Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Friday, June 17, 2005


Perhaps "shame over unearned privilege" is part of what drives the fake blue collar thing. But a more innocent explanation might be that white middle class/upper class kids just wanted an experience that seemed more interesting than their boring upbringing in the suburbs (that and blue collar folks also get to wear much cooler more comfortable clothes ).

Here's where I'm going with that idea. Up until the '60s, the mass media (such as it was) typically reflected the attitude and perspective of the top world. Consequently, many of the venerated images were those of the elites. In a way, one could say this about much of art and music from god knows when (like the 16th century or does it go back further) until some point in the middle of the 20th century. But it might be more fair to argue that there was a slow slide down the class ladder beginning in the latter half of the 18th century, where top world art and music cease to be purely of the royal court and start to incorporate "folk" elements and reflect the social world of the rising middle class/petite bourgeoisie.

I may be wrong about this, but if we were to track the diffusion of the creation of the "modern" self, it probably started with the richest elites and then worked its way down to the masses, just like many innovations have.

So while by 1960 the middle class and its concerns were well integrated into the culture of top world, the conventional wisdom of the mass media gatekeepers was still that the stories most worth telling were those of the winners (i.e., privileged elites and a smattering of up from the bootstraps tales about poor people of all stripes conquering adversity to join the "winners").

I picture dudes like William S. Paley of CBS doing their best to entertain the elites and uplift the masses, helping them assimilate top world values. This is that middle brow era that Alex Ross has talked about in his writing. It's the backdrop of my dad's upbringing, the Jewish immigrant learning the French Horn, attending youth symphony concerts at the Academy of Music, graduating from Central High School in Philly, ultimately attending the conservatory at Oberlin on the GI Bill and getting smitten by the high modernist atonal music bug (with many parallel explorations before and after into bebop, free jazz, etc).

In any event, for someone like my dad, it seems like the movement was either upward towards high culture or lateral into the working class black culture of Jazz (or maybe it's more fair to argue that Jazz [or at least Bebop] actually represented even in the 1940s a black high modernism parallel to the white atonal modernism). So to the extent that Jazz is a bottom world music, people like my dad encountered it not as disconnected white suburbanites, but rather as fellow urbanites laterally related by economic status but separated by race and cultural heritage (and probably more sheltered from the darkest aspects of the bottom world too, truth be told, but nevertheless no strangers to prejudice).

To my mind, the big shift in the late 1950s and early 1960s is that the rockist ideology turns a lot of this stuff on its head (actually, I think the rockist ideology is really just a music specific sub-set of a broader ideological thing that was going in this period).

It's the confluence of a number of factors:

First, you have the increasing dissemination of Marxian ideas about class, subjectivity, etc, as well as Freudian ideas about the self, etc.

Second, you have a large generation of people many of whom are the grandchildren of the immigrants who arrived in the US during the great immigration wave of 1885-1905.

Third, you have the reality of post-war American Hegemony and rising affluence.

Fourth, you have the collective historical amnesia of the 1950s that erased much of the history of class struggle in the first 35 years of the 20th century, butting up against the reality of the civil rights movement (the ultimate movement of an erased people).

Fifth, you have the legacy of the 1930s WPA projects and the folk cultural anthropology of people like Lomax sinking into the firmament, obscured by the above referenced historical amnesia but still increasingly visible in the urban folk revival of the 1950s.

And Sixth, you've got increasingly cheap audio and video reproduction technology, coupled with an increasingly robust radio and television infrastructure.

What you get out of this, starting perhaps with earlier adopters like the beats, Marxist academics, labor organizers, folklorists, etc. is a sense that the top world reality is not representing the subjectivity of a lot of people who live in America (like maybe most of them). You also get a scenario where these erased people start to have the means to communicate with each other more easily across greater distances, receive their own culture on a mass scale (country and blues radio), and begin creating a more clearly delineated self-awareness, as well as a more clearly delineated market segment with dollars to spend and needs to fulfill (needs which in many cases were not the same as those of the top world). Obviously, this market had always existed, and it had always been serviced. But in the period after 1920, it really starts to get serviced on mass scale, whether by Henry Ford, Singer Sewing Machines, or the people making all those Hillbilly and Race records.

What does this mean? Well on the one hand, at an individual psychological level, you've got a lot of people with evolving subjectivity (like the folks I've already mentioned). Plus after WWII you've got teenagers of all stripes, who start getting defined as a distinct group (and market sector), with distinct concerns, and for the first time income and time to spend it. Lots of time. Time to be bored. Time to dream. Time to wish that their existence was something, anything other than what it is.

It's Henri Lefebvre's concept of "everyday life" writ large. Lawrence Grossberg summarizes Lefebvre this way:

"Everyday life is not the same as daily life. It is a particular historical organization of the space of daily life, an organization based on principles of repetition and recurrence. It is daily life becoming routinized, without any principle which can define its unity and meaningfulness. Everyday life is predictable, and, paradoxically, that predictability is itself a kind of luxury and privilege. At the same time,·everyday life is a form of control: in Foucault's terms, a kind of disciplinization or, in Deleuze's terms, a politics of territorializtion."

According to Grossberg, "Rock's Politics are defined by its identification of the stability of everyday life with boredom. Consequently, it can only act as a deterritorialization. It draws and produces 'lines of flight' which transform the boredom of the repetition of everyday life into the energizing possibilities of fun. It creates temporary and local places and spaces of mobility and deterritorialization. It challenges the particular stabilities or territorializations of the everyday life within which it exists by producing and celebrating mobilities."

For many teenagers in this period, Grossberg continues, their parents had done everything possible to erase all memory of their immigrant past, the depression, the war, etc. and assimilate them into a top world fueled/defined notion of being a "normal American." This push is undoubtedly more about their parents aspirations and anxieties than those of their children. But in many cases the parents actions are being taken in the name of the children and for the sake of the children. And let's just say that those sorts of aspirations form an existence long on persona and short on shadow to use some Jungian terms (and as Jung said, most of the shadow is pure gold).

Nevertheless, the glimpses the kids get of their grandparents' experiences intrigue them. So do the glimpses of bottom world that the radio brings them in the form of R and B, etc.

Many of these kids start to discover hermeneutics, even though they probably have no idea what that word means. Whether out of boredom, curiosity, or a sense of being lied to, they start wanting to look underneath the surface to see what's there. They become aware of and intrigued by the shadow side of America, what Mike Davis called the Noir sensibility in his book "City of Quartz": Poor people, ethnic minorities, freaks, outcasts, etc. (people who in some cases these kids are blood related to and only really one generation removed from). Marcus called this the "Old Weird America" in his book on the "Basement Tapes" (although I get the sense that Marcus is referring to the rural shadow cultural while Davis is talking more about a slightly later urban iteration of it).

What many of these kids found down below seemed pretty fucking cool to them. Indeed, it was much more interesting and exotic than their own highly disciplinized, boring, safe existence (an existence their parents no doubt cherished: after growing up during the Great Depression and living through World War II they were more than ready for some luxurious "everyday life" in the Lefebvre sense). It also seemed more "true," especially in light of their dawning consciousness of things like the civil rights struggle, nuclear proliferation, and the war in Vietnam.

This is part of the process that we lose 40 years after the fact: the sense of wonder. At the same time, it's hard to comprehend the sense of outrage many must have felt upon finding that the top world story and the bottom world story were often so at odds with each other.

Watergate and its aftermath has permanently scarred most of us under 45 with a cynicism that makes the Boomer outrage hard to comprehend (what the hell did they expect? Life isn't fair and it's power and politics all the way down. No shit Sherlock).

But you too might be outraged if people had told you a fairy tale about how America worked for the first 16 or 18 years of your life and then you started finding out that it wasn't really true much of the time: That black people and poor people are often treated really badly. That their cheap labor is part of what makes the comfortable middle class existence possible. That there are white people in America who are so racist that they won't think twice about killing people to maintain segregation (even idealistic young white people like Michael Schwerner). That powerful men will send young men to a place like Vietnam for muddled reasons, then abstract the deaths of these young men into aggregate body count numbers on a balance sheet, like these lives were simply a cost variable at a General Motors plant (say hey McNamara).

At the same time, the lines were much more tightly drawn in the early 1960s than they are today (or so it seems to me). And a lot of this stuff was much more obscured and unavailable. There was also more danger in crossing those lines to find it. People didn't hop on Google and pop up a list of every old blues recording in existence (or whatever) and then download the mp3 from iTunes or order it from Amazon. There was no vast cohort of niche marketers waiting to make a buck of the long tail of demand.

In short, there was no map. Instead, there was a large mass of mysterious cultural artifacts from the first 30 years of the 20th century, forgotten or erased by the Depression, World War II, and the Cold War.

I'm sure this is where the sense of the underdog comes from. You see this thread all over the intellectual history of the period. This sense of being lied to. This sense that all the sanctioned history is very narrow and focused only on the subjectivity and activities of a very small subset of Americans (mostly rich white guys). This idea that the truth is out there, but it's covered up and needs to be exposed.

In part, this is where the Marxism comes in (at least in the academy), shifting the focus of inquiry onto bottom world, and the people who live under the radar. Whether it's E.P. Thompson writing the history of the English Working Class, Eugene Genovese devoting 700 pages to the world the slaves made on southern plantations, or feminists working to write women back into the story, you see an impulse throughout the culture to make the shadow visible, to say that the experience of an average British worker, plantation slave, or an average woman is just as worthy of historical inquiry and analysis as the experience of the rich white guys who usually run the world. And you see people trying to take these stories on their own terms as a part of the totality of American culture rather than viewing them as atomized anthropological field studies.

The battle to legitimate this sort of inquiry cannot be underestimated. It was hard fought (to a certain extent it continues to this day--although the whole attack on "Political Correctness" is kind of backlash against it). And the people pushing this agenda were most certainly the underdog in that moment, to the extent that they were out of step with the mainstream public opinion, even if they weren't necessarily out of the economic mainstream.

Today, on the other hand, these same folks are in many cases the white guys running things-- my two lefty mentors from the early '80s at U of Michigan are now the Dean of the LSA and the director of its Residential College.

You've also got venerated mainstream histories like James McPherson's "Battle Cry Freedom," about the Civil War, where there's not even an issue that he's going to try and spend a little time talking about the role of blacks, women, and working people in that conflict. He also spends quite a bit of time talking about things like the riots they had in New York City in response to the draft (and resistance to the draft in general).

That this sort of information is now in the Pulitzer Prizing winning Oxford history of the Civil War is an unspoken but important legacy of the impulses that started gaining momentum in the 1960s. You can bet that very few people in 1968 had even a dim awareness that there were huge protests against the draft in the 1860s. Today this is probably pretty common knowledge. I'll bet it probably even gets a mention in the Ken Burns PBS documentary).

But what about Rockism? Well, I think a lot of the same impulses are present there too. And just thinking about it, this impulse is a pretty romantic one. So it may be safer to argue not that Rockism adopted a romantic mode, but rather that Rock is a part of a large Romanticist trend that reared its head during the late '50s and into the '60s. For Romanticism is very much about venerating old things and traditions even as it is also about overturning current social conventions.

To me, the decade of the 1960s at a cultural level is very much tied up in notions on subjectivity and identity creation. So perhaps it is not surprising that the romantic mode was appealing given its emphasis on individual agency, heroic action, etc. (Shoshana Zuboff has some interesting thoughts on this in her book "the Support Economy" [a rare thing: a feminist business book]. In the end, the book's fantasy imagined "support economy" of the 21st century doesn't seem to add up to much. But her discussion of the evolution of subjectivity in the 19th and 20th century is very useful.)

Be that as it may, the full-on ascendance of these romantic ideas does create problems. For one thing, that moment is over. Much of the romanticism of that period took a dump after Watergate. Perhaps that's why rockism seems like a thing unto itself now rather than part of a bigger movement. The cultural Zeitgeist fizzled out in the '70s but somehow that romantic impulse seems to have survived and flourished in the limited confines of pop music discourse and practice.

But when we are all rockists so to speak, how does one continue to be an underdog, especially if rockism has become the entrenched social convention? Moreover, what if you never really were an underdog, but underdogs just seemed a lot cooler than the boring people around you? Where does that leave you exactly? And what happens when the theoretical basis for authenticity resides with "underdog" status but there aren't really that many authentic underdogs left to pass judgement on who is authentic (just a bunch of faux underdogs imposing on everyone else their fantasy imagined rules about what an authentic underdog looks like)?

Well, that's when the mask goes on. And that seems to be a mask the kids have been putting on at least since the 1960s, and probably long before. And that process, I suspect, does relate to anxiety about privilege (or a realization that privilege doesn't sell very well in the rockist market place). Or maybe it's just that all teenagers feel like underdogs at some level, no matter how privileged they really are, and the rockist ideology has survived because it's a very effective tool for giving voice to this particular developmental moment (since its ascendance coincides with the emergence of teenagers as an acknowledged socio/cultural group).

Or perhaps it doesn't really matter at the end of the day. Perhaps the rock musician simply serves as one of late capitalist culture's rebel/underdog archetypes, living out that path for this time and place so that everyone else can experience those things from a distance, taking comfort in the possibility of that particular "line of flight" without actually having to pursue it. I can think of worse things. For as our friend the Pie Man is fond of saying, "Everyone needs a little structure."



(JOHN'S FOOTNOTES: Jake's dad is the composer and retired conductor Edwin London, who at one point in his life played French horn in Oscar Pettiford's big band. The Pie Man is a friend of Jake's and mine who's a social worker and who would probably prefer not to be quoted by name hereabouts.

Thanks Jake!)
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