Tuesday, July 26, 2011

American Arab Kitsch: From Ahab to Abed and Back Again

When I was a kid, I thought Pinkard & Bowden were pretty funny. The comedy duo’s parodies of famous country songs were often promoted on TV for just $19.95 plus shipping and handling, and I got a kick out of them. “Blue hairs driving in my lane.” “Won’t you help me make it through the yard?” I never heard their song “Arab, Alabama” back then, and I wonder what I would have thought of it when I was 9 or 10. I might have thought it was funny just because they were referring to Middle Eastern stuff (the PLO!), and I was generally interested in anything that had to do with my Arab background. After six long years of grad school, though, I can’t not see some of the bizarre ethnocentrism underlying the song, which proudly declares, “There ain’t no PLO in Arab, Alabama!”

Not long ago, Tropics of Meta discussed the pop cultural portrayal of Asians and Asian-Americans, whose coming-out party in the US might well be considered Harold and Kumar. After years of being confined to subservient side roles (Sulu) or one-dimensional running gags (Apu), Asians could headline a major Hollywood movie. They could also be perfectly normal Americans, in a certain understanding of the term: pot-smoking college kids with a crippling lust for tiny cheeseburgers.

Arab and Muslim characters have enjoyed a similar kind of enhanced visibility in the early twenty-first century, albeit in a series of still-stereotypical roles. There was Whoopi Goldberg’s Iranian sidekick in her ill-fated 2003 sitcom, played by comedian Omid Djalili, who appeared as a similar character in Paul Reiser’s miserably failed NBC show: a paunchy businessman who always “knows a guy” who can get you what you need. In contrast to this stereotype—the stocky supporting character (mustache-optional) who provides comic relief—there was, of course, Sayid on Lost. The show could be accused of practicing mild Orientalism, given how Sayid was a soulful, mysterious lover with near-superhuman skills for fighting and fixing stuff, but it also deserves points for introducing American TV viewers to a diverse range of characters of different ethnicities, nationalities and languages.

Middle Eastern peoples have long occupied a liminal and confused place in American culture: the oil-gouging sheikh (think of Ned Beatty’s speech in Network: “The Arabs have taken billions of dollars out of this country, and now they must put it back!”); the amusing shopkeeper or small businessman (a role shared with South Asians and, to a lesser extent, East Asians); the mortal enemy of Western civilization and cartoonish film villain (Osama/True Lies); as well as the technical Caucasian and honorary white person. As America shifts from a white-black racial binary to a more complex understanding of diversity, Arabs and Arab-Americans still find themselves “othered” more often than not. Yet a look at the recent past shows how American pop culture has constructed the Arab Other in much more awkward and problematic ways. Tony Shalhoub’s journey from vaguely ethnic foreigner/sidekick in Wings to essentially not-nonwhite Adrian Monk might symbolize the slipperiness of the Arabic place in pop culture; the actor has played Italian, Cuban, Arab and many other characters in film and television, serving as a sort of all-purpose off-white.

Why There's No Gorbachev in Moscow, Idaho
Pinkard & Bowden’s 1980s anthem “Arab, Alabama” is both a celebration of American exceptionalism and a way of identifying that uniqueness with the pride of the white working class. Like so many country songs, it hangs on a jokey hook - there are lots of places in America that are named after rather different places, such as Palestine, Paris and Moscow. America is both unoriginal and thoroughly authentic, because New Madrid is full of proud, peaceable folk, poor in style but rich in pride. Pinkard & Bowden can’t resist a few throwaway jabs at hoity-toity Europeans, especially given the largely European origins of the settlers who named many of these towns: “In Paris, Tennessee they don’t eat escargot.” Most of the song, though, is dedicated to contrasting American wholesomeness with foreign dysfunction and violence. Gorbachev, Castro, and the PLO come in for ridicule. Notably, the singers suggest that we take Fidel to Kentucky, “put a coal shovel in his hand, marry him off to one of Loretta’s sisters, and we’ll never hear from him again.” To my ear, they seem to be saying that Loretta Lynn, the icon of coal country womanhood, would have no trouble muzzling the obstreperous dictator, the man the CIA could not shut up despite numerous ridiculous assassination attempts. Communist despotism is nothing next to the ferocity of a coal miner’s daughter.

It would be easy to say Pinkard & Bowden are racializing the foreign nemesis, and perhaps they are. But a few stray references complicate the picture. The dig at Gorbachev contrasts the Kremlin capital of godless Communism with a town in famously white and conservative Idaho. The Russians may be honorary nonwhites – more red, in a sense, than white despite their skin tone. They also throw in a line about Dublin, Georgia, noting that “Irish people don’t shoot each other” there. At first I thought this was a general reference to bar-brawling Irish drunkenness and criminality, but it actually fits well into the no-PLO theme. We don’t have such terrorist organizations in the USA, although we do have right-wing extremists who blow up government buildings and Irish-American politicians who like to contribute to the IRA while inveighing against Islamic terrorism. (See King, Rep. Peter [R-NY].) Overall, the message seems to be “We don’t have that here”—“that” being the problems of dictatorship, terrorism, and war that plague the rest of the world. The theme is an old one, stretching back to the Founders’ disdain for the corruption and poverty of Europe, as well as the isolationist impulse of later Americans who saw their nation as a happy island far from the endless wars overseas.

Nationalism and exceptionalism may be the core of Pinkard & Bowden’s message, but they still cannot escape race. They suggest we take the “sheetheads” up to Alaska and “make them be Eskimooooooesssss…” as if white Americans can swap one troublesome race out for an apparently less threatening one. The music video for the song shows a cartoonish Castro and Arab sheikh jamming on a Kalashnikov, while lots of modest white people grill out, wave flags, and generally act goofy. This is America: a big, funny, all-white cook-out where caricatures of the nation’s deranged enemies are the hired clowns. The specific thrust of the song is ridiculing the Other, but the general mood of the video is simply one of exultation in the virtues of old-fashioned, homespun American whiteness.

Chubby Checker and the Crimson Jihad

Comedian-musician Ray Stevens has dipped his toe more than once into the Sea of Galilee, so to speak. I remember hearing his song “Ahab the Arab” many times when I was a kid, as I had relatives who loved screwball songs like “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival.” “Ahab” seemed like a fairly innocuous ditty about “the swingin’ sheikh of the burnin’ sands”—lacking the somewhat nasty edge of Pinkard & Bowden’s song, if also missing the progressive self-awareness of 1953’s “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” Here is the rich Arab, “with rubies and emeralds just dripping off a him, and a ring on every finger.” But the lyrics also turn on a familiar tale of foreigners embracing American culture:
He brought that camel to a screeching halt
At the rear of Fatima's tent jumped off Clyde,
Snuck around the corner and into the tent he went
There he saw Fatima laying on a Zebra skin rug
Wearing rings on her fingers and bells on her toes
And a bone in her nose ho, ho.
There she was friends lying there in all her radiant beauty.
Eating on a raisin, grape, apricot, pomegranate,
bowl of chitterlings, two bananas, three Hershey bars,
sipping on an ice cold Coca Cola listening to her transistor,
watching the Grand Ole Opry on the tube
reading the Mad magazine while she sung,
"Does your chewing gum lose its flavor?"
and Ahab walked up to her and he said,
(imitates Arabic speech)
which is Arabic for, "Let's twist again like we did last summer, baby."
You know what I mean! Whew!
The “zebra skin rug” and “the bone in her nose” are a more than a little cringe-inducing, but overall the song is more ignorant than racist. It could be trumpeting the superior appeal of US consumerism, or it could be simply saying we’re all the same, even the sheikh of the burning sand: everyone loves Coca Cola, Chubby Checker, and Hershey bars. The song was first released in 1962, years before the oil embargo helped begin Arabs’ long career as go-to villains in pop culture.

Of course, Ray Stevens has always gone with the times. His goofy song “The Streak” was one of the finest meditations on 70s exhibitionism; he touched on Middle Eastern kitsch again in his 1980 country hit “Shriner’s Convention,” which described the shenanigans of an “Illustrious Potentate” named Bubba at a Holiday Inn where a lot of redneck Shriners with Harley Davidsons and big-haired girlfriends come to meet. The video for the song features at least one African American character – not a common sight in country music videos or the traditionally white, middle class Shriner membership – who gets to join in the fun of wearing fez hats and driving tiny cars. The Shriners themselves were founded in the nineteenth century by a Mason who had attended a party thrown by an Arab diplomat and decided to start a men’s fraternity that aped Middle Eastern styles, traditions, and architecture. Playing Arab dress-up has a long history in the US, but the practice has clearly taken a more mean-spirited turn in recent years.

Indeed, the more recent work of Ray Stevens makes Shriner shenanigans look like good clean fun. Stevens may once have been a harmless spinner of novelty songs, yet his career in the early twenty first century speaks to an increasingly bitter tone in the way his mostly white, conservative audience imagines the ethnic Other. Ironically, the author of the syrupy Gospel ballad “Everything Is Beautiful” panders to racial resentment and lust for revenge nowadays, making his bread by catering to the Walker, Texas Ranger demographic with songs like “Obama Nation” and “Caribou Barbie.” His 2010 single “Come to the USA” offers an appalling portrayal of the persecution suffered by native English speakers at the hands of immigrants and big government. Such leanings were suggested by his 2002 “Osama Yo Mama,” a minor country hit that exploited the reaction to the September 11th terrorist attacks. Opportunistic and undoubtedly conservative, the song is more about revenge than race. “Osama, yo mama didn’t raise you right, she musta wrapped your turban too tight,” Stevens sings, as he dances around in a pink costume. A tiny cartoon Osama darts across the screen while, randomly enough, Stevens fires at him as an ersatz Rambo. We’ve come a long way from Ahab eating Oreos on the burning sands.

Muslims in a Liberal Mirror

If YouTube videos by Ray Stevens were all there were to American pop culture, of course, we would be in serious trouble. Meanwhile, liberal Hollywood has tried to portray Arabs and Muslims in a favorable light, in an awkward quest to build intercultural bridges through the time-tested means of TV. The networks once sought to build sympathy for urban people of color by placing them under benevolent white tutelage (The White Shadow, Webster, Diff’rent Strokes), and the 2007 sitcom Aliens in America seems to fit into this history. The show, which only lasted a season on the CW, tells the story of a Wisconsin family that takes in a foreign exchange student from Pakistan named – wait for it – Raja Musharraf. For some reason, Raja is always wearing a shalwar kameez, presumably because that’s what all people from Pakistan wear. The family tries to adjust to this Muslim “alien” in their home, and everybody does their best to overcome the cultural misunderstandings that provide much of the grist for the plot. The show did not quite work; even though the Pakistani character was overdone, the dynamic between him and his hosts never created enough real dramatic frisson or humor. Tip-toeing around cultural sensitivities may be the problem – how do you make a Muslim-Christian conflict funny without offending someone? The show’s writers made Raja into a sweet, innocent soul who almost always tried to do the right thing, like a smarter version of Balki, the Perfect Stranger. If the producers wanted to cast a Muslim character in a favorable light, they likely went too far. The  problem with humanizing the inhuman is that you run the risk of coming up with something in between.

Which brings us to Abed, the star of NBC’s well-loved but still-struggling postmodern sitcom Community. The show depicts its Palestinian character as a robotic sponge for pop culture, who quickly identifies the film and TV tropes that each episode parodies. It plays with the idea that Abed is “different” while he is “just like us” in his love for everything American. In one episode, the cranky boomer played by Chevy Chase is surprised to find out that Abed loves Christmas: “Don’t your people spend this season writing angry letters to TV Guide?” Yet the Muslim character still loves the holiday for its TV specials, colorful gifts, and general (secular) spirit of camaraderie. Community tries hard to situate Abed in the show without pandering to Muslim or Arab stereotypes or going the opposite direction by making him completely “normal” – say, a dumb jock who loves Ed Hardy, Katy Perry and disc golf. This is part of the reason why Abed is so appealing, and works as a sitcom character better than the pious Raja. He is different, and that difference may derive in part from the conditions of his origin as an immigrant – he seems to possess a detached, outside view of American pop culture, like Chance the Gardener in Being There – yet the writers have not constructed his difference in direct response to some set of expectations about race or religion.

Arab as they wanna be

I would count that as progress – getting out of the straightjacket of the Crimson Jihad and writing a unique character on his own terms. What does not work so well is casting. Danny Pudi plays Abed, yet he is half-Indian and half-Polish. Sayid, the Iraqi character from Lost, was played by the Indian-British actor Naveen Andrews. Even the evil terrorist Salim Abu Aziz in True Lies was played by a Pakistani-British actor. Tony Shalhoub, who is Lebanese, is one of the only Arab actors in Hollywood and he gets cast as almost everything but Arab. Shalhoub has, of course, made a conscious effort not to play stereotypical terrorist characters and has worked to promote different kinds of roles for Arab actors. Yet Arab and Muslim identities continue to be fraught with tension in the US; even as shows like Lost, Aliens in America, and Community attempt to present characters who are more varied and three-dimensional, we still see political abortions like the preposterous election year campaign against the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Such events not only gin up fear and hostility toward Muslims. They cast doubt on whether certain groups will ever be fully admitted into the privileges and the imagination of American citizenship.

Also known as Masih ad-Dajjal

This blog does not accept the pessimistic premise that Arabs and Muslims, from the Barbary Pirates down to Pamela Geller, are doomed to be a permanent out-group in America, forever barred from possessing full citizenship. (For a compelling overview of the argument, see this piece by Steven Salaita.) Dearborn is as much America as Arab, Alabama. So are Edison, New Jersey and what we like to call “Little Edison” in Decatur, Georgia. People on the Right may bloviate about our Judeo-Christian heritage, as if Islam were not an inheritor of the exact same tradition; a novelty country singer may whip out the word “sheethead” in a general screed against the outside world; and no doubt, the receptiveness of country music and talk radio listeners to racist name-calling is troubling; but such mischief is not equal to the reality of American culture, and certainly not its potential. Why Americans have fixated on the Arab Other from the Shriners down to Barack Obama (our “Arab American” president, according to some theorists) is a question for another day. Perhaps their indeterminate place in the US spectrum of race makes people from the Middle East an ideal screen on which Americans can project our jumbled hopes, desires, anxieties, and fears about the politics of identity. If that’s the case, Abed may represent a turning point: a mirror, not a screen, that reflects us back at ourselves.

Alex Sayf Cummings

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Asheville Showcase: Inviting the Tourist Behind the Counter

In September of 2007, I became one of the then approximately 73,000 citizens of the city of Asheville, North Carolina. That year Asheville was able to claim numerous honors such as "Best Southern Town" (Outside magazine, Aug. '07), one of the "Top 10 Up-and-Coming Travel Destinations" (VirtualTourist.com, March '07), and was one of the "Top 25 Arts Destinations" (American Style magazine, June '07). From these and other accolades, a prospective move to the area might imply that employment should be a promise, relaxation nearly enforced, and that general malice was at least several mountain villas away. Today in 2011, the population has added about 10,000 more residents and keeps accruing national praise from all its variegated visitors. Hello. I am Citizen #78001, a representative of Asheville from 2007 to present, deriving my name from the mean of the population increase of my city over the time I've been here, plus one.

The classic get-to-know-someone-at-a-party question, "So, what is it you do for a living?" is always a loaded hot potato. If you are interested in my existential disposition, then my means of artistic expression, cultural consumption, and spiritual stance are well-poised to lead the conversation into commentary on the locus where I live. Asheville is a profferer of many entertainments and is a wide-embracing recipient of the socially sacred Pluralism and its pantheon of lifestyles. Downtown is full of chic boutiques, restaurants with health conscious trendiness, and music venues ranging from those in the know (the Grey Eagle/the Orange Peel), to local dive bars and larger mainstream appeal (Thomas Wolfe Auditorium). Non-profit healthcare organizations, the newly renovated River Arts District, access to the Blue Ridge Parkway hiking trails, a religious spectrum from Wiccan to solid southern-fried Christianity, a proud LGBTQ community… and so, yeah, it's diverse and progressive, especially given its political positioning as a Democrat stronghold in the midst of overwhelmingly Republican Western North Carolina.

But what this fella at the party wants to know is what my social position is and how I make money.

"Well, Bob; can I call you Bob? I sell batteries in a retail store. Oh, but we do most of our sales to larger industry! It's not all AA-make-your-kid's-toy-Gatling-gun-make-a-racket-again stuff. Nope." He owns a laptop, an iPhone, a car, but he's clearly not interested because I said the dirty word "retail." Retail is reserved for the face the consumer cares to forget, a job that asks not to see the person, but to view one as a disembodied uniform trained to say only the prescribed company rhetoric (which I have always thought quite a curious resemblance to what hardcore capitalists say socialist structure would produce in our country: a loss of the individual and their divine rights). "Welcome, I am Citizen #78001. How may I serve your personalized energy needs today? That's one flashy smart-phone you have there, sir. How well informed you are!"

To know a city may be to experience its means and modes of transportation, traversing its expanses, taking it in quickly, at large. Asheville's heart is a woven fabric of the Western NC Appalachian Mountains' busiest highways and interstates. I-40 and I-26 act as the main nerves for the city's approach to sprawl between island-like sub-sections, and a division occurs the further one spreads out from downtown.

To the north is a muted upper-middle class cell cradling the high-priced resort, the Grove Park Inn (famously a retreat for the Obama family). The University of North Carolina at Asheville is located in this part of the city and nearer the school and downtown sudden shifts in wealth occur, depending on the neighborhood.

To the east, the commercial growth of the 70s through 90s can be found, with an enclosed mall surrounded by parking lots/strip malls and chain restaurants. In the past decade, however, the commercial, non-tourist growth has been spreading to the south part of the city.

The west is a recently gentrified area, reclaimed by the constructive laxness of hipster culture (Izzy's Coffee, Harvest Records, 420 Imaging), changing its tune from the more infamous drug and crime infested economic wilds of the past twenty years. This is where some locals speak of the "ghettos" as if there were such a hungry beast roaming the westside. Right now some of the poorest property can be found in west Asheville, but there is nothing frightening about these lower-income neighborhoods. From what I have seen every playground is in family-friendly condition.

South Asheville consists of several large retirement communities as well as expensive vacation houses (the running joke in Asheville being that these are wealthy Floridians' homes away from home in the summer). Larger industry and the area power plant are also here, along with a newer wave of strip malls from the past decade and "villages", all trying to act as small, self-sustaining towns. Biltmore Park Town Square is a conglomeration that condenses office spaces, condos, townhouses around and on top of restaurants and retail chains like Barnes & Noble. Wake in the morning, walk downstairs to Starbucks and read the latest download on Kindle without ever leaving home. (Look to Professor Cummings's article Learning From Tiny Tower on how to practice integration into this sort of lifestyle.)

Perhaps the distance between each distinction lies in the landscape, the stretch between one place and the other and the effect it has on the mobility of the people familiar with each. Many spaces in the city are either unused or in an undeveloped stasis (though zoned for a glorious commercial predestine). South Asheville, for instance, may have many structures built up around a suburban developer's dream of communal, easy consumer living, but the reality is that many of the available spaces remain untouched. At least half of the storefronts in the large Gerber Village complex have had no business touch their space in the five years it has been there. High on a hill above the G. Village is a stripped wasteland peering down at strip malls. The land depression at the top of the hill marks the tomb of an old Gerber baby food factory that once acted as a staple in the local job market. Manufacturing of course is not a focus for Asheville and the unfilled retail spaces are a mere specter of potential jobs; if only the economy at large were vigorous enough for more specialty service sales!

Each segmented part of the city is somewhat self-sustaining, given you have a job in the neighborhood you live in. But if you have work, say, in south Asheville in a certain battery store and are living in east Asheville without a car your workday has just gotten a lot longer. This is the case with one of my co-workers who grew up in the area and is well-acquainted with the transit system. My fellow Battery Pusher must plan for two hours travel to the job and then two hours of tedious stop-go motion thereafter. If you own a car or can afford to use a cab, the basic rule of thumb applies to most any travel route from one end of Asheville to the next: avoid going through downtown and it should never take more than fifteen minutes to arrive anywhere. Unfortunately, some individuals whose work supports the area's services (many which are only available to the tourists and the privileged, batteries aside) must make great sacrifices for little compensation. But this is an old story.

A newer take on a bad situation does appear to be underway, being that the city council and local news sources are aware of the poor condition of public transit. Local events magazine Mountain Xpress recently published an article by Jake Frankel, "The Art of the Wheel," on the city's ART (Asheville Redefines Transit) campaign. The overhaul of the current system will include a tightening of route scheduling, 5 new electric-diesel hybrid buses, and amazingly "more than $2.8 million for sidewalk construction and maintenance — a 94-percent increase," making it easier and safer to find a bus stop.

Main roads tend to stretch quite far and change names many times as they slink around mountain contours, meandering away from the valley sheltering downtown. The main strip from North to South Asheville takes the incarnations, in order, Merrimon-Broadway-Biltmore-Hendersonville roads. MeBroBiltHe Rd. represents commercial sprawl to the suburbs better than any other measure, with all its unused spaces for medians, highway ramps, vacant lots, zoning and the ilk in-between. It seems that the further one goes from downtown's prime real estate density, commercial spaces become ghost towns of lost intention. Downtown tourism is the strength of Asheville, but what do these suburban empty store fronts mean for the local and national economy's small businesses? Is it just bad management on the part of realty agencies or are there empty commercial parks making a pattern across the country?

I can reply to partyman Bob that "for a living" I am a single socioeconomic unit acting discreetly within the growth of Asheville. As Citizen #78001, I perform a civic duty by using these spaces for sanctuary. The homeless, the deviant, or the lost are pegged as the likeliest candidates to spend time in undeveloped or dilapidated areas that they do not own. I may not professionally move money with gusto, but like the artists who stratified the tag walls with graffiti on the ruins of the early twentieth century French Broad River railroad, I live a part of my day in skeletal lost spaces to create a momentary autonomy. We are the unnoticed, living bio-masses of the city. I take my lunch breaks sitting like lichen on the broken foundation of the old Gerber factory. I can sit in the sun and be unbothered by traffic or curious eyes staring at the guy sitting still, doing nothing. Until my lunch break is over and...

Thanks for coming by, we much appreciate it! Oh, and by the way, will you visit the Biltmore Estate during your stay? There's an interesting story behind that family's great contribution and industry…

Moses Casual

Monday, July 18, 2011

Fuck Ted Nugent: The Nuge and the Legacy of the 1970s

Seventies sensibility then offered a kind of antidote to the melodrama of Sixties sensibility, an antidote devised by a generation of youth just plain sick and tired of being told how they missed out on the glory days. Americans who came of age during the 1970s, in the words of disco enthusiast Jefferson Morley, ‘were less idealistic but more realistic. Less wild and less authentic and less sincere, but also less melodramatic and less violent. Less courageous but also less foolish. Less moralistic but more ethical.’ They ‘were a sweeter, sadder, sexier funnier bunch than the kids of the 60s and they’ve never forgiven us for it.'

As we push forward out of the aughts and into the twenty-teens (?) historians and others have begun to look back and reassess just what earlier decades like the 1970s meant. Some have focused on the neoliberal economic shifts that hollowed out the welfare state and transformed America from a savings society to one based on investment. Others have looked at the cultural shifts that impacted gender, sexuality, and culture. Bruce Schulman’s The Seventies focuses on all these issues, one moment tracing the meaning of stagflation and economic instruments like money market accounts the next exploring why disco offended white racists and black nationalists alike. For Schulman, the decade served as a conscious break from the overly moralistic and condescending boomer dominated 1960s. Symbolically, the peace sign “gave way to ‘the finger’,” a direct challenge to peace/love/dope ethos perpetuated by one-time hippies many of whom transformed into the bankers, lawyers, and financiers of the 1980s.

1970s rocker Ted Nugent provides a relevant example of this phenomena. After all, Nugent’s verbal antics in the 1990s and 2000s seemed to epitomize a certain moralistic racial logic. Working class whites emerge as his idealized America: bow-hunting libertarians living on gun laden Michigan compounds, pushing back against a government dominated by special interests. Though his ethos opposes the kind that dominated the 1960s, Nugent’s rantings retain a moralistic sheen. Sixties idealism, Schulman argues, gave way to middle fingered realism, which spawned right-wing variant sprouted in the Seventies that eventually blossomed into the bellicose conservatism of Limbaugh and the “Nuge” in the Nineties.

Nugent also provides a useful frame for other aspects of 1970s tensions. Undoubtedly, musically, the Seventies remains famous for the seemingly contradictory proliferation of both arena/corporate rock and punk. Granted, punk drew far fewer followers, but its reverberations persist today. One can also argue that the Peter Framptons of the world have simply been diversified -- not only ethnically and racially but also musically (aren’t the Black Eyed Peas a modern day equivalent?). Both punk and new wave rejected the arena style trappings of Kiss or Jethro Tull, and while both genres promoted an anticorporate point of view they seemed to represent different classes. American punks represented “high school dropouts in a Queens garage”, or shitty surfers bumming around SoCal localities like Huntington Beach. New wave was equally anticorporate and ascetic -- all skinny ties, suit jackets, leather coats, and jeans -- but probably more intellectual (think the Talking Heads).

Again Nugent surfaces to both challenge and reify this viewpoint. While certainly arena rock-like, Nugent’s music seems more jagged, angry, confrontational, and working class than 1970s peers like Frampton and more American than the Who or Zeppelin. While Nugent failed to turn into a 1980s yuppie financier or lawyer, his political rantings of the past two decades have kept him in the public eye as a kind of musical Rush Limbaugh. Sure, punk and new wave rejected arena rock and corporatism, but what about acts like Nugent? He was definitely not new wave or punk, but in his own twisted way anticorporate and even ascetic (the man used to perform in a loin cloth). Nugent provides a puzzling “third space” to Schulman’s dichotomy. At once both a reflection of and a challenge to 1970s culture, Nugent surprisingly reveals the complexities of the “me” decade.
The most obvious marker of the Seventies sensibility – its signature in literature, film, music, politics, advertising – was a kind of double identity. Seventies performers produced works that were a parody of something – a biting, knowing satire – and simultaneously the very thing itself. (157)

Straddling the line between winking knowingness and self indulgent reality stood as one of the key aspects of 1970s culture. One can pinpoint this “double identity” in Ted “the Nuge” Nugent. A “Wildman” who rampaged across the country, the Nuge seemed to be both crazy motherfucker and right wing moral scourge, arena rocker and hardcore provocateur. Artist and worker. Dumbass and… well, less dumbass.

In a 1978 Virginian Pilot article on a recent Nuge concert, journalist Sean Brickell unknowingly illustrated the very dynamic that Schulman argues defined the 1970s. “Ted Nugent, the wild man of rock ‘n roll is onstage assaulting the auditory senses. His fans are being driven to a frenzy by his high octane guitar riffs.” Can you feel the Nuge? A man scared of nothing and no one, until, “then a firecracker explodes on stage. Clearly Nugent is angry.” How did the Nuge respond? “Hey, damn that’s uncool. I don’t dig firecrackers, and the next time one of you out there sees somebody throw one, you can have my permission to chew his eyes out for me!” Ouch. Isn’t this the same man who following the Columbine Massacre suggested all that was needed was more armed students? Scared of “firecrackers”? Really? Some Wildman. (Sean Brickell, Virginian Pilot, “Fireworks rile concert rockers”, May 28, 1978)

Ironically, the firecracker issue proved to be a real problem for concert promoters in 1978. A 1977 Supreme Court decision regarding the Greensboro Coliseum ruled that searching concertgoers for such paraphernalia violated constitutional rights, resulting in a firecracker laden 1970s. As Frank Roach, then assistant director of the Hampton Coliseum noted, most of the time Frisbees and beach balls dominated such acts. “We get lots of Frisbees and balloons tossed around, but no one seems to object to that.” Uhh, yeah. Of course, in today’s world this seems downright laughable. If only firecrackers were our only concern. Yet, even the scourge of nefarious "roman candles" and the like deserved the attention of arena security, though the solution might strike us today as a bit, naive. Steve Goudis, a spokesperson for local booking company ENTAM, Ltd related to the Virginia Pilot, "before a concert we announce that anything that hits the stage will" result in the show's cancellation "without refund." Goudis elaborated that authorities tried to be "clever" by asking people in the upper echelons not to "throw stuff because the people below can't throw stuff back." Though Goudis professed its effectivness, we can agree, not exactly TSA standards.

Still, this points to the kind of double identity Schulman explores: the idea that a corporate rock show at an arena remained beyond the purview of authorities to truly secure. We want our corporate rock, but god damned the state trying to make the safest of rock safe. Anyone who followed the punk movement of the late 1970s knows performers were subject to gobbing (heavy spitting – see Westway to the World or The Filth and the Fury for further evidence – gobbing was truly disgusting), sharpened quarters, beer bottles, and countless other dangerous projectiles. This is not to say throwing firecrackers was or is a good idea, but isn’t it funny to see the Nuge, a right-wing gun nut and bow hunter wigging out about bottle rockets?

Back to the Nuge. In the 1990s, now-elder statesmen the Beastie Boys provided hipsters and urban bohemians with the finest stew of irony, hip hop, rock, punk, and aesthetics in their all too brief publication Grand Royal. Though the magazine resulted in only six issues, Issue #2 provided a glimpse into the 1970s archetype Ted Nugent. In perhaps the funniest and most hostile interview ever conducted, Bob Mack (a B-Boy confidant) laid waste to the Nuge. Here a couple juicy snippets that we can expand upon in a moment:
On “super group” Damn Yankees:
Bob Mack (BM): Okay … everyone was disappointed with that –
Nuge: No, they weren’t.
BM: Yes, all your old school fans were!
Nuge: We sold four and a half mil – that’s a beautiful thing my friend. Don’t be jumping from edge to edge – The Damn Yankees was genuine, a musical adventure.
[Editor’s note: for those of you too young to remember, uhh no they weren’t.]
BM: Oh c’mon, it was a cash out.
Get the fuck out of here! I jam with Tommy Shaw, he played r’n’b, it hit a nerve with me.
[Another editor’s note: Tommy Shaw is from Styx, yeah “Sailing Away,” “Mr. Roboto”… so again, uhh... no. Not to mention the fact that the Nuge maintains he’s never done drugs and doesn’t drink, while Tommy Shaw has openly admitted Styx got Chicago stations to play their music in part by plying station managers and DJ’s with cocaine. Rock on Nuge!]
BM: The second album tried to cash in on the first album’s MTV success
Nuge: MTV SUCCESS? WHAT MTV SUCCESS? They played a little bit of “High Enough!”
BM: “HIGH ENOUGH” WAS LIKE MICROWAVE ROTATION … [MTV] played it 15 times a fucking day.
Nuge: WELL, FIRST OF ALL, BOB, WELCOME TO THE REAL WORLD! You know how many times I’ve watched MTV? Once in my fucking life.
BM: You gotta be on top of this Ted.
BM: Why do they have to be white? Aren’t there any black shitkickers?
BM: There’s plenty. There’s one named Russell Simmons .. [guilty giggle]
Nuge: Ain’t never heard of him.
BM: He’s head of Def Jam records. He was there when you cut that wack video with The Don. In fact, I heard that on that same day you told Russell you were a bigger nigger than he’ll ever be.
BM: Now what did you mean by that?
Nuge: I meant that I’ve got soul, that I don’t resort to fucking electronic drumbeats, and I listened to James Brown and Wilson Pickett and Sam and Dave – THOSE ARE NIGGERS! THOSE ARE FUCKIN’ SPIRITED GENUINE AFRO AMERICANS.
Okay, so it goes hysterically deeper but we’ll move on another subject that 70’s icon the Nuge objects to … NAFTA.
BM: Well .. What’s your stand on NAFTA?
Nuge: Well I – I again –
BM: That’s another one of my questions, because you stand up for free trade and all this bullshit.
Nuge: I un-
BM: But people like Perot, they don’t come out for NAFTA. They’re not real fucking capitalists. They don’t stand for free trade. He got all his fuckin’ money out of government contracts. He fucking’ computerized the Medicaid system!
Nuge: Oh my, oh my. Bob, my answer to that –
Nuge: I don’t know what you’re talking about, I could give –
Nuge: I could give a fuck …
BM: What’s your stand on NAFTA?
BM: Yeah you do!
Nuge: All I know is that it breaks down the barriers.
BM: You don’t like Mexicans coming into America?
Nuge: I don’t think they should be allowed in America.
BM: You don’t believe in free borders or free trade or anything like that?
Nuge: I don’t believe in free borders when they come over here and fuck things up and when --
Nuge: Wait a minute!
Nuge: Hey Bob, are you ready for the truth, son? You know for every –
BM: I’ve fuckin’ washed dishes! HAVE YOU?
BM: The why don’t you let the Mexicans –

Now some readers might bristle at T of M’s Nuge attack, but remember over the last two decades or so, Nugent has emerged as a prominent conservative spokesman, penning op-eds for reputable publications like US News and World Report. If anything, these two exchanges reveal the underpinnings of Nugent’s thought, underpinnings established during the 1970s. According to Schulman, the hopes of integration faded as ethnic and racial groups adopted cultural nationalist sensibilities:
The ideological shift to diversity led to a reconceptualization of the very nature of America – to see the nation not as a melting pot where many different peoples and cultures contributed to one common stew, but as discrete peoples and cultures sharing the same places – a tapestry, a salad bowl, or a rainbow. (73)
This view dominated conceptions of race relations throughout the 1970s and 80s, eliminating the possibility of an “American culture” and replacing it with several. As previously noted, Schulman’s exploration of disco’s ability to draw the ire of both black nationalists and white bigots provides a useful example the rejection of integration. “Disco acknowledged dancers’ solidarity across racial and cultural lines,” Schulman writes. “It held out the allure of integration. Disco artists fused black, gay, and Latin strands and found a huge, mass audience.” (73) Suburban white kids thought disco “feminine, too gay, too black. But its hybrid form mocked ethnic nationalists dedicated to preserving distinct Black and Latino cultural identities.” (74) Of course, benefits arose from this new multiculturalism, as a cultural vibrancy arose in various venues such as art museums, music clubs, classrooms, and the street itself. Obviously, the Nuge would not agree. However, politically Schulman argues “the demise of liberal universalism and the celebration of diversity exacerbated the political crisis of the 1970s. Politics always revolves around citizenship – around defining the ‘we’ marking out an ‘us’ against ‘them’ Everyone desires good schools, good housing, roads, and health care for ‘us’; few wish to spend their hard earned dollars on ‘them.’” (76)

Ok, so T of M would be remiss if it didn’t throw props to "Cat Scratch Fever" or "Stranglehold" (one of Nugent’s best songs that may or may not be an ode to domestic violence). Still, Nugent’s train of thought and those that follow him (remember he’s become a quasi-political figure akin to Rush Limbaugh) provide a useful window into the reverberations of the 1970s, both politically and culturally. For those so inclined, Nugent’s lyrics sum this up squarely:
You ran that night you left me
You put me in my place
I got you in a stranglehold baby
Then I crushed your face

(Ted Nugent, "Stranglehold")

Ryan Reft

Friday, July 15, 2011

What Google Can Tell Us about the 2012 Field

People used to be Rockefeller Republicans, and now everyone wants to be a Ronald Reagan Republican. Will people some day be bragging that they are Michele Bachmann Republicans? Not if the number one things she is associated with continue to be chutzpah and slavery. Chutzpah and slavery -- not a good combination.

One also wonders how "Michele Bachmann hot" is a major search term. Most people use search engines to find out stuff. How do you change a tire? Is it bad to drink bleach? Is Michele Bachmann hot? Then again, "Michele Bachmann Jewish" is another common query on Google. This could be because she "considers herself Jewish." She worked in a kibbutz, and she loves Israel more than almost anything. But she is an evangelical Lutheran (yes, that's a thing) of the sort that may or may not think the Pope is the antichrist. One thing is certain under a Bachmann administration: Israel's security will be assured, but we may have to go to war with Vatican City.

What about Mitt Romney? One would imagine that Google searches would be like a word association game, and the likeliest terms would be "plastic," "wooden" (odd that you can be both plastic and wooden, but Mittens makes it work), "flip flopper," "Ken doll," "Brill creme." Somehow, one of the main terms associated with Mitt Romney is "skinny jeans." Who knew he was a hipster? This raises an urgent question: will Romney's cassette-only electro-folk release of Bollywood covers come back to haunt him in Iowa?  

Also, as Gail Collins has been fond of pointing out, Mitt may never overcome his dog problem. Barack Obama may be a Nazi/Communist, but he never drove to Canada with his dog strapped to the top of the car.

The lesser lights of the Republican field play more or less to type on Google. Tim Pawlenty is boring, though being associated with "definitely not gay" has to be counted as a plus in a GOP primary.  

Herman Cain hates the Federal Reserve and abortion. Back in the 1990s or early 2000s you might have wondered if if there was anything Republicans could hate more than abortion; then you found out about the Fed and Barack Obama.

Again, Google tells us what we already know: Newt Gingrich is a player who blings it out at Tiffany's. Basically, he's a rapper. He don't love them hos.

Rudy Giuliani is a cross-dresser. This may not play well in Iowa or New Hampshire, but it does explain why he focused his 2008 campaign efforts in Florida.

What this exercise teaches us is that Mitt Romney, again, edges out his rivals. Bachmann is a sexy Jewess (plus), but pro-slavery (generally a minus). Pawlenty is definitely not gay (plus), but we don't really have anything else to say about him. Giuliani loses points for dressing in drag (like Obama, he is viewed by most of the GOP primary electorate as a kind of foreigner, to be treated with a reasonable degree of suspicion), while Gingrich makes the only political error that really matters: failing to distract people from his odious personal behavior. Cain has the Federal Reserve but Ron Paul already owns that issue, and being against abortion in a Republican primary is like being against lice in the Gulag. It's not going to set you apart from the crowd.

This leaves Romney -- the hipster who passed sort-of universal healthcare in Massachusetts and drove to Ontario covered in dog shit. Compared to the competition, that doesn't seem half bad.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Learning from Tiny Tower: Mobile Gaming and the Post-Industrial Society

Ever since Wii came along and swept everyone from me to my seventy year old retired Teamster uncle into the world of gaming, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that video games have become a tool by which our future robot overlords are retraining us to perform various tasks after the big takeover.[1] Big Brain Academy, in particular, reminded me of those later scenes in 1984, when the Party had smashed every bone in Winston’s hands and he had to learn to write again using a big pencil, like a kindergartener. 4423… 3244. Do-re-mi…mi-re-do. Memorize the faces and match the frog to the dog. When a game tells me to take an order on the phone and then tell it back to the game – “calzone, risotto, and a soda, to go please!” – I begin to wonder. Having worked in restaurants before, I can safely say that taking someone’s order on the phone is an experience I would never have expected to repeat for fun. How far are we, really, from learning to change a robot’s diaper?

Mobile gaming introduces a whole new wrinkle to this dystopian scenario, and oddly enough games like Angry Birds and Tiny Tower bring with them an agenda that is much more ideological and allegorical than physical. I say oddly because these apps appear to be cheap, fleeting, and even disposable – who would have thought a 99 cent game that’s all about throwing birds at pigs would have been the blockbuster cultural production of the last year or so, not a movie that cost $100 million to make and $12 to see? Yet these games have a message and they’re on a mission. If the Wii is teaching us the cognitive and tactile skills to function better within a human-computer interface, then games like Tiny Tower are providing a complete social, ethical, and emotional blueprint for how a future cybernetic market society will work.

Welcome to the reeducation camp. Cost of admission is free, but you can upgrade to a better bunker for 99 cents.

I was first introduced to Tiny Tower earlier today, and I feel comfortable writing a neo-Marxist exegesis of it after a few hours. I resisted the iPhone for a long time – longer than I resisted the iPod but not as long as I held off getting any kind of cell phone in my younger, stronger, more idealistic days. Getting the iPhone opened the door to apps, which has finally led to mobile gaming. I have always despised Scrabble and yet I find myself screaming at the friend sitting next to me for scoring a preposterous number of points with the equally preposterous word “Jee.”

In any case, Tiny Tower is its own strange little world, like any good game. The game consists of building one floor after another of a highrise building, and populating it with stores, restaurants, apartments, and people. The player accumulates money over time from sales and rent to spend building another floor and stocking the stores; one can also use real world money to buy extra money in the game to speed things along (a “hurry” gets things done faster, but at a price), although it’s entirely possible (and wise) to play the game without spending any actual cash. Time is the key element, along with (secondarily) complying with the game’s demands, such as finding various tenants when a package or a guest arrives for them.

Real-life bitizens in their natural habitat

The strangest thing about the game is the role of the player. My friends first explained it to me as “Sim City meets Sim City,” which is true up to a point – the player is the planner/developer/mayor/God who builds a world, although the latitude of choice in Tiny Tower is far more constricted. (One can choose whether to put a retail outlet or dining establishment on a floor, but they don’t decide whether it’s a coffee shop or a women’s clothing store.) The player is the owner of everything; the Tiny Tower is a giant mill village without the mill, where the potential tenants show up, move in, and get a job in one of the restaurants or shops in the tower. My first tenant, G. Simmons (if I were a landlord, I think I would want some pretty good references before I let Gene Simmons move into my property), was rapidly hired in the coffeeshop right above the “Plainlake Apartments” that occupied my first floor. Talk about selling your soul to the company store.

And what a company store it is. Who lives in this 21st century, mobile, e-mill village, and what do they do there? What does the economy of Tiny Tower look like? There are only five options for a new floor – retail, food, service, entertainment, and creative. This is a fine image of the post-industrial information economy. There are photo studios, comedy clubs, coffee shops, apartments – in other words, we have a handful of industries that cater to people’s needs for shopping, dining, and other services, plus the all-important “creative class” of artists, graphic designers, musicians, and the like. It is a video game vision of the live-work-play environment that New Urbanist intellectuals have championed and developers have marketed to arty bohos and Trader Joe-jos since the 1990s.

Tiny Tower approaches this new economy of service and entertainment in some strange ways. A few of the classifications raise eyebrows; for instance, a “soda brewery” clearly appears to be a family-friendly version of a microbrewery, with little vats and kegs. One would expect a brewery to be categorized as food or service or even manufacturing, but it is “creative.” So is a photo studio. Meanwhile, a comedy club is “recreation.” In any case, the overall picture is one of a dense urban landscape of hip consumerism: sushi bars, glass studios, arcades, bookstores, and the all-important foundational element, the coffeeshop. The comedy club sells “LOLs,” “LMAOs” and “ROFLs,” and the tower's residents post about the minutiae of their little lives on a social network called Bitbook. “Someone stole my rug,” resident Clayton Wood said earlier today.[2] “It really tied the room together.” One “bitizen” offers bagpipe, tuba and drum lessons while another tries to generate interest in starting a band by announcing his skill with the accordion. The bitizens are defined both by their work and what they consume.  The player gets extra points for matching a worker to his or her "dream job," and the word bubbles above the bitizens' heads are always filled with the products they want to buy.

Even your imaginary friends are obsessed with The Big Lebowski and Justin Bieber

Notably, some among these shopping, gossiping bitizens are “VIPs,” who possess greater financial resources and cultural influence. When they arrive on the scene, they can buy out the entire stock of any store they visit or cause it to have many more customers.  When they attend a shop, suddenly many more bitizens want to go there. They resemble those influential consumers, coveted by marketers and advertisers, who possess the income and prestige to drive trends by their shopping choices. In Tiny Tower, every industry may be created equal, but some consumers are more equal than others.

Beyond sushi, shoes, and music, there are two other industries that are essential to Tiny Tower – obvious even, to the point of being “hidden in plain view.” Construction and real estate can be added to the post-industrial menu of economic options in the game, but with a profound and subtle difference. Construction is absolutely necessary for the game to function, and when each new floor is built a crew of men in orange jumpsuits and hard hats show up to do the work. (Each floor is more expensive than the last, for reasons of cost as well as the fact that the player should have more money from rent and sales to spend as the building rises.) These characters are ubiquitous but silent – they have no needs, no deliveries, no consumption, and they certainly don’t live in the tower. They recall the Doozers in Fraggle Rock, who were always there working but were still separate and alienated from Fraggle society.

More welcome on Tiny Tower than Laugh-In

The other essential industry is real estate – the role of the player, who has all the agency that peripheral yet necessary characters like the construction workers lack. The barristas and artists who pay the rent, work in the businesses, and consume the goods are all pawns of the owner, who is visually absent, not represented by an avatar or icon, yet omnipresent in the form of the person who is playing the game. Not a bad schema for the finance-insurance-real-estate (FIRE) economy of the post-industrial future, right?

Mo money, mo problems

Time, again, is literally money in Tiny Tower, further underlining the importance of finance. By doing good deeds, complying with the game’s demands, and making wise choices about inventory and management, the player can accumulate more money faster, but the game still fundamentally depends on a constant flow of new money to make the process of continual expansion work. No one knows where the money comes from, and it doesn’t matter at all. (Presumably, the stream of cash comes from a mutual fund or rent from other Tiny Towers, in tiny cities in other tiny states. Maybe it is my TIAA-CREF income from investment in Minnesota’s Mall of America.) The point of the game is, of course, accumulation – more floors, more business, more people. There are always more people who show up looking for housing and work. If Tiny Tower has an underlying economic theory, it is one of continual growth – a demand-side policy with a ready supply of easy money, always satisfying new and different needs, but primarily those of residence and leisure. Manufacturing is generally absent, except to the extent that new housing and new space are manufactured; the working class is present only in the form of the old-line “hard hats” who build floors and the new working class of the coffeeshop.

From a media studies perspective, there were things about the game that were hard for me to understand at first. Unlike the Sim line of games, Tiny Tower is far more limited in the player’s freedom to be creative. One does not get to name the characters or the retail establishments, for instance. And in terms of “play,” the dynamic is hard to understand – there are rules and procedures, of course, like any game, but who is one playing with or against? You can see friends’ towers and compare to see what they are getting and how high they’ve built, but there is no direct interaction between towers as far as I can tell. Much of the game seems to be simply pushing buttons and doing what the computer asks you to do—take this person to the third floor, restock the coffeeshop, and so forth. When does nagging end and gaming begin?

There are aspects of Tiny Tower and its peers that are truly innovative, though. For example, mobile games have both more and less “immediacy” (a favorite media studies term) than traditional games, whether one compares them to Solitaire or Trivial Pursuit or Super Mario Bros. They do not require one or two or three people to be together in the same time and space to play a game, and they are of no particular or constant duration. The game is always with you when you have your phone, and can be played on impulse and at one’s convenience, rather like the old, cumbersome practice of playing a chess game from afar and mailing one’s moves to a distant opponent. The games allow and even encourage a light degree of engagement over a long period of time, like the broad web of “thin” or “weak” ties that sociologists and other scholars have discerned in social networking sites. In fact, because the player has to wait for new floors to be built (which can take hours), inventories to be restocked (minutes), and even for new visitors to arrive (seconds), the game almost requires a sporadic, elongated form of play that fits as well into an hour of continued activity as it does into the occasional free moment.

Ironically, I instantly saw Tiny Tower as a mini-capitalist utopia – the high-tech, post-industrial mill village – while my friend Derek saw it as basically communistic. Despite the game’s emphasis on constant consumption and control by the landlord/boss, he has a point. Tiny Tower is a world where everyone who shows up can get an apartment, where everyone can get a job, and a steady flow of resources allow infinite catering to people’s needs – a sort of Soviet tower of babel, reaching to the Heavens, where the boss (substitute “the state”) assigns everyone a job and decides what gets built. The world exists in a bubble where it is impossible to know where the people or the money come from, but it is a world of infinite security and satisfaction, where no one but the construction workers and the occasional delivery person gets their hands all that dirty. (Maybe they live in Shanty Towers or Fawlty Towers – who knows?) Is this the world that the robots will be providing for us? And if it is, will we be the construction workers or the “creatives”? You can be sure we won’t be the landlord.

Alex Sayf Cummings

[1] My wife and I were already considering this issue when we bought a Roomba several years back. We felt like we ought to take advantage of the opportunity to make friends and get on good terms with the robots while there was still time.

[2] It’s also hard not to notice that almost all the bitizens have very Anglo names (Gardner, Garrett, Wheeler, Wilson), while the only “ethnic” names are Spanish (Alvarez). No Changs or Patels or Muhammads seem to be living or working in Tiny Tower.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals

Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, The New Media Reader