History Through Pop: 3OH!3’s “My First Kiss”

Since Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” is still at the top of the charts (sigh), I thought I’d try the top iTunes single in the “Alternative” genre.  Away back when in the early 1990s, “alternative” implied that there was a bit more to the song than what you’d hear on pop radio–you know, Nirvana’s anti-consumerism angst and so forth.  I thought I mind find something a bit deeper to play with, historically speaking, in this category.  I was, of course, wrong:  3OH!3’s “My First Kiss” ranks number one, and it is indeed a rank affair of mindless beats (does every song have to be club-ready?).  But here’s a line we might try:

Well my first kiss went a little like this
I said no more sailors
And no more soldiers

Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life PIctures—Getty Images

Ugh.  In an effort to move away from this crap as quickly as possible, I refer you to the passing of Edith Shain, who claimed to be the nurse in that famous picture from New York Times square at the end of WWII.  Others could say and probably have said (suggestions in the comments?) something meaningful about the gender dynamics obvious and implied in the photo.  I will instead note briefly some thoughts to get started with (and then I must be off to work):

1) What, exactly, did the people in the photo think the future held for them?  Even with the end of the war, it was clear that another conflict was brewing, with the US and USSR carving up the spoils of war (namely, Germany).  So maybe they hoped for peace, but, when asked, would have admitted that not all was well abroad.  And at home?  The assumption was that men would return to work…meaning that women would be out of a job.  The NYT obit says that Edith Shain “moved to Los Angeles a few years after the war ended.”  One wonders what she did there.  Did she continue her work as a nurse?  Get another job?  Stay at home and raise kids?  What different ideas about the future were held by the different people in the photo?

2) And what’s this I see in the upper left corner?  A person of color?  Perhaps s/he had been a subscriber to the Pittsburgh Courier and believed that Double-Victory meant more than winning in Japan and Europe.  Perhaps s/he had experienced the inequality of some federal programs during WWII, when affirmative action white.  In any case, s/he might have some different ideas about what WWII meant and what the future held.

3) What were the people in the photo relieved about?  The end of sacrifice and suffering, obviously.  But the sacrifice of what?  Human lives might be the first answer.  Consider also the other sacrifices: the Victory Gardens, the rationing, etc.  We should consider how WWII was a total war, of course, with sacrifices at home and abroad.  But let’s not get carried away; WWII helped set the stage for American prosperity, through the utter destruction in unleashed on Europe and Asia, and by building up American manufacturing infrastructure.  American exceptionalism!

I’ll stop here, and return to writing my dissertation.  I have to get done with this chapter so I can go clubbing.

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History Through Pop: Eminem’s “I Love the Way You Lie”

I’ve been meaning to resurrect this series (previously featuring the Barenaked Ladies, Elbow, and Spoon) for a while now.  And I’ve had some tunes in mind (Ben Folds’s “Jesusland” seems ripe for a conversation with Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland), but I thought I’d try something different: instead of selecting a song from my own collection, I’ll look into What the Kids are Listening To.  Mostly crap, if the iTunes top ten is to be believed: Katy Perry, Usher, Eminem, and someone/thing called “B.o.B.” which I’m frankly too frightened too investigate further.  But if the point of this series is to use pop music to talk about the past (which it is), then I suppose I should try a song that my students might actually know and, ugh, like.  So, here goes with today’s top song on iTunes: Eminem’s “I Love the Way You Lie.”

I’ll pass on the general themes of the lyrics, which seem to be a mixture of old-Eminem’s misogyny mixed with the allegedly-new-and-mature Eminem‘s regret and guilt.  Instead, I’ll focus on one line:

Cause when it’s going good
It’s going great
I’m Superman
With the wind in his bag
She’s Lois Lane

Ahh, but who is Louis Lane, exactly?  I never got into comics — too busy fighting with my little brothers — but I am familiar with the character through Teri Hatcher’s portrayal in my pubescent years and my general consciousness of pop culture.  But Wikipedia teaches all.  And, apparently, “In the earliest Golden Age comics, Lois was featured as an aggressive, career-minded reporter.” [sidenote digression: note the pairing of “aggressive” and “career-minded.”  One wonders if the anonymous author believes that any woman who is career-minded is therefore also aggressive; what “aggressive” means, exactly; and whether career-minded men are also, inherently, aggressive.  That there is interpretation, folks, despite Wikipedia’s claims to objectivity.  In short: don’t let the kids use Wikipedia or any encyclopedia as a source; they are too willing to trust it as neutral. /sidenote digression].  If Wikipedia is to be believed (and sure, let’s go for it), Lane’s character was assertive from the get-go in 1938. Students might be shocked to hear this: “But, but…that’s before Rosie the Riveter!”  Teaching Moment! on at least two counts:

1. Big picture: let’s not fall into the trap of a progressive narrative of women’s rights (or anyone’s rights, for that matter).  There are ups and downs and all-arounds.  The constant feature is the presence of people fighting for and taking those rights at every opportunity and in many different ways, not only at the ballot box or on the assembly line.

2. Historical context: There are many books, I’m sure, that could give us more detail about the status of women’s liberation in 1938 (your suggestions welcome in the comments), but the book that comes to my mind is Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era.  It’s mostly about the post-WWII, Cold War period (hence the subtitle), when white, middle-class Americans turned inward to suburban “domestic containment” for security, satisfaction, and happiness.  But May sets the stage for that part of her argument by looking into the post-Depression, pre-WWII era (when Lois Lane was introduced).  May argues that the crisis of the Depression forced Americans to try different approaches to economic security–the big one, of course, was women going to work and becoming independent.  Hollywood approved of and encouraged this idea, as seen in a number of stars like Joan Crawford; it seems like DC comics might have been doing the same with Lois Lane.  But pop culture also reinforced the idea that women could not indeed have it all, that they had to make a choice: career or family.  And family was the preferred choice for many women, and the only legitimate option for society (institutional barriers, such as New Deal rules re: multiple federal employees in the same family, also discouraged married women’s participation in the job force).  Women working during the Depression out of necessity was viewed as unfortunate but necessary, something that Americans looked forward to leaving behind when prosperity returned.  So the pre-WWII, Lois Lane period provided both the model and anti-model for the Cold War 1950s domestic-containment family.

At least that’s what I remember from my comprehensive exams.  Also, May used a neat survey about sex lives in the 1950s, which I think students might be into.  And it just might make up for having made them learn something from, of all things, an Eminem tune.

History Through Pop: Spoon’s “Don’t Make Me a Target” and Dick-Swinging Foreign Policy

Spoon‘s 2007 Album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is a fine record with some great tracks–“You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” and “The Underdog” among them.  There’s also “Don’t Make Me a Target,” which has a nice little shuffle-along guitar riff as well as these poignant lyrics:

Here come the man from the stars
we don’t know why he go so far
and keep on marching along
beating his drum

Clubs and sticks and bats and balls
for nuclear dicks with dialect drawls
they come from a parking lot town
where nothing lives in the sun

Don’t make me a target (3x)
When you reach back in his mind
feels like he’s breaking the law
There’s something back there he got
that nobody knows

He never claimed to say what he says
He smells like the inside of closets and stairs-
The kind where nobody goes

Don’t make me a target…

It seems pretty clear that this song is about Bush Jr.–the shock at seeing him in the presidency (“the man from the stars / don’t know why he go so far”), his “dialect drawls,” his supporters from the suburbs and strip malls (“parking lot town”), the administration’s constant lies (“He never claimed to say what he says”), and, of course, Bush’s constant war-mongering (“marching along / beating his drum / clubs and sticks and bats and balls”).  Leave it to some folks from Bush’s home state (at least, until Spoon’s Britt Daniels moved to Portland) to drive home the point (see also Jim Hightower, the Dixie Chicks, and the great Molly Ivins, may she rest in peace).  And any song about Bush is about history, as in what-a-historical-fuck-up-this-presidency-has-been sort of history.

But there’s more here, and it’s loaded into the phrase “nuclear dicks.”  This calls to mind Robert Dean’s Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy, in which Dean connects American foreign policy (up to Vietnam) to a hyperventilating, testosterone-dripping masculinity that permeated the White House beginning sometime in FDR’s administration.  Dean argues that the context of the masculine imperial brotherhood consisted of both prescriptive and proscriptive elements.  A particular set of experiences crafted the ideal member of the imperial brotherhood: family money; a private prep-school and then Ivy League education; and volunteer military experience, preferably in an elite group (like Kennedy’s torpedo boat adventures).  These ideas of what a man should be were coupled with rules of what a man should not be: homosexual, effete, and/or weak, along with the usual rejection of all things smacking of socialism.  This proscriptive element was reinforced and institutionalized during the Red and Lavender Scares, when conservatives jealous of power and liberals worried of losing it both acted to purge the federal government of anyone tainted by “homosexual tendencies,” directly or indirectly.  Dean argues that these proscriptive purges, along with the prescriptive construction of ideal masculinity, produced the arrogance and ignorance of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations vis-á-vis Cuba (Bay of Pigs, Missile Crisis, etc.) and Vietnam.  Top administration officials reaffirmed their masculinity through aggressive foreign policy, blinded to any possibilities (such as that suggested by George Ball) that ran counter to the masculine narrative that the imperial brotherhood had so carefully constructed and followed.  Dean insists that his narrative is meant to portray only the context within which decisions about the Vietnam War took place, but his argument often bleeds into a causal explanation.  Dean “imperial impulse that animated Vietnam policymaking” (235) and “the personal attributes…valued by the imperial brotherhood meant conformity to Cold War orthodoxy and willingness to direct acts of violence against unseen foreigners” (202), indicating that the masculine ideal caused (“animated”) the Vietnam War, rather than just set the context for it.  Dean doesn’t quite pull this part of the argument off, I think, relying on gender-dynamics-cause-history assumptions that I’ve never quite bought into.

That said, there is a good argument to be made that realpolitik is characterized by overt masculinity, and I wonder if it’s to do with the senselessness of the particular foreign policy in question.  The Cold War was certainly permeated by masculine swagger (“I didn’t just screw Ho Chi Minh.  I cut his pecker off.” — the immortal words of LBJ), as is the current War on Terror (Bush’s flightsuit package, for instance).  In both cases, the enemy is an illusive product of imagination–the black-suited Communists roaming the jungles of Vietnam, poised to rip apart the fabric of the American economic system; or “terror”–not even an ideology, by the way, but a tactic or, at most, a strategy–which has been used as the justification for wars against mountain militiamen in Afghanistan and the professional army of Iraq.  Perhaps, then, it is in the most futile and silly foreign policy that we see the most excessive masculinity–when presidents use military force not to protect democracy or even valuable markets, but to be Big Men.  And the United States gets made a target, all so that little men with dialect drawls can swing their nuclear dicks.

History Through Pop: Barenaked Ladies’ “Celebrity”

The Barenaked Ladies crafted yet another great album in their 2003 release Everything to Everyone. The singles selection (“Another Postcard” and “Testing 1,2,3”) wasn’t the best; “Unfinished” and “War on Drugs” are my favorite tracks. And then there’s the opening track, “Celebrity,” which starts with this little gem of a lyric:

Don’t call me a zero
I’m gonna be a hero
Like Phil Esposito or the Kennedys

Phil EspositoLike so many of their tunes, BNL packs a lot into these few lines. Phil Esposito–of course–is Philip Anthony Esposito, the celebrated center for the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, and New York Rangers. “Espo” began his pro career in 1964, and during his 18 years in the NHL, racked up 6 Art Ross trophies (league leading scorer), 2 Hart Memorial Trophies (most valuable player), and 2 Stanley Cub championships. According to the disembodied, dispassionate, passive-voice wisdom of Wikipedia, Esposito “is considered to be one of the best [hockey players? centers? Canadians?] to have ever played in the National Hockey League.” BAM! Hockey history in your face!

KennedysThe Kennedys can claim no such hockey greatness, but they nevertheless deserve our attention for the influence they have exercised on American politics and culture. The Kennedys made their first appearance in American history in the form of businessman/politician Patrick Joseph Kennedy and his son, businessman/politician Joseph Patrick Kennedy (and no, I’m not just mixing up the first and middle names), who married Rose Fitzpatrick, daughter of Democratic party boss and Boston mayor John F. Fitzgerald. Put these power genes together and you get the Kennedy boys: John, Bobby, and Ted.

John F. Kennedy: WWII torpedo boat captain and 35th president, gunned down three years into his term. Generally regarded as the US’s most handsome president, although Andrew Jackson must surely run a close second. Gets credit for the Peace Corps, Project Apollo, and proposing what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But he’s also accountable for some less savory moments in presidential history: lying about the deal he struck with Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, thus putting his successor, LBJ, in the unfortunate position of having to show his own toughness against the Communists in Vietnam (as Eric Alterman argues). Robert Dean contends that Kennedy contributed to a cult of masculinity–an “imperial brotherhood”–that adopted the always popular dick-swinging school of foreign policy.

Robert F. Kennedy: His older brother’s attorney general, US Senator from New York, and Democratic presidential candidate in 1968, when he was assassinated. As attorney general, he went after the Teamsters; running for president in 1968, he spoke a psuedo-populist message, touring Appalachia and focusing on urban poverty. Like his brother, he left a long and sometimes depressing series of “what if?” questions for historians and Democrats–perhaps the last chance for unity and broad electoral success the Democratic party had for the rest of the 20th century.

Edward Kennedy: Best known as the senior senator from Massachusetts (serving in that capacity since 1962), Ted also made a run for the presidency in 1980, losing the nomination to Jimmy Carter, who then got mowed down by Reagan in the general election. Nevertheless, he has remained an active and effective senator, putting his mark on all manner of legislation, from immigration (in 1965 and 2007) to a bill honoring Johnny Carson.

There are other Kennedys, too: JFK’s son (JFK Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1999) and daughter (Caroline, who recently published a book on Christmas traditions); Ted’s son Patrick J. Kennedy (US congressman); Bobby’s son Robert Jr. (environmentalist, author, and falconer); and on and on and on.

It’s an amazing web of fame and power, and one wonders to what degree it is deserved. BNL suggest that celebrity is in large part facade for nothingness:

“I’ll be imitated
And overrated, but that doesn’t bother me”

and

“All that you will see is a celebrity
All that’s left of me is my celebrity”

Whether JFK, RFK, and the rest of the clan are overrated is a question I’m not equipped to answer (I’ve been working on this post for a few days, and I’m frankly sick of it). But the importance of celebrity in American history is unquestionable, and the Kennedys are an excellent example.

History Through Pop: Elbow’s “Leaders of the Free World”

This post (first post of the new year–a happy one to you all) inaugurates a new feature on this blog: History through Pop. Music, that is. In my collection of tunes, I’ve noticed a few songs that nod at, refer to, or expound on historical events, and this feature will examine those songs. Today’s tune: “Leaders of the Free World” from Elbow‘s 2005 record of the same name.

At one level, this song is a not-so-thinly veiled (and well-deserved) attack on Bush (“FECKLESS son,” as the lyrics go); a great performance at Seattle’s KEXP a few years ago makes that much clear. But there’s also a wonderful recognition of the importance of appreciating and understanding the past, particularly one line of the second verse:

“But I think we dropped the baton like the 60’s didn’t happen. Oh no.”

Guy Garvey (lyricist for Elbow) here seems to lament the failure–our failure–to realize the promises and potential of the 1960s, particularly the hope for peace. That failure, Garvey seems to be saying, is due to historical forgetfulness: “like the 60’s didn’t happen.” We have forgotten what people accomplished during the 1960s, such as forcing an end to the Vietnam War and bringing civil and voting rights to the south and beyond. Unfortunately, the only lessons that seem to have stuck are bad ones, such as how to appeal to racists without looking like a racist yourself (a mostly Republican strategy; see Nixon and Reagan; ), and how to diffuse the energy of mass protests by circumscribing those protests (where they can be held, for instance) while simultaneously appearing to embrace the exercise of “free speech,” gutted of content.

There’s another lesson from the 1960s, too, that I hope we are beginning to realize: the folly of carrying too far the concept of “the personal is political.” This became the refrain of feminists during the 1970s, and for good reason; gender relations, even/especially at the personal level of the home, shape power relations. But it went too far, and people gave up on changing society in favor of “revolutionizing” themselves, from running off to communes to embracing individual spirituality. People had different reasons for drawing inward: some honestly believed that the revolution had to start within one’s self; others were frustrated with the slow pace of economic and political reform; and many others had probably never really been committed to the project in the first place and had just been along for the personal ride/high. Whatever the reasons, the result was to effectively strip the 1960s of its collective energy–which actually had the power to bring about change–and replace it with individualism, which has proven to be far too susceptible to co-option by political and economic structures. This, I think, is how we “dropped the baton” of the 1960s, choosing the individual sprint to personal satisfaction instead of the team relay for reform and revolution. A powerful lesson. Cheers to Elbow for providing such a rocking tune to go along with it.