democrats were better at creating the kind of distractions to which he was referring earlier? "People like distraction," he said with a smile that suggested he was not going to be fooled into committing career suicide.

The problem with this stance--and you don't have to watch too many late-night monologues to know how widespread it is, Leno's wink-wink emergence as a de facto crypto-fascist notwithstanding--is that, practical though it may be, it's pretty antithetical to the whole idea of comedy; if anything, it tends toward nihilism, and even more than tragedy, this is what comedy diametrically opposes. Comedy is about breaking through what's currently existing, about opening up possibilities without regard for self-interest necessarily. It's not a wholly good thing by any means: sometimes what's currently there is worth preserving. But I think if you are a comedian, you should be a little more conscious of this idea.

It's certainly not true that taking a political stance is anti-pop. Being populist doesn't mean trying to appeal to everyone; indeed, as a political term, it actually means appealing to a very particular element of society, the working poor. Even in art, it doesn't mean what the author's implying here. Britney's first album didn't appeal to anyone above the age of 16, and yet you'd certainly call that pop. Moreover, choices it could have made to appeal to a broader demographic were deliberately avoided. I'm not saying that Rock avoids making somewhat controversial statements, but the whole formulation of the argument there--that expressing your political beliefs is a betrayal of your pop impulses, a view you'd certainly expect me to be sympathetic to if true--just isn't accurate.

If I were to translate Rock's "career suicide" statement, it would go something like this: "Look, I'm really pretty much a party-line Democrat, like the majority of African-Americans, but I can't admit that, because the country's in such a conservative mood right now, and enough people who control the media outlets I need access to are conservative that it just doesn't seem worth the risk to come out as a Democrat when I could continue to do what I'm doing now, i.e. working some of my political beliefs into the act, but also using politics as a source for jokes about personalities in the same way I use other celebrities and ignoring the political content." I mean, come on, making Clinton jokes hardly disqualifies you from being a Democrat.

I'm not saying his stance isn't useful, but it's not really true to the idea of comedy. And I think he's overlooking a few other options here. For instance, let's look at this quote:

"Look at Bill Cosby. Look at Dick Gregory. As far as who's the bigger activist, who?s got more stuff done." Mr. Rock cupped his hands around his mouth and whispered, "Bill Cosby." Then he said, "That's how you do it. Do I want to march down 125th Street or do I want to put myself in a position to give Tuskegee [University] $40 million? That's where it's at. That's the real gangster shit. That's the real activism."

Now, on the one hand, I can't deny the wisdom of his statement. 99% of the time, having the power of the purse is more politically effective than speaking out, to say nothing of the positive social changes Cosby arguably brought about through his work. (Normalizing blacks as middle class, etc., you know the spiel by now.) But on the other hand, I'm not sure that Bill Cosby and Dick Gregory are your only two choices here. For one thing, there are a lot more people in Gregory's position than Cosby's; I'm sure that young black activists would love to be able to set up scholarship funds, but they can't, and it's ultimately the luck of the draw as to whether they can get to the point where they can. There's certainly no evidence that Gregory would have gotten to Cosby's point if only he'd kept his fool mouth shut, and that granted, what are all the people who know they'll never get to that donate-$40-million level supposed to do? Continue to avoid taking political stances and just hope? That doesn't seem very useful. Now, admittedly, since the fact is that Rock himself is pretty close to that Cosby level, maybe there is a good argument to be made for him continuing along that path. But it hardly follows, as the author seems to want to conclude, that this is the path for every comic.

But more importantly, I think there's a clear option or two or three for political comedy beyond the models suggested by Gregory's complaining-about-things-and-marching-in-the-street and Cosby's middle-of-the-road social critique. For one thing, it's important to realize that neither one is, in fact, actually comedic. The Gregory model--which, since I don't want to get tied up in issues of how much Gregory actually conforms to this model, I'll call the "ideological model"--explicitly places the joke-teller outside of the joke, failing to implicate the source in the issue being addressed most of the time, and when you're standing outside the carnival looking in, you're not being comedic, you're simply an observer. It is a bad joke; it is not comedic. The Cosby model, on the other hand--the late night, "pox on both your houses" Romeo & Juliet model--by saying, as Rock does, that everyone's stupid (except me, and maybe my audience) shuts down all hope for change, assumes all is corrupt and debased and that this is bad and not even worth dealing with; your job is simply to sit outside it and throw up your hands in exasperation. By explicitly denying avenues for change, it's not comedic, it's tragic.

So what would a truly comedic political humor be like? For one thing, it would refuse to sit outside. If you'll permit me to be really pretentious and quote Mikhail Bakhtin:

Let us enlarge upon the second important trait of the people's festive laughter: that it is also directed at those who laugh. The people do not exclude themselves from the wholeness of the world. They, too, are incomplete, they also die and are revived and renewed. This is one of the essential differences of the people's festive laughter from the pure satire of modern times. The satirist whose laughter is negative places himself above the object of his mockery, he is opposed to it. The wholeness of the world's comic aspect is destroyed, and that which appears comic becomes a private reaction. The people's ambivalent laughter, on the other hand, expresses the point of view of the whole world; he who is laughing also belongs to it.

When humor sits outside, it provides its audiences with the illusion that they're outside, too. You don't have to provide them that luxury, no matter how undeniably comforting it might be. By implicating yourself in a comedic critique, you present a far more honest picture of almost any issue. In addition, you should feel free to take sides, but more importantly, you shouldn't be afraid to take different positions--truly take them--over time. This sort of deliberate irony will let you fully appreciate the value of both approaches, and you can both mine a lot of comedy and a lot of insights from the process of uninhibitingly setting the two against each other. The joke-to-joke seesaw from one viewpoint to the other ("Today, President Bush mispronounced something! Also, John Kerry's hair looks weird!") may come off as more intelligent--you're too smart to be duped by either side--but it's ultimately less valuable, because it presents both as essentially invalid when we know that's not the case. (Or, at least, I hope we know that.) You don't have to be so self-involved, so concerned with being right, that you miss the opportunity for a good joke.

Don't get me wrong--I'm not saying that either the ideological or R&J model are bad ones. I'm just saying they're not comedic, and they're not really political, either. They're just jokes. And that's OK, but presumably there are some comics who might want something more.

But while we're talking about political humor, let's move on to political songs, shall we? From Chuck Eddy's P&J comments:

A more politically correct blip in my ballot is that, for the first time in ages, I suddenly seem to love protest songs. Maybe I just read the newspaper more this year, I dunno. It was hard not to, and it was hard not to take pre-emptive quagmire and Constitution dismantling personally, plus what used to be paranoid wacko conspiracy theories now seem like good common sense, so maybe topical songs just hit me harder because of that. But I'd argue the three explicit anti-war demonstrations (Panjabi MC with Jay-Z, Living Things, Man in Gray) and one explicit illegal-immigrant statement (Molotov, whose Mexican-American audience may well now vote Republican next year) on my list might be just more evidence that the Left is finally getting intestinal fortitude; ditto Merle Haggard's "That's the News," which I almost voted for as well. These records still all come off kinda muddled and confused, in a way, but then so do Clark and Dean and Edwards and Kucinich, and I'd vote for any of them too, you know?

Before we start, let me note that I don't want to single Eddy out here--it's just a close-at-hand intro to the topic. But really, that whole bent to this year's P&J comments rubbed me the wrong way. Let me try and explain why, in addition to talking in general about the problem with "political music."

Partially, the problem is that these folks--critics and musicians alike, but mostly musicians--just don't know enough about politics. Now, don't get me wrong; while I've certainly said before that political elitism, unlike artistic elitism, is sometimes justifiable and certainly wholly within American and liberal ("in the classical sense") political values, that's not really what I'm advocating here. I'm not saying that these people should shut up, because they shouldn't; good for them for participating in the discourse, although a pat on the head is really all I'm willing to grant. And neither am I saying that no musician or comedian could ever know anything about politics, since not only are there a good few who do pull this off (George Carlin, John Stewart, etc.), but I myself have managed to learn both the guitar and at least enough about politics to discuss it without looking like a moron (or I hope so, anyway), which is partially why I'm so annoyed by this stuff--I know it COULD be better if people really wanted to be.

It's problematic because they look like idiots, and when you look like an idiot, people are far less likely to take you seriously. And this should not be so forgivable. Sure, Eddy gets the same muddled message from Panjabi MC as from Howard Dean, but Dean's trying to appeal to a wide swath of the electorate, not express his own personal viewpoint, which theoretically is a lyricist's whole reason for existing. The sad bit about lame-ass "political" songs is not their ineffectiveness, but their incoherence. A national politician has a good excuse for being vague and strategically dumb; a musician has none, unless s/he's being overly careerist, in the Chris Rock mold. And that would certainly seem to be indefensible to someone who cares about politics. (Although if done well--Eminem's undeniably careerist artistic/political participation in the mini-culture war surrounding the first three albums was masterful--I can certainly find it very interesting.) But I don't think this is regarded as political speech by most people anyway. Britney saying "I support the President" seems like a more commercial than strictly political speech act. No, it's the straight policy statements and ideological critiques in art form ("Politics are back! In art form") that are generally regarded as political speech, and lord, they're dumb. Find me ten statements from political songs that are anywhere near as coherent, informed, or relevant as a run-of-the-mill NYT editorial and I'll give you a cookie. Now, I'm certainly enough of a musicologist to admit that it's often the force of the words and their delivery more than the lyrics themselves that makes the political point, but the problem is that if you admit this, i.e. that non-verbal music itself can make a political statement, then you're opening up a whole can of worms that I'm not sure most proponents of "political music" are interested in having an honest discussion about; sure, they'll pretend like they can hear the anti-corporate rhetoric in an instrumental Godspeed song, but really I'm not sure they want to grant that something without any of the "I'm political!" signifiers like angry lyrics or socially conscious packaging and presentation can have political content. Even if they do, I think it's going to miss all the ambiguities in something that might not necessarily conform to a radical agenda. And ambiguities is a big part of what politics is about, for better or for worse. This is way too big a subject to deal with right now, so I'm going to let it lie. (You could do worse than see my LCD Soundsystem post for a rough overview of the messages you can convey musically.)

But I think a bigger problem with most people's understanding of politics and how this gets into music is that they think politics revolves around certain issues or ideas, like war and environmentalism and women's rights. But it doesn't. Anything can become the subject of politics: a boy from Cuba, cows, cell phones, ATMs, etc. Because politics has become all-pervasive, to say that a song about the President is political while a song about driving a truck is not is simply ludicrous, and arguably the Bush song is closer to the politically personal relationship love song stuff that we'd reflexively think of as anti-political. (How different is "I hate you for your foreign policy" from "Did she go down on you in a theater?" anyway?) Politics is a process, not a monologue about abortion or racism or any subject at all.

And so if you want to write a political song--and by all means, do--you don't need to state your position on and/or justification for a particular issue that could be voted on by Congress. You just need to introduce that positional ambiguity that's missing from so many songs, which either seem intentionally obscurest or annoyingly single-minded. Take a position, give the opposition, play around with it for a while.

I'm going to stop talking about this now, because during a short break I realized it's actually one of the subjects nearest and dearest to my heart, and I'm not sure how good of a job this post is doing of representing it; I'm beginning to suspect "not much" may be the answer. In a way, there's too much to get into and not enough time and not enough coherence. So there it is, for now. Maybe more later.