Quality

Jonathan Bellman

A few random, ranting observations on Phil’s “In the Money” blog. First, let me draw myself up and speak as a native-born US citizen to identify the downside to the smartass, wacky, self-mocking American pop culture he enjoys. It is that too many of us don’t get it, and believe it the way Plato wanted the citizens of his Republic to believe the Noble Lie. How many housewives lived in movie magazines and celebrity culture? The morbid fixations on Anna Nicole and Paris Hilton and Britney and Lindsay Lohan and whoever testify to moronic US fixations of long standing. Not irony, not witting self-mockery: dumb credulity.

 

To me it is terrifying when people believe the kind of conspicuous-consumption-nigh-unto-dada images of the Busby Berkeley era, on the assumption that “let’s do a show!” will correct the problems of, say, the dustbowl. You don’t find that scary? OK, how about when a United States President believes that kind of kitschy, propagandistic garbage? Gerald Ford—OK, point taken, he was one of the last couple of American presidents who were not elected—thought he could “whip inflation now” with…WIN buttons, which some of us remember. The Wikipedia entry has the following passage:

“WIN” buttons immediately became objects of ridicule; skeptics wore the buttons upside down, explaining that “NIM” stood for “No Immediate Miracles.”

I believe the first person to do this was an in-house skeptic, Ford’s press secretary Jerry TerHorst—that’s right, his equivalent of Tony Snow. Can anyone imagine Ari Fleischer, or Tony Snow, or whoever the next haircut-in-a-suit is, tacitly acknowledging that the President’s big program, of any kind, is complete and utter hooey? I was seventeen and could not believe the WIN business—I kept asking my parents how this could be happening. They were basically speechless, and I cannot stress enough how atypical a response speechlessness in our family actually is.

 

Here’s the musical angle, though. President Ford—illustrating, presumably, our national belief that “ANYBODY can grow up to be President”—actually commissioned a Whip Inflation Now song from Meredith Wilson, of Music Man fame. Yes, I saw Wilson do the thing on national TV at the time, and only remember the closing line, a resounding dismissal of inflation, delivered with vaudeville, musical comedy pep and spunk by the septuagenarian Wilson: “Who will pass it by? You will! And so will I!” This is no different, really, than “We’re in the money,” and the president was putting it forward as policy. Come on, gang! We can do it!

 

I just remember staring at my parents, literally shaking, not knowing whether to sue them—“YOU GAVE ME *THIS* WORLD? AND YOU HATE *MY* MUSIC?!?”—or grieve with them, or run amok, or what. The previous year, I’d read Ionesco’s Rhinocéros in French class, so I knew what theater of the absurd was, and the WIN business seemed far closer to that than to something anyone, not just a world leader, might actually believe. Harry Potter fans will remember Rufus Scrimgeour’s earnest comment to Harry in Book 6 about how what’s important is people believing something is being done about a problem. It’s not hard to see where Rowling got the model for this kind of ad-agency morality. If you believe it, it’s true. If you wish upon a star. And look, it’s even got a song!

 

So I think there’s a better answer for the “why the pig-latin?” question: if you have to work a little to dig the meaning out, it’ll stick; this is basic ed-psych, right? That film excerpt is what, 1933? That’s the era, if I’m not mistaken, of secret decoder rings as promotions for radio shows and so on. If the secret messages kids all over the country were puzzling out, one letter at a time, were “Be sure to drink Ovaltine!” (OK, that’s Jean Shepherd, but the real thing was doubtless equivalent) then it gets in the consciousness better, and deeper. And in the case of that song, concentrating enough to puzzle out the pig-latin means two things: maybe I believe it a little more now, maybe things really are OK, and maybe we are kind of a little bit in the money. Anyway, now I know exactly what the title of the sheet music I’m going to buy is.

 

Hear that jingling sound? Anything can be corrected in the US with a smile and a song!
I’m getting almost lethally cynical as I write this, so I’d better stop. I’ll just add a comment to Eric’s comment on Phil’s blog, specifically his line about “some horseshit critical theory by some nut-case from Yale.” Without opening up the broader discussion, I will agree with the point that many of my students here in the middle part of the country weren’t buying when I opened up some of the cultural-critical questions in class, either. Coming as I did from California, most recently from the Bay Area, I had a major cultural shock when I came here, because many of the young women here have no problem with “feminine cadences” (as a musical idea, not the McClary book) or any other superficial linguistic sexisms, but their eyes go hard with resentment whenever one brings up concerns about ethnicity or (especially) gender representation. The message as I got it was: “Bellman, we have fathers and brothers and husbands and boyfriends and we know about what men and women are like and we do NOT want to be told what to be concerned about or offended by, so get to the music—the good stuff, Jack—because you know more about it than we do and that’s why we’re here.” It’s like a prairie, pioneer-woman thing. I had to argue carefully when the music of a female composer was brought up—no lie. You get this dead-eyed look—“we heard this already in the required Women’s Studies class; thanks a lot, pal”—and it’s pretty much over.

 

All that said: Yale has a hell of a lot more to apologize for than Critical Theory.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
This entry was posted in Current Affairs, Life, Politics, Pop Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Quality

  1. Greg says:

    Wait, wait, Dr Bellman, have you ever actually SEEN Gold Diggers of 1933? ALL of it? It’s about floozy women bagging rich husbands, not about curing the dustbowl by putting on a show. I mean, yes, Busby Berkeley musicals have a lot to do with the politics (broadly construed) of the Depression, but in a much more complicated way than you seem to assume. Rick Altman’s 1989 monograph is a good place to start.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I have not seen it–absolutely not, no. Just Phil’s excerpt, and probably another couple of dance routines in other film anthologies. I was conflating the whole 1930s cinematic psychology: Shirley Temple, Busby Berkeley, it’ll all be great if you whistle a happy tune. I threw in the dustbowl bit because of the epoch. Was it that unclear?

  3. Phil Ford says:

    No, it was clear; it’s just that it’s kind of un-Jonathan to subject a movie to a lacerating cultural critique without having seen it. C’mon, what would you say to a student who did that?
    Greg’s right that these films are more complicated politically (and in other ways, too) than they get credit for. I heard some comedian who works on the Howard Stern show being interviewed on Fresh Air a while back, and Terry Gross asked him if his schtick didn’t appeal to a pretty low crowd. And he answered that it was perfectly possible to appeal to that crowd and still have something else going on. He used the example of the Simpsons — he said, in effect, that both stupid people and smart people like that show, but for completely different reasons. The kind of people who wear T-Shirts that say “What part of NO don’t you understand?!!!” like the “in-your-face attitude” of lil’ Bart and big Homer; smart-ass hipsters like the way the show also makes fun of those kind of people. Everybody wins!
    This ability to have it every which way — to have your cake and eat it too — is another hallmark of entertainment. If entertainment dopes us up, it also wises us up. Can’t have Jon Stewart without Paula Abdul.

  4. Jonathan says:

    Wait. I don’t think I ripped the film, the excerpts of which I enjoy in a weird way. What I ripped was the literal-credulity crowd: “the downside to the smartass, wacky, self-mocking American pop culture he enjoys. It is that too many of us don’t get it, and believe it the way Plato wanted the citizens of his Republic to believe the Noble Lie.” The disadvantage to that aspect of our pop culture is the huge percentage of people that don’t cut it with the water of human experience, cynicism, etc. but just lap it up and make themselves marks for the forces of cultural evil.
    Nor, let me be clear, am I ripping honest idealism, or prevailing in the face of bad odds: never mind American *culture*, that’s a commonplace in *America*. We’ve all probably got family or pesonal stories of that kind.
    Now, if I’m being chided for not wanting to accept my Paula Abdul with my Jon Stewart, that’s probably fair (though I still don’t wanna). But what really kills me is where that credulity leads the wide-eyed who accept Busby Berkeley and everything else at the quarter-inch-deep level. As I hinted before, the “current affairs” in the subject line gives some indication of what I was really talking about. So, no, I’m NOT ripping the Busby Berkeley (which it took some time for me to enjoy) aesthetic or film; just injudicious consumption of such.

  5. Kip W says:

    Oddly enough, the secret messages Orphan Annie gave don’t seem to have been commercials. They usually pertained to the episode going on, and gave a bit of a preview of the next episode. Here’s a page where you can get your own decoder and read about the messages a little.
    http://www.radioarchives.org/annie/
    Moving right along, one of my favorite Depression songs (along with “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”) is nice and nasty — the bitterly sarcastic “Cheer Up! Smile! Nertz!”, as sung by Eddie Cantor. Personally, I’d love to see Shirley Temple turn her dimples to this one, but… Na Guh Hap.
    [audio src="http://www.archive.org/download/EddieCantor/EddieCantor-CheerUpSmileNertz.mp3" /]

  6. Jonathan says:

    For pity’s sake, Blogosphere, what’s the point of my blogging if you’re all going to check me on my facts?! The 1983 film mentioned on the Orphan Annie site was based on the stories of the satirist, whence I got the “Be sure to drink Ovaltine!” line. I never saw the film; which was based on the stories of Jean Shepherd, which I’d read as a kid. Kip and the site have me dead to rights, though; I bought Shepherd’s take on it as fact.
    Great playing on the Eddie Cantor song. What is “Nertz”? Wikipedia lists it as a sort of multiple-way solitaire game; it seems here like a euphemistic soundalike (darn, dang) of “Nuts!”, that word being, I guess, a bit to brash. Or is it something else?

  7. Jonathan says:

    And by the way: when I told my wife about Phil’s gentle scold, “it’s just that it’s kind of un-Jonathan to subject a movie to a lacerating cultural critique without having seen it,” she sang out “Not at *all*! Don’t they know you?”

  8. Ralph says:

    I think it’s interesting, the move from the condescending swipe against gullible “housewives” in the first paragraph, to the concerned male feminist trying to tell his female students what to be offended by. Do you really want people to be critical of culture – or just to reproduce your own critique? Troubling.

  9. Mark says:

    I think Jonathan is to be commended for taking his lumps with a sense of humor. One lump or two?

  10. Jonathan says:

    Ralph: Troubling? Really? Low threshold. I do not mean to condescend to said housewives; I mean to scream their stupid faces off, and the same for anyone else, male or female, who buys such digested culture product as reality. I could go on (e.g. anyone who reads the fashion issue of New Yorker with anything other than rage) but won’t. The point about my students was the way *they* educated *me*, dealing non-verbally but effectively with my in-the-box, post-grad school approach. They pointed up the need to teach the actual students, not the students I was imagining.
    I don’t see what’s so hard to understand about any of this, nor what is troubling.

  11. Jonathan says:

    P.S. Mark: You’d better give me a lot of lumps.

Comments are closed.