Popular Culture Fatigue

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I have no opinion on this show. (Brooklyn Nine-Nine/Fox)

There’s a kind of fatigue on display in social media these days, at least among the circles that I follow, that suggests people are tired of parsing the deeper meanings and dangerous discourses of popular culture, and it’s manifested in a malaise and backlash to the criticism surrounding Kanye West and Brooklyn Nine-Nine specifically. In the maelstrom, meanwhile, I think some basic premises are being lost. I’m going to enumerate them here, briefly, not because I’m invested in either Kanye or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, but because I think the moment can remind us about what we find valuable about cultural criticism, cultural studies, and other disciplines and methodologies that teach media literacy.

1. It’s ok to like popular culture.

Being a critic doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy popular culture. Roxane Gay reminded us when discussing the new Roseanne reboot that it’s fine to enjoy entertainment that might be nevertheless “problematic.” Critics and scholars exist to start conversation, to open our eyes to new and different ideas, and in terms of poststructuralism and queer theory, to lay bare the ways in which power works through media, and specifically, the way it reveals how that which is understood as normal is in fact contingent, and rooted in histories of chance, opportunity, inequality, and domination. Continue reading “Popular Culture Fatigue”

Class-Race Reductionism

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Ida B. Wells wrote about the intersections of economic anxiety and racial oppression in the 1890s.

There’s an ever waging war, in academia, activist circles, and lest we forget the most important, on Twitter, on whether or not it is class or race that is most significant. And “most significant” usually collapses a couple of concerns (at least): what got Trump elected? And what should be the basis of social justice activism and rhetoric?

To say that such discussions are reductionist is both incredibly obvious and, for some reason, something that one apparently can’t reiterate enough, if one is to take the rhetoric on the internet seriously. Of course, there are people writing in skilled ways on this matter: for example, David Roediger’s new collection of essays takes up the problems of race and class. So does Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s excellent book on Black Lives Matter. But once again the media is abuzz over the latest study that apparently proves that economics weren’t the reason for Trump’s election, “identity” was. As if the two aren’t related. Continue reading “Class-Race Reductionism”

What Can an NYC Entrepreneur and Reality TV Show Star Tell Us About Trump’s America?

Honestly, I’m not sure. But a few years ago, high from the fumes of finishing my dissertation and still waiting idly for my defense date to come, I binge watched the television reality show Cake Boss and became convinced that I needed to write an article about it.

Several weeks later, I had a publishable article, or so I thought. After a couple of revise and resubmits I lost interest in the thing, and my fleeting career in cultural studies ended just as it began. But I was thinking of it recently, in the context of how the twin narratives of the mythological American dream and white identity have worked discursively in supporting Trump’s ascendance.

Continue reading “What Can an NYC Entrepreneur and Reality TV Show Star Tell Us About Trump’s America?”

Tweep’s Agreement

Starting work on a new essay about the politics of Jews in Hollywood during the blacklist era, I started thinking once again about the 1947 Best Picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement. Historians nearly universally dismiss the Elia Kazan film as dramatic and preachy and staid. They favor the other philo-Semitic “message” picture of that year, Crossfire, because that film oozes with noir style. They are, of course, absolutely right. But to dismiss Gentleman’s Agreement because it’s boring is to miss a great deal. Kazan’s picture is a greater success if only because it is so overstuffed with messages, it is a remarkable distillation of Popular Front ideas about the intersection between ethnicity and social justice.

Consider one scene in which Gregory Peck’s goyish journalist protagonist Phil Green, who is writing an expose on anti-Semitism, encounters a scientist at a dinner party. The scientist’s features are clearly modeled after those of Albert Einstein, one of the physicists that were wildly celebrated in the press in the immediate postwar years. He is on a “crusade,” the scientist remarks, to deny his Jewishness to those that he meets, not because he is ashamed or ambivalent about his identity, but instead because he looks so stereotypically Jewish that such a remark would be a provocation to others to rethink their assumptions about race and “type” (what we call “ethnicity”). He then casually changes his mind however, telling Green that he must abandon his crusade because to claim Jewishness is a necessary moral principle, at least until anti-Semitism ceases to exist.  He explains that Jews today don’t claim to be Jewish because they are religious – he is not – but because the world makes it harder to be one. Nothing in Hollywood since has so shrewdly conjured the tensions and complexities among religious, ethnic, and humanistic or cosmopolitan identities.

Continue reading “Tweep’s Agreement”

Space, Time, Congo Square

I took a vacation last week to New Orleans, which was a lot of fun. One morning I spent some time in Congo Square, in the Treme neighborhood bordering the French Quarter. Congo Square is where African slaves were permitted to gather in the nineteenth century on Sundays. There they danced and performed music, combining African traditions, incorporating American instruments and forms, and drawing upon the iconography of Native Americans. Over time, they created jazz in that square.

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Congo Square now features the additional title of Louis Armstrong Park. It’s a beautiful place to visit, and scattered throughout the park are sculptures that tell just a few bits and pieces of the story of African American jazz in its earliest forms. Walking around this sculpture garden I unexpectedly felt a kind of weight of history. The reason, I think, was a random confluence of events. Continue reading “Space, Time, Congo Square”

The Cultural Syncretism of Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon

In 1985, Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, thought it made perfect sense to make a martial arts action film. The result, The Last Dragon, is unforgettable in almost every sense of the word. In fact, if you were a dorky, martial-arts obsessed kid in the eighties, and your parents subscribed to HBO, you probably remember it. It’s not a perfect film; it’s a little too goofy, and some of its characters are painted in strokes that are far too broad, but it’s a lot of fun, and just perhaps, a little subversive.

I started thinking about Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon when news came down that the film’s female lead passed away this week. The actress, Vanity, was better known for playing opposite Prince in Purple Rain. But in various discussions with friends and co-workers, I was surprised to see just how many people had fond memories of The Last Dragon. I knew I had to re-watch it.  Continue reading “The Cultural Syncretism of Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon”

The Scripts of Liberal Post-Racial Hollywood

As I was starting to write this blog post, in which I’ll humbly insert my two cents on the attention that is being brought to the lack of diversity in Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I came across a couple of tweets from the actor Jeffrey Wright, who was responding to comments by white actors unimpressed by the issues raised by people of color: Continue reading “The Scripts of Liberal Post-Racial Hollywood”