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.