Thursday, January 28, 2016

Reading Reed

David Bowie wasn't the only queer* rock musician to get mainstream attention, of course: there was also Lou Reed.  It occurred to me, though, that just as Bowie's sexual orientation was a matter of some dispute as he came to disavow his public declaration that he was bisexual, I wasn't sure about Reed's.  So, after I saw another reference to Reed as bisexual, I asked my friend Google, "Was Lou Reed bisexual?"

Google coughed up some useful answers.  It appears that because of the scandalous subject matter of some of Reed's songs for the Velvet Underground, many people assumed that Reed must be gay.  And you know what happens when you assume.

There was a widely circulated claim that Reed was subjected by his family to electroshock "therapy" as a teenager because he was gay.  His sister has denied this, admitting the electroshock but denying that it was because he was gay.
During Lou’s teenage years, it became obvious that he was becoming increasingly anxious, avoidant and resistant to most socializing, unless it was on his terms ... Verbal fights between Lou and my parents erupted — about going into the city to play band dates, about the dangers he might confront. My parents were frightened, upset, and bewildered ... Lou was not able to function at that time. He was depressed, anxious, and socially unresponsive ...
It has been suggested by some authors that ECT was approved by my parents because Lou had confessed to homosexual urges. How simplistic. He was depressed, weird, anxious, and avoidant. My parents were many things, but homophobic they were not. In fact, they were blazing liberals. They were caught in a bewildering web of guilt, fear, and poor psychiatric care. Did they make a mistake in not challenging the doctor’s recommendation for ECT? Absolutely. I have no doubt they regretted it until the day they died. But the family secret continued. We absolutely never spoke about the treatments, then or ever.

Our family was torn apart the day they began those wretched treatments ...
So, you see, it was all the doctors' fault.  And no doubt it was.  I'm not sure I believe her completely, since as she says the family "absolutely never spoke about the treatments, then or ever."  Homosexuality in most of American culture in those days was unspeakable, so there's no reason to believe that she'd know if it was a factor for their parents.  So much of the piece sounds like the familiar denial that one's family, one's parents, could ever have done something bad.   But it does seem that the confident and casual claim I kept encountering, that the ECT was meant to burn out the gay, is based on rumor and can't be verified. 
The rock legend endured gay-curing electroshock therapy as a teenager ...
It was only years later that I learned that the teenage Lou, like me, had spent time in mental hospital as a result of his “homosexual tendencies”.
It’s 1959 and Louis Allan Reed is acting up. If it’s not the 17-year-old’s mood swings or the bad grades, it’s his recent displays of homosexual behavior. At their wit’s end, his parents give him what any other strict, conservative Jewish parents in middle-class Brooklyn would: electroshock therapy
... he underwent electroshock treatment as a teenager to curb “homosexual tendencies,” an experience he described scathingly in his 1974 song “Kill Your Sons.”
The lyrics to "Kill Your Sons" do evidently refer to the ECT, but there's not a word about the reason for it.  Whatever the source for the claim, it doesn't appear to be Reed himself.  So until we have a real source for it ...

The same goes for the claim that Reed "was widely rumored to have slept with both men and trans women in his Warhol years."  That comes from Queerty, a site I'd trust about as much I'd trust Breitbart.  (That Reed had a relationship with a "trans woman" is true, and I'll come back to that in a moment.)  In any case, "widely rumored" tells us nothing about Reed, though it tells a lot about those who invented, spread, and believed the rumors. 

I found one halfway good article on the matter, by Mark Joseph Stern at Slate, who concludes that although Reed was often referred to as bisexual, including by his biographers, "during his lifetime, Reed was perpetually evasive on the topic of his own sexuality." I haven't found anything yet that refutes that.  The answer to the question "Was Lou Reed the First Openly Bisexual Rock Star?", then, would appear to be "No." 

There doesn't, on the other hand, seem to be any doubt about Reed's three-year relationship with a "trans woman," though remember that "trans woman" is a twenty-first century construction that didn't exist in the 1970s, and since very little is known about "Rachel" we don't know how she identified herself.  According to Steyn, Reed referred to Rachel as both "he" and "she," switching pronouns in rapid succession: "Nothing could impress her. He’d hardly heard my music and didn’t like it all that much when he did."  Rachel inspired a notably phobic reaction in Lester Bangs, who described her in terms that fit his background as a Christian cultist but not his pose as a sophisticated rock critic. But the Sixties and Seventies really weren't as cool as people would have you believe anyway.

The rumors about Reed's sexual orientation also tell a lot about attitudes toward and beliefs about sexual and gender nonconformity in the Sixties down to the present.  Steyn, for example, writes:
During his glam rock years, Reed’s on-stage persona frequently bordered on androgyny, which—combined with his well-known and tumultuous friendship with the openly bisexual David Bowie—created an impression of epicene pansexuality.
Steyn is critical of writers who carelessly throw around the word "bisexuality," but he's just as careless here.  What does he mean by "bordered androgyny" and "pansexuality," "epicene" or otherwise?  I've quoted before Ellen Willis's confused take on such words: "Androgynousness is an important part of what the Beatles and the Stones represent; once upon a time Mick Jagger's bisexual mannerisms and innuendos were considered far out."  They still are, since a mildly sissy young man with a high-pitched voice like Shamir Bailey still unnerves many critics and journalists.  (Katha Pollitt pointed out during the Monica Lewinsky scandal that American journalists, despite their pretense of sophistication and worldliness, are very conservative about sex and gender.)  As Reed told Lester Bangs in an interview Steyn quotes, "Guys walking around in makeup is just fun. Why shouldn't men be able to put on makeup and have fun like women have?"  Exactly.  It's fun, if you get into it, but it's not specifically gay.  In a part of the same interview that stuck in my mind (I read it when it was first published) but that Steyn doesn't quote, Reed also said:
"The makeup thing is just a style thing now, like platform shoes. If people have homosexuality in them, it won't necessarily involve makeup in the first place. You can't fake being gay, because being gay means you're going to have to suck cock, or get fucked. I think there's a very basic thing in a guy if he's straight where he's just going to say no: 'I'll act gay, I'll do this and I'll do that, but I can't do that.' Just like a gay person if they wanted to act straight and everything, but if you said, 'Okay, go ahead, go to bed with a girl,' they're going to have to get an erection first, and they can't do that."
I saw this interview in the Detroit-based rock magazine Creem, which at around the same time published a think piece on homosexuality in rock.  I must see if I can find it.  I remember that it referred to Iggy Pop as a "blatantly bisexual rocker" ("bisexual" again!), but I've never seen anything to back that up.  (The picture of Pop dressed in a slinky dress and carrying a purse, again, does not tell me anything about who he has sex with.)  Speculation, gossip, rumor are fun, but they're not reliable information.

And this, for example --
The weird sex part of his public persona was there from the very beginning, in the Velvet Underground's name. It was taken from a 1960s book about America's underground S&M scene. If that reference wasn't enough of a hint, there's the song "Venus in Furs" on the Velvet's first album, an homage to the erotic novel by the man who gave us the term "masochism."
-- although it was written in 2013, has the same OMG-giggly adolescent excitement about even mentioning "weird sex" that I might have expected from a thirteen-year-old in 1967, but not from a presumable adult four decades later.  Ditto for Queerty's take on "Venus in Furs."  I get the impression that none of these writers remember or have bothered to inform themselves about the anti-censorship struggles of that period.  Reed and the Velvets were riding a wave, not going anywhere new themselves.

I consider it a good thing that Reed wrote about sexual variation and kink, along with the other taboo subjects he took on.  I never felt personally addressed by it, though, because 1) aside from liking boys I was really not all that far out, and 2) even as a teenager I could tell that Reed and the Velvets were deliberately trying to shock, but since I'd already read a lot of the literature they referred to, I knew it was old hat, dating back centuries.  Most of my peers, of course, didn't know it, and even fifty years later, people still don't know much better.

* I'm using "queer" in its broadest sense here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Weird, Queer, Socially Defective, and Alone -- Like Everybody Else

James Wolcott has a nice tribute to the late David Bowie in his blog at Vanity Fair, but this brought me up short.  Recalling his initial infatuation with Bowie's music in the early 70s, Wolcott writes:
Ziggy Stardust was a powering up, a declaration of conquering intent. No album since Sgt. Pepper had had such dramatic buildup and crescendo release, the exultant, messiah cry of “You’re not alone!” at the end a clarion call of comfort and inclusion to anyone who felt weird, queer, socially defective, and alone, and believe me back then there was a lot more of that around.
Oh no, I don't think so.  There's at least as much of that around now as ever.  If you don't feel weird, queer, socially defective, and alone, there must be something wrong with you.  All the cool kids feel weird, queer, socially defective, and alone, so get with the program and fall into line.  Two of the most popular book-and-movie franchises today are built on kids who feel WQSD&A, and those trying to imitate them and their success start from there.  Alienation sells.  It seems to me that that "exultant, messiah cry of 'You're not alone!'" leaves those who thrill to it still isolated in the crowd of the isolated.

And then Wolcott said this:
... I marvel at how beautifully, elegantly Bowie moved onstage and in videos. It wasn’t the herky-jerky mugging of Mick Jagger or the heavy shouldering of Bruce Springsteen, but something far more air-slicing and Zen succinct; his gestures were like cosmic salutations.
Oh, no no no.  This is a matter of opinion, of course: if that's what Wolcott sees when he watches Bowie moving, it what he sees. I first saw Bowie performing on TV after reading a lot about his theatricality in the rock press, and I was taken aback by his awkwardness, his jerkiness, his lack of sensuousness.  (But then I was never much impressed by Jagger's moves either.)  I've been haunted by this clip from the 70s ever since I first stumbled on it last year:



Zen-succinct?  No, that's showbiz.  Not that there's anything wrong with that!  Looking again at the Goblin Dance number from Labyrinth, I suddenly thought of someone like Rex Harrison: a nonsinger and nondancer stuck in a musical.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Nothing Shows Support Like Frostbitten Ears

Seriously -- what the hell IS this crap? Since that big winter storm hit the East Coast I've been seeing a lot of posts and links and memes celebrating the fact that young men are being made to stand in the cold and snow to "guard" the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with a lot of the usual "Support Our Troops" prattle. Of course the babble comes mostly from people who are eager to start another pointless war so they can send more young men and women to kill and be killed and maim and be maimed; and who vote for legislators who block veterans' benefits. But even if you aren't one of those people, I don't see any reason to keep these kids standing outside in that weather for nothing. Will the Unknown Soldier get away if his tomb isn't guarded constantly?  And please don't talk to me about 'honor' -- this is the kind of thing that gives 'honor' a bad name.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Papa Haydn's Got a Brand New Bag

Someone linked to this article today, advocating a new label for what is usually called "Classical" music.  The writer, one Craig Havighurst, has a valid point; as he acknowledges, the point has often been made before.  His candidate for a replacement, "Composed Music," is no better, though, and it's mildly amusing to watch him try to justify it.

It doesn't help that he's mainly thinking in marketing terms, which I guess is fair, to a point.  In Havighurst's lifetime,
The Thing We’ve Called Classical Music has cratered in popularity and public engagement. It’s working its way back, slowly, to a place of respect, relevance and commercial viability. But it needs all the help it can get, including a major re-branding and re-conceptualization.
"Re-branding."  I'm not surprised to find that Havighurst has done a TED talk or two; this piece is full of marketing jargon and woo-woo.  Havighurst believes, evidently, that the reason why old European art music doesn't sell as well as Adele is that it isn't being marketed properly.  Call it "Composed Music," and that will change, if you just give it a chance -- the brand, not the music.
Let it sink in for a few seconds. See if you can get used to it. Imagine it as a designation in Spotify, a new Grammy Awards field or a wall in a record store. Imagine it as a new frame of reference for every kid studying cello, voice, piano or a band instrument. The ramifications of laying that term over and around the beleaguered term Classical Music could be profound. Baggage of history, class and race is swept away. The awkwardness of there being a Classical Period in Classical Music becomes moot. In a radio context, the music would no longer come across as an oldies format but as a vibrant art form, with Mozart and Jennifer Higdon and Chopin and John Luther Adams getting equal billing and stature.
The music snobs I know are not going to like the idea of John Luther Adams being assigned equal "stature" with Mozart and Chopin.  I don't think you have to be a snob to object to it; it's like assigning equal stature to, say, Neil Simon and Shakespeare.  It's no denigration of Simon's skill and professionalism to insist that he's no Shakespeare.  So let's leave "stature" out of it, Craig.  As for "billing," that also is a marketing issue, not an artistic one.
The general public won’t initially know what we’re talking about when we talk about Composed Music, but that’s a good thing. It’s a chance to re-introduce and refresh the very idea of music made for careful listening and refined expression in a fast-changing and jaded world.
"Composed music" really doesn't work very well even for the purpose Havighurst has in mind.  As he admits, most people will have no idea what it refers to.  And contrary to his fantasies, I think that when he offers an example of the product he's pushing -- Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, let's say -- the most likely response will be "Oh! You mean classical music."

I commented that I prefer something like "European art music," and the person who'd linked the article replied, "Much of the music in question is not Eurocentric."  That brought me up short, because I hadn't said it was.  Evidently he doesn't know what "Eurocentric" means.  Still, it's not fully accurate to call this music "European" or even (another term I've used) "Euro-American art music," because thanks to Euro-American imperalism the music is not only being played by large numbers of non-Europeans -- the IU music school trains many performers from Asia, for example -- it's being composed by them.  (I think immediately of composers like the Chinese Tan Dun and the Thai Somtow Sucharitkul, but there are others.)  Still, I think that "European" is an accurate term for the tradition, in the same way that I'd be playing Japanese music if I studied the Koto.

"Art" is more problematic, though.  This is something of what Havighurst wants to convey by "composed."
Finally, the term has more poetry and resonance than might be apparent at first blush. The related word composure describes well the formality and focused attention that’s at the core of how so-called Classical Music has been performed and received for centuries, something that’s decidedly not broken. Composed Music honors and thrives on active, engaged listening. It distinguishes itself from all music appropriate for a party or a free-speech atmosphere and invokes a contract among composer, artist and audience. We collectively conspire for silence, which is this art form’s canvass, blank page or dark theater. To grasp and feel Composed Music, the audience has to compose itself, and it’s nice to be reminded of that.
One of the first commenters on Havighurst's piece pointed out that "pop music is composed.  Showtunes and film scores -- famously -- are composed.  Ever heard of Gil Evans, Duke Ellington, Maria Schneider, Carla Bley?  Jazz composers all."  Havighurst acknowledged the point in his piece, but brushed it aside.  But it's more of a stumbling block than he evidently realizes.  A lot of thought and work goes into the composition of a film score, but it's not meant for "active, engaged listening."  The same could probably be said of a ballet score or an opera, yet those are unquestionably part of the tradition Havighurst wants "composed music" to indicate.

Several commenters liked "concert music," but that also isn't specific enough.  It simply means playing or performing together in public, so it must include Bruce Springsteen or Public Enemy, or a brass band playing John Philip Sousa in the park, as well as Bach or Beethoven.  And Havighurst's specific tradition of a decorous, mostly silent audience listening to an orchestra is a nineteenth-century development born of snobbery and class anxiety.  Since most eighteenth and nineteenth-century "classical" music was popular music in its day, I doubt very much that most of its audiences listened to it with the same trained sensibility that its composers brought to its composition.  One person liked "deep listening"; I replied that I listen to Stravinsky, Bach, Beethoven, and Penderecki shallowly, for the sensous pleasure I get from the melodies, textures, harmonies and rhythms.  I suspect that eighteenth and nineteenth-century audiences mostly did the same.  I could also have mentioned classical musicians I've known who, on listening to a group like Yes, praised its use of "classical" modes and structures; of course, since at least some of the band members had that kind of training.  So did numerous heavy-metal performers.  "Deep listening" is more about the listener's background and how he or she applies it than about the content of the music itself.

No one really knows what "art" means, or how to distinguish it from non-art.  I learned when I hung out with music students at IU in the 70s and 80s that they could be caustically dismissive of work by canonical composers.  Training can produce dislike for these compositions as well as appreciation.  It can also produce a contempt for the taste of laypeople who don't (unsurprisingly) hear music the way a highly-schooled professional does.  Part of the blame for the way classical music has "cratered in popularity and public engagement" must surely lie with performers and composers who want to produce and perform music that is inaccessible to most people.  There's nothing wrong with that project in principle, only with their ambivalent expectation that the stupid sheeplike masses should support it anyway.  If you want to make art for a tiny minority or elite, fine, but no one is obligated to pay you to do it.  And most of the main tradition of European art music is not inaccessible, in principle or in practice.  It's just old.  Many people do enjoy Golden Oldies, but they also want new art and entertainment.  When I was in high school, I read an article in an audiophile magazine that quoted a letter from Mozart to his father, to the effect that the Viennese were playing a lot of old music, and much of it wasn't bad, even though some of it was four or five years old.

People have been arguing about the labels and categories used to package and sell music and other arts for as long as I can remember, and commercial concerns are usually at odds with artistic ones.  Try to define "jazz," for example.  In the late 80s Wynton Marsalis set off a storm of controversy by declaring ex cathedra what jazz is, and what it isn't; many jazz musicians and critics disagreed with him. "Blues" is another conundrum.  Elijah Wald's Escaping the Delta (HarperCollins, 2001) is an excellent account of how the blues changed over decades, not just musically but culturally.
... it is all a matter of definition, and one could easily make the argument that James Brown was simply a new kind of blues singer and follow this logic through to Snoop Dogg.  Having decided to let the musicians themselves do the defining as much as possible, however, I am struck by how insistent Brown for one, has been on killing that argumment.  [Though Brown grew up on the blues,] he maintains that while he loved everything from gospel music to Count Basie to Frank Sinatra, he always hated blues.  "I don't remember whether I sang them, but I know I never liked them ... I still don't like the blues.  Never have."

Considering that the two hits with which Brown announced himself as the kind of funky soul modernity in 1965, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)," were both cast in the twelve-bar blues form, this seems more than a little odd [216].
On one hand, Wald explains this in part as a result of the association between the blues and "the poor, rural, segregated past" that aspiring African-Americans of Brown's generation and after wanted to leave behind.  On the other hand, as Wald suggests, the blues as a musical form didn't die out; it just changed its spots, as it were, and became rhythm and blues and soul, even disco and hip-hop.

It might be that the same is true of "classical" music.  Far from dying out, music for European-style instruments and orchestras is still alive and commercial, in different venues and modes.  The original works are kept alive by government subsidies and academic support, since they can only be played professionally by people who've undergone rigorous training.  (But even pop music has become increasingly professionalized over the years.  Just as one indicator, I see many kids at IU carrying guitar cases around, and I doubt they're all studying "classical" guitar.  There are now courses in the history of rock, and the School of Music has soul and African-American choral ensembles.)

Again, though, what Craig Havighurst is really talking about is marketing, not the music itself.  He wants more people to listen appreciatively to this music, and to pay money to listen to it.  But marketers feel that way about any product they're pushing, whether it's any good or not.  It's a professional imperative to convince yourself, by a kind of self-hypnosis, that the product is good and that everybody should like it and buy it.  One reason for the incoherence of Havighurst's article is that he confuses the inherent quality of the music and his desire to sell it.

Although I also was influenced by the Leonard Bernstein TV programs Havighurst mentions, my real introduction to European art music was through Warner Brothers cartoons, which used that music, often parodically, as part of their soundtracks.  "What's Opera, Doc?" and "The Rabbit of Seville" are only the most obvious and explicit examples; when I began exploring classical music through recordings later on, I was surprised and pleased to find that many of the tunes were familiar to me from their use in cartoons, TV shows, and movies.  Trying to sell cultural products to kids, as something good for them, isn't going to work.  The best you can do is expose them to it, and if they find something they like in it, some of them will follow up.  School programs are also good, if we can get rid of the high-stakes testing that wastes more and more classroom time these days.

I really doubt that a new marketing rubric for selling "classical music" will attract more consumers.  It will probably erect new barriers that will keep them away, as when Havighurst tries to draw the line between "real" composed music and stuff that doesn't measure up to his vague standards.  When you think about it, isn't it remarkable that many people are still playing and listening to music that is two or three centuries old, even though it has been badly "packaged" by generations of teachers and exemplars who want to see it as something fossilized and basically dead?  As Noam Chomsky remarked while discussing the marketing of Barack Obama's 2008 election campaign (via), "The goal of advertising is to create uninformed consumers who will make irrational choices.  Those of you who suffered through an economics course know that markets are supposed to be based on informed consumers making rational choices. But industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to undermine markets and to ensure, to get uninformed consumers making irrational choices."  If European art music by whatever name you choose to call it has real value to people, marketing in this mode is exactly the wrong way to get or keep people interested in it.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Moderation

The worst thing about Donald Trump is the same as the worst thing about the late Fred Phelps: he's so obnoxious that other extremists can use him to seem moderate and reasonable by comparison.  So, for example, Senator Lindsey Graham has just denounced Trump as a "race-baiting, xenophobic  religious bigot" who "doesn't represent my party."  Now, any observer of the American political scene knows that race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigots are the backbone of the GOP, which deliberately wooed them away from the Democrats during the Nixon administration.  Just to limit myself to Graham, in 2010 the New York Times called him "this year's maverick," which is corporate media code for a frothing, shamelessly warmongering bigot that the paper wants, for some reason, to cultivate.  So, of course, my Right Wing Acquaintance No. 1 linked to Graham's denunciation of Trump, adding, "Trump is, indeed, a fascist."  RWA1 likes people like Trump and Phelps, for the same reason: he can use them to present himself as a reasonable, moderate person.

The second worst thing about Trump is that he's a safe target for liberal Democrats, who are flooding the Intertoobz with abuse of him.  As my new meme, above, suggests, this no doubt makes them feel better, but has no useful effect that I can see.  Admittedly, it's hard to know what would have a useful effect.  But I saw one enlightened soul refer to Trump as a "retard" the other day, thereby showing his vast moral and intellectual superiority to Trump and his supporters; a fair amount of the anti-Trump stuff does help drag down the level of discourse in our nation, as if it weren't already low enough.

Here's a better reaction to Trump, from an interview with the leftist Anglo-Pakistani writer Tariq Ali on Democracy Now! this morning.  Amy Goodman asked him what he thought of the move in Parliament to ban Donald Trump from England.  Ali replied:
And I, myself—Amy, I have to say that, you know, I’m not in favor of banning people, because once you start banning people from the right who are mouthing extreme-right rubbish, this then leads to similar bans against progressive people, people on the left accused of being terrorists, etc. It’s better to debate these people out rather than to ban them. That’s my opinion.
Mine too.  It's funny to imagine Trump hoist on his own petard, but liberals never seem to remember that the repressive actions they favor will eventually be used against them.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Oh God, I Could Do Better Than That

When the AV Club posted an article titled, "What Did David Bowie Mean to You?", my initial reaction was: not a whole lot.  The article itself, composed of short tributes by several AV Club critics, is quite good, often moving, and it at least acknowledged the queerness in much of Bowie's work and personae.

An earlier article on the recording of Bowie's second album, The Man Who Sold the World, didn't acknowledge it, and I thought that was a significant omission because the original cover English cover art, replaced with something more neutral on the US release, upset a lot of critics (Not as much as the original cover art for Diamond Dogs did, though.)  So did the song "Width of a Circle," with its account of the singer's encounter with a leather boy.  I suppose it could be taken as a positive sign that the musicians in Bowie's band for that album apparently didn't react negatively when he brought in those lyrics, but I wish someone had asked them about it.

Because when I thought about it, I realized that what Bowie did mean to me for a while in the 70s was that he was a major-label artist who recorded gay content.  Hunky Dory, his third album, had "Queen Bitch," a sort of tribute to the Velvet Underground with lyrics about rival queens pursuing a piece of trade.  As I remember it now, I bought Hunky Dory because of "Queen Bitch," and while it was a fine rocker and the lyrics were a breakthrough of some kind for major-label pop, I was also disappointed.  When Lester Bangs wrote later that he "thought [Bowie] wrote the absolute worst lyrics I had ever heard from a major pop figure with the exception of Bernie Taupin," I was relieved to find that I wasn't the only person who thought so.  It just occurred to me that Bowie could be seen as the Kilgore Trout of pop, after Kurt Vonnegut's fictional science fiction author who had great ideas, but was a terrible writer.  In "Queen Bitch," for example, it seemed to me that Bowie had picked up some American street slang but didn't really know what it meant or how to use it.  On the other hand, I admired his admonition to his newborn son: "Don't pick fights with the bullies or the cads/'Cause I'm not much cop at punching other, people's Dads."  One reason why Hunky Dory stands out among his product is that for once Bowie spoke personally, even intimately, in his lyrics, with touching results.

Bowie continued to play with erotic and gender ambiguity for his next few albums.  One of my favorites from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is "Lady Stardust," whose "lady" is a "boy."  I like some of the rockers better ("Hang On To Yourself," "Suffragette City"), but lyrically, "Lady Stardust" is interesting.  On Aladdin Sane, "ambiguity" is the key.  Several of the songs can be heard as gay or straight, such as "Panic in Detroit," whose narrator might be male or female.  In "Cracked Actor," for example, about a middle-aged movie star who picks up a hustler on "Sunset and Vine," the hustler might be male (I always took it for granted), but might also be female (as a homophobic straight friend insisted).  Lester Bangs, as I recall, disliked Bowie's cover of the Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together," which he saw as a gay remake, but I've never been sure of that; the eye of the beholder, I guess.

Then came Diamond Dogs, which included "Rebel Rebel," probably his best-known and most-covered song about gender confusion.  "You've got your mother in a whirl / She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl."  Bowie never resolves it, which is fine. I took it for granted in those days that other performers would take advantage of the opening Bowie had created by coming it, which took a lot more courage then than it does now.  It didn't happen.

It's always been seen as Bowie's trademark that he changed stage personae like a "chameleon," a word that often recurs in the reviews.  (It's funny to see him complaining about the short attention span of the media in this conversation with William Burroughs from 1974; he was one to talk!)  But within each era he also wrote for different characters: the "I" of "Cracked Actor" isn't the "I" of "Panic in Detroit," and on Ziggy Stardust the "I" changes from song to song.  This fit with the theatricality that numerous rockers were playing with in those days, from the Doors to the Who, and the dramatic monologue was used by other singers as well.  Musically, in terms of his songwriting as well as his singing style, Bowie belonged more to English theatrical tradition than to rock; he was often compared to Anthony Newley in reviews.  But I think that his performance of different characters in his songs bothered a lot of critics, especially Americans it seemed.  They wanted to believe that if Bowie sang a song about sex with a boy, it had to be his own experience, despite all the lyrical evidence that it wasn't necessarily so.  Randy Newman (a much better lyricist) got away with it, but in general playing roles upset the critics' Puritan sensibilities.  (Lester Bangs came from a family of Jehovah's Witnesses, for what that may be worth.  Despite his raunchy talk and substance abuse, Lester was quite a Puritan.)

As Bowie moved away from his queer period, disavowing and disowning his previous avowal of bisexuality, I largely lost interest in him, though I dutifully listened to and sometimes bought each album as it came out until sometime in the 80s.  It wasn't because of the lack of queer content -- there was often some excitement among the fans over ambiguous songs like "Boys Keep Swinging" -- but because I didn't find his music interesting.  (There are plenty of heterosexual musicians whose work I like.)  I've been listening to Blackstar, his farewell album, and while I'd like to like it, it's not working for me.  The dirgelike music suits his mood, I guess; he knew he was dying when he recorded it.  But the lyrics don't grab my attention, they're the usual Bowie word salad, and the music doesn't reach me either.

The writers in the A.V. Club piece are at least twenty years younger than I am, and first encountered Bowie's music ten years or more after I did.  They grew up with him, either as a musician or as an actor.  His role as the Goblin King in Labyrinth made a big impact on several of them.  Of course he meant something different to them than he did to me.  I'd begun returning to his music several months ago, before the world knew he was sick, and much of it does work for me, as I've said above.  The songs I liked forty years ago, I still like; those I didn't like haven't grown on me.  As with any artist, we create our own meanings for Bowie.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Racism Never Dies, It Just Fades Away for Awhile and Then Returns


I decided to read Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, by Professors Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, after Ta-Nehisi Coates recommended it, and so far, a hundred pages in, I'm very glad I did.  Just about every page has something instructive on it.  For example:
One of the present authors some years ago tested the limits of the free market in racist ideas.  A crotchety yet likable right-wing colleague approached, looking disquieted and in need of moral support.  He was "having trouble" with a certain black student in his bio-psychology class.  What was wrong, he wondered, with saying that "black people may, or (mind you) may not, prove to be intellectually inferior to white people?  In science, you frame a hypothesis, devise an experiment, find out."  The student raised her hand and, when recognized, blasted him.  "Do you know So-and-So (the student in question)?" asked the bio-psychologist.  (The author did happen to know the student in question, an eighteen-year-old single mother of twins who was as bright as they come and not one to brook insult.)  "Why can't she grasp that there's a scientific approach to things, blah, blah?"  Finally, the author put a question, "If, as you say, there is no hypothesis that science excludes, why not try this assignment?  Let your students pick any white ethnic group and any stereotype commonly applied to it, greedy, mendacious, dumb, drunken, gangsterish, and so on then formulate a hypothesis, design the experiment, find out."  The colleague's face froze.  [page 47 of the e-book]
Sounds like a great idea to me!  As it happens, I'm "multiracial" myself.  From what my parents told me when I was a kid, I am a mix of Teutonic, Celtic, and Mediterranean races.  I wonder what my fellow Irishman Andrew Sullivan, who likes to whine that Political Correctness has inhibited 'scientific' research into intelligence and race, would say to research investigating (and thereby legitimating) the link between the Celt and drunkenness, criminality, etc.  After all, we must follow Science wherever it leads, and in the good old days when (as Sullivan fantasizes) research into intelligence hadn't yet been "politicized," the mental and moral inferiority of certain white ethnic groups was considered not merely a suitable subject for scientific inquiry, but a proven fact.  And as Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in a 1988 essay, ''In fact, there is clear evidence of black intellectual superiority: in 1984, 92 percent of blacks voted to retire Ronald Reagan, compared to only 36 percent of whites."

Racecraft isn't just entertaining, though: it shows the persistence of racist notions that I'd thought were abandoned, such as the "racial" classification of blood, which the Red Cross revived in 2010, and which has been championed by Project RACE, a group that seeks a US Census classification of "multiracial" because, it claims, it would "help to prevent mistaken diagnoses and thus 'save lives.'  In the early 1990s, a researcher repeatedly asked activists how a state-sponsored racial classification could possibly accomplish any such thing.  No one proffered an answer.  Indeed, no one seemed to have thought much, if at all, in terms of workaday cause and effect" (page 65).  And that reminds me of a white liberal pundit I read a few years ago (blessedly I've forgotten his name) who declared race is "as real as nappy hair."  Most of the people to whom I mentioned that absurdity couldn't see anything absurd about it; they thought it was obvious that hair texture is a "racial" trait.

Probably I'll have more to say about Racecraft soon.