Her celebrity notwithstanding, I can't say I was happy to see the Blessed Mother take time off from her constant schedule of personal appearances in Old Catholic regions around the world?an unstinting service to humanity for which she's treated to the worst calumny from godless blackguards of the Christopher Hitchens stripe?to appear on NBC in that awful sweeps-week special Mary, Mother of Jesus two Sundays ago. It really was a terrible show, no better than one of those old-fashioned Sunday morning cable tv Christian dramatizations where everyone looks like they stepped?woodenly?off a Christmas card. The guys in bad beards and rag-hats, the women dressed like holy card figures or nuns,
the Roman soldiers playing ancient Nazis in their natty leather uniforms, knocking peasants over with their horses and growling things like, "Out of my way, Jew!" and all the named biblical characters yea-verilying lines like "Thy will be done" and "This is blasphemy!" and "Take it to the wine steward" in the inevitable British accents. The one outstanding production value was a Herod who bizarrely resembled Christopher Hitchens.
I was looking to see how they were going to handle tricky doctrinal points like the virgin birth, or dramatic highpoints like the crucifixion, but I have to admit I missed both. By the second commercial break I could only bring myself to watch Mary in short bursts during commercial breaks in The X-Files. I haven't kept up much with that show the last couple of seasons and this episode reminded me why. It was only marginally less sluggishly paced than Mary, and maybe a bit less mawkish, and just as heavy with the quasi-religious symbolism. Switching back and forth between them made for an interesting Situationist sandwich?The X-Files and The Xt-Files. There was Scully, still playing the stalwart like-a-virgin "best friend" (Would you two just fucking fuck and get it over with? Or did that happen while I was away?), clicking around on those stout little heels like a plump little mother partridge worried over one of her chicks. And they had Mulder being an overtly Christlike figure, sacrificing himself for all mankind (or maybe it was for all aliens I got confused switching back and forth); he played most of the hour strapped down to what was in effect a horizontal crucifix with an electronic crown of thorns on his head. Jesus Christ! (I mean that literally.)
Adding another strange layer of myth, the actress playing the mature Mary in Mary was Pernilla August, most recently seen (not by me, I'm not into it) as the sainted mother of Anakin Skywalker in the equally heavily-quasi-biblical The Phantom Menace. I read one tv critic who wondered what's up for the spring sweeps, a real-tv docudrama When Apostles Attack?
It struck me as very curious that this Mother O' God show turned up so soon after that two-part War O' the Leprechauns miniseries. Are Irish Catholics taking television culture away from the Jews? The executive producers of Mary were Eunice Kennedy Shriver, JFK's sister, and her son Bobby Shriver. What's up with the Kennedys producing a Jesus and Mary tv special? Could it get any more coals-to-Newcastle? Catholics the world over have been conflating JFK and Jesus for 40 years, now the Kennedy clan cashes in.
Leprechauns, the Virgin Mary: It's like tv culture is setting the wayback machine for 1956. Hail Mary, full of Lucky Charms. Is this boomer nostalgia rearing its ugly head in yet another context?
I understand: It's the end of 1999, nostalgia is in. The media is thick with the past. Personally, I'm over it. How about a little less anxiety and a bit more anticipation?
But no. There's the cover of the latest Talk looking so resolutely anachronistic?everyone accuses Tina of being "so 80s," but Talk is really 70s; this cover looks like set dressing for an episode of Mork & Mindy.
There's the December Vanity Fair (in which Graydon Carter muses about "young, nouveau lounge nuts today"?way to keep up, G), which comes with a Tommy Hilfiger advertorial insert called Icons of Rock: Fifty Years of Rock 'N' Roll. There's no nostalgia worse than rock nostalgia. This thing manages in very few words (by Lisa Robinson) and many shopworn images to convey every insipid, fatuous cliche ever about rock as "style" and "fashion," along with ads that suggest if you shop the right boutique for Tommy gear you can be a rock star, too. (Except for rock females who, the photos suggest, just like the like-a-virgin, seem to be preferred naked, even when they're Janis Joplin and Patti Smith.) The most glaring signal of its cluelessness is its promoting as the current "rock icon" Mr. Lenny Kravitz, possibly the lamest-ass man in rock 'n' roll today and positively the least funky Black Jew in all creation. (As a Jewish pal of mine says, Kravitz seems to have inherited the wrong half of both sides.)
Hilfiger is also the major sponsor of an exhibit opening Dec. 9 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art called "Rock Style," featuring costumes worn by Jagger, Jimi, blah blah blah. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Is rock dead? Is the Met its mausoleum?
Plenty of rock nostalgia over at GQ as well. The November issue included not one but two examples. There was Terrence Rafferty's valentine to the Ramones, a sweet and well-intentioned defense of the band as the ultimate heroes for losers, but, um, why now? The other was Adam Sachs' report from Jim Morrison's graveside in Paris, with the funny hed "Mr. Mojo: Risin'?" The portrait it painted of Ray Manzarek as the all-time rock loser was wicked fun, but again: Why now? Because the kind of guy Vanity Fair and GQ are marketed at can't get enough rock nostalgia, doh.
Got a press release last week that Sting is allowing one of his guitars to be auctioned off for some good cause or other. Save the seals, save the rain forest, something. What a great gesture. What a Mulder-like sacrifice for humanity. Sting could buy the rainforest with his personal take from his current tour and put a big chainlink fence around it if he really wanted to save it. I'm forwarding that press release to Queen Bee Janine, who puts out the humorous anti-Sting zine Temple of Sting, which specializes in taking the piss out of his pomposity. (POB 441875, Somerville MA 02144.)
Speaking of good-deeders, we ran a "fuck you very much" letter from Punk Planet's Dan Sinker a few weeks ago; as honcho of the punk left's leading organ, he took it personally when I poked fun at a Johnny Temple article in The Nation. A week later, I got a comp of the latest (Nov./Dec.) issue of Punk Planet; I guess they think I can be reeducated. Thanks, guys. Some interesting interviews; I especially liked the one with Vampiro, a punk-rock wrestler in Mexico. Also interesting is the piece in which Punk Planet discovers there's lots of DIY porn on the Web?interesting to me because I'm the one who originally edited the article, by Annalee Newitz, when it first appeared in NYPress in August of 1998. So I guess I'm not a total counterrevolutionary. Sinker's own big article in this issue discovers that the Vans Warped Tour is?ready, punklets??as much about the marketing and merchandising as about the music. "[I]t's not all fun and games at the Vans Warped Tour," Dan solemnly informs us, "it's big business too."
Dan? It's called the Vans Warped Tour. (POB 464, Chicago IL 60690.)
For proselytizing in rock and pretending it's the 60s, Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha is in a class by himself, uttering the most pure wave-the-red-diaper polemic since the heyday of Billy Bragg. I loved that bit in Rolling Stone 825 (Nov. 11), in "Random Notes," about how he bravely went onstage at Roseland even though he had a bum tummy:
"I was lying in bed two hours before the show," he said. "I had some kind of stomach flu. I was about to lose it up there. But you know, nothing can kick you out of a deep flu better than seeing Public Enemy elevate some minds and tear the roof off a place. And when you think about people in Chiapas, Mexico, sick to their stomachs and still getting up and fighting every day, the least I could do is give some of that energy back. So it was nothing."
Personally, I hope Zack is serious. if not, it's the most cynical usurpation of youthful rebellion since Mick "Gentlemen, You All Work For Me" Jagger sang "Street Fighting Man." You do have to wonder what sort of play Rolling Stone, or any other mainstream magazine, would give Zack's rhetoric if the band were named, say, Rage Against ZOG, and instead of Chiapas he'd referenced the freedom fighters of Montana who've given their lives to keep the white man's homeland free of mongrel foreign Marxist Asiatic infiltrators.
Just asking, G.
In the November Harper's David Samuels, writing about Woodstock '99, noted of Rage's performance: "The cultural contradictions involved in playing agitprop to a $150-a-ticket crowd are evident from the band's first song, 'No Shelter,' a Marcusian anthem and also the band's contribution to the soundtrack for the movie Godzilla. It is at once an angry grad-student rant, denouncing the cultural myth that 'buyin' is rebellin',' and also proof of the near-infinite capacity of that culture to absorb any criticism as long as it features kick-ass guitars."
Indeed, in that Rolling Stone 825 Neil Strauss was reviewing Rage's The Battle of Los Angeles, noting that "you don't have to understand everything on de la Rocha's cut-and-paste laundry list of political wrongdoing; just feel the crunch of the rhythm section, heed the machine-gun guitar attack, and catch a couple of random phrases?'I'm empty, please fill me... killing... I need you... now testify'?and the song works, whether it's about the news or the nooky."
Over at the Voice, Eric Weisbard disagreed. Strenuously. For him, the rhetoric is crucial to Rage's appeal. It inspired the poor shmoo in the Nov. 16 Voice to make a laughingstock of himself again, rhapsodizing about how listening to Rage while "on the treadmill at the gym... Kicked my flagging flab forward... Revolutionary rockers with strong beats are a perfect way to motivate yourself to run in place," he observed, pun evidently unintended. Rage "are activists," he affirmed, no doubt lifting one flabby fist from the treadmill guardrail to pump the air. "They make me feel like each step I'm taking is a blow in somebody's face and scowl at the walls of my corner of the gym like a political prisoner steeling myself for years of captivity."
To date, I'm not aware of Weisbard's having disavowed this howler, so I'm presuming it was not parody. (Note that that was the Mumia-on-the-cross issue of the Voice. A horizontal cross?exactly like Mulder's! Layer upon layer!)
Los Angeles was the top pick in the music section at kozmo.com that same week. The blurb weirdly declared, Look out local government! Zack De La Rocha and the crew bash out more of their politically charged hip-hop rock.
Yes, the revolution will not be televised, but it is on sale at kozmo.com and will be delivered to your door within the hour.
Maybe it really has come to the point where people who think they're being progressive are most often exercising what might best be called a kind of revolutionary nostalgia?a nostalgia for the romance of the revolutionary gesture, which in the end is the most decadent and counterrevolutionary impulse you could follow. Maybe it really has come to the point where even people who think they're thinking about the future are really thinking about the past.
I refer you lastly to Artbyte, a compugeeky little "Magazine of Digital Culture"?right there, a trope of, at best, a 1995 vintage, though Artbyte's only in its second year. Although it clearly thinks of itself as all futuristic and computer-age, the whole thing reads curiously behind the curve, all Wired and William Gibson and very early 90s. In the Nov.-Dec. issue, in the section on new products, there's a full page on a robot dog toy I saw demonstrated on The Today Show months ago. There's a Top 10 list by DJ Spooky, lending some sort of street nerd cred?only it's a Top 11 list, cuz Spooky's so, like, over the top I guess.
There's digi-doggerel from the awful Erik Davis that begins: "When you attempt to divine the road ahead?perhaps by gazing at that liquid crystal ball glimmering on your desktop?you may find that all the funhouse futures that reflect back to you possess the undeniable warp of science fiction... Personally, this future shock hits me like cartoon vertigo. There I am, minding my own business, consuming newsfeeds..." Oy.
Artbyte is like a glossy trustafarian nephew of the Times' "Circuits," only not even as with-it. My favorite example of how innocently flatfooted and old-fashioned it reads: "It doesn't take the gift of prophecy or an astrological aptitude to guess that progress in the next century will be dominated by computer technology."
No, it certainly doesn't.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the future?especially in the future?amen.