Things That Made Me Go Hmmm…

Hello again and Happy Scopes Monkey Trial Day, though it wasn’t a good day for the monkey.

That went fairly well, or so I’d like to think. People responded (your checks are in the mail) and the multi-limbed game of blog pong begins. I’ve emplaced a new system. Blogging begins right as the coffee peaks and ends right around that time where the pre-lunch blood sugar is low and the inevitable grouchiness begins. Optimal circumstances. It’s an absolute lock that I’ll have what Timothy Egan called an “itchy Twitter finger,” though he said that in the context of Sarah Palin and crystal meth. Hmm. And I don’t Tweet. That fake Christopher Walken and Chad Ochocinco are impossible to keep up with.

It did occur to me that I might have gotten a bit slappy on the cakes, so I’ve done what every self-respecting art historian does when they need to tone it down a bit. I’ve been thinking about Adorno. Now, before everyone gets really excited (put away the streamers and screw the top back on the champagne), know that I’ve been thinking about Adorno similarly to the way that SportsCenter thinks about games: partially, superficially, with maximum speed, and minimum engagement. But hear me out.

I’m not here to dispute the viability of Adorno and Horkheimer’s theory of the Culture Industry. I actually like it quite a bit, because I think it’s mostly true, though like all other theories in its requirement of suspension of disbelief. And it allows me to grumble endlessly about whatever it is about American life that bothers me, which is really convenient — far more so than those Segway things ever were.

I think MTV actually helped undo the Culture Industry. Maybe only once, but somewhere between the time “Video Killed the Radio Star” and MTV killed Britney’s chances at a normal adolescence, something really remarkable happened. Right about the Summer of 1989, MTV began broadcasting Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” video.


A bit of context: I was just entering my teens, an even skinnier white kid in the suburbs of central New Jersey. My musical inclinations were somewhat ranging. I liked Michael Jackson and Quiet Riot, my cousin Nadia had turned me on to BDP and Too $hort, and my parents’ record collection had me on a steady diet of Kenny Rogers, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson  (who will always have my vote for President of the United States). But I’m a monkey’s uncle if I knew what amazing things Public Enemy was about to do to my brain. I’m not even sure MTV knew what they were doing. They almost had to play the video. PE’s first albums, Yo! Bum Rush the Show and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, were already considered essential listening to anyone who liked their Hip Hop political and/or incredibly well-crafted. And besides, Spike Lee had just used “Fight the Power” as the opening sounds to Do the Right Thing, which is what he was doing before he started spending all of his creative hours watching the Knicks get beat and making lovey-dovey with Kobe Bryant over a film that must have had Douglas Gordon ready to headbutt Spike dead in the chest. It was sort of inevitable that MTV was going to play the video.

So, the younger version of me is leaning against the kitchen table watching “Yo! MTV Raps” (Ed Lover dance interlude). “Fight the Power” came on and I damn near lost my mind. If you haven’t watched the video, consider it homework. Due immediately. Chuck’s rhymes are off the charts. I didn’t know it, but I was learning about Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, probably even Fela and Femi, before I even knew it. Flavor Flav introduced me to the Apollonian-Dionysian duality before I could say D’aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. It took me a minute to figure out the S1W’s, the Security of the 1st World, but I figured that these dudes were serious if they needed fatigues and beret security.

Now, Chuck D isn’t the greatest rapper of all time (Melle Mel, please stand up. Rakim, you too.) and even he confessed to not knowing what Flavor was doing, but these two gentlemen from Strong Island turned me into a pubescent Black Panther. To this day, I hold true many of the ideologies that were first introduced to me by Public Enemy. I now have a much more nuanced understanding of them, thanks to the nation of millions that counts as its citizens Eldridge Cleaver, Hannah Arendt, the amazing people at the National Civil Rights Museum here in Memphis, and Ann Gibson, who I hope won’t be embarrassed by inclusion on this list, though we all know she deserves it. PE planted one hell of a seed, one that I certainly wasn’t getting reading Johnny Tremain and copying out of Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition.

So, I can’t help but wonder if MTV is guilty of aiding and abetting, forming what may have once been small micro-fissures in the Culture Industry that are now crackling and popping as my peers and I find ourselves in the classroom and the galleries and on the airwaves and everywhere we tend to be, creepin’ on ah come up.

A brief list of things that happened in the past 24 hours that I don’t think you should care about:

  1. David Beckham was greeted rudely by LA Galaxy fans on his return to their home pitch. Fair enough. I’d be bathing in Haterade if I had to pay that much to watch him play in Milan. And, besides, Forza Lupi.
  2. Barnes and Noble opened their e-book store today. Apparently, it’s bigger and deffer than all competitors. I still don’t understand what makes people think the paper book will ever go out of style. The smell, the feel. I’ll give you my book when you take it from my cold, dead hands.

Something in case the discussion falters:

I think one of the primary tasks for art history in this century will involve some kind of emotional conclusion regarding Clement Greenberg. Just a thought.

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