Posts tagged "history"

As a result, melodrama is structured upon the “dual recognition” of how things are and how they should be. In melodrama there is a moral, wish-fulfilling impulse towards the achievement of justice that gives American popular culture its strengths and appeal as the powerless yet virtuous seek to return to the “innocence” of their origins.

Linda Williams, “Melodrama Revised,” Refiguring American Film Genres: Theory and History (1998)

Melodrama as the quintessential American style. America is a modernist nation, and it reads its own history in terms of narrative. Williams refers to melodrama’s ability to “reconcile the irreconcilable” — which sounds a lot like the never ending American quest to reconcile its irreconcilable founding mission: to “create a more perfect union.” Nostalgia for the Founding Fathers is the nation’s melodramatic urge to return to the “innocence” of its origins, which paradoxically works in accordance, not in opposition, with its forward-thinking narrative of national progress, i.e. the pursuit of the “more perfect.”


It is often said that Americans aren’t interested in history, but I think it’s more accurate to say that people — in general — aren’t interested in history that makes them feel bad. We surely are interested in those points of history from which we are able to extract an easy national glory — our achievement of independence from the British, the battle of Gettysburg, our fight against Hitler, and even the campaign of nonviolence waged by Martin Luther King. For different reasons, each of these episodes can be fitted for digestibility. More importantly that can be easily deployed in service our various national uses. Thus it is not so much that we are against history, as we are in favor of a selective history. The fact is that Martin Luther King is useful to us, in a way that Bayard Rustin is not (yet.)

What TNC is describing here is America’s tendency to read its history as a melodramatic narrative: the “powerless yet virtuous” achieving justice through their fealty to the nation’s founding principles.

The half-century between 1912 and 1962 was a period of … impressive social cohesion.

Oh, hi, David Brooks. You’re an idiot.

The half-century between 1912 and 1962 was a period of … impressive social cohesion.

Oh, hi, David Brooks. You’re an idiot.

You can’t write about Sydney and leave out the Parramatta Road.

This was my first sign that Sheridan’s sometimes worrying enthusiasm was being put at the service of my project. He had not only made room for me in the car, he was now altering his plans to suit what he understood to be the nature of my enquiry.

Parramatta Road is like the city’s spine, he said, it was the most important road in the colony. When they couldn’t get anything to grow in Sydney Cove they found better ground in Parramatta.

Rose Hill it was called.

That’s right, said Sheridan, raising his eyebrows in delight. Exactly. Rose fucking Hill.

So we drove back into the city, across the bridge, which caused me not the least anxiety when someone else was driving, and in half an hour, having made a stop for the Diet Coke Sheridan was now drinking in terrifying quantity, we tooled along the charmless de-natured landscape which is the Parramatta Road.

This is Sydney, declared Sheridan, throwing his empty Coke can into the backseat. The harbour is peripheral. The harbour is not a place anyone can afford to live. Parramatta is the geographic centre of Sydney.

This is not an attractive drive, Sherry.

Did I say it was? The thing is, Pete, it’s historic.

Historic? All I could see were car yards and flapping plastic flags and garish sanserif flags CRAZY BARRY’S DISCOUNT PRICES. It was a smaller, uglier version of Route 27 in New Jersey.

Look, screamed Sheridan, I can tell you’re not looking.

Well there’s an old bullnose verandah, I said.

No, fuck the verandah, Sheridan said, ponderously overtaking a marginally slower truck. Just ask yourself why the most important road in the colony would be filled with car yards. Come on, this is your family history, Pete. Didn’t your grandfather have a stables? Weren’t your family horse traders? Yes? Didn’t your granddad go on to taxis and T-Model Fords? Well, this is how it was with the Parramatta Road. This is where the horse stables were, where the horse traders were.

How do you know that?

It’s obvious. This was the only fucking road. It led to John Macarthur. All the governors rode this way when they came out to pay their respects to old Captain Rum Corps. When Bligh wanted to inform John Macarthur he was prohibited from building on his allotment, he sent the poor surveyor general galloping along this road. These car yards are historic markers. I’d put a fucking brass plaque on every one.
Peter Carey, 30 Days in Sydney (2001)

The Simpsons joke it took me 15 years to completely get.

It’s in the first episode of season five, “Homer’s Barbershop Quarter,” which is, incidentally, the first season during which I remember watching new episodes*. Homer’s recounting the story of how his band, The B Sharps, had a hit single, and a montage illustrates the song’s first airing on radio. In Springfield Retirement Castle, Abe catches the tune on the radio, and proudly tells his friends that they’re listening to his son. Jasper, however, instructs him to change the radio: “Paul Harvey is on!” Abe does so, and we catch the tail end of Harvey’s monologue: “And that little boy who no one liked grew up to be… Roy Cohn. Now you know the rest of the story.” The senior citizens sigh contentedly.

Reaction 1: Ha! Abe’s such a jerk he switched off his own son’s inaugural radio performance!

Reaction 2: Ha! Old people do listen to boring things on the radio!

Reaction 3: Oh, Paul Harvey's a real person, and that's exactly what he did do on the radio!

Reaction 4: Oh, Roy Cohn's a real person! Now I get it!

With all that happening over a decade and a half. This is one small example of why it’s the greatest show ever of all time.


*That would have been early 1994 in Australia; I already loved the show, but until that point I’d absorbed it through the multitude of re-runs that were already airing. So I probably began watching in the second half of 1993? I know my mother was very resistant to us watching The Simpsons at first, due to Bart’s famed bad influence, but we wore her down basically because my dad wanted to watch it too.

Top 43 most interesting presidents.

In order.

  1. Abraham Lincoln
  2. Richard Nixon
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. John Adams
  5. James Madison
  6. Franklin D. Roosevelt
  7. Ronald Reagan
  8. Barack Obama
  9. George Washington
  10. Lyndon B. Johnson
  11. George W. Bush
  12. Teddy Roosevelt
  13. Bill Clinton
  14. Harry S. Truman
  15. Ulysses S. Grant
  16. Dwight D. Eisenhower
  17. Andrew Johnson
  18. Herbert Hoover
  19. John F. Kennedy
  20. James Buchanan
  21. John Quincy Adams
  22. George H.W. Bush
  23. James Monroe
  24. Warren G. Harding
  25. Jimmy Carter
  26. Andrew Jackson
  27. Woodrow Wilson
  28. William H. Taft
  29. Grover Cleveland
  30. Gerald Ford
  31. Calvin Coolidge
  32. William McKinley
  33. William Henry Harrison
  34. James A. Garfield
  35. Millard Fillmore
  36. James K. Polk
  37. Rutherford B. Hayes
  38. John Tyler
  39. Martin Van Buren
  40. Chester A. Arthur
  41. Benjamin Harrison
  42. Franklin Pierce
  43. Zachariah Smith Zachary Taylor

Online Notebook: Top 43 most interesting presidents.

Hey, I did another one of these!


Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the U.S.A.” (Born in the U.S.A., 1984)

On September 19, 1984, when Ronald Reagan was campaigning for a re-election that would eventually come easily, he told a crowd in Hammonton, New Jersey, that “America’s future rests in the message of hope in songs of a man so many young Americans admire, New Jersey’s Bruce Springsteen.”

Reagan’s campaign team had been piping Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” through the sound systems at the President’s public events, and to the sort of people who voted for his opponent, Walter Mondale, it was an indicative example of Reagan’s ignorance and remove. Springsteen’s song was a bitter diatribe cloaked in patriotism; the chorus acclaimed the red, white, and blue, but the verses spoke in the disillusioned voice of a man who gave all in service of his country and had received little in return: “Come back home to the refinery; hiring man said, ‘Son, if it was up to me…’.”

When Reagan dropped Springsteen’s name at that speech, the unemployment rate was a high 7.3 per cent — though it had fallen substantially since its peak of 10.8 per cent in November and December of 1982. The recovery was strong enough that Reagan was able to proclaim, through an iconic commercial, that it was “morning again in America”: “Under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder, and stronger, and better.”

Following the wrenching years after it had lost the Vietnam War and seen a president turn the Oval Office into the locus of a criminal conspiracy, after watching its economy ravaged by stagflation and 52 of its citizens held hostage in an Iranian embassy for 444 days, America had found in Reagan a president who could make the country feel good about itself again.

But while Reagan made America feel good, conditions on the ground weren’t as positive. The unemployment rate had returned to a level almost indistinguishable from where it was when Reagan took office. Under the President’s watch, the industrial sector was declining, and Reagan was actively busting unions — most famously that of the air traffic controllers. He had escalated the Cold War, leaving the world in a state of nuclear paranoia — this was the time of Red Dawn and “99 Luftballons” — and was supporting unsavory regimes in Latin America. It was morning in America, but the sun rose over a land in a more sickly state than the President’s stump speeches supposed.

"Born in the U.S.A." was the perfect song for the Reagan era, in a way. After all, things were on the up. Workers were getting hired and people were feeling better about themselves. And Reagan and his supporters weren’t wrong to hear that in Springsteen’s song. Whatever other messages the singer might have intended, the most prominent were Roy Bittan’s brilliant synth blasts and Springsteen’s uplifting bellow: "BORN! IN — THE — U.S.A.!"

After attending one of Springsteen’s concerts in the summer of 1984, the conservative Washington Post columnist George F. Will wrote:

I have not got a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation, of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand and cheerful affirmation: “Born in the U.S.A.!”

There was nothing wrong with Will’s ear, and there was a reason why Springsteen’s native New Jersey, like 48 other states, voted to give Reagan a second term. “Born in the U.S.A.” is, in sound at least, a vibrant and optimistic song. The title character’s list of tribulations — if you can makes them out from Springsteen’s garbled hiccuping — are always interrupted by that recurrent chant. An author can intend what he wants; dramatic irony doesn’t work if its audience doesn’t care to hear it.

"There is not a smidgen of androgyny in Springsteen," wrote Will approving, declaring his tunes, "rock for the United Steelworkers." Will recognized that Springsteen fans were Reagan Democrats, even if he failed to realize that the singer himself wasn’t one. Will saw Springsteen’s values as American and American values as inherently conservative:

Me: What do you like about him?

Male fan: He sings about faith and traditional values.

Male fan’s female friend, dryly: And cars and girls.

Male fan: “No, no, it’s about community and roots and perseverance and family.”

She: And cars and girls.

Let’s not quibble. Cars and girls are American values…

There’s no indication as to how Will decided that the young man he interviewed at the show was a fan and the woman a hanger-on, but there’s also no indication as to why values of “community and roots and perseverance and family” are inherently conservative, or why they weren’t shared by blue collar workers out of a job or the members of the air traffic controllers union. But nonetheless, yes: point taken. Cars and girls are American values. Perhaps that’s why Old Glory appeared on the cover of Springsteen’s then most-recent album.

Will also transmuted the American value of pursuing happiness into an insistence that labor only had value when it drained a worker entirely: 

But, then, consider Max Weinberg’s bandaged fingers. The rigors of drumming have led to five tendonitis operations. He soaks his hands in hot water before a concert, in ice afterward, and sleeps with tight gloves on. Yes, of course, the whole E Street Band is making enough money to ease the pain. But they are not charging as much as they could, and the customers are happy. How many American businesses can say that?

If all Americans — in labor and management, who make steel or cars or shoes or textiles — made their products with as much energy and confidence as Springsteen and his merry band make music, there would be no need for Congress to be considering protectionism.

You don’t need to disdain free trade to wonder at a proponent who decides the way to make such a system work is for factory workers to behave like rock stars — yet, presumably be compensated far, far less. 

But Reagan’s America was a time when every man was a rock star, and most were compensated far less. But even a poor rock star was still a rock star, and Born in the U.S.A. was a song and an album for those people. Where Springsteen had originally been a ragged wannabe street poet who dreamed of bigger things and was “pulling out” of his small town “to win,” he was now a slick star selling out stadiums and writing slickly produced mass appeal anthems. This was Ronald Reagan music for Ronald Reagan times.

Which didn’t mean it didn’t portray the downside of Reaganism. “The times are tough now,” sang Springsteen on “Cover Me.” “Just getting tougher.” “Workin’ on the Highway” had a man “fresh out of work.” “Downbound Train” was a fatalistic song about a man who got laid off from a lumber yard and resigned himself to a more modest station. “Glory Days” was a sunny tune about how the best years and brightest hopes of one’s life have been confined to the receding past.

But Born in the U.S.A. never discarded its beaming optimism. It was not Nebraska, the Springsteen record that, when he heard the President was using his music to campaign, Bruce supposed Reagan must never have listened to. Ronald Reagan made America feel young and optimistic, regardless of the problems confronting its population. “Born in the U.S.A.” was poured from the same mold. 

The case for President Taylor


Here is a poster from the election of 1848 depicting Whig candidate Zachary Taylor sitting on a pile of human skulls.
Is This the Nastiest Election Ever? - NYT [spoiler alert: no.]

From the article:

Jackson supporters charged that Old Hickory’s rival for the White House, the incumbent John Quincy Adams, was an actual pimp.

John Pimp-cy Adams definitely needs to be a thing, you guys.


Here is a poster from the election of 1848 depicting Whig candidate Zachary Taylor sitting on a pile of human skulls.

Is This the Nastiest Election Ever? - NYT [spoiler alert: no.]

From the article:

Jackson supporters charged that Old Hickory’s rival for the White House, the incumbent John Quincy Adams, was an actual pimp.

John Pimp-cy Adams definitely needs to be a thing, you guys.

I didn’t so much go to Paris as leave New York…The doctrines of white supremacy…comes out of the so-called Old World. It wasn’t born in America—it was brought here. And when I first went to Paris…the French could always say, ‘Well, you must be very happy to be here where we don’t treat Negroes the way you’re treated in the States. We’re not racist like the Americans are.’ Well, I looked around me and I could see that the reason that they could be so ‘tolerant’ as they thought was because they didn’t have any NIGGERS IN PARIS.

James Baldwin, guest of honor at The National Press Club in 1986.


Oh. OH. NOW I get it!

I wish I’d had this quote when I wrote my Jukebox blurb for “Niggas in Paris”:

Yeezy chillin’ in a Rive Droite hotel, ensconced in the cultural capital of the old world but laughing his head off at second rate Will Ferrell comedies, while Jay takes off to see the town: “If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up too.” This is the French city that prompted Frederick Douglass to comment, “the negro has never been seen there as a degraded slave, but often as a gentleman and a scholar.” Their European tour is a departure from reality, an accentuated version of the break from racial marginalization that wealth has permitted each man to occasionally access. Hov takes to his foreign playground like he knows exactly what he’s escaping — “First niggas gotta find me” — but Kanye just uses the opportunity to revel in boorishness: “You need to crawl ‘fore you baaaalllllllllllllll,” he blathers at a woman, positing himself as both regal (“Prince Williams ain’t do it right if you ask me”) and bestial (“We goin’ gorillas”) in the space of a few lines. Each man raps as if he were getting away with something; they are gauche Americans on vacation, sure, but they’re too Other — too black, too famous — to be the regular fanny-pack wearing, Hawaiian shirt-clad, Euro-Disneyland-visiting sort. Hit-Boy’s off kilter synth jabs and the out of context regurgitation of phrases like “ball so hard” and “that shit cray” adds to the air of the fantastic, the volatile, dreamlike sense that nothing is quite real and anything might happen. The shuddering bass breakdown suggests that, indeed, anything might have. Provocative, sure, but hardly inscrutable. Gets the people going? Works for me.

I wanted to refer to the long African American history with Paris, and France in general, but I’m not entirely confident, thinking about it, that the Douglass quote isn’t apocryphal. It shows up in one 1895 entry in the Google Books database, but I can’t find any other source for it. The “gentlemen and a scholar” contruction also makes it seem apocryphal, though I guess the text’s 19th century origins inure it somewhat against that suspicion. Either way, the Baldwin quote would have been useful.

n.b. I’ve changed my blurb from its originally published form to correct a misquoted lyric.

(Source: howtobeterrell)

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