Can Pop Culture be Toxic? Call of Duty, the Geto Boys, etc.

Interesting piece in the NYT by three forensic psychiatrists, “Does Media Violence Lead to Real Violence?” making the case that recent research suggests that yes, in fact it very likely sometimes does.

There is now consensus that exposure to media violence is linked to actual violent behavior — a link found by many scholars to be on par with the correlation of exposure to secondhand smoke and the risk of lung cancer. In a meta-analysis of 217 studies published between 1957 and 1990, the psychologists George Comstock and Haejung Paik found that the short-term effect of exposure to media violence on actual physical violence against a person was moderate to large in strength.

This makes sense to me.  I’ve long felt that progressives and First Amendment champions can get themselves into a corner on this issue.  Whenever there is a mass shooting, conservatives reflexively start looking for a link to media violence.  Since lack of effective gun regulation is so clearly the more immediate condition for most such acts, and since the turn to blame “the media” so obviously seems to serve as a distraction technique deployed by gun-freedom absolutists, the liberal-progressive instinct is to insist that violent video games and other media must have absolutely no relationship to actual violence (and/or other social dysfunction).  It’s as if the only choice is all or nothing: violent video games and movies cause and are to blame for dysfunction, or are irrelevant to it. But while of course unregulated gun ownership is the overwhelmingly more significant problem, this does not mean that it is not a problem when emotionally damaged/ depressed/ angry young men spend years in basements in effect massacre-training on games like Call of Duty.  After all, as Buddha is sometimes said to have said (though maybe did not actually), “what you think, you become.” Consider Anders Behring Breivik, gunman in the July 2011 Norway massacre, who “played video games such as World of Warcraft to relax, and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for “training-simulation”. He further told a court in April 2012 that he trained for shooting using a holographic device while playing Call of Duty. He claimed it helped him gain target acquisition.”  Or Adam Lanza, who, similarly, obsessively played Call of Duty. Does this mean Call of Duty “caused” the shootings?  No. But it does suggest that a hyper-violent video game could, in some contexts/ for some individuals, become toxic in extended exposure.

I thought about these issues when reading a fascinating interview in the magazine Sang Bleu with Bushwick Bill of the Geto Boys, one of the founders of the “horror-core” genre of hip-hop incorporating imagery and lyrical content from slasher and horror films.  The Geto Boys produced the wonderfully laid-back, and oddly melancholy, classic “Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangster” (which Office Space turned into a kind of anthem for white suburban wanna-be’s) but also songs like “Assassins.”  Sample lyric (decided just to keep it to one line): “She screamed, I sliced her up until her guts were like spaghetti.”

The “conservative” position on horrorcore, or on other similarly extreme forms of pop culture (e.g. “torture porn” horror films — although of course there’s a race angle w/ the Geto Boys that isn’t usually a factor in those), is that it’s degenerate, probably dangerous, and should be banned or heavily restricted.  The usual liberal/”progressive” position is that while the lyrics/images may be disturbing, this is free artistic expression, and that if we try to ban or restrict it in any way, we’re behaving as bourgeois audiences always have in response to challenging, boundary-pushing art.

The interview with Bushwick Bill suggests that both positions might offer one necessary but incomplete piece of the full picture. To the typical (especially white) middle-class listener in 1990, a song like “Assassins” was unnerving, more unnerving than a slasher film, because it felt less mediated, more purely the self-expression of an anti-social, violent, and misogynistic point of view.  But Bushwick Bill in fact comes across as a thoughtful, surprisingly well-read guy who saw the Geto Boys’ music as not that different from what someone like Stephen King was doing in fiction or Alfred Hitchcock or Wes Craven in film — like them, exploring the potential of horror as a genre.

I was trying to be like Alfred Hitchcock and Edgar Allan Poe on that “Chuckie” song, and “Mind of a Lunatic” was my version of Psycho…. I always thought it was creative how they [horror film-makers] captured a mood in a moment—like a fear of the unknown. I grew up watching The Outer Limits, where people were afraid of what they didn’t know. I compared that to being an artist with a group from Texas. We were the unknown, and we had to give them intriguing or questionable stuff so they’d say, “Man what’s wrong with these guys? Why they saying that?” In order to be noticed in the South, we had to be shocking…. On the first Geto Boys album called Making Trouble, they had a song on there called “Assassins,” and that was really my introduction to horror core rap. That was my first time hearing rap like that. I started comparing it to movies. That’s what a New Yorker’s mind is like, you see a movie, you compare it to the things you see in the hood. That’s just how New Yorkers are, we compare it to things we know, things that we are familiar with, just like our graffiti names come from TV and comic books.

The interviewer asks, “You mentioned morals… You went to a biblical school, you were about to go on a mission in India, so how do you go from that to making these dark rap songs? Did you ever feel guilty about it?” Bushwick Bill replies:

It was never an issue. To me it was just being creative. I never in my wildest imagination ever believed that anyone would think I had done anything like that or was capable. To me, it was just being creative…. I applaud any musician that can be creative enough to make people feel like they are watching Wes Craven, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg or Steven King. It’s no different than Orson Wells reading the War of the Worlds. What the difference? It’s supposed to be entertainment. That was the sole purpose: to entertain.

(Not quite explicitly articulated in what he says about why the Geto Boys were viewed differently from Wes Craven is what could be called the Trayvon Martin effect, that is, how scary young black men appear to many Americans.) BUT — it gets more complicated as B.B. talks about how he felt it subsequently affected him to keep working in this style.  He started getting into drugs, and he now says that he lost his way in part because he was so entirely immersed in the Geto Boys’ violent, misanthropic material.

I was rapping about horrific situations and psychotic mentalities everyday. It started becoming a habit…. There wasn’t a balance, we were always talking about death and killing all day long, that’s it. Could you imagine that being your only food for thought?

To me, this points to certain limitations to the absolutist First-Amendment “progressive” position on media violence. Certainly horror and the horrific can produce valuable art and of course need to be protected by First Amendment principles.  And violent video games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto can have a lot to offer beyond their more obviously sensationalist content, e.g. clever and imaginative game design, the construction of virtual spaces and geographies, etc.

But “you become what you think,” the culture we consume does become our food for thought, and Bushwick Bill’s comments suggest that at least for some of their consumers and producers, the most extreme, violent, and misanthropic forms of culture can in fact, as the conservatives always insist, become toxic. And I don’t think it does the progressive position any favors to pretend that is never the case.

The pop song’s question: Why??

When I did a college radio show many moons ago, I always felt that the “theme show” was a bit cheesy, over-obvious, and often a cop-out. There were always a lot of bad and/or obvious theme shows, anyway. A set of songs all about colors… or girls’ names… or with goodbye or hello in the title. You get the idea.

But this morning I’ve been opening my mind to the potential of the Theme Show by listening to Meghan McKee’s WFMU show Underwater Theme Park, which I believe follows a different theme every week.

This week’s theme is Why? Songs about why, asking why, beginning with why.  Some of the songs that I have been listening to while grading papers:

Benny Goodman and His Orchestra featuring Peggy Lee- Why Don’t You Do Right?

Jack Wyatt and the Bayou Boys- Why Did You Let Me Love You?

Johnny Cash- Why Is a Fire Engine Red?

Hank Williams- Why Should We Try Anymore?

Wayne Hancock- Why Don’t You Leave Me Alone?

Reverend Horton Heat- Generation Why

The Bartlebees- Why?

Weezer- Why Bother ?

The White Stripes- Why Can’t You Be Nicer To Me?

Slick Rick- Why, Why, Why

KRS-One- Why?

Blakroc -Why Can’t I Forget Him

Ladytron- The Reason Why

Bronski Beat- Why?

As the playlist develops, it poses a meta-question about the essential role of the question in the pop song.  The pop song as question, questioning, “Questioningly” (like the Ramones song – “aren’t you someone that I used to know/ And weren’t we lovers a long time ago?”). The pop song addresses us, begs and pleads like James Brown, grabs our shirt and demands an answer.  But we don’t need to answer or respond in any way, we can just listen.

Rachel Aviv on compromised or despised people

I’m a fan of the New Yorker Out Loud podcast– that and Slate’s Culture Gabfest have recently moved past Fresh Air as my go-to podcasts for this kind of thing.  I listened to a conversation with author Rachel Aviv about her new piece about the medicalization of pedophilia and child pornography, The Science of Sex Abuse,” as well as “other articles she has written on socially marginalized, compromised, or despised people.”  Her topic in the new piece — organized around the arrest and legal odyssey of a man charged under the 2006 Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act — is the ambiguous legal status of pedophilia, which is sometimes treated as something of a “thought crime”, such that what is criminalized are certain desires as opposed to actually committed acts.  Her tentative conclusion, articulated more explicitly in the podcast interview than in the piece, is that pedophilia may in fact not be a medical condition at all, but simply a crime like any other.  (I actually was not entirely sure I understood why we should not judge sexual desire for children to be a medical disorder.  It seems somewhat inevitable that such desires are going to be understood either as “evil” or as a medical condition, and the latter seems more palatable and manageable for any practical purposes.)

Anyway, this was a rearing-of-the-author-function case in which I suddenly realized that several of Aviv’s pieces had made a big impression on me without my realizing that they were by the same author.  Most recently, “Netherland: Homeless in New York, a young gay woman learns to survive” (Dec. 10 2012), a haunting portrayal of homeless gay teenagers in NYC; and also “God Knows Where I Am: What should happen when patients reject their diagnosis?” (May 30 2011), an investigation into a bipolar, psychotic woman’s death brought on by her own refusal of treatment.

Aviv is great — a mesmerizing narrative storyteller whose pieces always probe deeply into difficult questions about those our society marginalizes or who marginalize themselves.  She’s a 2004 Brown graduate and has also written for N+1, which the New Yorker seems to be treating as their development league lately.

Sounds like she’s working on a book — I’m sure it will make a splash.  Here’s her website with links to articles.

This is Your Life, Genocide Edition

I take This American Life for granted and often it can seem too familiar and predictable. Some of the more famous voices on the show grate on me, and the giggles, awkwardness and teenager-y cuteness can feel contrived; sometimes I just want them to sound like grownups.  Yet, not so rarely they come through with something pretty great that you wouldn’t hear elsewhere.  Jogging the other day I listened to this pretty amazing piece about a few episodes of This Is Your Life from the 1950s that brought the show’s usual approach to the challenging realm of atrocity survivors.  TIYL was of course a hugely popular show with an audience of many millions; it was hosted by Ralph Edwards, who also taught Sunday School and was one of those 1950s reassuring voices of a benevolent status quo.

The This American Life piece (btw, it occurs to me that the show’s name must be indebted to This is Your Life — duh, I guess) is about a couple of jaw-dropping episodes in which Edwards brought (under false pretenses — guests were almost always surprised) on the show, to be confronted by friends and associates from their past, first, a Holocaust survivor (according to This American Life host Allison Silverman, the first person to discuss her experiences in the camps on American television), second, a Hiroshima survivor.  The first one:

“This is your life, Hanna Bloch Kohner.”

“Oh no!”

Oh, disturbingly, yes.  In May 1953 Edwards surprised Hanna Bloch Kohner, whose apparent dismay at having her life story told could have had something to do with the fact that a lot of her life was a staggering nightmare.

“Can I say, Ms Kohner, that looking at you, it’s hard to believe that during 7 short years of a still short life, you lived a lifetime of fear, terror and tragedy.  You look like a young American girl just out of college, not at all like a survivor of Hitler’s cruel purge of German Jews.”

Hanna Bloch Kohner is a Holocaust survivor, although the word Holocaust wouldn’t commonly be used for another eight years.

As Silverman goes on to explain, Kohler goes through the usual This is Your Life series of surprises, although the people she’s confronted with are not grade-school buddies or teachers but, for example, the friend with whom she went through Auschwitz.  The combination of Edwards’ patriarchally plummy tones, the 50s Hollywood game-show setting, and Kohner’s descriptions of her experiences in the camps (narrated in her pronounced Czech-Jewish accent) is just surreal and incredibly bizarre, like a George Saunders story, really.  Silverman’s best line is in regards to a promotional piece of jewelry presented to Kohner for appearing on the show; as Silverman quips, “it must be hard to design a Holocaust charm bracelet.”

The piece then discusses another TIYL episode, this one featuring Hiroshima survivor Kiyoshi Tanimoto.  As part of his big surprise, he gets to meet… Robert Lewis, one of the co-captains of the Enola Gay, who dropped the bomb that killed on the order of 100,000+ of Tanimoto’s friends and family.  Awkward, to say the least.  Lewis seems like a wreck.  Apparently he and Tanimoto kept in touch after the episode.

The episodes can certainly seem from our perspective to be in unbelievably poor taste, but as Silverman suggests, they were important in bringing this material to a U.S. mass audience in a sympathetic and basically respectful manner.  And both Kohner and Tanimoto seemed to have been very pleased with their episodes, regularly showing visitors the 16 mm. video they were given as a memento (I believe Kohner actually toured with the film to raise awareness).

A clip from the Kohner episode of This Is Your Life is on Youtube, I’ve just realized, check it out.  Also here’s a Der Speigel article about Kohner.

Recycling the World of Interiors

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Sarah was coveting Matt and Miranda’s subscription to The World of Interiors.  This is a high-end, expensive (at least $100 for the year’s subscription) British design/decoration/architecture magazine.  The photography is beautiful and they somehow seem to avoid the typical design-porn cliches — it’s not just a sequence of rich person after rich person’s predictable homes.

Some articles:

BREAKING THE WAVES
His studio a fisherman’s carrelet on a jetty by the Aquitaine coast, artist Richard Texier draws inspiration from the ceaseless roll of the ocean. Catherine de Montalembert reports

EXCESS ALL AREAS
The Spanish legation once used mirrors to signal the mainland from this Tangerine dream house now owned by a bohemian design duo. Marie-France Boyer enters their prism

PARADISE RECLAIMED
Combining architectural salvage with subtle erotic details – from carnal curtain rails to titillating toile – Sam Roddick’s Hampstead home sins with originality

BOMBAY MIX
Sixteen scruffy sketchbooks filled with keenly observed watercolours of Indian life shed light on a widowed Edwardian adventurer – and the colonial mindset, say Annabel Freyberg

The magazine seems to take its name seriously in that it really does focus on “interiors,” rather broadly understood, including quirky spaces like the artist’s houseboat-studio.  Not really my thing, but I can appreciate it to a degree.  Anyway, the reason I’m blogging about it is Sarah’s innovatively thrifty means of consuming it.  Miranda mailed her the entire 2008 run, all twelve issues.  She allowed herself to read January and put the rest of the top of a high shelf.  On Feb. 1 she took down February 2008.  So, barring weakness of will, she’ll go through the year like that.  Pretty clever, although these magazines are heavy so it was probably somewhat expensive for Miranda to mail them (but hey, that was on her dime — just kidding, Miranda, we appreciate it).

Of course, Sarah’s design schemes for our house will be a year out of date, but I suspect that for us that would be a big step up.

Iron Man

Iron Man was fun. Iron Man is a robot, HAL, 3CPO & R2D2, and especially, I thought, Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still; he’s a cyborg, part machine part man (and a techie friend of various other pet/helper robots); he’s a golem (I wonder if the Jewish golem tradition ties in any covert way into the film’s surprisingly retrograde anti-Arab depictions — though of course the movie makes efforts to protect itself from this accusation: these are just the evil WARLORD Arabs, not the good family-minded ones). He’s a self-guided weapon: there’s something amusingly retro in the idea that a supercharged suit for an individual could be a crucial military tool in 21st century geopolitics (the Terrence Howard character comments at one point about how the instincts and intelligence of a human pilot will never be beaten by robotic intelligence — yeah, right.) And most explicitly, he is the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz trying to get/find his heart.

Robert Downey Jr. was an inspired choice, of course. I thought Gwynth was charming as Pepper Potts although the gender dynamics are as pathetically pre-feminist as in most such movies; or even more so, as she is an indeterminate secretary/butler/girlfriend.

Some fun musical choices: Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” blasts out over the final credits in a satisfying way. And early on Tony Starks is grooving to Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized” while he tinkers with one of his gadgets. Hope those guys got a fat royalty check out of it.

Btw, A.O. Scott observed that Jeff Bridges’ character confirms the Law of the Bald Villain; Bridges also clarifies that anyone who rides a Segway in popular culture (unlike our friend Susan, who looks really cool in on her Segway and is definitely good) must be evil.

Previews were almost entirely superhero. I have to admit, the new Hulk with Edward Norton looked pretty good, a bit of Jason Bourne to him.

Gap Whitney Museum artist edition t-shirts

Gap Whitney Museum artist edition t-shirts: by Kenny Scharf, Barbara Kruger, Chuck Close, Kiki Smith, etc., and Sarah Sze.

Why couldn’t Barbara Kruger appear in her own ad?

I wonder if the artists are being tagged as sell-outs for this, or is that concept too late-20th-century? The t-shirts are quite nice so I myself would not really make that accusation, although doing freelance design work for the Gap might well undermine one’s credibility as a scourge of corporate capitalism, if that’s your thing. (Is there a philanthropic angle here? $ to fund developing artists, hint hint?)

At $28 I’m tempted by the Glenn Ligon.