“You better watch out, because I’m gonna say ‘Fuck’!” — Ben Folds
by Alex Marino
I hated their hats (always red, always backwards or pulled crooked over one eye). I hated their soul patches. I hated their cars. More than anything, I hated their music (picked out for them by MTV and local radio via Viacom who owns the labels of the bands whose music, so call it, would be omnipresent at school rallies and dances and parking lots as a result). They composed, at high schools across the country, a kind of white, suburban upper-middle-class pod army, possessed of an implacable, unfocussed angst and a tendency towards conspicuous consumption. They were the reason Eminem had a career.
I hated Eminem. I hated Limp Bizkit and Slipknot and the other overtly, aimlessly aggressive bands of that kind for the same reason: they weren’t challenging; their lyrics were the same vapid, obvious bullshit I used to write in private marble composition books in the eighth grade—embarrassing and totally empty, but at least I kept mine locked in a drawer. I especially hated Eminem, however, because he’s clearly talented. He could have done amazing things for rap music, but he went the easy route, making his name by inventing controversy where none actually existed. Winning a teenager with controversy is like winning a fish with a depth charge.
At the same time The Thong Song grew as an anthem among groups of my peers, I was listening to the music of Joy Division, They Might Be Giants, Frente, Tom Waits, and Cat Stevens. My taste in music was broad, but it took some hunting to find CDs in Bakersfield that held my interest. I escaped the top forties stations and the creeping hatred I had for their artists – escaped with bands no one my age knew, playing music that shook my heart and my soul and, at times, my ass. I dug thoughtful, sometimes quirky lyrics bearing complex emotions and ideas I had to work to get my brain around.
One Autumn, They Might Be Giants announced the release of a new album. I intended to buy it on my way to work the day it came out. That was the day commercial airliners would crash into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That was the day I sobbed in the bathroom at work. By sundown that day, a man called President swore revenge on an enemy still undiscovered. That was the beginning of a War on Terrorism.
All right now, terrorism is a concept. You can tell because it’s a noun that isn’t a person, place, or thing. You can’t see it or touch it, or drop a bomb on it. Waging war on a concept is tricky. You can use words, except that concepts exist before words—the latter invented to convey the former—which creates the problem of establishing a certain vocabulary that will universally relate to the idea you’re trying to serve. Advertisers have gotten very good at this. Attributing a name, slogan, icon, and simple tune to a product can effectively and universally identify it with a consumer’s need. At its most effective, so strong a relationship is established between a person and a brand that the brand becomes synonymous with its substance and can even replace the old vocabulary (you say Kleenex when you want a tissue, Q-Tip when you mean cotton swab, and Band-Aid instead of adhesive bandage).
An administration composed of corporate-minded businessmen are also, understandably, very good at this. Consider the definition of “terrorism” broadening to include those Americans who exercise the inalienable rights our rebel fathers bled for, and the rebel sons of Iraq bleeding for their rights. Consider what’s been made to mean “patriot”: sacrificing those rights because we’re told it will help stop Terrorism. But this is not patriotism; it is Patriotism™ Brand Terrorism.
Long after the Bush administration began promoting censorship in an attempt to battle Terrorism on the semantic front, Justin Timberlake invited a tortured black nipple into a million American homes, casting a veil of shame over a once glorious Super Bowl Sunday. This incited a kind of phantom outrage carried more by advertisers and pundits than by concerned families, amounting to stronger FCC regulations on media output (never mind the steadily decaying regulations on the other side).
The notable results so far: Howard Stern lost his show when the FCC announced they would fine Clear Channel Communications for indecent content; Sandra Tsing Loh was fired from Los Angeles public radio because an engineer forgot to censor a swear word on a recorded segment; Jeff Lepine who was a morning radio DJ in Bakersfield California was fired when a caller offered her most embarrassing moment, simply stating that she once lost a contraceptive sponge.
In all fairness, the FCC didn’t demand that these people be fired. In the cases of Loh and Lepine, no fines were even announced that would indicate the FCC even noticed. Still, people even marginally in the public sector are being punished for the things they say, and while the words they say in these cases are technically indecent by FCC standards, the conditioning message is nonetheless terrifying: “watch what you say.”
Somewhere between the FCC madness and the Madness of King George lies Whoopi Goldberg, fired for from Slim-Fast for making a joke expressing her political views at a private fundraiser. It was, I suppose, their choice to fire her, the same way it was my choice to return the Linkin Park CD my grandfather gave me one Christmas. The difference is that I returned the CD because I just don’t think Linkin Park is very talented, and Goldberg was fired because Slim-Fast was afraid that what she said would hurt them. Institutionalized fear is limiting public discourse, and it will sleepwalk us into a grim state if it continues unchecked.
You have to understand I’m surprised at myself for writing about this. I hate Howard Stern. I don’t particularly like Whoopi Goldberg either. But I was at a party tonight and found myself genuinely and embarrassingly moved (heart and ass) by the chorus of Without Me by Eminem. You know the words. Everyone does.
And it would. America would feel more than a little bit empty without the likes of Eminem or whatever angry millionaire the kids like nowadays (assuming their absence was due to censorship as opposed to an unlikely spontaneous demand for, say, surf music). I hate that he’s popular, but I imagine with dread a high school of uniformed kids listening to “Bringing in the Sheaves” with a neutral bass level (as all upstanding youngsters know bass to be the devil’s knob). I guess it wasn’t so bad having such a low standard to check my tastes against. Come to think of it, those bands probably helped me isolate traits that I particularly detest in some people: rich kids trying to pass themselves off as being tougher and lower class than they are, disdain for wiser people that contradict them, willful aggression towards invisible enemies. I’d rather live with the controversy that doesn’t exist than ignore the controversy that does.
Alex Marino is a writer and improviser who lives in Brooklyn.