More (on) Country

Every year when the Grammy Awards show is on, I find myself wondering who its audience is. No one ever seems happy with the nominees, let alone who wins, and most people are generally unmoved by the really contrived “live” (lip-synced) performances. This past year, Kendrick Lamar (who’s a talented MC, but not the next coming of Nas, as some have claimed) not only lost a statue to these guys, but also had to perform with these guys:

 

Watching “country singer” Taylor Swift awkwardly dance to this crap is pretty funny, but it also underscores something important: the Grammy spectacle isn’t about music at all. It’s TMZ, a reality show singing competition, a couple soap operas, and a weird Judge [Insert Name Here] show all rolled into one. It’s an advertising delivery mechanism meant to titillate Two-and-Half Men viewers, even as they express moral outrage at all the flesh, flash, and crudity on display. It’s maybe the most Hollywood thing on television in that it’s not even trashy enough to be interesting.

If you’re someone who reads this blog and inexplicably finds yourself watching the Grammys, we advise that you go take a leak or pass out during the ten minutes when they announce the country awards or have some generic, horrifically bedazzled Nashviller perform. Ryan’s ably documented the godawful state of contemporary country, with its pop chanteuses, bros of all varieties, and faux outlaws raging against nothing. I would say that we deserve a better class of country musician, but we really don’t. We deserve the crap we’re willing to pay for, and Carrie Underwood concerts alway sell out.

So thank god for YouTube, where you can not only listen to the likes of Dwight Yoakam, but also watch this performance from the 1991 Grammys:

Jiminy Crickets, where to start? You’ve got Gary Shandling, whose Larry Sanders managed to combine the poofy hair of Jerry Seinfeld with the appalling suits of Frasier and Niles Crane. Folks, there was a time when media execs wanted Gary Shandling to host the Grammys. Then there’s Garth Brooks’ shirt. I think we once had some outdoor furniture cushions in that pattern, but I gotta admit, it looks great with a cowboy hat. Then there’s the premise of the vignette that just follows the lyrics of the song:

Grammy Writer: “It’s like a high-society party scene out of Designing Women where Garth is looked down on by snooty types, and then *poof* we’re magically transported to a “dive bar” peopled by Juliard graduates that make him feel right at home!”

Hollywood Suit: “You’re destined for greatness, kid!”

Someone could do a humdinger of a terrible grad seminar paper on this video. Please cite me if you do. From the dinner-theater acting, to Kathy Mattea’s camera face, this marvelous turd is more interesting than anything the Grammys will ever produce again because it’s not even trying to be cool (see the above), a grail quest that has ruined just about everything in our culture. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that the song, which didn’t win a Grammy (because Vince Gill won this category *7* times in the 90s), is a classic in genre that seems determined never to churn out another one.

Early Summer Reading

My grades have been in for a little over two weeks now. I’ve yet to get a complaint from a student about said grades, so I think it might be safe to call it: summer is here. Now, I realize that for everyone not working in education, summer is just a hotter version of the rest of the year. Maybe there are more weekend cookouts. Maybe more white wine is uncorked. Maybe there’s a pilgrimage to some family homestead. But, dammit, even if you don’t get a real summer (and the truth is that most people working in education don’t really have that much time off either, what with summer teaching, course prep, and assorted kinds of career development), there’s a chance that on a warm summer afternoon, you might find yourself with a little time to read. The following are some suggestions for how to fill that time, though we will have more throughout the summer.

  • Let’s just get this one out of the way first. If you’ve yet to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ massive Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations,” you should carve out about an hour and do so. Coates is acknowledged, even by many of his conservative critics, as a great writer. His blog posts and articles about the Civil War, his trip to France, and being a black man in America are always worth reading. Like many writers, his blog posts can be messy, but they’re always lucid, and his longform, and I’d assume more stringently edited pieces, are good examples of what I wish more academics would produce. That is to say, I wish academics, many of whom allegedly study narrative and rhetoric, would spend less time theorizing, and more time time telling compelling stories about the world as it was, is, and could be. When it comes down to it, glossing Foucault doesn’t do what Coates does in the passage below. The tenure system’s perverse relationship with academic publishing is part of what will eventually be the undoing of many colleges and universities. The places that survive will do so because they understand that teaching and public scholarship, like Coates’ work and that of Yunte Huang (notice that he lists “writer” first), are more important than impenetrable “studies” that no one reads.

When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know anyone at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping.

This was hardly unusual. In 2001, the Associated Press published a three-part investigation into the theft of black-owned land stretching back to the antebellum period. The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. The land was taken through means ranging from legal chicanery to terrorism. “Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia,” the AP reported, as well as “oil fields in Mississippi” and “a baseball spring training facility in Florida.”

  • If you’re in the mood for something a little shorter, Dennis Romero at the LA Weekly just nails why people in Los Angeles should sneer at the culture in San Francisco (and not the other way around). Having grown up in the Bay Area, it’s pretty appalling to see what’s happened to the place. Silicon Valley has become synonymous with a utopian mindset that makes me glad it was people like Axl Rose taking buses out to LA instead of people like Eric Schmidt. When people in San Francisco are done “disrupting” the world, they should consider the following, per Romero:

It’s the Bay that has become a parody of smug white privilege… The preachiness of a McMansion-dwelling Westsider telling you to conserve energy will never be as annoying as some Silicon Valley trust-funder telling you he’s going to change the world when you know all he really wants to do is change his wallet. One is trying. One is lying. 

  • The New York Review of Books is always on its game, but I especially love when it produces a little gem of an article about something I previously knew almost nothing about. It does this all the time, mostly because, like most people I really don’t know all that much. So you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that my familiarity with the life of John Quincy Adams, our sixth president and the grandfather of one of America’s weirdest intellectuals, was, uh, lacking. Thanks to Susan Dunn, I now know that JQ Adams had a frustrating marriage, hated slavery, was addicted to politics, knew both Washington and Lincoln, was mocked for lobbying for better education and scientific research, and was a total dick to his children. As Ryan and I like to say, “In America!”
  • Finally, this isn’t strictly a reading recommendation, but a film about a voracious reader and writer seems like an appropriate substitute (famous last words…) Plimpton!, the latest American Masters biopic is  about, wait for it, George Plimpton, the longtime editor of The Paris Review and “participatory journalist” who famously tried his hand at many different glamorous professions, mostly within the sporting world. He turned these experiences into big pieces for Sports Illustrated, and sometimes later into books. He also wrote light novels, showed up in movies, and had his own falconry video game for ColecoVision (yes, this was a real thing). But I think Plimpton was most important as a curator of an American literary culture that took itself seriously, but also knew how to have a good time. One that wasn’t so political, whiny, and boring. One that didn’t give two shits about MFA programs or “critical theory.” One that would have laughed at “trigger warnings” (thanks, UCSB) and “splaining.” Oh, I know, he was a rich kid who basically just didn’t screw up his life, but I really don’t care. The guy loved writers and writing in a way that most people (including many writers) don’t, so that earns him a lot of points in my book.

 

Linking in the Rain

I am well aware of the fact that much of the rest of the country is laughing at Los Angeles right now. “Oh, poor babies can’t deal with a wittle wain?” Laugh all you want. We accept your derision as the price we pay for living so well 350 days a year. But seriously, this rain IS NUTS. Last night, lightning struck just down the street from my house, and downtown got more rain yesterday afternoon than it had in the previous year. LA is uniquely poorly equipped to deal with this kind thing, which (as Ryan pointed out) John McPhee, Mike Davis, and Carey McWilliams have discussed in some of the classic works of Los Angeles naturalism (and LA naturalism is always at least 50% anthropology). So you could read those this weekend as you wait out the storm, or you could read some of the following;

  • Edward Mendelson, the editor of W.H. Auden’s Collected Poems, has written a terrific essay in the New York Review of Books about Auden’s private acts of charity. The following anecdote is my favorite: “I got a phone call from a Canadian burglar who told me he had come across Auden’s poems in a prison library and had begun a long correspondence in which Auden gave him an informal course in literature. Auden was especially pleased to get him started on Kafka.” Auden’s personal kindnesses were just that, personal. Mendelson argues that, “[b]y refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it…On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, ‘I am a good person,’ who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.” This is a provocative thesis, but it makes intuitive sense. Auden was a liberal, but one with a sense of humor. And with a sense of humor comes a sense of the tragic ways every man fails to do what he should. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t judge obviously bad actors (from Stalin down to a casually racist relative), just that in holding ourselves up as paragons of virtue we fail to scrutinize not only our own actions, but even our own potential to do evil. Auden sounds like he was, in most respects, a pretty decent dude. But one could probably make a similar case for the pre-presidential George W. Bush (not Dick Cheney, never Dick Cheney). And we all know how that turned out, right?
  • I guess this is a NYRB-themed post, because we’re sticking with that publication, but getting in the Way-Back Machine and heading to 1979. Just read this opening paragraph from Joan Didion’s “Letter from Manhattan,” an essay about Woody Allen (yes, yes, I know, I am not supposed to mention his name): “Self-absorption is general, as is self-doubt. In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be dressed in ‘real linen,’ cut by Calvin Klein to wrinkle, which implies real money. In the large coastal cities of the United States this summer many people wanted to be served the perfect vegetable terrine. It was a summer in which only have-nots wanted a cigarette or a vodka-and-tonic or a charcoal-broiled steak. It was a summer in which the more hopeful members of the society wanted roller skates, and stood in line to see Woody Allen’s Manhattan, a picture in which, toward the end, the Woody Allen character makes a list of reasons to stay alive. ‘Groucho Marx’ is one reason, and ‘Willie Mays’ is another. The second movement of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony. Louis Armstrong’s ‘Potato Head Blues.’ Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education. This list is modishly eclectic, a trace wry, definitely OK with real linen; and notable, as raisons d’être go, in that every experience it evokes is essentially passive. This list of Woody Allen’s is the ultimate consumer report, and the extent to which it has been quoted approvingly suggests a new class in America, a subworld of people rigid with apprehension that they will die wearing the wrong sneaker, naming the wrong symphony, preferring Madame Bovary.” I’m always trying (and probably failing) to explain to my students why introductions matter. Perhaps I should just show them this and ask if it makes them want to keep reading. Anyone who says “no” gets an F.
  • To bring things back to Los Angeles for a few minutes, please read this excellent Nicholas Miriello essay from the Los Angeles Review of Books that engages with the following topics: Don DeLillo, Martin Amis, Frasier, Spike Jonze’s Her, and Netflix binge-watching. It’s as if he has some sort of NSA file on me…
  • Finally, speaking of Her and the evil we are all capable of, I will once again shamelessly plug work I have recently had published in other outlets. It’s Oscars weekend, so we’ll frame this like an acceptance speech: “First, I’d like to thank Southern Spaces for publishing an essay I wrote on Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. I’d also like to thank Religion Dispatches for running a piece I wrote about Her. Finally, I’d like you all to support the Hawai’i Pacific Review, without which my poem, ‘Two by Two,’ would have remained but a dream.” (Cue the strings, his head is twice its normal size!)

Stay dry, kids.

Sliding into the Weekend

It is almost official spring up here in the Northern Hemisphere, and in southern California we are getting some hearty, sustained, weekend rain, the long kind that makes green things go crazy and washes hard down in the north-LA foothills, but buys California some time time, even if in the long run it doesn’t ease our terrifying drought.

Los Angeles is a city built to nestle under some vicious mountains. When it rains, the rain pours down a serious incline into a metropolis, often in the form of otherwordly mudslides. The Control of Nature, master-journalist John McPhee’s book (1989), has a fantastic chapter (“Los Angeles Against the Mountains”) about this. In ecological, geological, and architectural terms, the LA region is fascinatingly complex; pace a dumb but persistent narrative, “SoCal” is not pH-balanced sunshine. Lucky for us a gifted writer got hold of the truth. Maybe you can buy this book. Maybe you can find it some other way that I don’t know about. Who knows, in this modern digital world? I think it’s McPhee’s best. Plus the cover is great.

But we know you guys back East and in the Midwest and in the South are mostly fucking freezing, so the Reader is going to find something hot. Hang on. Have as much tea as you want.

[leaves room]

[some times passes; let’s say 10 minutes]

OH SHIT HEY. We found it.

Let your tape rock till your tape pop, y’all.

Presidential Links

We have Austrian guests staying with us right now, and when they asked me about the meaning of Presidents’ Day, I realized that I’d never thought about how bizarre it actually is. At least Washington’s Birthday had a kind of mythical ring to it. But Presidents’ Day now means we’re just celebrating the zenith of our awful bought-and-paid-for political system. Might as well call it Ivy League Worship Day. Still, in honor of the fact that many of you are freed from the shackles of work today (sorry, Adam Ted Jacobson), here is some reading material to make your time off more embiggening.

  • Ryan was rightly appalled to hear that I was reading something on Politico the other day. But the chance to read bits of Richard Nixon’s love letters was simply too compelling. I often find myself embarrassed that the lone president the Los Angeles area has given the country is the most reviled one in history. And he’s rightly hated, as the “Southern strategy” his campaigns employed is a big part of the reason our politics are still so racially divided. His letters make him seem pathetic and insecure at times, which makes sense given the paranoia he displayed while in office. But like all people, Nixon contained multitudes, and one of the Nixons buried within him was a maudlin romantic who was obsessed with his wife, Pat. So on this Presidents’ Day, give old Tricky Dick a new reading. It won’t change your opinion of him as a president, but it’s a good reminder that what we know of our leaders even now is incredibly limited.
  • Don’t look now, but us writing teachers have some competition. Not really, but I am sure Anya Kamenetz (with whom I had a slightly heated debate on Twitter a couple weeks back) would love to find a way to replace us with “Hemingway.” No, not the writer, but an app that analyzes prose for “boldness and clarity.” The app is obviously kind of a joke, as some of Hemingway’s best prose  (Ian Crouch’s New Yorker piece uses an excerpt from “The End of Something”) is deemed not bold or clear enough. Still, this is the kind of thing that Silicon Valley “education experts” would no doubt love to see replace actual classroom instruction, particularly in the humanities. It doesn’t matter that the app has no way of analyzing the content of one’s prose or the logic of one’s assertions. It gives us analytics that can be crunched and quantified!
  • Speaking of The New Yorker, I’m not telling anyone reading this site something they don’t already know when I say that James Wood is one of the best contemporary literary critics. His prose is lucid and his references are always appropriate. He is exactly the kind of public intellectual Nicholas Kristof is right to say we need more of these days. Kristof writes: “A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.” While Kristof’s take isn’t original (like most Times op-eds, this one casts something folks have been saying for years as a new and profound insight), it is worth repeating: academic prose is mostly awful, the subjects many academics study are unimportant and narrow to the point of comedy, and the tenure system doesn’t reward people for doing work that real people (not other academics) enjoy. James Wood is an exception to this unfortunate rule, and his latest essay in the London Review of Books is a good example of what all academics in the humanities should be trying to do. Woods is a better prose stylist than most novelists, so I don’t expect professors to match him on that front, but his unabashed love of storytelling (as opposed to politics, -isms, and theory) makes his work something that “regular” people can engage with. If we want to have any kind of real reading culture (of, hell, even a smart digital media culture) going forward, we need academics to work for the masses, not for each other.

Sunday Links

Sorry it’s been a little while since I last posted. The eating and lazing about of the holidays were really taxing. If you’re still recovering from that kind of exertion, you can at least exercise your brain by reading some of the following pieces:

  • Many of the pundits on my Twitter feed are still discussing/making fun of David Brooks’ editorial about how his teenage pot use made him wary of the successful movements in Colorado and Washington to at least decriminalize the possession of a plant. This comes not too long after another Brooks piece caused Twitter to get all twitterpated because he frankly trounced Tom Scocca in the snark/smarm debate. His pot piece is evocative, but it’s also nicely illustrative of the blind spot many middle-class white Americans have about weed laws: for one segment of society, marijuana possession has been de facto legal for a long, long time. They take for granted that the worst results of smoking dope are productivity losses and “moral decay” (clutch your pearls, America), ignoring that the poor and non-whites have to worry about doing hard time for getting high. David Brooks is the voice of the people whose biggest concern is embarrassing themselves during a class presentation, and putting that perspective on display is a useful reminder that paternalism is the default political mode of both the rich right and left.
  • Noah Millman, the liberal art and culture critic on the staff of The American Conservative, has done something fun for the start of the new year. Instead of giving us “25 Movies to Look Forward to in 2014,” as so many other publications have done, he’s asking us to look back, and not just at 2013, which was an amazing year for film. His list of films to see again is almost all gems, but more importantly it accords with how most of us consume media now. The new is often too expensive, especially when so much of the old is available at the press of a button and for pennies a view. And art changes as we age. Every year I read The Great Gatsby to understand what my values and priorities are and how they are shifting. It’s a slightly new book each time, because I am a slightly new man with each passing year. One film I intend to revisit this year is Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives, which I probably haven’t seen in 10 years. I’ve always been a huge Woody Allen fan, but I remember simultaneously enjoying and not totally understanding this move when I saw it at 21. Maybe now’s the time. What movies will you re-watch in 2014? Tell us in the comments section, or on Twitter!
  • Ryan and I have probably expended too much virtual ink on the subject of what’s wrong with higher ed, but a couple recent pieces are worth noting, as they both compare the bleak future of university education to mass retail culture. Timothy Pratt’s Atlantic article on the ways in which credentialism is fundamentally changing the bachelor’s degree isn’t terribly original, but it contains a money quote from Boston College’s Karen Arnold: “We are creating Walmarts of higher education—convenient, cheap, and second-rate.” Not to be outdone, Gabriel Kahn at Slate dubs Southern New Hampshire University “the Amazon of higher education,” where students are customers, and where online degree students prop up what was once a failing brick and mortar college. If you’ve been reading TGR for the past few months, you know what my rather un-PC prescription is for this ailment: we need to radically overhaul K-12 to make it much more rigorous so that going to college isn’t necessary for people who have no interest in doing so. At 18, you should be able to go out in to the “business world” and get a job that will eventually lead you to a comfortable life if you work hard. You shouldn’t have to take online or in-person classes that you don’t care about in order to be middle class. It’s a waste of your money and time, and it takes away resources from people who actually do want to be in college. In a saner, more egalitarian economy, we’d have many fewer colleges, many fewer college professors, many fewer grad students and adjuncts, and many fewer college graduates, because people would have the freedom to pursue what actually interests them. I’m aware that none of this will happen, but I’m sick of watching Silicon Valley, Washington DC, Wall Street, state governments, and university administrators like the guy at SNHU (though he’s hardly unique) destroy traditional education and drive young people deeper and deeper into debt and despair for degrees that aren’t worth the virtual paper they’re not written on.
  • Finally, a bit of shameless plugging. I wrote a review of James Franco’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying for Southern Spaces. Read it if you like. I am also currently working on a review of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave for the same publication, so stay tuned!

Keep the Post-Christmas Depression at Bay

I’m always struck by how few Christmas movies are broadcast on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. You basically have to watch A Christmas Story (according to Twitter, I might be the only person who still likes that movie) twelve times or go without. So I probably should have posted this before Christmas so that folks could have supplemented what was a pretty boring slate of basketball games (the teams in New York should be ashamed) with my favorite Christmas movie from childhood, A Muppet Family Christmas.

Muppets, the Sesame Street gang, AND the Fraggles? It’s like a supergroup that doesn’t suck (probably because it doesn’t feature Ted Nugent). Unfortunately, this version of the movie doesn’t feature the original commercials from the television broadcast, but it’s still a good reminder that Christmas specials don’t need to have special guest appearances by reality TV “personalities” or country music stars. They can just tell simple stories about people (or strange talking animals and things) who want to hang out and sing. Happy Boxing Day!