Monday, June 18, 2012

Mark Judge, Dadaist Hero

Here's the opening to "Bryce Harper, Conservative Hero", Mark Judge's recent column for The Daily Caller:
Bryce Harper is a conservative hero. The star rookie for the Washington Nationals has woken up Major League Baseball, and watching it unfold has reminded me of nothing so much as the collapse of the old political paradigms and the inevitable and upcoming rebirth of conservatism in November.
And on it goes. A thousand words in all, each paragraph more stupefyingly asinine than the last. Let it be emphasized that I say this without even a trace of hyperbole: Judge's column is very possibly the dumbest thing I've ever read that somebody was paid to write.[1]

It's so dumb, I think it might be brilliant. But I'll get back to that. Here's Judge describing why Harper is worthy of being singled out:
The Nationals were playing Atlanta, and in the fifth inning Harper, with his team leading by two, singled to right. The ball was hit to Braves right fielder Jason Heyward. Heyward strolled up to the ball as if he were walking to the corner for a paper.

Harper promptly headed for second base. Heyward suddenly woke up and fired to second base, but too late.
Judge goes on to explain that, in addition to hustling, Harper also tries to learn from his mistakes. And he wants to be in the lineup even when he's injured. If any of this sounds familiar, it's because it describes every rookie in the history of sports.

Having chosen his subject—and his counterpoint, Jason Heyward—basically at random, Judge adds some unhinged political opinions and throws the whole mess into a blender:
Heyward’s bungle showed a complacency, if not indolence, that Harper threatens to destroy, but it also could be a metaphor for the collapse of the old liberal order. Heyward was like one of those public school teachers who, because they are a union member, can’t be fired and so are relegated to the “rubber room” to sit and read the paper and gather a check for the rest of their lives. Or even Obama, who went from Hawaii to Harvard to the White House and never seems to have had to slide head-first into a base his entire life.
Is there even a way to engage with this? Normally I would peel away the false presumptions and the unfounded conclusions until I reach the fragment of logic at the core, but when I try to do that here I wind up just staring blankly into a void.
Watching Bryce Harper play is like listening to an economic speech by Paul Ryan: It’s long on reality and short on excuses. Harper has slapped baseball awake, and every time he steps up to the plate, years of crusty baseball routine no longer apply. He swings the bat with a blinding snap of force, and in the outfield dives for balls that bored veterans would let go. When he hits a double he usually tries to stretch it into a triple. Manager Davey Johnson tries to bench him for being hurt, and Harper confronts him and says, like a person with enough dignity to refuse welfare: Let me work. Then he wins the game with a crucial hit.
Some of these points are patently untrue (Harper does not, in fact, "usually" try to stretch a double into a triple), some are patently misguided (if it's at all true that Harper dives for balls other players would let go, it's because he can run kind of fast, not because he's uniquely able to ward off boredom), and some, like the bit at the end about refusing welfare, can be properly addressed only by gritting one's teeth and muttering vaguely-Nordic nonsense words. Grrgllefrunng.

Judge closes with a personal note:[2]
Harper reminds me of my own grandfather, Joe Judge, who played first base for the Senators from 1915 to 1932. Like Harper, Judge was left-handed and was a scrappy and aggressive player. His career spanned two eras, the dead ball era (1900 to 1919) and the live ball era, from 1920 on, when home runs became much more prevalent. When Babe Ruth arrived in New York in 1919 and baseball changed some rules — including using new balls in every game so you could actually see what you were swinging at — Joe Judge could have insisted that this wasn’t fair, that Major League Baseball was stealing his livelihood, and that Ruth’s ungodly salary represented the one percent. He could have occupied Griffith Stadium.

Instead, he accepted that the old way of doing things was gone, and it wasn’t coming back. And he helped the Senators win the World Series in 1924.
I have a way of associating events with one another, whether or not they're related, merely because they happened around the same time, and Judge's closing digression—along with whatever strange effects his column had on my brain—brought to mind something that coincided with the end of the dead ball era. A group of European artists—Dadaists, as they would come to be known—had begun to rebel against the cultural status quo. They valued nonsense over reason. Chaos over order. Destruction over creation. In the aftermath of the war that had consumed and annihilated their continent, they had no interest in searching for meaning, because the likeliest conclusion was that there was none.

Here's the great Dadaist Tristan Tzara, attempting the impossible task of putting Dada into words:
We are often told that we are incoherent, but into this word people try to put an insult that it is rather hard for me to fathom. Everything is incoherent. The gentleman who decides to take a bath but goes to the movies instead. The one who wants to be quiet but says things that haven't even entered his head. Another who has a precise idea on some subject but succeeds only in expressing the opposite in words which for him are a poor translation. There is no logic. Only relative necessities discovered a posteriori, valid not in any exact sense but only as explanations.
And just as the Dadaists used their art to call attention to this broader incoherence, Mark Judge has called attention to the incoherence that permeates political commentary by creating something too incoherent to simply dismiss and ignore. Something that demands to be questioned. Is it commentary, or is it trash? If, by virtue of being trash, it makes us question the limits of what can be considered commentary, does that not make it commentary as well? It means nothing, and thus, it means everything.[3]

In 1917, one year after Hugo Ball published the first Dada Manifesto (and one year after Joe Judge's first full season in the majors), Marcel Duchamp scribbled some nonsense on a urinal, named it Fountain, and submitted it to be displayed at a New York exhibition. It was rejected, presumably because it was a urinal with some nonsense scribbled on it. Eighty-seven years later, 500 art experts voted Fountain the most influential work of art of the 20th century.

I have no doubt that "Bryce Harper, Conservative Hero" will go similarly unappreciated in its own time. But one day, years, if not decades into the future, we may very well look back at Judge's column and recognize it for what it is. A urinal with some nonsense scribbled on it:

1. Let it also be emphasized that I was about 50-50 on whether I even needed to include the "that somebody was paid to write" qualifier.
2. Again, just layer upon layer of skrunglfrng. Joe Judge, whose career actually started after Ruth's, was a very good hitter, and seems to have benefited as much as anyone from the rule changes that marked the end of the dead ball era (through 1919 his career batting average was .270; from 1920 on he batted .306).
3. "It means nothing, and thus, it means everything"? What the fuck does THAT mean? Who knows. Who cares. There is no logic. (I love Dadaism.)

Monday, June 4, 2012

Country Music Round-Up: Obscenity Finds a Way

If wholesomeness had a smell, I'm sure it would be delightful, and I'm equally sure the fragrance would emanate from every square inch of the contemporary pop-country genre. Wholesomeness (or if you prefer, prudishness) is its defining quality. But I'd argue a not-too-distant second is its reliance on clever, but accessible, songwriting. Those two elements, separately and in concert,[1] go a long way toward explaining why country music appeals not only to the Real Americans™ [2] who inhabit the small towns and rural fields and muddy creeks of the flyover states, but also to countless city folks, foreigners, smart-ass bloggers, and other not-as-real Americans.

But there's also a fundamental, unresolvable conflict between them. Songwriting is a realm of limitless possibilities. "Wholesome" is a polite way to describe a realm where possibilities are limited to pre-approved social norms. And artistic expression being what it is, those limits are relentlessly challenged—at times because they hinder the artist's ability to make a more important statement, and at times simply because they exist. Because sometimes that is the more important statement—that the cost of drawing a line is that it gives people something to congregate around, to push and pull and chip away at, to perhaps even move a little when no one else is looking.

But this is getting way too analytical and pretentious for an article about obscenity, so fuck it, here are some lyrics:

Blake Shelton, "Some Beach" (2004)
Driving down the interstate
Running thirty minutes late
Singing "Margaritaville" and minding my own
Some foreign car driving dude with the road rage attitude
Pulled up beside me talking on his cell phone
He started yelling at me like I did something wrong
He flipped me the bird and then he was gone…

Some beach…somewhere
There's a big umbrella casting shade over an empty chair
Palm trees are growing and a warm breeze is blowing
I picture myself right there
On some beach, somewhere

Kenny Chesney, "Shiftwork" (2007)
Shift work, tough work for the busy convenience store clerk
Two feet that hurt, going insane
She's mad at some lad
Drove off and didn't pay for his gas
And he won't be the last 'round the clock pain
Working seven to three
Three to eleven
Eleven to seven

I'm talking about a bunch of shiiii…ft work
A big ol' pile of shiiii…ft work

Sugarland, "It Happens" (2008)
Ain't no rhyme or reason
No complicated meaning
Ain't no need to over think it
Let go laughing
Life don't go, quite like you plan it
We try so, hard to understand it
The irrefutable, indisputable, fact is
It happens
Not an inappropriate word to be found, right? Just three perfectly innocent songs about, respectively, coping with the everyday stress of the modern world, coping with the everyday stress of the modern world, and coping with the everyday stress of the modern world. If Blake Shelton's abrupt and unexpected change in both latitude and attitude,[3] or Kenny Chesney's elongation of the vowel sound in "shift", or Sugarland's rather awkward insertion of sort of a shushing sound (or maybe it's more of a dismissive "pshh"?) into their chorus brought to mind any words you'd never expect to hear in a mainstream country song, then so be it.

I'll concede that these songs are all a little cheesy—this is country music,[4] after all—but there is a definite art to being obscene without actually being obscene. Causing the listener to hear something that isn't there—something that isn't allowed to be there.[5] It's easy to think of the wholesome/prudish culture surrounding country music as a force that stifles creativity, but in many ways it does just the opposite. Obscenity finds a way.[6]

Anyway, I saved the best for last:

Craig Campbell, "Fish" (2011)
The first time we did it I was scared to death
She snuck out in that cotton dress
Jumped on in and we drove to the lake
Put her hand on my knee and said I can’t wait
I had everything we needed in the bed of my truck
Turns out my baby loves to…
[wait for it]
Fish…she wants to do it all the time
Early in the morning, in the middle of the night
She’s hooked and now she can’t get enough
Man, that girl sure loves to fish
In terms of "saying" something that, if actually said, would be thoroughly unwelcome in the pop-country world, I'm pretty sure this is the leader in the clubhouse.[7]

So, what's next? "Fish", which peaked at #23 on the Billboard Hot Country chart, won't be easy to top, but I have no doubt it can be done.

CONFIDENTIAL TO NASHVILLE SONGWRITERS: I'm sure you're aware that country audiences are used to, and tend to enjoy, songs about country music itself. And you've probably also noticed that one of the most offensive terms in the English language is right there. I'm not saying it would be easy, but if this can make it past the FCC…

1. Is that a pun? If so, pun intended. If not, please disregard this footnote.
2. Your check is in the mail, Sean Hannity.
3. I'm not a fan of Blake Shelton. This has nothing to do with his music, which is enjoyable enough, and everything to do with the fact that he's married to Miranda Lambert, and I'm jealous. It's not rational, but it is what it is.
4. "This Is Country Music", of course, is also the title of a Brad Paisley song, which is, naturally, one of the cheesiest country songs of the last decade:
You're not supposed to say the word "cancer" in a song
And tellin' folks Jesus is the answer can rub 'em wrong
It ain't hip to sing about tractors, trucks, and little towns, and Mama
Yeah, that might be true
But this is country music, and we do
5. If it doesn't go without saying, this isn't a new concept, nor is it unique to country. Who knows when it was first executed, but "Shaving Cream", written by Benny Bell in 1946, is a solid candidate:
I have a sad story to tell you
It may hurt your feelings a bit
Last night when I walked into my bathroom
I stepped in a big pile of shhhh…aving cream
6. While we're on the subject of obscenity in mainstream country, Toby Keith's "American Ride" contains the line, "If the shoe don't fit, the fit's gonna hit the shan", which I guess is a form of disguised profanity, but mostly it's just baffling. (I could write a series of articles about "American Ride", there's so much going on. I love this line from the chorus: "Both ends of the ozone burning / Funny how the world keeps turning." Yes, funny indeed. It's as if the ozone layer has nothing at all to do with conservation of angular momentum or the gravitational interaction between the Earth and the Sun.)
    And then there's Keith's "Red Solo Cup", the greatest country song since "Rock Flag and Eagle", and also the only country song I know of (note: I'm not an expert—I assume there have been others) that had to be edited for the radio. In the original, it's a pair of testicles that you surely lack if you prefer drinking from glass; on the radio, it's a pair of vegetables, which is both terrible and hilarious, and is thus precisely the radio edit the song demands. Also, the listener is forced to make an educated guess as to what, exactly, Freddie Mac can kiss. (SPOILER: It's Toby Keith's ass.)
    Finally, I've brought this up before, but I remain convinced that "Little White Church", by Little Big Town, is about cunnilingus. "No more calling me baby / No more loving like crazy / Till you take me down" … "Charming devil, silver tongue / Had your fun, now you're done." Right? *nudge nudge* Right?
    Ok, maybe I'm reaching. My interpretation relies on the little white church being a metaphor for the singer's clitoris (or orgasms or whatever), which in turn relies on the time-honored principle that pretty much anything can be a metaphor for genitals (or orgasms or whatever) if you want it to be. But I'm just saying, if I set out to write a country song from the perspective of a girl who's upset about her boyfriend's failure to reciprocate in bed, and for creative and/or commercial reasons I wanted to conceal the sexual themes behind a radio-friendly layer of wholesomeness, and I was substantially better at songwriting than I am, this would be that song.
7. "Fish" ends with Campbell whispering, "psst, you awake? Let’s fish", because subtlety. Meanwhile, Trace Adkins' "Just Fishin'"—which is also not about fishing, but in the most different way possible—ends with Adkins saying, "this ain't about fishing." If it helps going forward, I'm willing to stipulate right here and now that no country song is ever actually about fishing.
    (That said, what if "Fish" really is about fishing? As in, the narrator found a girl who shares his passion for fishing, which is nice, but sooner or later he's going to have to confront the reality that she may have a serious problem. She wants to fish "all the time", she "can't get enough", she "don't give up" even if she isn't getting any bites. These are all symptoms of a crippling disorder. And nevermind sleep and exercise and personal hygiene—does she even stop fishing long enough to fuck?)