Pop Goes the World
It's been almost three months since September 11, and while the onslaught of the holidays (and for those of us around the Bitch HQ , the onslaught of production on a new issue) has provided a bit of distraction, it's still almost impossible not to feel that our jobs, our ambitions, and our daily dramas have been permanently dwarfed by the sadness and horror of everything that happened that day and everything that's happened since. Without a news editor or an investigative reporting staff, Bitch is at something of a loss for words. We don't want to say nothing, but we're also wary of regurgitating the clichés—sincere though they are—that have come thick and fast in non-news magazines since 9-11. We've always written with the goal of fomenting activism, and now more than ever strive to bring you information about independent media and activist groups that are bucking the relentless tide of united-we-stand, you're-either-with-us-or-against-us rhetoric and policy that characterizes our suddenly new era. (Look out for our news-and-activism resource guide in soon-to-be-hot-off-the-presses issue #15.) But we also want to know how this crisis has affected you—specifically, how your relationship to pop culture has changed in the midst of events so mediated they have, at times, been indistinguishable from your average Jerry Bruckheimer blockbuster. Below, four writers muse on how the very acts of viewing, creating, and analyzing the pop world around us—the television, the sports, the comedy—have changed indelibly.
I've never been much of a patriot. That's not to say I'm anti-American by any means, but the whole patriotism thing is just too big to get my arms around. Can I truly say "I love America"? I do love my community, my city, occasionally my public transportation. But I've never been into the public showing of love of country: All through public school, I'd stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in silence while other kids placed hand over heart and recited. To me, patriotism isn't about big statements. It's about the little things. About explaining your ways of living to some European or non-Western skeptic who automatically dismisses your country. It's about helping your neighbor, or cleaning your street, or voting. All this flag waving and belting out of "America the Beautiful" really leaves me cold.
So I was taken aback by the recent change to baseball's seventh-inning stretch. Instead of "Take Me Out To the Ballgame," fans are led in a rendition of "God Bless America." One could attribute this change to the fact that nobody wants sports fans to feel too guilty about enjoying themselves, particularly at the New York games. But there's more to it than that. Most sports events, especially televised ones, start off with the singing of the national anthem. And that's all well and good, but something tells me people think the song ends with the chant "Play Ball!" Like the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem simply takes us through the motions of patriotism. Thus the need for a second song: "God Bless America" functions as a once-more-with-feeling gesture.
And indeed, now you see people in the stands, taking a moment to put down their mitts or banners and raise an American flag or a homemade sign that reads "United We Stand." And maybe it is because of guilt—and because so many mandatory marks of patriotism seem like just so much red-white-and-blue wallpaper—that for this media moment (and who knows how long it'll last before it, too, loses all meaning) there does seem to be something going on. Not to the viewers at home, maybe, as we go to the kitchen for another beer and wait for the inning to start. But for people in the stands, it looks a little bit like what I imagine patriotism is all about. It looks real.
Laughing in the Face of Terror
I'm an actor and writer in New York City. For the past few years, I've been creating original work for the stage; most recently, I wrote, produced and performed a one-woman show about women and desire, called Ravenous. I've also been a member of the short-form comedy improv group Dirty Knees, so I guess you could say that I create pop culture, at least from the margins of off-off-Broadway. My work often has a feminist flair, but to date, it has not been directly political.
I'm now in the midst of developing a sketch-comedy show with a group of 12 actors, and we're working on ways to have the show comment on what happened September 11th without talking directly about it. I'm all for political satire, but done badly, it veers into agitprop—almost always deadly in the theater. Parody is too easy, and direct political commentary feels didactic and inappropriate for a comedy show. But we feel like it would be irresponsible to not take on the WTC attack and the war in one way or another. It's the elephant sitting in our country's living room, but as culture's makers, we can't ignore it.
I want to be funny, to make people laugh: It's partly a form of escapism, but it's also a way to express my anger and frustration and allow others to do the same. The war-mad political climate of the past few months has made the importance of dissent clearer to me, and comedy is the most socially accessible form of dissent: We rely on funny people to say the things we're all thinking but are afraid to say. That's why the censure of Bill Maher was so scary. When the comedian suggested that the U.S. was cowardly in firing cruise missiles at targets thousands of miles away, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer responded by ominously saying that "people have to watch what they say and watch what they do." Politically Incorrect even went off the air until Maher apologized. All of a sudden, a man whose career is based on being an adversarial loudmouth was being punished by his government, his network, and its sponsors for being an adversarial loudmouth. To think that this war may be a chance for us-versus-them gatekeepers to wipe out dissenting voices is frightening indeed.
After a few weeks of immobilizing shock, I find that I'm now more willing than ever to write and perform pieces that express unequivocally my point of view on current events—that corporate media is self-serving and self-referential to the point of absurdity, that flag-waving insta-patriotism is a hoax, that every Joe in the coffee shop is an armchair political analyst. I'm compelled to find ways to express these observations creatively and intelligently, to create complex characters and scenarios that "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted," (as Joseph Pulitzer said all newspapers should do)—even if they have the possibility of offending the more pious among us.
This has not always been my approach; as an actor, your first instinct is often to please. But now I feel that it is my responsibility to use my chosen art form to speak my piece about larger social issues, and to add my artistic voice to the growing chorus of dissent.
Tune In, Turn On, Freak Out
I was at the Pentagon when it was hit. I don't work there, but there I was. I saw the plane coming. Like everyone else, I stopped my car. I couldn't make sense of the plane. It's flying too low. The airport's way over there.
I saw the WTC get hit, but that was on TV. This was right in front of me. Before the plane hit, I looked away, just for a second. The impact was loud, smoky, acrid, the chaos and confusion immediate. In my shock, I called my boss and told him that it had been hit, "maybe by a helicopter." On TV, things aren't this confusing.
When I finally got home, I took a very long shower. Then, like nearly everyone else, I sat down in front of the television. No matter what channel I chose, it was nearly impossible to avoid the WTC and Pentagon footage, to block it out for even a few hours. Even on MTV, it was there: Carson Daly Explains It All to You. Pop stars and movie actors tell you how to feel better. "Be there for one another." Thanks (fill in pop-star name here)! We wouldn't have thought to support one another without you telling us to! Husband turned off MTV before I threw something through the set.
We retreated to the Cartoon Network. There was no sign of the attacks on the Cartoon Network. The Cartoon Network was safe. Eventually, Husband and I ventured to the video store. One of my selections, the excretory Josie and the Pussycats, opened with an engineered plane crash. I was horrified. Everything had new meaning, new connotations. It was unavoidable. I turned the cartoons back on.
Immediately after the attacks, there was a mad scramble to remove references to terrorism from popular culture. Then came the mad scramble to include them. There was the Very Special Episode of The West Wing—which really wasn't special at all. In retrospect, though, I would have watched it anyway. I'd gone from active avoidance to mild obsession—not with the attacks per se, but with the way they had infiltrated mass entertainment.
After avoiding the constant bombardment of news, I suddenly felt compelled to watch more TV than usual. I tuned in to shows I'd never even considered before—Third Watch, for instance, whose season premiere culminated with the lead characters getting called to the World Trade Center. I found myself fascinated with pop-cultural references to our newfound patriotism. Did the Halliwell Sisters on Charmed always drink their coffee from "God Bless America" mugs? Is it healthy to keep watch on these things?
Television isn't the only form of popular culture, of course. I find myself actively avoiding the songs that have become the theme music of September 11. And I'm completely out of touch with magazines, as all my subscriptions come through the Brentwood Post Office in Washington, DC, which has been closed due to Anthrax contamination.
I want to return to normal, as the politicians keep urging us to do through their taxpayer-funded gas masks and their antibiotic hazes. I want to know how to do that. Here we are, on "highest alert." I don't know what to do with that information. I think I'll go back to watching cartoons. Just for a little while longer.
Red, White, and Kind of Blue
From Toronto, there are two views of New York City. If you fly there on business, like me, it's 54 minutes by plane and right next door. If you've never been there, it's a long way away in another country. In the hours after the attacks, instant news updates on the radio, the television, and the web issued rumors of a fifth plane being escorted by five fighter jets back to Toronto, and another plane being diverted to either Yellowknife, White Horse, or Nunavut, depending on the source. My husband was in Berlin, also watching the news, but I didn't know that at the time. He had no idea that downtown Toronto was in a state of panic. Evacuations, frantic phone calls to colleagues in the US, and nonstop media bombardment of human tragedy after human tragedy. He had no idea that his wife needed, wanted, had to have a phone call from her husband. For him, it was all happening far away. As for me, I couldn't connect with the person I am closest to in the entire world.
So I connected with the CNN web site. Every two minutes I checked in for updates, but often there was nothing new. Finally I asked myself, What is it I want to know? What piece of information is going to satisfy this desperate yearning? A list of names? A total number of dead? What I realize now is that I wanted survivors. Preferably a symbolic miracle trinity of them: A Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew, huddling together in the stairwells, clinging to one another and talking about their hopes for the future. I wanted Hollywood rescues that would expose the folly of violence, the idiocy of religious war, and the merciful wisdom of god.
Now, I want nothing but fluff. I want no information that claims truth or perspective or a fresh understanding of world events or the human condition. I suspect that free speech and critical thought are dead. I want no analysis and no moral discussion. I want sunshiny travel features and celebrity gossip. I moved to Germany last week, and in preparation for expanding my freelance slate, I bought a half-dozen fashion magazines and perused them for confessional or self-actualization features that I could write to formula. As I proceeded, though, my ambition spoke up and asked the rest of my psyche, "What about the Governor General's Award? The Pulitzer Prize? The Booker? What about doing something good?"
The answer to my ambition? "I just don't want to bother."
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