Thursday, December 19, 2013

Activists and Music Videos

To extend an old slogan: “Think globally, act locally, and have a life.” Hence most of this essay is about a nice music video, as part of a good life… But first: Last week I came across the writings of the man they call President Barak Obama’s “mentor”: community organizer Saul Alinsky.

Alinsky was certainly my mentor. He opened my eyes to radical concepts, concepts about society and politics and organizations, and about humor too. In youth I had no more humor than, say, the guys on Big Bang Theory, those fellows who make the viewing audience howl while they themselves have no more humor than, well, a typical nerd. But because my mentor said an organizer must have a sense of humor… I began to semi-consciously acquire one: This fall two guests at toasmasters told me they wondered if I was a stand up comedian. I said “No, but two clients told me they ask for me by name because I am funny.”  

Alinsky wrote: “… On another level of communication, humor is essential, for through humor much is accepted that would have been rejected if presented seriously. This is a sad and lonely generation. It laughs too little, and this, too, is tragic.” (Rules For Radicals, Vintage Press, 1971, p xviii)

A caveat: While according to the Internet “they say” Alinsky is Obama’s mentor, “they” are the same ones who hated Obama right from election day, when his honeymoon period had barely started, the same ones who believed Bush was a good president, selling smiling Bush T-shirts that read, “Miss me yet?” Up in Canada, where conservatives are a little more objective, it is commonly agreed that Bush was a lousy chief executive who really screwed the economy—even before the Wall Street Meltdown. (And whatever possessed him to give a big tax cut during wartime?) I can’t see anyone, including Obama, doing any worse. In fact, I suspect the Bush Whitehouse has waged war just as ineptly as during WWI, but with a much lower casualty rate, thank God. So much for “they.”

I bought Alinsky’s book to give to my friend Christina Chan, because I could tell she was surprised that I didn’t have much use for the Occupy Wall Street movement. And here she thought I was a nice guy! In fact, I feel contempt. To quote Alinsky from 1971, “…It is sad to see the stupidity of inexperienced organizers who make gross errors by failing to have even an elementary appreciation of this pattern.” (P 151) Below this he writes, “… was a disastrous failure, and any experienced revolutionary could have predicted without reservation that this would have been the case.” Maybe Alinsky was being diplomatic to merely say “sad.”

As for me, as I recorded in three essays about three sorts of occupiers, (December 2011) I am angry. If I’m sad at all it’s only from thinking the next generation of occupiers might repeat the same old mistakes, mindlessly, without making even a feeble attempt to re-invent the activist wheel. (Sarcasm: Is there a law that activists can’t own a library card?) Had I done a fourth essay, it would have been about organizing groups, but I didn’t write one because I sensed no interest from readers—and hey, I’m as lazy as the next man.

So much for politics.

Now for music. As Alinsky notes, “The organizer, in his constant hunt for patterns, universalities, and meaning, is always building up a body of experience.” (P 70) Such as by —(cough)—seeing music videos.

A Music Video:
I remember the very first music video ever played on MTV (Music Television) When it played again my brother Gordon alerted me, “Hey, look at this!” There is something gripping and powerful about Video Killed the Radio Star (Call it Video for short) Video is such a nice sounding song: I always play it last on my Lido cafĂ© juke box play list, and Video has inspired a worthy parody (more on that later).

“Art,” said my high school teacher “is always described in the present tense.”  Video, then, proclaims a triumphant ever-present song… while recognizing that while old art “is” good, (not “was”) the music/art nonetheless fades away from popular culture, while an old artist may just fade away too, as if he were already dead. Accordingly, the music video features some hip ghostly images, and a most striking visual: a young girl crouched by a great big wooden radio set.

In those days we said “set,” same as for “TV set,” perhaps because it required a set of tubes in a mysterious array, as mysterious as silicon circuits are today. It was once so novel to receive music signals without a wire that we called the set a “wireless,” just as later the novelty of color produced the term “color TV.” Our ancestors, just like us, to quote Video, had “new technology.”

The two opening lines of Video plunge the reader into nostalgia:
I heard you on the wireless back in (nineteen) fifty-two,
Lying awake intent on tuning in on you

With 21st century technology being so precise and self-tuning we don’t have to “tune in” so much, and adults, at least on weekdays, will always go to bed to without any radio. Clearly, the singer is remembering childhood. “Intent” could mean keeping the sound low enough to avoid bothering the grownups. Soon the dramatic conflict is introduced:
They took the credit for your second symphony
Rewritten by machines on new technology.

Singers have lamented encroaching technology before: Dirty Old Town (1949) was covered by the Pogues, and long ago came the ballad Peg and Awl about a cobbler put out of business, “They’ve invented a new machine, prettiest thing you ever seen, hand me down my peg, my peg, my awwwl.” (Smithsonian collection) But while the ballads above are very human—what could be more human than the plaintive analogue swing of a ballad? —By the time a listener gets to the “new technology” lines of Video it is obvious that the syllables are being punched out with the even digital rhythm of a machine. The female emotive chorus comes as quite a relief:

And now I understand the problems you can see
Oh, a-oh
I met your children
Oh, a-oh
What did you tell them?

Although by one common scenario pop music is for only for the young, the hip, the “now generation...” the Video singer would surely disagree. He appears quite comfortable with being old enough to stand outside youth’s bubble of now-time, having instead a perspective, now, on the problems grownups can see… as down the years, since the age of cobblers, technology keeps rolling onward. Ironically, the lyrics were soothed over for the soundtrack of the movie The Wedding Singer, reading as, “And now I understand your supernova scene.” It’s as if in America major motion pictures are made for a majority who won’t want to think about problems.

Young people lying awake to hear Video probably don’t know what a Greek chorus is, but there they are, with their bitter sweet lines:
Oh a-oh
Video killed the radio star.

The very word nostalgia contains the Greek word for pain, algia (a pill against pain would be a analgia) The singer can find the past both bitter and sweet while acknowledging that progress rolls only one way, as radios become small enough for automobiles, and next comes new fangled car tape cassette players:
In my mind, and in my car
We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far
Pictures came and broke your heart

A big part of the song’s power is the singer’s concern for broken hearts. Not his own heart, no self pity, (just as the classic ballads above avoid self pity) but instead the compassion of a man having reached the age of perspective, with a softened heart for the plight of an old radio star. As for hearts: As I see it, in the world of human affairs, there might be a song with a passing reference to a youthful bully. (‘You’re not bad’ sneers a bully, parodied as ‘You’re not fat’ in Weird Al’s version of Michael Jackson’s Bad) But there won’t ever be a song about a middle-aged bully. To be old and still a bully, still lacking a softened heart, is somehow grotesque, a failure of both an individual and his surroundings, as pathetic as seeing a grandmother wearing a Nazi armband.

It is surely no coincidence that a music video parody version was made, to be her continuing education assignment, by a woman who has herself stepped aside from now-time: Amy Burvall is a history teacher with a young girl of her own. (The girl appears on the video) Burvall has heart. She once proclaimed on her video blog, “Oh poor Mary!” even though Mary is long dead: Mary Queen of the Scots. Burvall sings with punchy machine syllables, wearing cybernetic implants. Her refrain is Digital Life Has Changed Who We Are.

Change will continue… Technical change, community change… Guided by history, we will continue to deal with change through song, and through our video art—I’m thinking of a blond cyborg on a starship, named Seven of Nine, and of a dancing cyborg on The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Technology will reach further into our lives, and maybe into our very bodies, but still, humans will feel nostalgia. And still, people will sing.

Saul Alinsky, the respected and feared community organizer, was no rabid orthodox communist, no humorless slogan-spouting socialist. He said, “I detest and fear dogma.” (P 4) A sympathetic man of the people, as an organizer must be, he ends his prologue:
“I salute the present generation. Hang on to one of your most precious parts of youth, laughter—don’t lose it as many of you seem to have done, you need it. Together we may find some of what we’re looking for—laughter, beauty, love, and the chance to create.”

Sean Crawford
Meeting Chrissy by the factory wall,
December 2013
~For anyone with patience, here’s the Buggles on the first MTV video ever broadcast.

~Here’s Burvall’s parody—made on new technology. It's nice. My computer tech laughed to see it, and showed it to another tech right away. It ends with an expert talking about people becoming cyborgs.

~Speaking of cyborgs, for fans of attentive reading: I am awed by how much Ray Wood had to say in a fan magazine, (for fans of written sf and fantasy) Steam Engine Time 12. (Pages 40-56, including references) In The Dancing Cyborg Wood interprets a one-hour episode of the Sarah Connor Chronicles. I saw the same episode, and I surely didn’t get all the things he saw, such as the recurrent use of left-handedness as a symbol. Here is a link to the on-line version. 

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