From Jigsaw 8: Improvisation and the New American Century
Just as Operation Iraqi Freedom was starting, the NYC club Tonic was hosting a festival of Swiss improvising musicians. Four of the musicians cancelled—one because she was just scared to travel in wartime, the others to boycott the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The festival’s organizer rolled his eyes when I told him about one of the musicians canceling, and said, “You know, he’s probably sitting around in his Levis watching Amercian sitcoms, but he’s boycotting the U.S.?” A week or so later, I was reading the April issue of the WIRE and came across an article on the pianist John Tilbury, who is an improvisor and also an accomplished performer of contemporary classical music. The first few paragraphs were devoted to a distillation of a statement he made after refusing an invitation to tour the U.S. when Bush was still urging war but hadn’t quite declared it (he was supposed to play a different festival at Tonic, actually, and I later remembered the person who organized that festival had told me he’d had a long discussion with Tilbury where he attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade him to come). I recently read Tilbury’s unedited statement online (http://incalcando.com/tilbury/). He said performing concerts for U.S. audiences would be “providing them with an alibi, a temporary escape, a haven, from the harsh realities of the consequences of the ideology in which they are subsumed.” He compared concertizing in the U.S. now to orchestras performing Beethoven for the Third Reich during WW2. Well, he supposed to come and improvise, which (theoretically) would engage an audience’s intellect, instead of lulling them into complacent reverie by playing the classics. It’s very doubtful to me that the audience at a John Tilbury concert would be anything but largely anti-imperialist/anti-war, so they’re not subsumed in the government’s ideology beyond simply taking up residence here--and to assume they would be is just as bad as thinking the Iraqis were subsumed in Saddam’s ideology. But maybe Tilbury is conscious of this and feels his liberal audience should be out protesting instead of sitting around at Tonic listening to music. He doesn’t explain it in his text and I don’t want to put words in his mouth.
If a bunch of pop stars decide they ain’t gonna play Sun City and put words to that effect in a song that gets played on every radio station in the country they’ll raise consciousness and have an economic effect (on Sun City, at least) by not performing. If John Tilbury doesn’t play Tonic, fifty people in New York City, who are most likely already politically conscious, are disappointed. Youssou N’Dour also cancelled his tour in protest of the war. He plays larger venues than Tilbury, so this is a more significant statement. But in a way he’s playing into the hands of the right wing. Keeping Americans in the dark about what the rest of the world is like makes their job easier—it makes keeping people of afraid of the outside world that much easier. By importing culture from other countries it makes it harder to consider them enemies (just think how different history might have been if we’d had Vietnamese restuarants in major cities in the 50s or if the great wave of Iranian cinema happened in the early 70s instead of the 90s). This was one of Tilbury’s other complaints—that “people in the US have been kept in abject ignorance in relation to the world at large.” But then he goes on to say that he always feels uncomfortable here and is terribly relieved to scurry back home to Blighty as soon as possible to escape “a predatory, aggressive, individualistic, dominant culture whose avowed aim is to impose itself, through threat of annihilation, on the rest of the world.” Over twenty years ago I read an interview with the Clash where they explained that their song “I’m So Bored with the USA” was about being fed up with the amount of US culture that was starting to infiltrate Europe, which is obviously even more relevant now than ever. But that disgust didn’t stop them from touring here and spreading that message. Hearing that song, and reading that interview, is probably how I became conscious of the increasing Americanization of Europe, since I’d never been to Europe at that time. The Clash were always mocked for their politics, and topicality may not always make for the best music, but this shows that music can potentially be a far better source of information than the TV news or most newspapers.
Cultural exchange is an important contribution to world peace. I can understand these musicians wanting to hurt the US economy by not coming here and changing money to US dollars and spending it—that’s a valid protest (and I know at least one NY resident who avoided spending any cash money back in March). Still, the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. immigration have been making it harder and harder for any kind of foreign artist to perform here for the very reason I discussed earlier—promoting American xenophobia. For a foreign musician to come at all makes more of a statement than not coming, and it’s an insult to people like the brilliant Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, who was denied visa access for last year’s New York Film Festival, for those that can get through immigration to throw the opportunity away. Wonder why the U.S. did nothing while the looters destroyed priceless artifacts in Iraq’s museums? Just imagine if a traveling exhibition of ancient Iraqi art had been organized last summer, if metropolitan voters and taxpayers had access to that—I wonder if an anti Iraqi war movement would have started a lot sooner. This also parallels the Christian missionary practice of wiping out indigenous cultural heritage after converting them to the gospel (e.g. Mayan, Aztec, or Native American culture), but the U.S. just let the Iraqis destroy their own culture—just as we’re supposed to be letting them set up their own government.
In late March I went to Europe to do concerts in Bologna, Venice, Paris, and Berlin with Text of Light, a project in which Lee Ranaldo, DJ Olive, Ulrich Krieger, Tim Barnes and myself improvise as films by Stan Brakhage screen behind us. Some of us were concerned before leaving New York that we would meet hostility there as Americans, given the German & French opposition to the war. In speaking with people when we got there, it was clear that Bush was the object of scorn, not America or Americans. To be sure, Europeans have not given up on the U.S. The French are laughing at us, not hating us, for “Freedom Fries” and all that nonsense, just as they were laughing at us when we tried to impeach President Clinton for having a mistress. In Berlin there were huge, mass produced posters all over the city that read “FUCK WAR.” In Italy, banners that read “Pace” (“Peace”) hung from every window. But in America you just saw an American flag in every window or on every door. The “we’re number one” statement that makes has become an increasingly desperate but understandable one since 9/11, but I think it worked against a climate to speak out against the war in this country. Part of the psychological imperative of the Iraq war is that America still feels victimized by 9/11. Bush must hear his father’s words “I am not a wimp” ringing in his ears; a little shock and awe builds confidence, you know. It was great to get a perspective on the war from outside the US, and also to find out first hand how America and its government are perceived abroad rather than taking the media’s reportage at face value.
“I watch [Iggy Pop’s] feet, I watch his hands, I watch every spin and jump he lets fly - I feel like one of the kids in the crowd, watching the gig but I also get to play along somehow, it's wild.”
--Mike Watt on playing bass in the Stooges at the Coachella Festival, California, April 27, 2003
One of the great things about performing improvisational music concerts is that you are both an audience member and performer. As you’re playing, you’re also listening to what the people you’re playing with are doing, and reacting to it. And you’re hearing this spontaneous music for the first time, just as the audience is, not presenting pieces of music you’ve carefully prepared. There’s a lack of manipulation of the audience that goes with this—you haven’t determined a specific journey to take them on, whatever happens happens. And whatever happens you experience together, hopefully. You’re not controlling them; it’s a mutual thing.
It’s too bad after 9/11 the US government didn’t take a similar tack. Everyone was united in their shock at what happened and the uncharted territory of trying to deal with the aftermath—no one knew what would happen, but we knew we’d experience it together. And the rest of the world was aligned with us. But imagine an improv concert where suddenly the musicians decided to just play “Louie Louie” and “Johnny B. Good”—the old favorites. That’s what happened with our government. It took the tragedy as a green light to go back to Cold War tactics of keeping the populace in fear round the clock. The Cold War against Communism became the War on Terrorism. Similarly, the witch hunt hysterics of McCarthyism have been revived in the Patriot Acts 1 & 2, not to mention the Pentagon’s wish for an Big Brother-esque database which would give them access to every transaction imaginable (email, bank account, phone, you name it) and even file our walk for identification purposes—all to root out “terrorists” the same way McCarthy was rooting out “communists.” Part of the coldness of the Cold War was the idea that it can’t happen here—the threat was there, but a distance still existed. With the War on Terrorism, it’s already happened here, and it’s a moving target, so it’s a war without end. For the hawks/warmongers among our politicians, this is an ironclad state of affairs. But I think even during the Clinton administration, terrorism was looked at as the logical successor to the Cold War. The Oklahoma City bombing indicated that there was an enemy within—look at movie titles of the time like “Sleeping with the Enemy” or “The Stranger Beside Me.” Think about “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” or “Single White Female.” Terrorism begins at home.
9/11 also proved decisive for a right wing think tank called the PNAC (Project for the New American Century, www.newamericancentury.org, also check www.pnac.org, a watchdog website). Including Bush Sr. & Jr. cabinet members like Dick Cheney and Donald “Rummy” Rumsfeld, who sat on the boards of transnational corporations while they also performed public service, Jeb Bush, and Paul Wolfowitz, the PNAC called for regime change in Iraq from the early 90s on. Never mind that US forces sat on their hands while rebellions they intended to foster against Saddam by liberating Kuwait were squashed by the Hussein regime. This was a right-wing extremist New Age philosophy which mandated that the America which came into its own as a world superpower in the 20th century must safeguard its power as an empire in the 21st. It must rule the world. Having a lock on the Middle East and specifically its oil reserves is a key to this. Iraq was the most troublesome country in this region in this respect, and was already battered by the Gulf War and subsequent U.N. sanctions—it would seem to be the logical choice as a place to start. They petitioned President Clinton for regime change in Iraq, who dismissed it as nonsense (and remember, before 9/11 Bush was too busy playing golf to worry about foreign policy). Besides, when the Cold War ended, the American people went on a vacation from fear. They were excited about the internet and a new economy—the biggest economic expansion since the early 60’s, in fact. Why bother with a war? With more money to spend, people had more room to experiment, broaden their horizons, try new things. Multiculturalism flourished then. People developed an interest in frivolous things like, well, free improvisation or free jazz. When you feel secure, when you don’t have to worry about survival, you have time to stop and smell the roses.
The Republicans didn’t like any of that. They only understand progess in terms of economic and military expansion, not in terms of cultural enrichment, social services (standardized national health care, for instance) or intellectual, emotional or moral enlightenment. Clinton wasn’t interested in conquering the world, so he was of no use to them. That’s why they tried to get him out of office every chance they could. Hillary Clinton was laughed at when she told an interviewer that the whole Whitewater/Monica Lewinsky trials were the product of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” but who’s laughing now? The election of Bush in 2000 was a bad sign. Forget about Florida, why was the election as close as it was? Bush Sr. got elected on Reagan’s coattails, and as the incumbent in a peaceful time with the economy still in full stride Gore should have done the same with Clinton. Sure, Bush was more charming than the fatally pedantic Gore but always seemed like a throwback to the Reagan/Bush era, and was a rich kid to boot, which meant that he never had the chance to develop a moral outlook—he got into everything from Yale to business to the governorship of Texas to the White House through family connections and out of military service and a few scrapes with the law through them too. In England the prince simply ascends to the throne when the parent dies. In America that’s too simple—you’re only on the throne for 8 years max. In this case, the parent wasn’t re-elected, but he staffed the Supreme Court with partisan justices to make sure his son would eventually ascend to the throne. As the war began, I saw several editorials about how Bush had “squandered” the world’s good will towards the U.S. after 9/11 by ignoring the Unand worldwide protests and invading Iraq; now the editorials say the US had “squandered” the Iraqis good will towards it after its “liberation,” by failing to set up proper security and letting lawlessness go unchecked. Who else but a spoiled brat would squander such things?
The TV show “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” was popular around election time too. It wasn’t enough that people were in the midst of historically long economic expansion, they got greedy and wanted more. America itself was becoming spoiled, and George Bush is simply an embodiment of that. At the same time, America’s Puritanical heritage was tugging at the national psyche, laying a guilt trip on it about having too much money. Electing George Bush eased the paradox. America would safeguard the riches acquired in the 90s by electing a president who would run the country like a corporation, not a mass community. America would lose confidence in its finances by electing a president who was inarticulate, a former alcoholic, and had rarely been outside of the U.S.; in short, someone who couldn’t really be trusted to run the government or command the armed forces. If you can’t trust the leader, you can’t be confident consumer, right? So the economy suffers and goes into recession—boom, you don’t have more money than you know what to do with anymore (but the corporations still do). In 1968, Richard Nixon, a proven loser, was elected for the same reason—to end an equally long economic expansion (started in the administration of another womanizing Democrat President). There’s a Christian element here of Saturday night, Sunday morning too—at some point Americans decide it’s time to end their “big night out” of prosperity, and atone for their sins through recession. The supposed “pendulum swing” between conservative and liberal national “moods” is also patterned from this. Of course, Bush is a born again Christian, which puts him directly in touch with these national neuroses. Clinton was a practicing hedonist; Bush is a reformed alcoholic and drug user—in other words, Clinton was Saturday night, and Bush is Sunday morning. The other popular show back then was “Survivor” in which a bunch of people start on an island and then its survival of the fittest, with one person voted off the island per week until there’s only one left. People must have sensed they wanted a leader who would be the survivor. Bob Woodward has quoted George Bush telling his advisers that in the War on Terror “at some point, we may be the only ones left. That’s ok with me. We are America.” By alienating most of our allies in Europe and bullying the U.N., Bush is playing the game of Survivor to win.
Corporate culture plays an increasing role here. As noted above, Bush himself and his cabinet have many personal corporate ties. The U.N. was discarded because the Bush administration sees the world as a series of transnational corporations, not a series of nationalities. So who needs the U.N.? It’s the corporations who are running the show. America used to be called the great melting pot, now its government sees the world as a kind of corporate melting pot. Operation Iraqi Freedom wasn’t even a war, it was what’s called a “hostile takeover” in the business world, at least as far as our government is concerned. That’s why there was a shortage of foot soldiers during the war (and after)—this was supposed to be a quick, smooth transaction (air campaign as paperless office), you don’t need a bunch of underlings running around to make coffee or photocopies. Corporate culture was also having major PR worries last year with the Enron scandal. Christianity was beleagured with the priest molestation scandals. Since corporate culture and religion are Bush’s life’s blood, he recognized that they needed a diversion—another reason to start an un-losable war. When Bush talks about spreading freedom throughout the world, it smacks of both corporate globalization (as if “American Democracy” was a brand/product that he wants marketed in every country, like McDonalds) and missionary aims (the my-way-or-the-highway method by which Christianity was popularized). I don’t remember it sounding that way from the mouth of any other President. Reagan and Bush Sr. were reactionary, but they looked back nostalgically to the “family values” and jingoism of the 40s and 50s. Dubya looks way, way back to the British Empire we seceded from 225 years ago, making America the equivalent of political revolutionary leaders who promise change and end up becoming totalitarian despots. Or: U.S.A.=Animal Farm?
II “The fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves”
“What strikes me about pop criticism of late - and this afflicts the broadsheets as well - is the tyranny of received opinion. I have yet to meet anyone, obsessive fan or otherwise, who thinks the last two Nick Cave albums come close to 1997's The Boatman's Call in terms of emotional depth and songwriting skill, but both releases were greeted with an across-the-board acclaim that bordered on instilled reverence, and an attendant lack of critical rigour…What gives here? Maybe writers are too hidebound by the notion of providing their readers with glorified consumer guides rather informed criticism.”—Sean O’Hagan, “Can’t I trust anyone these days to tell me if a record is any good?” the London Observer, March 30, 2003
Jonathan Rosenbaum launches a similar complaint against his fellow film critics in his excellent book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We See (Acapella Books, 2000). He exemplifies the problems with current film criticism with the now-retired NY Times critic Janet Maslin, who wrote based on audience expectations rather than her own opinions (and references a critique by Sarah Kerr in Slate titled “Janet Maslin: Why Can’t the New York Times Movie Critic Tell Us What She Thinks”—compare with O’Hagan’s title). I remember her review of The Cable Guy, which she panned because fans of the lovable Jim Carrey would be disappointed by his memorably dark characterization in the film. Nice market research there, Janet, but was it a good movie? She’s providing a glorified consumer guide/career advice rather than informed criticism. One of the more galling aspects of the slide into war was Congress’ silence as Bush steamrolled over the U.N. and into Iraq (save for Senators Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd--who’s also a violinist). Talk about a tyranny of received opinion! Congress abdicated its responsibilty for informed criticism of the President’s doings when it gave him a blank check to go to war after 9/11. That responsibility, in the form of legislation, is what we elect our representatives for, and they’re not doing their job. Is it because they’re afraid of looking unpatriotic? As actor Tim Robbins has noted, nobody was ever called unpatriotic for criticizing President Clinton. Congress now simply represents corporate interests that pay them a lot more than our taxes do. The Democrats have acquiesced to the Republicans’ majority rule.
With corporate influence so heavy in both the government and the media, there’s little room for dissension. The media has also increasingly served as a house organ for the Republican party line, and it’s a natural partnership. Keeping the public in fear sells newspapers and keeps more households tuned in to CNN all day long—it’s as useful to the media as it is to the government. And the coverage was appalling. All the consulting work that Hollywood did for the Pentagon after 9/11 really paid off in making the war as photogenic as possible. I kept seeing shots on CNN of GIs silhouetted against magic hour skies straight out of Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven. But wait, here comes the money shot: the shock and awe bombing campaigns were beautifully art-directed—as the bombs fell, I can’t imagine someone somewhere in the military or the government not thinking, “This is gonna look great on camera.” Likewise, the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad was a great photo op almost ruined by the single Iraqi trying to take it down by himself with a hammer. Time is money, pal! Good thing someone directed that US tank to lend a helping hand. The over-eager production assistant/soldier who draped a US flag over the statue’s head necessitated a re-take, but so be it.
Rosenbaum also notes the paradoxical lack of true national cinemas anymore (“by national cinema, I mean a cinema that expresses something of the soul of the nation that it comes from: the lifestyle, the consciousness, the attitudes”). Because films, especially Hollywood films but also arthouse fare, are now meant to be exported to every country in the world, they actually tell us less about the country they were filmed in than they used to. He gives the example of Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together, a film about Hong Kong with an English title taken from an American pop song that’s set in Buenos Aires. Interestingly, when Rosenbaum encourages increased exposure to world cinema in the U.S. he writes “I even think that the common belief that Americans are xenophobic isolationists by nature is partly the self-serving invention of Hollywood publicists armed with millions of dollars who don’t want to clutter up their precious ad campaigns with thoughts of other tastes and cultures,” which echoes what I said earlier about the government’s seeming advocacy of xenophobia. But he goes on to note that “one thing that apparently differentiates this country from all others is that art is actively hated by a good many of its citizens.” He also argues that “American film” is a brand now, not an identity, and notes various foreign directors who have moved to Hollywood (Roman Polanski, Paul Verhoeven, John Woo, and Milos Forman) and have been making international movies, not national ones, ever since. He quotes Verhoeven as an example: “I felt that initially I wouldn’t know enough about American culture to make movies that accurately reflected American society…because I would not be aware of things such as expressions and social behavior. I felt I could make science fiction movies because I wouldn’t have to worry about breaking any rules of American society. Science fiction reflects those rules but does not represent them.” The point is that when Verhoeven made genre films in his native Holland they were still imbued with national culture; when he moved to the US he opted to use genre for its own sake rather than try to learn or interpret their adapted country’s culture (unlike Forman or Polanski, but perhaps like Woo).
“I want the full hyphen: folk-rock-country-jazz-classical, so finally when you get all the hyphens in, maybe they’ll drop them all, and get down to just American music.”—Joni Mitchell
“This movement [New Age] is doing is doing precisely what Christianism once did…the early Christians blended Judaism with the Isis-Osiris mysteries of Egypt with Roman law with Greek philosophy with the pagan shamanism of Europe, and included all in disguised form within the Church.”—Michael Ventura, “Predictions: The Next 200 Years”
So there is an unlikely and unspoken kinship between post-Beatles rock singer-songwriters, the early Christians, international cinema, and transnational corporations. Musicians like the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Frank Zappa and even the Clash (um, Sandinista) created music that borrows from all kinds of genres and cultures (but at least they didn’t have to kill anybody to do it); it’s telemusik (to borrow a term from Stockhausen), a result of the global village, but in a way they inadvertently made the world safe for globalization. They’ve all recorded for major labels, and not surprisingly, you can buy their music in any chain record store. I remember reading a review of Sandinista when it came out that said the Clash seemed to be saying “to hell with our style, there’s a whole world out there”, which actually dovetails with the demise of national cinemas discussed above. They started off writing songs about London, and wound up writing about Nicaragua and rocking the Casbah. As musicians in the post-Beatles world, we are also expected to be our own corporations. Before the 60’s you had a singer, an orchestra or band to back them up, songwriters to create the music, an A & R man to choose the music for the performer, a record company artist to create the front cover etc. After the Beatles, the artist is a one-stop: expected to write, sing and perform his or her own hit material, create and maintain their own image, and in the post-MTV era, be able to look good on camera and preferably dance. Michael Jackson is the ultimate example of this, a globally televised performer since childhood, a King of Pop as much as America is an empire (in the Hollywood film Three Kings, an Iraqi interrogator asks Gulf War P.O.W. Mark Wahlberg “What is the problem with Michael Jackson?” then answers his own question: “Michael Jackson is pop king of a sick fucking country”). Jackson is a virtual U.S. portrait of Dorian Gray; as America’s corporate culture grows uglier and uglier, and extends further and further into our government, schools, sporting events, museums and entertainment industries, his face becomes more and more freakish through plastic surgery, a symbol of corporatization out of control.
Finally, Norman Mailer has observed that “because democracy is noble, it is always endangered…the natural government for most people, given the uglier depths of human nature, is fascism. Fascism is more of a natural state.” One of the most shocking things to me about the aftermath of 9/11 was the number of left-leaning people I talked to who were willing to give up all kinds of hard-won civil liberties and rights to privacy so that the government could fight terrorism (no wonder the Patriot Act is sailing through Congress unchecked). Voluntarily relinquishing our freedoms to protect our “freedom” from outside attackers (xenophobia again) who need to be converted to the ways of “freedom” is absurd. That may be why the arts and political media, and Congress, are so uncritical these days—give the people what they want. Corporate culture, the FCC lifting the last restrictions on monopolies in media and entertainment (hello, Clear Channel), the centrism of the Republican and Democratic platforms in the election of 2000, the post-9/11 non-partisanship of Congress (wasn’t the Soviet Union a one-party system too?), the go-it-alone mentality of Operation Iraqi Freedom; they’re all about having NO CHOICE, and that’s fascism. If we accept the lazy (at best) or corrupt (at worst) compliance of our representatives, whether they’re monitoring national and international affairs or the film and music worlds; if the American people are too slack, self-interested, or ignorant to complain, then we deserve what we get. Remember, it wasn’t the government or the media that had a schoolteacher fired during the war for wearing a t-shirt with a peace sign on it (as reported by Tim Robbins), it was some asinine American citizen who, whatever his position on Iraq, doesn’t even understand that the intended outcome of any war is peace. Let’s throw all these bums out of office, from the plutocratic/oligarchic Bush administration, to the sleepwalking Congress that lets them run wild, to every film critic that pats Steven Spielberg or Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein on the back, to every rock critic that can’t tell a good Nick Cave album from a bad one.
“WE CREATED IT—LET’S TAKE IT OVER!” –Patti Smith, after finishing “My Generation”, live at the Cleveland Agora, 1976—America’s Bicentennial Year.
Alan Licht is the author of An Emotional Memoir of Martha Quinn (Drag City) and that a double CD A New York Minute will be released on XI this summer.Posted by Brian Stefans at July 14, 2003 11:16 AM | TrackBack