Friday, November 26, 2010

Friday Essay Question


No Listomania today -- sorry. I'm using the long holiday weekend as an excuse for some well-deserved slacking off, but we will return to traditional business next week.

In the List's place, however, I offer a meditation on (among other things) rock-and-roll, prompted both by my ranting about Lady Gaga over the last day or two and the fact that I had occasion this week to re-read Jules Feiffer's superb 1965 The Great Comic Book Heroes, still one of the best books ever written about pop culture. Feiffer concludes it with the following paragraph; he's talking specifically about comics, but I think the point he's really making is somewhat broader.
Comic books, which had few public (as opposed to professional) defenders in the days when Dr. Wertham was attacking them, are now looked back on by an increasing number of my generation as samples of our youthful innocence instead of our youthful corruption. A sign, perhaps, of the potency of that corruption. A corruption -- a lie, really -- that put us in charge, however, temporarily, of the world in which we lived and gave us the means, however arbitrary, of defining right from wrong, good from bad, hero from villain. It is something for which old fans can understandably pine -- almost as if having become overly conscious of the imposition of junk on our adult values: on our architecture, our highways, our advertising, our mass media, our politics -- and even in the air we breathe, flying black chunks of it -- we have staged a retreat to a better remembered brand of junk. A junk that knew its place was underground where it had no power and thus only titillated, rather than above ground where it truly has power -- and thus, only depresses.
As I said, Feiffer was talking specifically about comics, but he might just as well have been talking about rock, no?

Discuss.

[Shamless Blogwhore: My parallel Cinema Listomania -- theme: best or worst holiday-themed films -- is now up as usual over at Box Office. Hey -- no slacking over there, it pays the bills. In any case, I'd take it as a particular favor this week if you could find a minute and maybe go over there and leave a comment. Thanks.]

17 comments:

Faze said...

How well I remember this great book, and what an impact it had in a world that was only dimly becoming aware of the power of popular culture. But Feiffer's world of comics was a strange, primitive version of my generation's world of comics, which was already developing the deep backstories and mythologies that have since blossomed into what seem to me to be ridiculously extravagant multi-dimensional worlds -- but so be it. The specifics of pop culture do not transfer well from generation to generation, but the structure of our appreciation remains the same, as Feiffer points out in the paragraph you cite.

Pop culture gives us a model world to play in with all seriousness. Pop music gives us access to brief, 2 minute and 30 second blasts of pleasure -- mini-Mardi Gras's in the middle of our days that enrich our lives with a complex back and forth of nostalgia and projection, role-playing and personal associations.

Which makes me wonder about your strange hatred of Lady Gaga, who strikes me as a relatively harmless manipulator of inherited images of deviance, and a songwriter no worse than a Bjork or Jewel or a hundred others her age. She's taken an average talent and average good looks and used them to capture the world to her hollow agenda. I can't enjoy her music, just as most hip-hop influenced pop leaves me cold, but I can see why her generation might be able to enjoy her music and persona the way that ours piled so much meaning onto what would seem to our parents to be the puerile artistry of garage bands, psychedelia or Merseybeat.

I don't want to use up too much space here, but let me end with "viva Jules Feiffer" and thanks for reminding us of that great book of its time.

Sal Nunziato said...

Nicely done, Faze.

My two cents:

With every new generation, the old always seemed to dismiss the young and vice versa.

Kids listening to Sinatra croon in the 40s mocked Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson. Kids loving Elvis made fun of Sinatra. This has been going on forever. But it seems to me, as time went on, both kids and adults alike, looked backed and embraced all of this music.

That seemed to stop in the 80s. Music and pop culture made a turn for the worse and it seems that no one looks back with the same affection and respect of the music made in the last 30 years the way we do with the music made during the first 50 years of the 20th century.

I always go back to Irving Berlin's line, "Pop music is popular because people like it."

1,000,000,000,000 eat at McDonald's. That doesn't make it good or good for you.

steve simels said...

In the lead up to that Feiffer graph I quoted, he starts by saying comic books are junk. "But of course. Why else read them?"

And later: "Comic books, first of all, are junk. To accuse them of being what they are is to make no accusation at all: There is no such thing as uncorrupt junk or moral junk or educational junk."

He goes on to say that UNDERGROUND junk -- the junk that knows its place, in other words -- has value precisely because it is antisocial.

Faze said...

has value precisely becuase it is antisocial.

Popular culture now allows adults to have an underground "antisocial" life well into the years of responsibilty and parenthood. But we who love power pop and the top 40 of the 50s and 60s really embrace a comparatively restrained and civilized rebellion -- we're proud of the fact that we don't like heavier, darker, or cluelessly self-indulgent rock. The trim restraint of power pop, Motown, Brill Building, mod and Merseybeat, is part of its appeal.

Power pop's idealization of teen love should, in its grown up form, give us a richer appreciation of love in the spousal and family context. Power pop's stylized rebellion should mature into a lifelong political sympathy for the underdog, the oppressed and the misunderstood.

It's junk, but it's our junk, and one of many voices in the ongoing dialogue with fantasy and reality that makes up our selves. (I know I sound pompus.)

steve simels said...

Well, see this gets me to Lady Gaga. I don't have a problem with stupid or derivative or one-dimensional or meretricious or whatever...some of my favorite records of all time could be described with those words.

But most of them were made by people who knew what they were doing was on some level stupid or derivative blah blah. But that was part of the fun -- the secret that we were all in on.

As Feiffer said, though above ground junk, like Gaga, truly has power and thus only depresses.

And don't even get me started on 200 million dollar 3D genre movies that in a sane world would have been made on a shoestring for the drive-in market in 1965.

Brooklyn Girl said...

but I can see why her generation might be able to enjoy her music and persona the way that ours piled so much meaning onto what would seem to our parents to be the puerile artistry of garage bands, psychedelia or Merseybeat.

The primary difference is that each thing you cite was new and not like anything that preceded it. Gaga is 100% imitative, and not anywhere nearly as good as any of the sources she is copying.

edward said...

Ummm, I think the phrase you're all dancing around is"
"Damn kids, get off of my lawn." ;>

Billy B said...

I was only 8 or 9 years old when Feiffer's book came out. At the time I was a big fan of DC comics - the Flash and Batman were my favorites.

Also, I still get a big kick out of Gaga's 'acoustic' rendition of one of her songs stevie posted below. She plays an electric piano on the tune. heh.

steve simels said...

edward said...

Ummm, I think the phrase you're all dancing around is"
"Damn kids, get off of my lawn." ;>


Well, that's a given.
:-)

Gummo said...

I'm going to avoid the nub of this increasingly silly discussion and just say that way back when, Feiffer's book was a holy grail of mine in the days when old comics books just weren't reprinted or available -- I couldn't afford to buy it (the very idea was inconceivable) but my local library had a copy and I checked it out over & over again, not for Feiffer's essay, but to read & reread those golden age comic books stories that were legends to my 10, 12 year old self.

And speaking of a corrupting semi-underground culture, I have The Horror! The Horror! waiting for me on the shelf -- a book about the ultraviolent horror comics of the 50s that were the prime motivator behind the big anti-comic book movement of parents and educators.

A quick glance shows that in the wake of World War II, the 1950s were NOT simply the Ozzie & Harriet dream of wingnuts' reveries, there was a lot of unsettling darkness flitting around the edges of the culture, soon to burst forth....

steve simels said...

Incidentally, I bought the 2003 reprint of the Feiffer book last week, because I needed another quote from it for something else I was writing.

It's a trade paperback, and doesn't include reprints of the original comic book stories, on the theory that they're now readily available elsewhere. But it does have a lot more and very cool inside illustrations -- old comic book covers, various interesting panels, etc.

If you can't find the old hardcover, I highly recommend it. Over at Amazon....

Gummo said...

steve simels said...
It's a trade paperback, and doesn't include reprints of the original comic book stories, on the theory that they're now readily available elsewhere.


Heresy. Those stories are what made that book so amazing, not Feiffer's musings (sorry).

Faze said...

And don't even get me started on 200 million dollar 3D genre movies that in a sane world would have been made on a shoestring for the drive-in market in 1965.


Oh, I'm with you on that one.

Maude Lange said...

I actually like Lady G & what she's doing, but I'm not going to win that argument with this crowd. I do see one significant difference between then & now: ack in the 50's, 60's and at least some of the 70's, there was a relatively strict/straight defined culture that music, comics etc. were rebelling against - which is why they had to be "underground" - even if they sold millions of copies. After that, all those things became part of the dominant culture itself, which completely changed the equation.

steve simels said...

After that, all those things became part of the dominant culture itself, which completely changed the equation.

And that's the point I've been trying, however inarticulately, to make.

dave™© said...

From the photo, it looks like you found my copy!

CovetedNOPrizeWinnerWithOakLeafCluster said...

You get the impression that Lady Gaga is perfectly satisfied with her music as a career, and that if the boss suggested she do things differently, she would be perfectly satisfied with that somewhat different musical career. Artistic control (or art) is turned into no-big-thing. The rebellion aspect of rock-n-roll gave it energy that no longer exists once "rock star" is a job title.