Iconography @ Starbucks

 

Dogg @ Starbuck’s brunch

“Summertime/Doin’ Time” was a vague adaptation of the Gershwin song, but apparently enough to warrant legal credit. It appears on the album entitled “Sublime” which sold over two million copies and was certified double platinum. Their interpretation opens with a rough choral singing of the first line of the original; it wasn’t sampled and mixed in. Sublime’s use of “Summertime” was literally a cover for “Doin’ Time”. In 1997, Bradley Nowell, the band’s guitarist and founding member, died of a heroin overdose. The band had already been under increasing contractual pressure to tone down their anti-social activities, although it was the same behavior had made their reputation as a live act and sold recordings. That same story has been nearly a trope for bands and musicians in the rock, hip hop, gangsta, bad boy industry.

Also during 1997, rapper, Snoop Dogg, was acquitted of a murder charge, nearly instantly he become nearly omnipresent on recordings and videos. Although Timothy McVey was the genuine face of terrorism, magazine covers showing Tupac Shakur’s “Thug Life” tattoo terrified parents even posthumously. Loose Dickies, cornrows and bandanas became chic, gang tags appeared on shopping malls. There were heartfelt televised discussions of casual misuse of the “N-word”, while white America fumed both oblivious and outraged by athletes and entertainers surreptitiously flashing gang signs and colors on network television. The ironic phenomenon of suburban and mainstream co-opting urban gang culture became a burgeoning industry. Notorious B.I.G. was shot in a drve by shooting and Strom Thurmon became the longest serving Senator in US history. Into that pre-Millennial incarnation of Catfish Row the Sublime interpretation of “Summertime” was released in three different versions, and a fourth version I have chosen was unreleased except on the Internet.

In all four of the Sublime interpretations, “Summertime” appears first as a syllabic substitute for the words, doing time, then fragments of the melody blend ironically into the atmosphere of exhaustion and excess. It uses the feeling, first line and musical refrain of Gershwin, then inserts a secondary lyric describing constriction in a relationship with a philandering woman in prison terms. In spite of the heavy-handed metaphor, the song maintains a summery pop feel. Like much of the work of Sublime, the song asks little of its listener and borrows melodies and styles from other genres. At best it’s a pleasant pastiche for beer buzzed fantasies of rebellion, at worst it’s three chubby party boys usurping musical styles and masquerading as criminals. That’s been the business of rock and roll since its inception.

In spite of, or perhaps because of its shortcomings, unfinished qualities, limited invention and technological theft, this version of “Summertime” is intriguing to me, at least for dissection. The seventy-odd years from the first Gershwin recording to Sublime may appear much greater than three generations, but it’s a period not much different from that separating the Emancipation Proclamation from that same recording. It does seem too far of a distance to recall Al Jolson’s contemporaneous black-faced 1927 performance in “The Jazz Singer” was widely regarded not as minstrelsy, but as an assault on racism and prejudice. In some readings of that performance Jolson’s character finds his true identity by changing his name and singing in blackface. In the film, as the character , Jack Robbins, (formerly Jackie Rabinowitz) Jolson produces a heart breaking “Mammy” sung in blackface to his mother as an explanation of refusing the constraints of his Jewish roots. http://youtu.be/PIaj7FNHnjQ . In spite of ts cultural impropriety, Mr. Jolson knowingly employed a racial mask, not to diminish cultural conflict, but to express it.

Sublime has no similar context to mitigate their cultural investment in “Summertime”. Instead of a sophisticated sentiment, Sublime produces a sluggish melange of complaint and then embroiders it with Snoop Dogg’s rap. A rap intended to lend a depth of street credibility “wickedness” and represent “The strong beach, the wrong beach, the L.B.C.”. Mr. Broadus rented his reputation as a Death Row “G” in the attempt give the song depth by making it appear dangerous. Sublime became guys pretending to be in the same barroom as Stagger Lee. It is a peculiar artistic choice for either a pop version of “Summertime” or a lover’s complaint. Unlike Jolson’s complicated adoption of a temporary race, Sublime chooses a convenient mask to hide behind for commercial advantage and intoxicated bravado.

Crown, from Porgy and “Porgy and Bess” was Dubose Heyward’s Doppelganger, a shadow symbol to wrestle with Porgy in Heyward’s struggle to resolve his own identity issues. As a stereotype, Crown, was a mask for racist fears and African Americans sense of powerlessness. To accomplish these ends, regardless of their ethical values, Crown has to be dark, fearless, savage and violent, a character incapable of change. Crown is always a manifestation. Nearly all of the racial stereotypes from the Jazz Age persist nearly a century later. The Mammy, Jezebel, Magic Negro, Sambo and Mandingo Savage continue to function as roles in artistic media shorthand. Al Jolson attempted to re-interpret the blackface mask outside of the realm of stereotype. Sublime made the artistic choice to draw on a diminished, but still corrupting image, Crown as criminality. Crown, who from “Birth of a Nation” on, must be subjected to extra legal control.

Our culture continues to profit from and manipulate these images, in some ways they are more sensitive, subtle and thoughtful depictions. If anything, in the current information age stereotypes are more vital to emotionally support talking points, substitute anecdotes for facts and swell emotions and fears. The tragedy of the death of Trayvon Martin rests, in part, with the superimposed residual image of “Crown”. It was the image George Zimmerman shot at; it was a seventeen year old student he killed.The current controversy and discussion regarding Kara Walker’s installation of “A Subtlety, or The Marvelous Sugar Baby,..” is acerbically insightful in revealing how much race does still matter in stereotypical imagery. http://indypendent.org/2014/06/30/why-i-yelled-kara-walker-exhibit I would ask you not only to read the article, but the pursuant comments for a sense of the depth of feeling. Yet in spite of academic discussion or subtle artistic changes, African American stereotypes remain vital in mass and social media.

The super-imposition of the Savage onto the faces of young African American men has been a contributing factor to abnormally high rate of arrest and imprisonment of African American youth. And perhaps even more corrosive are the residual complications from the internalization of that image withn those young people. Regardless of its value as a shorthand to sort groups or entertain, it’s both dehumanizing and inaccurate. A believed stereotype feeds in the invisible realms of ignorance and insecurity until it’s strong enough to force its way into the physical world.

 

 

It has been part of my good fortune to have taught English in an alternative school (State mandated alternative to expulsion) in Galveston, TX in the late 1990’s, in the midst of a gang war fought in two square miles. Students were quite kind to me in spite of the fact that I’m obviously obsessive, long-winded and dry. It was a small population, we enjoyed lunch together, students brought what effort they had to class and we enjoyed the work, projects and growth. We all made the school a safe place. Still they were routinely tried as adults,  rousted by police, beaten going home across the crazy quilt of gang sets and territories and in one year particularly horrific school term they murdered four of their classmates. All this was described as the price of “being too deep in the game”. They taught me how to read gang signs, tags and the alternative street map of G-town. They were victims, but not innocent. In writing they often perseverated on 2Pac’s death the same as other generations collectively mourned the loss of their idols with that mixture of shared fantasy and sudden vulnerability. Although violence and shootings were nearly commonplace in their neighborhoods, the death of a media deity meant something more to them. He was a stereotype they believed; he was “real”. The intensity of the internal beliefs they attached to this shadow figure I only guessed by topic frequency and their willingness to revise.  Mr. Shakur was shot in Las Vegas following a Mike Tyson fight. (Mr. Tyson was another human being who had to grow up and live inside the “Crown” stereotype). Also wounded in the shootout was “Suge” Knight the CEO of Death Row Records, the recording label of Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and 2Pac. Mr. Shakur, like Mr. Broadus and Mr. Tyson made substantial sums of money allowing themselves to be manipulated as stereotypical African American thugs. Like the seventy year old image of Crown they were portrayed as powerful, violent, criminally out of control and lacking interiority. They were paid to carry racial fears and prejudice into public arenas of resolution.

 

 

 

The life of a psychopomp brings visions that few other humans have to experience: the daily realities of their business are exaggerated illusions. We ask pop artists to act out our stereotypes without disturbing our sense of personal responsibility. As the media world has evolved since the Jazz Age the demands of creation, performance and marketing have both increased the sizes of audiences and the nuances of intimate manipulation. As an industry, music finds continually newer, more malleable replacements. Each artist struggles to both create and emotionally survive in a cynical industry. Not infrequently they disguise themselves; they wear masks, it is an act fundamental to performance. The danger comes as my Jungian friend pointed out in underestimating the power of shadows and types like Crown. Even though the song was a faded echo of “Summertime”, barely recognizable, the images it invoked were still potent enough to take the life of Mr. Nowell.

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Sublime (altered)

Sublime (altered)

A Jungian analyst friend warned me more than once about underestimating the danger of shadows and types. There is a specific version of stereotype involved in the invention and production of “Porgy and Bess” that was problematic at the time, and continues to be a complicated projection, the monstrous attraction of the “Negro Savage” or “bully”. The plot of “Porgy and Bess” begins with a murderous fight following a dice game between the bully, Crown, and a Catfish Row local, Robbins. It is a conflict that alludes to the legendary battle between Stagger Lee and Billy Lyon. In his folklore studies DuBose Heyward would have heard versions of the tale and adapted it in part to “Porgy and Bess”. According to St. Louis Globe that particular barroom brawl between Mr. Lee Shelton and Mr. Billy Lyons took place on Christmas Night, 1895 at Tom Turpin’s Rose Bud Saloon.

Lee Shelton, reinvented as Stack-o-Lee has been by versions been a levee worker, a bully, a “maquereau”, a brute, but always a he possesses a .44 and a Stetson hat. Billy Lyons is variously an affable pimp, a dice cheat, a family man, who always fatally underestimates the savagery of his opponent. By the 1920s the story of their brawl was known in African American communities all over the Mississippi River and Delta, and east to the Carolinas and Atlantic. Currently as a song “Stagger Lee” has nearly 500 recorded versions (not counting YouTube). Older versions of “Stagger Lee” took the forms of field hollers, ballads, blues, jazz, coon hollers (song sung by whites in blackface), and commonly toasts. Toasts were traditionally male rhyming conversations generally boastful, insulting, scatological, and competitive, commonly their topics involved sex, drinking and fighting. The genesis and the popularity of this murder ballad remain a Jungian shadow singing about masculinity and its shadow fears. Similar shadow songs still flourish today in forms including corridos, country, rock, folk ballads, blues, and most recently rap.

These mythic caricatures engage the singer/song/listener in an iconic relationship formalized to exert some cultural control over dangerous disenfranchised males. They have existed in the Western musical tradition of romanticizing murder, adultery and theft that dates since beyond the chansons of minstrels of the Middle Ages. Their character is essentially rebellious, sexy and willing to operate outside of legal and moral arenas regardless of restrictions of culture, poverty and race. By depicting transgressive figures with formal attention they are subsequently subject to manipulation within the parameters of those forms, i.e., detail, context, and consequence. They can be exaggerated, situationally interpreted and punished. There are traditional examples of songs enduring as poetry, “Don Juan”, “Beowulf”, the “Nibelung Saga”, or even tales of the rounder Odysseus. But by and large they are sung songs existing in the mouths of the singer and the air that holds them. As imagery their popularity depends on predicating events, personal needs and cultural situations, but always they contain an underlying cautionary tone.

I grew up in a small city once called “Murdertown, USA”. It was also home to all the Italian gangster stereotypes epitomized in films like “The Godfather” or “Goodfellas”, sharkskin suits, gambling, flamboyant floral displays at funerals, smoky backroom offices above bars, and a cohort of bookies and prison hardened men with names like “Louis Bad Eye” and “Cadillac Charlie”. The criminals in my hometown were real, people were killed, and violence was part of the day to day relations with gangsters. They did as they pleased with relative impunity and regarded legality as an interference to business, but little more. We learned to recognize their cars, homes, tables at restaurants and lounges, and accepted criminality as commonplace and endemic. They were corrupting and ruinous, but I also developed a subconscious personal utility for these criminals. My genetic bond to the power of their criminality brought me a certain level of cultural respect, or at least prevented open disrespect.

Italians, as well as other ethnic groups, had been victims of discrimination since their arrival in America. There was a language of epithets, jokes, caricatures and a full history of media exaggerations. Since the Depression there had been a steady supply of gangster stories that were staples in the film and media industries. On the other hand, briefly consider “Chico” Marx, of the Marx Brothers. His movie dialog was a conglomeration of dialect jokes, he carried around salamis, was constantly larcenous, and clownishly dressed. Leonard Marx developed that character and employed it on stage and screen to international popularity and fortune. Although I still maintain affection for Marx Brothers films, “Chico” remains an embarrassing depiction created at the expense of my grandfather’s generation. In my youth I learned to endure similar “dago” jokes as one more indignity in the dominant culture’s imaginary rite of assimilation. At least in daydreams mobsters were something like shadow heroes for the more primal energies that I was forced to either deny or repress. Even if I didn’t want to wear suede and knit cardigans, or cream loafers I shared some pride in their refusal to obey, in their capacity to thrive as outliers. The same distortions that bound me to Chico Marx’s family, also bound me to the brutal Trafficante Family. So it has been with Stagger Lee, Crown and the gangster rap stars who continue that tradition.

In his essay “The American Negro in Art” DuBose Heyward describes the genesis of the character Porgy as a newspaper article describing the arrest of Samuel Smalls, a Charleston beggar arrested for aggravated assault. It was his second arrest for shooting someone. Although Porgy is the nominal hero of the opera, he arrives in a goat drawn wagon congenitally injured. He represents what is dependent, abused and tamed. In Porgy Heyward describes him “with totally inadequate nether extremities” and”black with the almost purple blackness of unadulterated Congo blood.” He possesses “like a stagnant pool of flame… an atavistic calm. And would doze lightly under the terrific heat, as only a full blooded Negro can.” His pleasure comes from listening in the late afternoon to the piano playing of a white woman in a white-clad gown as her music drifts down from a second story window. His single vice is gambling. Heyward could have been describing a neutered tomcat.

Crown, by contrast, is described during the fight following a dice game “Miraculously the tawny, rigid bodies tore through the thin coverings. Bronze ropes and bars slid and wove over great shoulders. Bright, ruddy planes leaped out on backs in the fire flare, then were gulped by sliding shadows. A heady, bestial stench absorbed all other odors.” Moments later as Crown kills Robbins after holding him with “one mighty arm” then “…he dropped his victim, and swaggered drunkenly toward the street.” Crown is a dimensionless stereotype of the savage “buck”, preternaturally strong, ignorant and instinctively impulsive. Like a lower evolution of Caliban he proudly battles God and both the natural and human worlds.

Later Porgy kills Crown with the “prodigious strength he has gathered from being a beggar”, yet he becomes disconsolate and even more subservient. His inability to negotiate a path outside of the law costs him the titular relationship with Bess. By contrast Crown lives and acts in a transgressive world. He abuses Bess to his own ends. He’s free, empowered and untroubled by conscience or consequence. DuBose Heyward set those social-psychological forces in motion in both the novel and libretto. He had a rich subconscious bank to draw upon to set up that dynamic.

The Heyward family descended from one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence; they were slave owners who in a few generations of landed aristocracy had fallen to ‘decay’. He was a writer who earned his living in insurance. DuBose Heyward had a lifelong affection for African American music, language and the life he observed in Charleston and the Gullah communities. Like any artist he was an alien intimate in both the worlds he observed and created. He had also endured bouts of polio and debilitating illness. Regardless of the exaggeration in the depictions of his male characters, he was capable of interacting with manifestations as if they were genuine emotion and part of a common reality. Like other white artists during the period Langston Hughes referred to as “…when the Negro was in vogue” Mr. Heywood, Eugene O’Neil, or Vachel Lindsay successfully wrote to the market for racial stereotypes, but perhaps with less malicious “racist” intent than some. Their work would have been shelved and reviewed alongside Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jean Toomer’s Cane , or James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones.

Shadow types like Crown and Stagger Lee, continue to give rise to hundreds of rap figures characterized by street names like Master, Ice, Big, Boyz, Gangsta, Young, Lil’, who understand the attraction of the appearance of criminality. They utilize AKAs as DBAs to allow their artistry to try wearing Stagger Lee’s infamous $5 Stetson Hat. A rap persona who could be easily cast in “Porgy and Bess” with minimal transformation, might be the persona created by Calvin Broadus, “Snoop Dogg”. In a YouTube selection he’s mixed into “Summertime/Doin’ Time” recorded by the ska, punk, hip hop, party band, Sublime. [http://youtu.be/qrRQ3Yf_40s ]