Beavis and Butt-head are not role models. They’re not even human, they’re cartoons. Some of the things they do could cause a person to get hurt, expelled, arrested, possibly deported. To put it another way: Don’t try this at home.
— Disclaimer for Beavis and Butthead
I was in kindergarten when Married… With Children came on the air, and a few years into the show’s run, I became curious about its appeal; I kept hearing about it on the news and in advertisements, but I had never seen it. Flat out, my mother told me that I couldn’t watch it when I asked, and I probably threw a Temper Tantrum for the Ages. Same thing with In Living Color. And Beavis and Butthead. But, precocious as I was, I found a way to get my grubby hands on the remote control once in awhile and flip the channel to those shows and stations when my parents weren’t looking or around. (Although admittedly my father, much to my mother’s chagrin, let me watch In Living Color with him, a bond he and I still have to this day).
All those shows were deemed to be running against the grain of this idyllic, Reagan-esque mural of America that had been painted because they showed the gritty, raw, unfiltered — and yes, sometimes unflattering — country and people that were so shrewdly omitted from The Gipper’s famous 1984 “Morning in America” campaign commercial. Those shows were maligned and misappropriated by the cultural right, bandied about as examples of a denigrating society with a moral compass losing its magnetism. Married… With Children, Oakland County resident Terry Rakolta argued in the bright phosphorescence of the national media, was a disgrace to our virtuous nature and subsequently she was pilloried on the show a couple times, although apparently the producers have sent her a fruit basket every Christmas because, after she began her group, Americans for Responsible Television, the show’s ratings skyrocketed. Talk about backfiring.
Beavis and Butthead experienced the same popularity surge after critics dismissed the teenage maladroits as crude, dangerous influences on America’s impressionable youth. And, you know, they were cartoons. Ditto with South Park, Family Guy and, yes, even The Simpsons, which is the longest-running television sitcom in the history of this country and continues to this day to be an extremely influential arbiter in the public and cultural spheres. The ginned up controversy surrounding these shows and others reminds me a lot of what, effectively, has been a non-story that has catapulted to national significance due to a few people looking to make hay over what essentially is an expression of creativity — poetry — coming to the White House.
Because of the dust-up over the Obama administration inviting Common, a rapper and poet with what some believe are controversial lyrics — one allegedly praising Assata Shakur, who was convicted of murdering a New Jersey state trooper in 1977, and another calling for “the metaphorical burning of President George W. Bush” (“Burn a Bush cos’ for peace he push no button” is apparently the lyric they are referencing here) — I have been thinking a lot this week about the role of artists operating within the public domain and sphere. Where the two are the two separate circles of a Venn diagram, and where they diverge. And the truth is that I don’t have an answer to that, except on perhaps a case-by-case basis.
As someone who considers himself a (very) part-time artist — I write poems every now and again — I have a hard time, personally, disassociating the two domains, not because my own work involves socially-conscious ranting or calls for action, but because instead I think it’s always been within the artist’s freedom to take on whatever social or political causes they see fit within their medium of choice, and in whatever manner they see fit. Art does not have to exist as some sort of a binary code and, in my opinion, it never should.
Common, however, just happens to be the latest, or at least the one with the biggest media platform and microphone in this l’histoire de la semaine. His appearance last night was not apolitical, and he is certainly not the first to be criticized for specific passages of prose or verse — something I liken to going to the doctor for an enlarged heart but the doctor only looks at your bruised finger. For example, I wrote a 30-page paper in graduate school attempting to recalibrate the existing scholarship about Ezra Pound, an American expatriate who wrote The Pisan Cantos and, for all intents and purposes, was a Marxist and before he became a fascist. He supported Mussolini during World War II, and some of that comes through in his work. But by and large, the critical examinations of his poems — as complex, veering, polylingual, and lyrically-frustrating as they are — do not reflect, as a whole, the nature of the man himself. And I would argue that, in his day, Pound was far more famous than Common is today.
And there is a commonality (pun intended) to the reception between the two poets, separated by decades and centuries. Common has been spurned by many nationally for what he has written, just as Pound was back in the 1940s when he was stripped of his Bollinger Prize, then the most prestigious award that a poet could receive. And I could not help but think of a Lupe Fiasco performance on The Colbert Report earlier this week that struck a tone similar to the political bent that Common takes on occasion.
It would be hard to find people who wouldn’t acknowledge that presidents, Republican and Democratic, have invited people to the White House who have stirred up controversy; by and large, from my experience, that controversy has been unfounded, based largely on hyperbole and a media version of the telephone game. The truth, in essence, gets copied several times and, by the end, it becomes unrecognizable, a fraction of its former self.
“You know, the judgment, it’s just so lacking of class and decency and all that’s good about America with an invite like this,” Palin said on Fox News Channel. “It’s just so easy to assume that they’re just inviting someone like me or somebody to ask, ‘Come on, Barack Obama, who are you palling around with now?”
“This rapper, we thought that we were to be united under the leader of the free world, Barack Obama, in tamping down racism and inciting violence and cop killing, certainly, and killing a former president,” Palin said. “All those things that this rapper has glorified and really is known for, it just certainly reflects a lack of judgment on the White House’s part.”
No, Mrs. Palin. It’s about expanding people’s access to the arts, however controversial their subject matter may be — or, in this case, as I believe, is not. Any work, whether it’s political in nature or not, is going to have an impact. Common’s impact, from what I know, seems to be largely positive. He is making a point, and what some haven’t considered is that much of his work comes from the persona of another person.
By that, I mean that when Common raps or writes the word “I,” he may not be referring to himself. The answer to who the “I” is in Common’s work is for Common to know, and the critics and music and sociology scholars to determine. Not to mention that the lyrics seem to be decontextualized, simply shirking what responsible people, particularly journalists (or at least purported ones) should do — consider an entire canon of work, or at least the individual song to its fullest, most logical extent. Does everyone remember Shirley Sherrod?
And to the extent that people will say Common advocates for violence against law enforcement, I ask them to consider that point of the speaker. Who knows if Common is speaking as Common, or if he is speaking, say, as an inner-city youth? (I think it’s the latter) And who knows if the “Burn a Bush” reference was meant literally? (I strongly doubt it) It seems that there seems to be some genuine, fundamental misunderstanding of what creative writing and music is, at times — a reexamination of the self, of culture, of others, of romantic and Platonic relationships, a chance to get beyond autobiography and immerse yourself in the realm of self-reinvention.
And of all things, it’s perhaps the most baffling to try to figure out what consequences the critics of the decision think will manifest. Will Common appearing at the White House believe that the President of the United States is calling on the nation’s youth to go out and shoot up police officers? No. Do they think Obama is tacitly arguing that former President Bush should have been assassinated? No. But those are the only (half-baked) conclusions I can come up with. And that, my friends, is simply asinine, just as it’s asinine to think that Marilyn Manson made the two Columbine shooters go berserk; or that “Don’t Retreat, Reload,” is going to make sane individuals unload their bank account on ammunition and threaten public officials; or that, to return to my point earlier in this blog post, that television shows, whatever they are, rot our moral and traditional country to its core.
So perhaps it’s not Common, the person generally at the center of this “story” and the one receiving the harshest criticism, but in fact President Obama said it best: “The power of poetry is everybody experiences it differently. There are no rules on what makes a great poem. Instead, a great poem is one that resonates with us and challenges us and teaches us something about ourselves.”
What are your thoughts on this?