Thursday, September 28, 2006

Bringing White Cultural TheftBack

I'm finding Justin Timberlake a bit annoying. I know, I know: bagging on a boy-band survivor isn't all that edgy, and maybe I'm just being petty, seeing as how he brought sexy back and I didn't. But there is one nagging little thing about the song "Sexyback" that I can't seem to shake, and it's not the fact that he sings off key or that he's a pretty-boy pop star trying to sound like Nine Inch Nails. It's that for some unfathomable reason, Justin Timberlake has decided that slavery is appropriate imagery for a white pop singer to sexualize, and America has backed him up on it.

"Baby . . . put me in shackles baby--
I'm your slave . . . I'll let you whip me
When I misbehave . . ."

Ooh, dehumanizing, degrading, culturally offensive imagery is soooo sexy--especially when sung through a distortion patch. So why is this OK? And I don't mean, Why can't anyone sing or make jokes about slavery? I mean, why is it OK for anyone--particularly a white person, from the south no less--to take the darkest chapter of American history and sexualize it, and then dance around it?

Maybe I'm over-reacting, but I really don't think so. Justin is not the first white pretender to black culture; go to Paul Grant's blog to get a glimpse at the line of progression, which runs through Elvis Presley, Vanilla Ice and Eminem, to name a few. Eminem and Justin Timberlake have been among the more respectful white interlopers; Justin's first solo album was pretty good (what I heard of it; it's not like I'm in the fan club or anything--really) and showed due respect to his musical influences. But it's one thing to coopt musical styles, it's another thing to appropriate cultural heritage and repackage it indiscriminately. If you ask me, it's a little like soaking a cross in urine and calling it art.

So, am I over-reacting, or should my wife stop thinking Justin Timberlake is cute?

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Church of the Lazy Mind

I'm working my way, these days, through the book Soul Searching, a sociological study of the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. The authors interviewed teenagers across the country to get a sense of what they believe and how they've come to those beliefs. While individual kids continue to identify themselves with particular traditions or denominations--Mormon, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or, to a lesser extent, Islam, Buddhism or various pagan and new age beliefs--the authors identify a composite understanding of God that they've labeled "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." Catchy, yes?

While the First Church of the Moralistic Therapeutic Deity has yet to be officially convened, the authors offer the following set of beliefs. Please rise as we recite the creed of the faith:

1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Not quite as compelling as the Nicene Creed: "We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen . . ." Not even as sexy as the American creed that has guided civil religion over the past couple hundred years: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among those rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." If the value of a creed is in its elegance, then signing up with the First Church of the Moralistic Therapeutic Deity is roughly akin to skipping past Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech to embrace the interracial vision of Rodney King: "Can't we all just get along?"

Nevertheless, a creed is a creed, and the five lines laid out in Soul Searching function as such. So, what do you think?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

American Jihad

I happened to be in my car, listening to the radio during President Bush's speech to the U.N. General Assembly, and being the wordophile (?) that I am, I noticed the number of times he used the word struggle. "Struggle," of course, is the simplified, soundbyted (?) translation of the Islamic concept jihad. And I got to thinking, what would an Americanized concept of jihad be like?

Of course, there are other religious concepts that America could commodify if it so chose. The recent book The Gospel According to America dips the good news of Jesus Christ in red, white and blue, for example. But yet to be considered is American shalom, the Hebrew concept most often simplified and soundbyted (!) as "peace." What's American shalom look like?

I'm reminded of a papal soundbyte from decades past: "If you want peace, work for justice." Jihad and shalom are both represented, and the pope's signature gives it the aura of gospel. And as if Islam, Judaism and Christianity in one sentence weren't enough, what's more American than giving mad props to justice?

I'll tell you what's more American than giving mad props to justice: T-shirts, that's what. So in the spirit of American private enterprise as vehicle for world salvation, I propose a new t-shirt that will bring the big three monotheistic, Abrahamic religions together: "Good News: Shalom Is Jihad." There now, can't we all just get along?

Monday, September 11, 2006

I Grieve

I remember September 11, 2001. I remember how naively I began the day. I remember, having recently read the book Long Wandering Prayer, deciding to begin the habit of taking a morning walk in my new neighborhood. I remember picking up a hollowed-out walnut shell that had the natural markings of a peace sign, and I remember pocketing the walnut shell as a reminder of the tranquility of the morning. I remember deciding not to listen not to the radio on my morning commute, opting instead to listen to "Silly Love Songs" by Paul McCartney, which I had heard live recently and thought poignant. I remember the phone call from my bleary-voiced wife, who woke up to a DJ announcing that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I remember my coworker interrupting our prayers for the victims to announce that the tower was collapsing. I remember clenching my fists.

I remember September 12, 2001. I remember searching for a way to surface the sense of bewilderment, mixed with rage, that I was feeling but couldn't articulate. I found it in a song by Shawn Colvin, "Cry Like an Angel," the lyrics of which remains on the wall of my office: "The streets of my town are not what they were. They are haloed in anger, bitter and hurt. . . . May we all find salvation in professions that heal."

The hollowed-out peace sign remains in my office as well. May God grant us peace, despite all our efforts to the contrary.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Do You Have Danny De Vito in the Can?

I went to the bathroom with Danny De Vito last week. How awesome is that?

We went to LA for a vacation. When in LA your antennae are up for celebrities whether you want them to be or not. Everybody looks vaguely familiar, from the bus driver to the tailgater, and you find yourself wondering whether you've seen them in something before. The mystique about Hollywood is that you're never more than a few footsteps from a star.

We thought we might see George Clooney, Al Pacino, Matt Damon or Brad Pitt; we were on the lot at Warner Brothers Studios during the filming of Ocean's Thirteen. But no dice; the closest we got was Clooney's motorcycle. We thought we might get to talk to Charlie Sheen or congratulate Jon Cryer on his twenty-year anniversary of being Pretty in Pink's Duckie; we went to a taping of Two-and-a-Half Men. But no dice; the closest we got was about forty feet.

But Danny De Vito--I was within spitting distance of him. We went to a movie, and perhaps serendipitously, Danny De Vito got a hankering to see the same movie in the same place. And apparently he had too many free refills on his drink too, because we both made a beeline for the bathroom.

For the sake of full disclosure, I'll aver that we both averted our eyes. I didn't think it appropriate to tell him right then and there that I sort of liked him in Throw Momma from the Train, and he didn't seem particularly interested in signing autographs. So I settled for a nod of the head and a nice blog entry.

Danny De Vito played the Penguin in Batman Returns, the second film in the late-eighties/early-nineties Batman movie franchise. To be honest, he gave me the creeps. He was the child of aristocratic parents, but his awful deformities and animalistic demeanor embarrassed his parents to the point where they dumped him in the sewer. He was rescued and raised, inexplicably, by penguins. He nursed a rage against the fickle ostentatiousness of contemporary society that causes people to ostracize those who are different, and in his lust for revenge he terrorized Gotham City and made an enemy of Batman, who otherwise felt a certain solidarity with him. To be honest, Danny De Vito was the perfect cast; did I mention he gave me the creeps?

Later in my vacation, and perhaps more serendipitously, we came within spitting distance of a woman I haven't seen in ten years. Back then she was in the youth group I worked with; now she's in the same field as my wife. Good and devout, happy and hopeful--all grown up.

It's always gratifying to learn that the youth group kids you prayed for and lorded over grew up to not become resentful and detached. It's easy for the more socially awkward kids to do, frankly; a very common method in youth ministry is to cater to beautiful people with the hope that the different kids will want what they've got. I've been many things, but thankfully I was never so fickle or ostentatious as to ostracize young people who were different, and I've learned over the years that the different among our youth group appreciated that.

This young woman was one of the beautiful people; the comedian in the comedy club where we bumped into each other suggested that she probably didn't talk to me back in the day. But she did, and she did again last week, and in talking with her I learned that she's not in the habit of ostracizing people who are different, and I'm thankful for that.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...