“Uptown”: An Exegesis

“Utopias’ positive qualities [include] their illumination of the non-utopian societies from which all utopias spring. The potentiality rather than reality of America as a utopia must be emphasized.”

—Howard Segal

Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities[i] 

 

            My first memory of Prince changed my life. I was nine years old, visiting my stepdad’s wife’s house. In my sort-of half-stepbrother’s room I heard this music coming out that was exciting. He had just left the house, but he had left his stereo on.  All I remember about the next moments were me going into his room and beginning to jump on the bed. Like, hard. Frantically, rhythmically, with the beat. Not dancing, per se, but not not dancing either. For the entire song I danced-through-jumping to the frenetic beat of “Uptown” from 1980’s Dirty Mind.  When it was over, I played it again. And I dance-jumped again for the entire song. Hard. To understand the impact Prince’s death had on me, you have to picture this little kid jumping on a bed, hearing “Uptown” for the first time. Because while the infectious groove caught me, the spirit of the song changed me. I played the song three or four more times before someone in the house yelled, “Stop playing that damn song!”

 

She saw me walking down the streets of your fine city

It kinda turned me on when she looked at me and said, “Come here”

Now I don’t usually talk to strangers, but she looked so pretty

What can I lose if I just give her a little ear?

 

At this, I was intrigued. I was also of the generation that had been taught not to talk to strangers. And that idea was new enough that I could imagine that there was a time in America when you could talk to strangers. Prince had written this song when he was only about ten years older than I was at the time, but I did not know that then. Neither did I know that the “strangers” children were told they could not talk to would soon be me.

Beginning in 1979, the National Crime Prevention Council and the Ad Council coproduced a series of public-service announcements (PSAs) featuring a trenchcoat-wearing crimefighting bloodhound named McGruff who advised people to “take a bite out of crime.”[ii] These ads gained traction in the early days of a Ronald Reagan Administration that had been voted in on a promise to “get tough on street crime.” Since so many suburban housing developments of the early 20th Century had been created with racist covenant restrictions, fear of “blackness” was a fairly easy sell.[iii] In a few years when my body would mature and begin to make grown white men uncomfortable, I would become the “other” that the McGruff ads were warning against, creating the need for whites to flee the suburbs and create a narrative of a lost America “where you could trust strangers.” But it wasn’t so much that America was lost, it was that it had been abandoned and then reconstructed and walled away. This was when planned communities with guards and high hedges became the rage. But I didn’t know any of that then. And Prince mediates his wariness of strangers by the rationalization that a pretty girl was a good excuse to break the rule. The rest of the song proves that Prince is in fact wildly opposed to this idea of avoiding the “other.” “Uptown” is, in fact, a raucous embrace of the other.

 

What’s up little girl?

I ain’t got time to play          

 

Prince was a bad man. Even at 19. He knew the street lingo. He knew how to deploy his urban-hustler identity. But we know that this is not really Prince. By his allowance of us into his inner monologue—the first lines of the song—we already know that Prince is somewhat cautious, not dangerous. So here he is allowing us to see the adoption of his “tough-guy” identity by telling us exactly what he said to our street muse. I deduced this even when I was nine, jumping on the bed. “He’s acting all bad, but he’s just as scared of her as she is of him, probably,” I remember thinking, vaguely. My mom had recently imparted this piece of wisdom to me in regard to bees, all of whom I was convinced were out to get me. But now I had begun applying this new premise to analogous and not-so-analogous situations. Most of the time when you were scared, the other person was just as scared as you were. Winning was all about attitude.

Prince was already at that moment far more complex than most artists I had been exposed to, betraying a conflict with the identity forced upon all men of color in the urban context—we were all the intimidating “other” in the eyes of mainstream society. If we did not act like thugs, then the opposite end of the binary must apply: that we were soft; book-smart; a mark. Neither Prince nor I knew it then, but we were both hyperaware of the identities we would only feel comfortable exposing in what Shane Vogel calls the “Harlem cabaret.” New Negro Movement scholars had been arguing that for black people to seem “civilized,” they would have to conform to Victorian standards of morality. But countercultural critics of Victorian standards like Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Lena Horne resided in the Harlem cabaret. It was only at certain times and only in certain spaces that these blacks felt free to express themselves: after hours, after any decent hours, mostly after mainstream clubs closed; in Harlem, a segregated suburb of Manhattan just outside the limits of municipal oversight, a subliminal expression of Manhattan’s cultural progressivism, just outside the limits of social acceptability. It was here (and when) that you found normalizing of queerness, what was called “sexual deviancy” back then; people who had sex with people, in numbers, or in contexts contrary to accepted Victorian mores.

And in the same way Harlem cabaret artists challenged Victorian morality, Prince’s oppositional aesthetic was the new urban folk hero who was thriving in the industrial milieu. Once offering the promise of a better life, “industrialization” by the mid-20th Century had come to mean “blight” and “despair” amongst the many disaffected travelers of the Great Migration. During the migration’s many waves, the utopian life-is-better-here rhetoric of the time referred to economic opportunity and freedom from explicit racial discrimination, but it seldom referenced the “dollar drain” that often accompanied the white flight. But here the remarkable capacity of New World blacks to adapt to their environment was made evident. Here in the urban-industrial milieu to which blacks had been getting accustomed since the end of the Civil War, black culture created a new kind of archetype that people like Prince and I could utilize.

Cue the urban-hustler identity.

By the 1960s, the most predominant African American folk hero was not the urban collaborator who studied hard and got good grades, but was instead an urban hustler—someone who could use their wits, sexuality, or fighting prowess to “get over” on the oppressor. The urban hustler made himself known in movies such as Shaft and Superfly, and in books such as Iceberg Slim’s Pimp: The Story of Life and Donald Goines’ Daddy Cool. Central to the urban hustler’s mystique is his willingness to use heterosexual prowess in order to achieve his objectives. His gendered masculinity was never in doubt. I was getting that idea, even at nine. I knew I had to deploy a street-smart, hypermasculine sensibility whether I felt one or not. Black boys come in both sensitive and insensitive forms, but society imposes an “insensitive” identity on black urban boys, so half of them have to act like tough guys or get labeled “marks.” So, as far as Prince was concerned, he did not have time for any B.S. He had hustling he had to get back to.

But she had a trick for him.

 

Baby didn’t say too much

She said, “Are you gay?”

Kinda took me by surprise, I didn’t know what to do

 

Wait? What? I believed I might have actually stopped jump-dancing for a moment when I first heard that line. Did he say, “gay?” Like, when two guys do it? That was my elementary knowledge of homosexuality at nine. But I knew manifestly that it was not a term, not even a topic, that one brought up in mainstream culture. It was playground talk; street talk. The fact that Prince talked about gayness in a song by definition categorized him in my mind as something “alternative” to the mainstream, where he maintains a space to this day. That is why it took me by such surprise when Prince reached mainstream success three years later with 1983’s 1999, and especially the next year with Purple Rain. Moms are not going to know what do with Prince when they start listening to what he’s saying. He is not like them I remember thinking, vaguely. This prophecy came to hilarious fruition once Tipper Gore heard her daughter playing “Darling Nikki” in 1984. This was the genesis of the Parent Music Resource Center (PMRC) and parental-advisory labels. Prince’s freaky butt started that mess.

So, had our urban muse caught on to Prince’s charade? Had she seen that his “hustler” façade was only a coping strategy? This was the secret dread of sensitive inner city youth. It would have taken me by surprise too! And Prince’s inner monologue shares with us his indecisiveness. That is what I loved about the guy. He was not afraid to show us his vulnerability. This was an existential crisis for Prince. But he plays it off like a boss.

 

I just looked her in her eyes and I said, “No, are you?”

She’s just a crazy, crazy, crazy little mixed-up dame

She’s just a victim of society and all its games

 

Now where I come from

We don’t let society tell us how it’s supposed to be

Our clothes, our hair, we don’t care

It’s all about being there

 

Wh—Where do you come from, Prince? Minneapolis? Like most American cities, Minneapolis saw a rise in its black population during WWII. While postwar housing programs did build extra houses for the poor, those homes were all built in the inner cities. Many Minnesotans had been fleeing to the racially restricted suburbs for years, leaving Minneapolis that same bleak landscape that every urban space undergoes once the jobs and businesses leave, then social services decline. Is that what Prince means? That in Minneapolis they don’t let society tell them how it’s supposed to be? A place where they wear what they want, they wear their hair how they want, and they pay no mind to the severe looks and turned-up noses?

             

Everybody’s going Uptown

That’s where I want to be

Uptown

Set your mind free

Uptown

Got my body hot

Get down

I don’t want to stop, no

 

Uptown Minneapolis? Is that where I was supposed to go? Uptown of any major city? I knew somehow that adulthood held the answer.

 

 As soon as we got there

Good times were rolling

White, Black, Puerto Rican, everybody just a-freakin’

Good times were rolling

 

I got it now. Adults had gotten over race. Finally. And it made sense to me. I had read about the problems of race in the past, but it did not make a lot of sense to me in 1980. It made more sense to think that when I grew up, I would be able to find places where people were not worrying about race, but were just going around dancing to good music. Unbeknownst to Prince, he had given a clue as to where Uptown was: it had to be in the borderlands; just outside the reach of municipal oversight, just outside the scope of upper-class mores. In the colonization of the New World, borderlands and frontier towns served as the first, and often the most dangerous, outposts of the Western civilizational project. These spaces were populated mostly by lumpen class rejects, the outcasts, the deplorables, the second and third sons looking for claims of their own, people looking for a second chance, and women who had not managed to secure the path to economic security that a husband provided. These border spaces were true meritocracies—few had family connections to buffet their failures—and so often did not have space for elitist social divisions like race, sex, class, and lifestyle. In the Mexicali, California, of the 1910’s, a study of the sex workers at a brothel called the Owl showed that the prostitutes ran the gamut from blanca, to morena, to mulata, to triguena to negra, which author Eric Schantz says is reflective of the “equally varied phenotypic and national background of the Owl’s clientele.” For many women, they might be listed as negra by immigration inspectors in one year and mulata by another years later, or some might even receive hyphenated racial designations, such as blanca-mulata. These things were simply not of great concern there. In 1930s New York City, entrepreneurs of the late nineteenth-century consciously created spaces where races could get together free from scrutiny. These “black and tan” saloons were expressly created as spaces where blacks and whites could commingle and dance, and spoke to a desperate need people had for a place like Uptown.

Uptown is the space realized by Paul Gilroy’s “politics of transfiguration”: the “new desires, social relations, and modes of association within the racial community . . . and between that group and its erstwhile oppressors.” When you went Uptown, they were already living the way the Western world had promised would be attainable for all people black or white, but which had been betrayed by the horrors of slavery, genocide, and capitalist accumulation. That is why if you were Uptown, you would not care as much about the unfilled potential found downtown, you would be much more concerned about being there. And you would be much more concerned about being, there.

Most of the good borderland spaces are gone, now. When borderlands submit to municipal oversight, the government’s tendency to legislate how people used and where they put their bodies comes with them. Except in this place, my nine-year-old self countered. Prince has found a place where they’ve been able to let it all go. Makes sense. Adulthood is going to be a cinch, I thought. It was good to have thoughts like this about adulthood from time to time because, as I was finding, there were many things about it that were becoming more troublesome the more I learned about them. Like sex.

 

She started dancing in the streets

Girl, she’s just gone mad

You know, she even made love to me?

Best night I ever had

 

I was not sure, but . . . was this a thing? Was it the case that, when you grew up, if you met someone who you really connected with, and who was really great, that you would cap the night by . . . having sex? Because that was not how I understood sex to work at nine. I was fairly certain that before you could even get close to sex, there would be a large amount of flowers, candy, and dates—with dinner. I already knew then that you did not have to be married to have sex, but I definitely knew that women would not let you have sex with them—if that indeed was your intention, for some reason—unless you had done extensive amounts of . . . um . . . courting, or whatever. So I was not sure what this lady was doing. But Prince injected a little gender switch here that thrilled me then and still does to this day. This was the first time I had ever heard of a woman making love to a man. Oh sure, I knew how everything worked and where everything went, but for the first time I understood that the woman could be the total sexual aggressor. And Prince did not treat this as an affront to his masculinity; he sang about it like it was a special cherry on top of a freaky dance-party sundae. That is what was so cool about the guy. Even at nineteen, he was thrilled with the idea of a woman rejecting the traditional masculine role and seizing the initiative in their lovemaking. Prince queered “sexual deviancy” into something free and sexually expressive and not at all harmful to anybody—before most of society even knew that that was a thing that needed to be done.

Because, make no mistake about it, the vast majority of the rules in Western society regarding sexual identity are designed to control women. They have been since the days of the transatlantic slave trade and long before. Indeed, in many places in colonial America, the predominant white male perspective of that time was that, while frowned upon, sex with slaves was accepted, even expected. White women did not have that same sort of societal laxity, however.  White women who were found to have had relations with blacks could get arrested, or even banished. A black man found to have relations with a white woman could be hanged, castrated, or castrated and then hanged. Even if he was just accused. The “purity of conduct” and “purity of manners” expected of women was proof that the white male power structure was designed as much to control them as it was to control blackness.

Prince must have been influenced by the rejection of sexual mores that accompanied the Countercultural Movement of the late 1960s. Prince was twelve years old during the Summer of Love. Let me repeat that: Prince was hitting puberty at a time when what must have been the most beautiful demographic in the world to him, young college females, were collectively pushing the bounds of their sexual identities. The Countercultural Movement used the nonviolent protest model of the Civil Rights Movement to reject a number of America’s state-sponsored narratives, including those addressing the Vietnam War, women, homosexuality, Native Americans, Latinos, and many more. French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard used this landmark era in the history of Western civilization to mark what he called “the postmodern condition.” According to Lyotard, American students in the 1960s realized that their culture’s obsession with the knowledge traditions of science and technology were not as benign as they had been led to believe, and so campus protests were actually protesting the institutions that normalized war and racism—state-sponsored schools and the social and moral narratives they endorsed. I am surprised more artists born in the late 1950s were not preoccupied with sex.

 

I don’t usually talk to strangers but this time it’s all right

She got me hot, I couldn’t stop,

Good times were rolling all night

All night, yeah!

 

But where I come from, we don’t give a damn

We do whatever we please

Ain’t ‘bout no downtown, nowhere-bound, narrow-minded drag

S’all about being free

 

              This time, Prince is more urgent about how it is Uptown. Before, he had made it clear that the people there “didn’t let” society control their actions—but we really have to credit that to the braggadocio allowed with poetic license, do we not? No one was going to stop society from telling young people how to act—that was why they went Uptown in the first place! In fact, in the world of the song, society has no role but to try and tell people what clothes to wear and how to wear their hair. But now, in the second chorus, the declaration is more abrasive. They don’t give a damn. You can talk and talk, but they just do not care. They are going to do what they want. Downtown, members of society shuffle along, thinking that they are getting ahead, but they are really getting nowhere. Why? Because they are slaves; slaves to their own narrow-minded ideas of what happiness could look like; to what freedom really is.

Here, Prince conveys the sum aesthetic and ideological engine of the Countercultural Movement. Social critique was what they were doing. Although music is Prince’s protest model, he might as well be carrying a sign at Berkeley for all the difference between him and the hippie ethos. And while the vast majority of Dirty Mind has to do with sex—hence the title—this indictment of society’s hypocrisy is only a sign of things to come. On his next album, Controversy, songs like “Controversy,” “Annie Christian,” and “Ronnie Talk to Russia,” offered full-throated critiques of social discrimination, religion, and global politics. He continued to tackle social issues on later albums, but seldom as explicitly. He spent the rest of his career addressing the greater societal issues that would lead to things like discrimination, or religious extremism, or thermonuclear war.

British social commentator Thomas More wrote the novel, Utopia, in order to express his vision of a “perfect” society. Since Utopia’s publication in 1516, many other Western authors have attempted to articulate their vision of what this society might look like. The early nineteenth century saw an explosion in semiautonomous communities that retreated from “civilization’s” technology, social control, and moral lassitude. Groups like the Shakers, the Amana Movement, and the Oneida Community were intentionally founded to counteract the gender- and labor-role narratives presented by Western governments. You see . . .  “Uptown” is not really about any place called “Uptown” at all. Look at the song. Prince does not give many details about this place. Instead, “Uptown” is an illumination not of the real uptown Minneapolis, but of the society from which all uptowns spring—the narrow-minded downtown. And this critique of the confines of Western civilization is bound up in Uptown’s status as a borderlands space—Uptown is a place not just full of rejects, but one that is consciously created by people trying to be free.

And this is nothing new in the history of the “opening” of the New World. Ever since the West was won, the artists of the landscape have thrown up objections to civilizational creep and the reduced attention to basic human values it usually brings along. While Western civilization is indeed regimented and efficient, it causes a great deal of stress among people who have difficulty conforming to the regimentation; those on the margins. And in the New World, Western civilization replaced many cultures that had a much more relaxed dedication to life and producing goods. And so Uptown is the lament of the societies lost.

 

Everybody’s going Uptown

It’s where I want to be

Uptown

You can set your mind free, yeah

           

Here is what can happen here: You can let it all go. All those rules? All that anxiety about how you are supposed to act and how many people you would disappoint if you did not? It is all B.S. It always has been. We have constructed a society in which people can educate themselves, and love each other, and rid themselves of the prejudices and pettiness of the past. If we are not allowed to do those things without prejudice, then what did all those young boys die in Vietnam for? The freedom to live how we want.

 

 Uptown

Keep your body hot

 

So, let go of the story you have been telling yourself. Let go of the fiction that you are not a sensual creature. Look around you, right now. How many things around you are organic materials, that need sex to survive? And yet look at how often we de-sexualize ourselves! How many times do we tell ourselves that “being civilized” means acting like you are not a sexual creature? Prince was here to tell us. We are sexual creatures. That is how we all got here. So why so many rules about who we can have sex with and how often we can do it? Why do we erect institutions to shame people for their sexuality? What would a world look like where we did not have anxiety about it? Where a woman could just grab a man and—if that indeed was her intention, for some reason—make love to him without crippling whore-shaming bound up in narrow-minded patriarchy? Prince was here to tell us.

 

Get down

I don’t want to stop, no

 

But wait . . . no . . . none of this makes sense. How can there be a place where they do not let “society” do something? Are we not all part of society? This has to be a bifurcated populace. It has to be a place with one group of people (“we”) who are formed in opposition to another group of people (“society”). So, it is not as if Uptown is only comprised of the marginalized—it is just that the marginalized in Uptown do not suffer the masquerade. And this place that Prince is going is not just a place, it is a place and a time. It cannot be one without the other. Like the Harlem cabaret, its queerness comes from its “reorganization of respectable time” and its critique of “normative temporal orders.” Run-of-the-mill uptowns only really become Uptown late at night, after “respectable” hours. And the conflation of time and space situates Uptown as more of a perspective than anything else. So, “where I come from” is not “where” he comes from, but how he sees things from his perspective; where he’s comin’ from, ya dig?

            My first memory of Prince changed my life. This was the beginning of my authentic countercultural consciousness. My jump-dancing was also a birthing ritual. I was shaking the B.S. out of my little premodern self. Prince gave me the confidence to believe that even if everyone in “society” felt a certain way, they could still all be wrong. Like, I could be a moral constituency of one, if my cause was just. And that changed everything. It had never occurred to me before; everyone else in my family was fine with conformity so I had never been taught anything different. But “Uptown” gave me the confidence to speak out in ways I could not have imagined were possible before then. “Uptown” is about finding your true voice; your most authentic self, and then letting that spirit fly free. It is about dreams; ambitions; hope. This could be your future. This could be your life; the perfect place and time to drop all that downtown, nowhere-bound, narrow-minded drag.

 

 

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Published in: on December 12, 2017 at 2:02 PM  Leave a Comment  

Plug Out, Babies

It was actually a passionate topic of conversation among the dotcom “intelligentsia” for a year or two before Thomas Friedman began trumpeting about the halls of Western Culture as to the world’s resounding flatness: This Internet? This Information Superhighway? It’s going to change things. And not just economic things, even though all business models are going to change irrevocably and comprehensively. No, this Internet highway thing is going to change . . . us. How we act towards each other . . . how we interact with each other. . . . Nothing’s ever going to be the same again.

The only thing nobody could predict was what would be the first signs of manifestation. And then it became glaringly obvious.

In our kids.

By the middle part of this decade, the world’s flatness became manifest in our children’s addiction to the metaworld created by wireless fidelity technology. This metaworld is also called “social media” and it soon became a matter of concern as to whether our kids were going to be able to handle the planet with an attention divided between our world and the metaworld. I mean, this really is the first generation in the history of man to grow up with this sort of divided consciousness, this rampant and roughshod slipping on and off of identity that is possible when one logs into an avatar or the anonymity endemic to the medium. So, should we be worried? Will they be able to handle it? Won’t they just adapt like, you know, resilient kids? If there was anything to be worried about, wouldn’t someone have told us? Like the FCC? I mean, they wouldn’t sell those things if it was going to poison our kids’ minds, would they? People started having . . . you know . . . questions.

A couple years back, Iggy Azalea became one of the first celebrities to put into the mainstream the logical and really only strategy that a young person straining for a healthy mentality growing up in this time-space locus can employ, really.  She plugged out. She tuned in and plugged out. After being taunted for paparazzi pictures of her at the beach, she announced to her fans that she’d be taking a break from social media.

And it wasn’t the act itself that was revolutionary—young people had for a while been opting for plugging out for a while as an option to totally rejecting the virtual status accrued in metaworld. There were two things that make Iggy Azalea’s statement a landmark event in pop culture: First, she did not just plug out, she publicly announced her plugging out, giving the option a celebrity endorsement. Second, she plugged out in response to the backlash behind the black-identity bait-and-switch that she used to bolster her career.

 

Part Two

Because let’s not have any illusions, here. The root of the public nastiness thrown Iggy’s way by Nikki Minaj is in a particularly sensitive area of black—particularly black female—sexual racialization. Most commonly exemplified by the case of Sarah Baartman, “the Hottentot Venus,” in the early nineteenth century, the white-identified mainstream has historically had a fraught relationship with the totemization of the black behind. European women of Baartman’s time were recorded as displaying outward signs of distaste and displeasure, while being luridly unable to turn away from the carnival-like displays in which her tormenter toured her around London. Scarce years later, Josephine Baker gained international megastardom by being able to commodify and market the savagery of her ass, and at the same time established a paradigm for black-female sexual entrepreneurship in the entertainment world. Nikki Minaj has only ever been a daughter of that paradigm, whether she knew she owed a debt to Baker’s frugality or Baartman’s humiliation. Yeah, she’s a good rapper, but she was very involved in the dozens of hours of footage taken of her butt in music videos. And it worked out well for her. Until Iggy Azalea started getting record sales and award nominations and Google searches that Minaj thought should have been meant for her. Azalea had been wiggling her butt onstage in the same manner as—possibly inspired by—Minaj since the first stages of her career. But Minaj sensed something that was true and no way Iggy Azalea would have been able to see coming unless she was African American—Azalea, like Eminem, like Elvis before him, were white artists who had incorporated black aesthetics and, because they were white and less threatening, this had translated to faster, bigger, more lucrative stardom. Yes, all those artists were talented singers or rappers or whatever, but what made them megafamous was their appropriation of sexualized black aesthetics. For Elvis, it was that he could dance like a black man, which had always been more sensual than European-based dance forms. It was a dance form that young white girls could not have told their dads they found sensual, but they could when they saw Elvis do it. Eminem appropriated the thug aesthetic, which had been setting black girls’ hearts aflutter since the late 1980s. This dangerous bad boy–of–the–streets archetype was not an appropriate image that white girls could admit they found exciting—but they could when Eminem did it.

Azalea too, has some rapping talent, but she has gained notoriety through the liberation of her butt. Azalea is the postmodernist comment  on Becky’s Friend. You don’t know Becky’s Friend? Here is her one and only contribution to posterity:

Oh my God, Becky, look at her butt.
It is so
big. She looks like
One of those rap guys’ girlfriends.
But, ya know, who understands those rap guys?
They only talk to her, because,
She looks like a total prostitute, ‘kay?
I mean, her butt, is just so
BIG.
I can’t believe it’s just so round, it’s, like, out there.
I mean . . .  gross! Look!
She’s just so . . . black.

These immortal words, the introduction to Sir Mix-a-lot’s rap anthem “Baby Got Back,” are a symphony in coded black/white sexual antagonism. The poor bullied girl described by Becky’s Friend of course had no say in how she was created, but she is characterized as a prostitute, a rap moll, and, worst of all, the epitome of blackness because of her big butt. Due to that song’s phenomenal success, Becky’s Friend took a signature place in pop culture. She gave voice to the Western white female id, the same perverted desire that wouldn’t let Victorian women turn away from the Hottentot Venus: Look at that! I don’t have that! My man couldn’t possibly find that attractive, could he? How come he’s not turning away?  It was discourse such as this that helped create that Eurocentric Standard of Beauty that has since become the bane of black and brown fashion models, actresses, and potential sports wives across the Western world. That standard has become thinner and thinner since the Renaissance, further away from the notion of what body image black women could possibly achieve.

But wait! Before we go too far, let’s remember, Becky’s Friend was not an “actual” expression of the white female id: she was the metaworld expression. Sir Mix-a-Lot was Becky’s Friend. He wrote those words. If anything, Becky’s Friend was the expression of the black perception of the white female id. In Iggy’s case, the notion that big butts are unattractive also marginalized quite a number of white-identified girls, an effect of the reality that racial stereotypes, even physical ones, are inexact and uncomprehensive. Of course there are white girls with big butts, as there always have been, but the Standard incentivized them to de-emphasize their butts’ bigness, to go on insane diets or wear corsets or girdles or other such slimming ephemera. These were the women Becky’s Friend would make fun of, calling them overweight or saying they had a “black” butt. But white girls who rapped didn’t have to listen to Becky’s Friend. Having already appropriated the thug aesthetic now ingrained in hip hop, white girls who rapped were coming from Sir Mix-a-Lot’s perspective, and liked big butts, and so would be prone to celebrate them if they had one. That’s where Iggy Azalea was coming from. By shaking her big butt, she was celebrating that black aesthetic, lifting it up into a form of beauty worship that should be interracially admired. She was also reclaiming her own notion of beauty back from a place where she might have at one point felt ashamed about her body, to a place where she could celebrate it.

In all, Minaj should be able to appreciate Azalea’s rise to stardom using her butt. But the racialization of “big-buttness” convinced her it was yet another example of cultural appropriation. The backlash against Azalea’s bikini pics are only another salvo into the culture wars, but one that will not be waged in the metaworld. Azalea’s took the medium in which she has built such a large fan base and in one swift stroke possibly established a paradigm for how the next generation will interact with the Internet’s awesome power: It can make you a megastar but it can also make you a lightning rod for controversy and criticism. Though metaworld may be the All-Knowing God you seek, young generation, it is not necessarily a benevolent god. But when this god breathes fire, he can simply be unplugged.

Published in: on June 19, 2017 at 11:29 AM  Leave a Comment  

There’s No Place Like Home

 

 

This post is a part of Blog March 2017, a movement for Raising Voices for Freedom of Expression, Knowledge, and Information. We will be broadcasting voices throughout the month of May. The previous blog marcher was Jason Wendleton at Defending Axl Rose on May 8, and the next blog marcher will be Rorie Kelly at GoGirlsMusic.com on May 10. I am number 9.

Sometimes I think there is no place for me in the American political spectrum. That is because I am too damn liberal. I am more liberal than every person I have ever met, with the exception of a group of anarchists I met in Toledo a few years back. The American spectrum reads like this from right to left: reactionary–>conservative–>centrist<–liberal<–radical. I am an ultra-radical. I have believed for many years that the U.S. Constitution needs to be re-written due to two factors: the extreme demographic shift and population growth that separates 1787 America from 2017 America and 2) the fact that the Founding Fathers knew far less about the world than most college students do today. No, amendments don’t cut it. The amendment process is long, laborious, and uses the standing Constitution as a barometer upon which to gauge the severity of its changes. Changes too far from the Constitution take much longer to ratify. But the Founders never envisioned the type of America that we have today. In fact, it would have horrified them. So why do we see their words as gospel? Why do we dynamite graven images of them onto the sides of mountains?

I am no longer disappointed with the conservatism in American politics. I’ve become numb to it. I had my first taste of utter shock and disappointment with American conservatism in my 20s. There was a bill in California that was going to get rid of affirmative action, Prop. 209, and I was sure it wasn’t going to pass. I thought it was old school. I thought the 1960s Countercultural Movement had addressed all those issues and that we, as a country, were past it. But we weren’t. The bill passed. That was over 20 years ago. Ever since then, I have come to believe that I am too liberal for this country. I was pissed about all those pledges of allegiance to the flag I had made, and how many times I proclaimed this the land of the free and home of the brave. So what do you do when you feel you’ve been betrayed? I became a teacher, and tried to steer the right-leaning ship of this country using education and history. I succeeded to some degree, but could never reach the number of people I needed to sway election results.

So, I love the liberal-ness (“liberalism” means something else) of today’s 20- and 30-years-olds. However, I have noticed a disturbing trend. Today’s young people seem not only entitled to liberal viewpoints, they are downright hateful towards people who aren’t as liberal as they are. I see this sort of “more-liberal-than-thou” attitude in news feeds, news stories, and pop-culture fora. Young people, you will never change the world through anger and a lack of understanding. Only by understanding conservatism and LOVING CONSERVATIVES will we ever be able to bridge the cultural divide in our nation. Yes, that’s right, I said loving conservatives. Because they’re people. And they’re people who have a right to their opinions, but many have been brainwashed to be afraid of certain segments of our society. Their fear will not be assuaged by us hating them. They already suspect that liberals like to make fun of them using words they can’t understand. You don’t think they get when people are making fun of them? They may not understand the nuances of your intellectual barbs, but they know you’re teasing them, just like they knew it when we were all back on the playground. But liberals fall into the same trap conservatives do: both sides want to “win” rather than come to a place of mutual understanding. “Winning” is the ultimate objective; having the opposing side come to a realization that they’ve been wrong all along.

We have to let go of this obsession with winning. We have to accept that in order for this country to come together, we need to acknowledge that the right might never come to regret their rightish ways, BUT WE HAVE TO LOVE THEM ANYWAY. We have to see the humanity in them, and connect with them there, and try to help them come to informed opinions. Because when we don’t, they get mad and they go out and vote in larger numbers than we do because they outnumber us. Every time. There is only one LA and one NY and there are thousands of little towns in America in between them with tens of thousands of people who are looking to liberals to make good decisions. But when liberals make decisions that ignore these little towns, these people elect extreme candidates to let us know they’re still there. That’s how George W. was elected, and that explains our current surreal trip into the presidential unknown.

But I understand the outrage. A few years back I wrote an open letter to all American citizens urging them to “Get Remote.” It read:

“Wealthy misguided individuals have engineered a social structure (that we’ve been complicit in, I’m afraid) whereby other individuals, warriors and such, have made it an objective to destroy you and your happy family, life, and home. These actions will be undertaken in order to make an impression on the wealthy individuals so that they will begin making more humanitarian decisions. This is an utterly hopeless exercise, and never has accomplished its ends, but none of that will ever matter. Your family and life and home will be extinguished in a sigh of smoke and spark or some such horrendous scenario and that’s all that’s ever mattered.

You care about your life more than you do your political party. You care about your friends and neighborhood more than that ridiculous sideshow they pump into our homes with those faceless men who communicate with each other in a language structured in order to maintain their control over our destiny. And we encourage them to do it, trotting into compartments periodically to punch pieces of paper that confirm our compliance in allowing them to control our destinies. It seems like a pretty funny picture show, but I guess it’s the best way we’ve thought to live our lives so far.

Anyway, for the past half century these men have been brokering in technology that they don’t understand and that is massively destructive. These men have engineered a social structure whereby other individuals have made it an objective to use these weapons to sear the skin screaming from your bones, in order to make fanciful impressions on these doddering dilettantes. I recommend you learn a language and get to a location as remote as possible from this global behemoth, this wheezing dynasty; we are a throbbing bull’s-eye.”

I no longer saw the point in living in a country supporting a system of faceless men whose decisions caused other people to want to bomb us. No American politician has been liberal enough for me for years, so why should I die for them? Because I was born in this arbitrarily invented concept called “America?” The Earth doesn’t have national boundaries, and I am an organic child of God. “American” is just my political identity. In the letter, my plan was to “get my graduate degree and then move somewhere to teach – Haiti, maybe; the Netherlands, maybe – but definitely away, to a place I can learn about this huge-ass world that I’ve never set foot in; recruit good people who believe in the promise of the American Dream (the real one, about freedom and bravery); and come back and reinvigorate the dialogue about our American potential.”

Sometimes I think I’m too liberal for this country. During the Darfur crisis, I put on one of those ridiculous statement wristbands that everyone wore in the early 2000s and swore I wouldn’t take it off until the American government decided to intervene and help the thousands of women being raped and children being thrown into bonfires. I wore that fucking wristband for three years. We never intervened. Condoleeza Rice said that Sudan held no “American” interests—meaning no economic interests. I remember thinking at that point that I was fucking done with this country.

But I haven’t gone anywhere. I keep trying to make America into a land MY forefathers would be proud of. I’m still here; trying to right this sinking ship. But if I stay, I have to be sure to love my fellow citizens, no matter how much they frustrate me. Coming together is the only defense we have against the lies. It’s the only way we’ll ever be able to take any of our pledges and anthems seriously. It’s the only way we’ll ever be able to take ourselves seriously.

Published in: on May 8, 2017 at 4:19 PM  Leave a Comment  

The Lie

Go, soul, the body’s guest
Upon a thankless errand
Fear not to touch the best
The truth shall be thy warrant.
Go, since I needs must die
And give the world the lie
          —Sir Walter Raleigh, 1582

About 10,000 years ago, a remarkable story began to be told on the planet earth. It was the story of an amazing species and how they had been designated by God to serve as the next rulers of the planet; a benevolent master race that for the first time in earth’s history would ascend the food chain through labors of the brain, not brawn. And it was a story for the ages, full of daring exploits, passionate romance, and outlandish cunning. This species would be as inventive as the dinosaurs were powerful, as imaginative as the leviathan was dominant, and as ruthless as the algae were profligate.

But very early on, a disturbing trend arose. The story was being repeatedly rewritten by warlords and conquering princes. With each successive generation, the story was being modified, codified, coddled, and reshaped to fit the interests of whatever group was telling it. One need only look at the story of Moses. Hebrew lore is founded upon his heroic imperator out of Egypt, and yet Egyptian historical records show no trace of a mass exodus of Jews from their empire. Two vast cultures of enduring legacy, and yet they differ on a crucial historical event’s objective existence.

At any rate, the story of man went on harmlessly for years with its various allegations and obfuscations, always linking our destiny to that of our planet, our gods, our benevolence to the world around us. But at some point a big lie began being told in the story, and this lie changed the way we started telling it. Where once our intelligence promised a bright and beautiful future that would lead to unheard-of evolutions, now we started to believe that it was our destiny to burn ourselves out; to flash brightly against a starry night and then fade away, ashes to existence. We started to tell ourselves that we were TOO intelligent to coexist peacefully for very long, and so our best option was to aspire to the heights of our potential now, before we killed ourselves in the exigencies of survival. It was a portentous and rancorous lie borne out of paranoia and fear—but people started buying into the lie for that very reason, because it played right into their nightmares, right into what man most feared would happen if our worser nature ran unchecked into the slipshod future: a bloody conflagration of fire and brimstone, with only a jurisprudent God left to sort out the moral men from the fools. Also, the lie gave the race of man an out—if we did destroy ourselves, it was an imperator of God Himself, who never planned on us making much of a run of it. But mostly the lie was just an excuse we gave ourselves to run rampant over the earth and each other, without a nod to natural instinct or rationale. And eventually the lie became Our Destiny, and our destiny became inescapable. But this interpretation of reality is a stinking filthy lie, friends and neighbors, and I urge you to reject it.

Say to the court it glows
And shines like rotten wood
Say to the church, it shows
What’s good and doth no good.
If church and court reply,
Then give them both the lie

The lie first probably began being told around 1400 B.C. That’s when an Iranian prophet named Zoroaster (or Zarathustra) first gave a revolutionary message to the people who would soon comprise the Persian Empire. As the story goes, the great prophet Zoroaster was conceived of a virgin by the god Mazda. Zoroaster preached that Mazda alone ruled the universe, and that all other gods were just manifestations of Him. He said that Mazda had created all things, including the forces of good and evil, who were in a perpetual battle for the fate of the world. And as he told it, at the end of time all of mankind would be resurrected, and Mazda would judge all based on what side they fought, the evil being consigned to an eternity of darkness and misery, the good being sent to Mazda’s kingdom free of decay, old age, death. In this fight, man was aided by guardian spirits to help him make the right choices through good words, thoughts, and deeds.

Any of this sound familiar? Of course it does. When Persia swept through the area between the years 547-517 BC, they liberated the Jews from the nasty clutches of the infamous Nebuchanezzar of Babylon. The Persians were the only other religion at the time to be claiming monotheism, and so were forever linked in Jewish favor. Before this time, there were no traditions in Jewish theology regarding the hierarchies of angels, Satan as an independent force of evil, reward and punishment after death, the soul’s immortality, or a day of final judgment. The Jews adopted and converted many of these beliefs, believing that they were getting a fuller picture of the whole story.

But the combination of those cultures created a dangerous coda to the story that might very well cost the world millions of lives. Dig this: With the admixture of those cultures, and their resonant influence on all cultures that have been borne from them, began the idea that “the world was coming to an end.” Unfortunately, narrowness of perspective and dramatic license always play a part in these stories, as they do again here. When ancient cultures said “the world,” they always meant THEIR people and as much of the planet earth AS THEY HAD EXPLORED. When the Iroquois said “the world” they meant from the Atlantic Ocean to the just east of the Mississippi River. When Moses said “the world,” he meant West Asia and North Africa. In fact, the story of the biblical flood said to have “covered the earth” mostly likely referred to an actual flood of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in ancient Sumerian times (also told of, by the way, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, today widely acknowledged as the inspiration for the Noah story). The flood was a “worldwide” catastrophe, killing thousands of Sumerians and Canaanites, but not likely harming any Nubians or Olmecs, budding peoples in other parts of the world. In the bible, the creation of “the world” is actually the creation of the “civilized world in the Near East,” as the tribes there shifted from a hunter-gatherer subsistence to an agricultural subsistence. This shift led to the formation of settlements, which led to the formation of cities.

So when we talk about ancient prophecies of the “end of the world,” we really have to be careful about what we’re talking about. The “end” of what? What “world?” But once humanity encompassed the geography of Earth, we automatically associated “the world” to mean this blue planet we’re spinning on. And, self-absorbed as we are, we also took it to mean that we would make this “ending” come about, probably because of collective guilt at the methods we’ve taken in laying claim to the planet. As a result, CIVILIZATION HAS BEEN ENACTING THIS STORY for nearly 3,000 years, now. We have determined ourselves to be a divine race, and too intelligent to be allowed to exist. We have caught ourselves up in our own grandeur, and given ourselves a death sentence to punish ourselves for all of evils we have practiced on the earth and each other. And what’s more, we’re doing everything in our power to carry this sentence out.

Tell men of high condition
That manage the estate,
Their purpose is ambition,
Their practice only hate.
And if they once reply,
Then give them all the lie.

There is another version of this story, and it has been manifesting around the world right alongside the lie, though it has never been as popular. This version has always been told by the more pastoral peoples of the earth, peoples whose beliefs center on a reverence for the earth and nature. These cultures also seem to have females as objects of worship, likening the feminine trait of giving birth as a symbol for the Earth, the ultimate lifegiver. But with the entre of Indo-European “barbarians” into the cultural mix of ancient Mesopotamia also came new gods—and the dominant aspect of most of these gods were that they were warlike and patriachical, mirroring the family structures of those tribes. By the way this is also part of the lie. The lie tells you your gods are male. This allows you to assume “masculine” qualities when you are playing the game—i.e. aggressiveness, power, ruthlessness. The Judeo-Christian tradition adopted this bizarre specification, making possible a slew of injustices done to the remaining nature-based religions of the world—derisively labeled “pagans.” This is another extension of the lie. The lies tells you that the sublimation of the female is the natural way for humanity. Accept the truth. Wholeness is the key. The masculine and the feminine, embraced by everybody, is the only key to enlightenment. How ‘bout this? Your God reflects You. And points off for being a burnt witch.

The restorative beliefs of some of these religions were brought back to the fore of the Western world in the middle of the 20th century by the writings of Aldus Huxley. In a panic to experiment with the Native American spritual drug peyote, Huxley’s findings began a stunning reanalysis of the Western world that resulted in the hippie movement of the late ‘60s. That didn’t go over too well because the lie makes you self-satisfied. The lie tells you that your worth as a person corresponds to your accumulation of material goods. So that as you look around at your stuff, and feel the weight of your bankbook, you feel “secure” and “confident.” The lie has given you self-esteem. Again, I implore you to reject this ridiculous resolution.

At any rate, an alternative to the apocalyptic future ahead soon grew in prominence. Western man began exploring the idea of a ”new age,” one in which we transcended the need for conquest and plunder and refocused on values such as enlightenment and inner peace. This version of the story went that, before catastrophe, a growing wave of self-reflection inspired by a few enlightened beings worldwide would lead man to reconsider how he was living his life and change the definition of society. And it was through this evolution of thought that man would go on to the next “world.” This version maintained all the elements of the previous predictions, but obviated the need for a violent end in favor of mass enlightenment.

And to be sure, this story is not new. It has in fact been being told right alongside the lie for all of recorded history. Except civilized man has always found a way to marginalize these beliefs, through plunder and conversion if necessary, and through marginalization and stigma if that fails. Even in the three major world religions, this New Age view has found favor with the Sufi mystics of Islam, the Gnostics of Christanity, and the Kabbahlists of Judaism. And all three have at one time or another been branded heretic or fanatical, and have thereby never been given worldwide exposure. But Huxley’s experiments encouraged exploration of those ancient beliefs, as well as the transcendent faiths of Asia—Hinduism, Buddhism, Krishnaism, Daoism, to name a few—which all espouse New Age ideals in social conduct.

In the mid-1970s a group of British spiritualists claimed to have made contact with a race of other-dimensional teachers who were being sent to guide humans into this new phase of evolution. In 1962, a woman in Scotland began to hear a voice telling her to create a garden in a windy and bleak city called Findhorn in the northeastern part of the country. The voice said that the New Age had already begun, and that the cosmic power released by it had been felt by her and many others. And while Hindu’s 5,000-year-old sacred text the Upanishads predict a “machine age” in which mankind would invent the means of his own destruction, it also foresees three “avatars of love,”—prophets sent to help us make a peaceful transition into the next age. Two of those prophecies—through the births of Muslim saint Shirdi Sai Baba (another Sufi) and love guru Sathya Sai Baba—are widely believed to have been fulfilled. India’s Mother Meera claims that she is another avatar sent to help bring about man’s spiritual transformation.

Tell wit how much it wrangles
In tickle points of niceness;
Tell wisdom she entangles,
Herself in overwiseness.
And when they do reply,
Straight give them both the lie.

How does a story like that keep being told, when it ensures destruction for the storyteller? Well, we start pretty early on. Look at the stories we tell our children about the god-like accomplishments of man, and then the ones about beings who aspire to godhead and are banished to eternal hellfire. We tell them to share and to respect others, and then as a society we flout these ideals in the manic need to continue enacting our story. Look how we praise the winners and pity the losers? Why? Because the lie tells you that the point of the game is to get On Top. And it also tells you that it is acceptable to lie, cheat, and steal to get there. Indeed, it tells you that’s the ONLY way to win. Don’t fall for that crap. One game of dodgeball and you know that a victory means nothing if you don’t play by the rules. But remember, the lie never asked you to do what was acceptable TO YOU, it only told you that to do what was acceptable WITHIN THE LIE.

We set a perfect prototype for not living up to expectations. Look at the fathers “toughening up” the sons. Look at mama critiquing daughter’s posture, or make-up, or hair, or everything. Not that it matters. The lie tells you that you aren’t as smart or attractive as the people around you. This will make it impossible for you to really fall in love, because you will always loathe whomever has either the poor taste or pity to fall in love with you. Also, this makes it difficult for you to get the confidence to demand people to stop giving you the lie. Besides, it would be impossible to get a race of people to kill themselves if they loved themselves and each other. The lie is trying to hurt you. The lie is the enemy. You must fight it.

Kids do. They first question your integrity, then silently protest your injustices, and eventually throw rocks and bricks at your chain stores. And why don’t we listen them as the truth comes spilling out of their mouths? Because the lie makes you seem wise. It tells you that kids “don’t know what they’re talking about.” It repeatedly tells you that your youth was rambunctious and rash, and that you ought to forget all your childish idealism. But do you REMEMBER childhood? Remember when you KNEW the truth? And how from day one people started telling you how the world “really was?” And that you had to sell yourself out to get anywhere in the world? Again, I beseech you to not listen to this fucking nonsense. In truth, we knew the key to happiness most clearly the day we were born, and the lie started giving us excuses to sell out our beliefs. So-called warmongerers and imperialists are not evil, they are only concluding the final acts of the story exactly as they were taught to by their dads in sandboxes: Crush the Enemy; also, You are the Enemy.

Tell arts they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming;
Tell schools they want profoundness,
And stand too much on seeming.
If arts and schools reply,
Give arts and schools the lie.

 So whom to believe? We have throughout history been given the story as told by someone who says the knowledge was a gift from God. We’ve got more prophets than we know what to do with and a whole bunch of interpretations of their word. But I say they’re all right. I say we are all prophets of God because God is always speaking to all of us. The only difference is the listening, and then the doing. It’s not that He only gave His message to a scant few, it’s that they paid attention better, and then tried to pass the message on. The reason religions get so popular is that they basically reflect the same message we always hear in our minds, the “divine voices.” It is up to us, then, to choose which path to take—just like Zorosaster said, just like Jesus said, just like Muhammad said—good or evil. Evil has to do with destruction and grief, the good has to do with enlightenment and peace. Every religion in the world agrees with that. As such, whether or not we continue to enact the lie completely depends on us. The lie began as a story we started telling ourselves, and will continue to be until we play out its inevitable conclusion. Or we could simply not. We could simply choose to enact the more transcendent story, the one of self-affirmation and courage—but it will take an amazing leap in self-esteem. We have to actually believe we are beings of actual light, and that evil is not an inherent force of mankind, but rather an outside influence—like Baba said, like Krishna said—that we can simply will out of existence. And, as you might expect, the ultimate choice is up to us, up to the godhead in us, exactly as the Judeo Christian version has it. In the end, man WILL choose between good and evil, and that choice will result in either heaven or hell.

So when thou hast, as I
Commanded thee, done blabbing—
Although to give the lie
Deserves no less than stabbing—
Stab at thee he that will,
No stab the soul can kill.

Published in: on June 21, 2011 at 6:16 PM  Leave a Comment