Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Rollin' balls, tumblin' dice

So...how about that Presidential election?

We had originally envisioned this issue of the High Hat to come out just before the vote, but that obviously didn't happen. Now, nearly five months on, and with all of us painfully aware of what the election meant, how does this effect what we wrote? How have things changed, culturally?

Nugent hinted a bit at an interesting topic in his "Images of Bush" piece: that, at the very least, one upside of having Bush in office is that it could lead to a rich cultural revival the way Reagan's presidency did. There was lots of good rebel art during that period, from punk to rap to comics to criticism; but unless I'm missing something, we haven't seen the same out of the GWB era. Rap has drifted away from politics and is holed up in its bling-laden mansion on the hill; rock has turned inward, and even the rowdiest stuff is curiously apolitical; and the fierce opposition voice of political columnists is nowhere to be found, replaced by the largely ineffectual samizdat of political blogging.

Is it a cultural sea change? A climate of fear? The backlash? It seems like the loudest rebel voices these days are coming from the right instead of the left, which especially makes no sense, because you can't be the dominant faction and the counterculture at the same time. What's going on? Where's the rebel renaissance of today? Am I just missing it, or is the other side just too demoralized or indifferent to mount a cultural assault like they did in the '60s and '80s?

9 Comments:

Blogger Hayden Childs said...

It seems to me that there's a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation in the cultural backlashes of the 60s and 80s that may not be present today.

Well, ok, let me start by saying that most of the political music of the 60s was godawful, outside of Dylan's 2nd album (which was released in 1963, long before the widespread major cultural seachange of the late 60s). Those cultural changes didn't have any one cause, but the Civil Rights Movement and the burgeoning Women's Lib Movement certainly helped to radicalize many of the artists we think of as countercultural in the 60s. But it's safe to say that this loose coalition of countercultural art sprang from many sources and both the media and advertising world helped to popularize the underground.

In the 80s, the underground artists were not so much the children of the 60s but the little brothers and sisters, most of whom had come of age and political awareness during the 70s. I guess I'm thinking that most of the underground rap and rock that you discuss occurred in the early 80s, some 10-12 years after the major countercultural events of the late 60s (and consider, for instance, the Minutemen's obsession with Vietnam). Anyway, for many of the people who were at the forefront of the 80s counterculture, they had connections stretching back to the Civil Rights and Women's Rights Movements and through the political turbulence of the 70s.

I think movements have fallen off in popular favor since. For one thing, racism and sexism have become more secretive, and homophobic actions, which are the only sort of out-and-out hate that people can get away with in polite company, have failed to influence the popular imagination in the same way as the Civil Rights and Women's Movements. Most of us who were fighting for something in the 90s were caught in the morass of global economies and foreign policy, none of which are considered as sexy and important by the media as the movements of the 60s and 70s.

Consequently, without ties to any major organized movement, politically minded artists are often retreading earlier issues, and sound like it, too. Lots of underground rap sounds like Doug E. Fresh (albeit rap is more successful in nurturing its roots than rock). Lots of indie rock sounds like wedding bands covering the Gang of Four (32% more slick! 98% ideology-free!).

Well, all of this has been nothing but generalities, but my point is straightforward: the left has to organize for leftist art to thrive.

March 30, 2005 12:48 PM  
Blogger sfp said...

It seems like the loudest rebel voices these days are coming from the right instead of the left, which especially makes no sense, because you can't be the dominant faction and the counterculture at the same time.

But this has happened before. Recall that the sixties, above and beyond everything else, was the high tide of mainstream political liberalism in America.

What the cultural left in the sixties and the cultural right in the oughts have in common is (1) they're the ones trying to change things, and (2) they look like they might just do it. This is what inspires the sort of unsophisticated idealists who drive large cultural movements. Fighting rearguard actions to defend the status quo might be necessary, but it certainly isn't sexy.

March 30, 2005 2:27 PM  
Blogger sfp said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

March 30, 2005 2:29 PM  
Blogger JBJ said...

Coupla thoughts:

I think there IS a climate of fear on the left. The crusades against obscenity, against file sharing, against sedition, have put anti-corporate and anti-war artists on the defensive. Righties have gotten really good at wielding the media and other institutions to their advantage--and as Leonard says, to play the rebel or underdog while they do it.

I am surprised at the degree to which I'm still mourning the loss of the World Trade Center. I wasn't around for the political violence of the 60s, but I doubt that those events shook this country up as badly as 9/11 did. 9/11 fucked with our heads but good. Thanks to our illusion of American exceptionalism and our general ignorance of world politics, we were totally blindsided. I see that Jonathan Safran Foer has written a 9/11 novel, but one that views it from the POV of a child, so people are still tiptoeing up to 9/11 as a subject for art.

I wrote the Gore Vidal piece in the new Hat, and I was acutely aware of the wrinkle in time I was writing across, pre-election to post-election. I really did feel desperate last fall: full of hope and terror and a sense of dire emergency. The funny thing about Vidal is, for all his fatalism and his sense of the deep, slow tectonics of history -- even he allowed himself to be optimistic about the Democrats' chances for a sharp turnabout in '04. I think I'm through with optimism. Like Andy, I can't sustain that constant sense of emergency. I intend to keep working and organizing, but I don't expect a progressive resurgence in '08, I expect one sometime before I die.

If only I hadn't sworn off optimism, I would be paying close attention to Jon Stewart and Air America and the lefty blogosphere, and cheering for the continuing marginalization of the prestige news media, and looking expectantly for some Elvis-like breakthrough of new relevance in journalism. If only I hadn't sworn off optimism.

March 30, 2005 7:45 PM  
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