Link to an interview with Josh Shepperd:
Country Music (2019)
Director: Ken Burns
Main Cast: Peter Coyote
The episode that dealt with the mid-80s really starkly reveals the limitations of the series. You can really pinpoint that the acts featured in that episode (Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis, Reba McEntire, George Strait, Roseanne Cash, etc.) constitute the tipping point when country music started to really suck. The episode repeats over and over the claim that these artists were returning to their “roots” (the episode is titled “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ “). But this proves to be false, or at least extremely misleading. Featured commentators do accurately state that in this period mainstream country acts moved away from the strings and backing singers that characterized earlier “countrypolitan” music. But the falsehood is that they did this to return to some mythical musical “roots”. Countrypolitan (or the “Nashville Sound”) was mostly about middlebrow, southern, white, working class-focused music appropriating the trappings of urban pop music of the 40s (like Frank Sinatra’s work with Axel Stordahl) to lend an air of sophistication to match rising post-WWII socioeconomic expectations that extended down the socioeconomic hierarchy in an unprecedented way. In a review of Willie Nelson‘s The Party’s Over (And Other Great Willie Nelson Songs) (1967) I previously wrote that countrypolitan music
“epitomized the (still racist and sexist) ‘golden age”’of post-WWII American prosperity in which ordinary, uneducated workers saw rising living standards and could see themselves as part of a newly emerging middle class with its own self-styled sophistication — something that might be described as attempting to project an aura of sophistication beyond class boundaries via ideas about ‘proper’ diction and enunciation cribbed from upper classes and merged with lower-class folk/country musical forms. Looked at another way, the temporary willingness of elite classes to permit rising working and middle classes was fostered by inculcating country music listeners with upper-class values as well as the speech patterns and more urban culture that went along with those values (when elites withdrew their permissive and benevolent attitude starting in the 1970s, the countrypolitan style faded almost in lockstep and is now commonly derided as low-class and unsophisticated).”
Johnny Cash’s The Baron (1981) is sort of a perfect example to illustrate the turn away from what countrypolitan music represented. Drawing on the work of Historian Jefferson Cowie about the sorts of socioeconomic changes that took place in the 1970s, as evidenced through music and film (Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class ), I wrote that “given a close examination, there is is something to be admired in Cash’s intransigent support of his old New Deal style social optimism against the great weight of the Carter-Thatcher-Reagan era’s neoliberal onslaught against it.” Cowie has pointed to a dominant narrative of the lone individual failing or having a bittersweet ending trying to break away from the claustrophobic confines of social structures during the early neoliberal era, whereas on The Baron Cash took a kind of Spielbergian view of bringing a family back together, lamenting the loss of solidarity, family, community — that is, anomie.
When you actually listen to the music featured in the Burns episode about mid-80s acts, it is pretty apparent that what was happening was a modernizing effect as the most popular acts substituted sterile, highly compressed/gated, and synthetic 80s productions values from rock/pop music for the old countrypolitan strings and vocal choruses, and they were now utilizing a more highly affected country yodel/twang style of singing that had seemingly little precedent (it wasn’t at all a return to Jimmie Rodgers’ style of blue yodel singing). They were mostly just appropriating more recent rock/pop fads, with a few entirely new vocal affectations meant to distinguish it from the music of “urban elites” (now constructed as an enemy). And there is no explicit discussion of the (right-wing populist and reactionary and “Southern Strategy”) politics that go along with this. Though there were some photos/videos of acts posing with the Reagans and Ed Koch. What jumped to mind was Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004) thesis, and maybe Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers’s Right Turn (1987) thesis as well. Anyway, in the Burns series episode, what is not clearly explained is that the invocation of a return to “roots” is not a reference to musical qualities but is more a coded statement about constructing (through musical culture) an identity as a distinct social group opposed to certain (unstated) enemies. The way that the Burns series takes these statements at face value and refuses to unpack the coded implications is irksome (as Georg Lukács wrote in 1938, “It is an old truth of Marxism that every human activity should be judged according to the objective meaning in the total context, and not according to what the agent believes the importance of his activity to be.”). And, my my, most of the music in this episode is dreadful. When they showed some old Ricky Skaggs music video clips my spouse (appropriately) made vomiting sounds. Oh, and they talk to Roseanne Cash a lot through the series and in this episode she talks about her own career. My spouse was guffawing at everything she said because it was so transparently false. The series lets her get away with it (by airing the statements at all, as well as by omitting any critique of her statements). She claims she was not riding her father’s coattails but this is just completely contradicted by her actions (“I even thought about changing my name” … but she didn’t; she claimed to come to Nashville from LA, but she grew up in the south and had Nashville music business ties; etc.). As irksome as the episode is, some of the raw material in it at least allows a viewer to compare how earlier era country music was a more honest reflection of rural peasant/working class values (which is not to say all those values were admirable) whereas in the 80s it became more highly disingenuous and cynical and more prone to use coded language to obscure unappealing motivations. I guess an appraisal of mainstream country music in the 80s calls for an analysis out of Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason (1983).
The series does mention media consolidation in the 1990s. It is discussed for approximately 2 minutes (in a series with eight roughly 2-hour episodes!). Although some excellent points are raised in those two minutes, the problem is that they are given short shrift when the bulk of the series promotes winner-take-all frameworks, through incessant invocation of rags-to-riches motifs and an unrelenting focus on best-selling artists that presumes sales/profitability is the exclusive yardstick for merit. As part of those two minutes, the film makes a bizarre claim that the (Billboard?) “Americana” chart was created to capture alternative country in the face of media consolidation. The way it is discussed in the narrative conflates the “Americana” chart with “alt country” in a misleading way. They also briefly show a still photograph of the Dixie Chicks in a closing montage, but nothing after 1996 is discussed. Johnny Cash gets extensive time (yet again) in the final episode. It wouldn’t surprise me if 1-2 hours of the entire series is devoted to Johnny Cash (at the high end of that range if screen time by Roseanne Cash counts too). Hugely popular acts from the period like kd lang and Lyle Lovett are not mentioned at all. Garth Brooks gets a lot of time and much of the commentary by or about him is highly suspect (untenable assertions are taken at face value with no critique or contrasting perspective; my spouse once again guffawed when someone in the film says Garth Brooks refused to let his record label promote him outside the “country” market, as if a musician is willing and able to do that [whatever that really means anyway — does a highway billboard qualify as promotion outside the country market?]).
I guess in the end this makes me wonder if someone has written a good book-length treatment of country music from an interesting critical perspective–the sort of book that does not take self-serving statements at face value and that is willing to question industry motives and apply a kind of “objective” sociological or political science type of analysis (i.e., along the lines of Bourdieu’s Distinction).
Quote by Slavoj Žižek from “Margaret Atwood’s Work Illustrates Our Need to Enjoy Other People’s Pain”:
“In his Summa Theologica, philosopher Thomas Aquinas concludes that the blessed in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned in order that their bliss be more delightful for them. Aquinas, of course, takes care to avoid the obscene implication that good souls in heaven can find pleasure in observing the terrible suffering of other souls, because good Christians should feel pity when they see suffering. So, will the blessed in heaven also feel pity for the torments of the damned? Aquinas’s answer is no: not because they directly enjoy seeing suffering, but because they enjoy the exercise of divine justice.
“But what if enjoying divine justice is the rationalisation, the moral cover-up, for sadistically enjoying the neighbour’s eternal suffering? What makes Aquinas’s formulation suspicious is the surplus enjoyment watching the pain of others secretly introduces: as if the simple pleasure of living in the bliss of heaven is not enough, and has to be supplemented by the enjoyment of being allowed to take a look at another’s suffering – only in this way, the blessed souls ‘may enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly’.
“In short, the sight of the other’s suffering is the obscure cause of desire which sustains our own happiness (bliss in heaven) – if we take it away, our bliss appears in all its sterile stupidity.”
Link to an article by Julian Paul Merrill:
This is a great analysis of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air!
Civilisations [Civilizations] (2018)
BBC Two, PBS
Director: Tim Niel (possibly others)
The BBC produced an art history mini-series entitled Civilisations that reprised a series called Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clarke from decades earlier. The series title was spelled Civilizations for its modified version aired on PBS in the USA, in which different narration is used and possibly other changes were made. This review focuses on the version aired in the USA.
The early episodes discussing ancient civilizations written by Mary Beard are the best. They offer nuanced discussions of ancient art that has survived to the present, along with hypotheses about how the societies that produced that art were structured. The later, recent-era episodes written by Simon Schama and David Olusoga are troubling. Those later episodes engage in a politically reactionary “university discourse” (Jacques Lacan’s term) that sets up a highly reductionist (and biased) binary, which can fairly be called liberal blackmail: modern industrial capitalism vs. new age paganism. Scrupulously avoided in the series is any positive (or even neutral) depiction of art from communist countries or communist artists, or anarchist ones, which would allow viewers to see an alternative to both the art of industrial capitalism and the art of various indigenous cultures and remnant monarchies. If this absence of communist-leaning art seems accidental, it isn’t. There is one episode (written by Schama) in which a Chinese artist is profiled. Who was the Chinese artist? One condemned by the Chinese government and praised by the (anticommunist) West. It is a framing that overtly revels in highly partisan cold war politics. And when modernism is discussed, the focus is on innovations in the techniques of painters and in the selection of subjects for paintings (analyzed through a lens of liberal identity politics), ignoring, for instance, one of the founding works of modernism: Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square” (1913) painting (a similar work from another, more recent artist without any connection to the former Soviet Union is instead featured in one episode, and in the final episode Piet Mondrian is discussed as the founder of modernism, a view contrary to that of numerous other art historians). The goal here is clear, and it is anti-communist propaganda in furtherance of political liberalism that benefits the bourgeoisie and reactionaries who want to “try to roll back the wheel of history.” (Because “the abstract and conceptual art of Malevich’s Black Square (1915) and Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), . . . tried to challenge the entirety of ‘bourgeois’ culture.”) As Hans Modrow has said, “Thomas Mann’s point of view is quite right: anticommunism is the disaster that creates this suffocating atmosphere which removes people’s ability to reason independently.”
My spouse was waiting for the show to profile the likes of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. But I knew the show would omit avowed communist artists like them. Kahlo and Rivera were in fact not featured in the series, nor were any artists remotely like them.
Viewers may gain much from watching the Mary Beard episodes but skipping the Schama and Olusoga ones and substituting, say, Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting (1996). Yes, a show hosted by a nun is less dogmatic and less biased than those by Schama and Olusoga! Another good supplement would perhaps be Ways of Seeing. Also, the original series by Kenneth Clarke is worth seeing, for the most part. Despite being exclusively focused on European art history, and despite Clarke’s off-putting neo-feudal advocacy and recurring anti-communist diatribes, he at least openly called himself in the series a “stick-in-the-mud” advocating outtdated political ideas, which is something that Schama and Olusoga are shamefully unwilling to do in this later series.
Link to a review of the TV show Corporate (2018- ) by Ed Hightower:
It is fair to say that Coroporate deploys kynicism.
“The late night talk show hosts are all politically timid mummy-birds, puking up pre-masticated ideas, plucked from brain-dead newspapers, into the wide, expectant beaks of their audience. *** But they tend, on that ground, to be very sensitive to the ideological consensus they both form and, through laughter, police.”
Bonus link: “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” Review
It never ceases to amuse me how the insight of philosophy and psychoanalysis that ideology determines what is or is not a “fact” is proven again and again. As Rex Butler put it,
“in the analysis of ideology, it is not simply a matter of seeing which account of reality best matches the ‘facts’, with the one that is closest being the least biased and therefore the best. As soon as the facts are determined, we have already — whether we know it or not — made our choice; we are already within one ideological system or another. The real dispute has already taken place over what is to count as the facts, which facts are relevant, and so on.”
Lenin also wrote (in What Is to be Done?):
“the only choice is — either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for mankind has not created a ‘third’ ideology, and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or an above-class ideology).”
“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
“How close we could look into a bright future should two, three or many Vietnams flourish throughout the world with their share of deaths and their immense tragedies, their everyday heroism and their repeated blows against imperialism, impelled to disperse its forces under the sudden attack and the increasing hatred of all peoples of the world!”
Bonus links: The Battle of Chile and “A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and ‘The Vietnam War'” and “It’s a Fact: Supreme Court Errors Aren’t Hard to Find” (this article engages in a certain kind of criticism that is largely blind to the issue Butler described)
It recently occurred to me—while watching a Muppets movie—that there is a noticeable different between television variety shows from the time when The Muppet Show was on TV and today. Back then, variety shows with song, dance and miscellaneous acts tended to have a stable company performing regularly, and drew in guest performers. Sometimes the guests were “new” potential stars, being “introduced” through the show, but as much or more often they were established professional entertainers of some sort. Today, in marked contrast, the traditional “variety” shows (and specials) are mostly gone, but in their place are “reality” shows framed around competitions. These are sometimes exclusively singing or dance oriented, or might be open to a variety of “talent show” acts beyond just song and dance. These new shows often have judges, either supposed industry “experts” or entertainment celebrities, who pass judgment on the competing acts. These differences between similar television shows of these eras actually matches up quite closely with the “market” logic of the present “neoliberal” era. Now, the shows have “elite” judges and a bunch of rabble competing for some sort of recognition or prize, their being too little reward allocated for all performers. There is no job security for the contestants, who have to compete against each other–the judges standing apart from that competition.