So a ‘cultural theorist’ walks into Trader Joe’s:
As I was standing in line, I heard the jaunty marimba of the Rolling Stones’ 1966 smash hit, “Under My Thumb.” We’ve all heard the song 1,000 times — it’s a very catchy tune, from a talented, superstar band. But it also features lyrics that are not exactly friendly toward women. As I listened, I thought about how the song plays in the wake of Elliot Rodger’s killing spree, fueled, as the killer explained in a lengthy manifesto, by his rage against women and desire to control them.
The author is a senior editor at Alternet — a site most famous for listicles about how the right-wing wants to starve your children — and holds a PhD from NYU in English and cultural studies.
One imagines a moment in this kind of doctoral program, somewhere near the end of your coursework, in which you’re brought into a room and given the OT III (you know, the level in Scientology where you find out about Xenu and the volcano) of cultural studies, the powerful hex-like phrase “in the wake of,” which is used twice in this piece to connect two totally unrelated events; an allegedly misogynistic song, and a spree killer with four male victims and two female ones.
What kinds of messages do we think are OK today in 2014? Why should I have to hear about a guy comparing his girlfriend to a dog while I’m buying vegetables?
I decided to ask Trader Joe’s this question. Just so they would know I wasn’t making things up, I printed out the lyrics to “Under My Thumb” and brought them into the store with me. I was directed to a young man named Kyle Morrison at the manager’s station, to whom I explained in friendly terms that I was a frequent shopper and that I had heard a song playing over the sound system which, in the wake of the Elliot Rodger killing spree, made me feel uncomfortable. I told him the name of the song, and offered him the paper with the lyrics.
The story is amusing on so many levels, from the befuddled staff, to Dr. Parramore explaining the feminist conceit that her disliking a song makes it “offensive to women,” to the young employee referring her to the company that actually put together the playlist, because what chain grocer of sound management would trust its workers not to offend cultural studies doctorates?
It’s tempting to write off this story as the clickbait it undoubtedly is, and Dr. Parramore as a censorious mucketymuck harassing low-wage grocery store employees. But I’m sorry to say that Parramore’s style of criticism is by no means limited to left-wing click machines and cultural studies departments — though they have played a significant role in popularizing it.
In fact, given her boots-on-the-ground dedication to getting to the bottom of this injustice, one might even call Dr. Parramore this decade’s dean of pop music critics. A poo-bah of the new critical regime, one led by those without any particular musical expertise, holding identity politics as the primary (and often the only) measure of a song’s worth.
Last year we were bombarded with this shit. At the release of Lorde’s “Royals,” suddenly every keyboard social justice warrior became a Christgau of cultural appropriation, and we were treated to a month-long fit of handwringing from the punditocracy about whether Miley Cyrus was allowed to twerk. In what I can only assume was a warm-up for banning the Neitzsche Club this year, University College London’s student union banned Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” from campus.
My former colleague Ben Pearson wrote one of the best pieces about what this bodes for music last year:
While not all offense-based criticism called for censorship of artistic expression, the trend did shackle art’s range of expression. The meaning of “Blurred Lines” is vague at worst, and its critics’ claim that the line “you know you want it” is rapey is bizarre. But debating the lyrics of “Blurred Lines” or the visual semiotics of “We Can’t Stop” is beside the point. Regardless of its textual meaning or lack thereof, by turning the song into a vehicle to support a cause, offense criticism has forever associated “Blurred Lines” with rape for audiences worldwide.
This pattern was replicated everywhere in our discussion of popular art this year. Even if you thought, as I did, that Miley Cyrus’s VMA performance was gloriously weird and refreshingly opaque, our discursive space only allowed two interpretations: it was racist/it wasn’t. As we reduced our discourse about music, TV shows, film, and music videos to lowest-common-denominator ideological critiques about their representations (or lack thereof) of race, gender, and sexuality, we constricted both the communicative and transformative possibilities of art in general. Including its ability to promote social change.
This year trigger warnings have spread to college classrooms, so the tide hasn’t even begun to ebb yet.
Now, what really scares the good doctor is not the Rolling Stones driving a shopper from his tahini and well-priced generic beer into a violent sexual rage — which is also, for the record, what critics used to insinuate Jazz would do. No, what scares Dr. Parramore is male sexuality as such, which makes rock and roll especially threatening, since it’s white men taking cues from those irrepressibly sexual blacks. Notice the young ladies in the live video above. Do they look like they feel degraded? Of course not, they’re turned on. Power is sexy, which is what the song is all about.
Listening to the music that immediately preceded rock and roll, one observes similar themes:
In white artists too:
I could go on but I don’t want to belabor the point. Suffice it to say it would have been much more shocking to hear “Caleb Meyer” or “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss),” or a random cut from Bessie Smith’s back catalog at Trader Joe’s, and not just because they’re too old for most people to know. Unfortunately, the mentality of Dr. Parramore and the “Blurred Lines”-banners doesn’t allow for any ambiguity in the interpretation; whether or not Louis Jordan is inhabiting the role of feckless husband doesn’t matter, the content can be seen as sexist, therefore it must be removed from the airwaves.
Since the American pop tradition is so inextricably linked to misogynist themes, allow me to propose a solution that Dr. Parramore, having founded a blog now hosted by the Roosevelt Institute, should be able to get behind: Nationalize it. Artists with politics to the right of Sting should be deemed suspect and their funding strictly limited, and Riot Grrrl should be subsidized until its zombie corpse is walking around again. Nobody should be allowed to pick up a stratocaster without a license; we’re talking about a potential tool of sexual violence here, and it should be treated with due seriousness.
In addition, all cultural appropriations should have to be approved by the relevant authorities. Since we’re already living in an age where a trademark can be revoked if a few congressmen decide it’s offensive, this isn’t much of a step — unapproved art can simply be denied copyright protection. Never again should a scourge like Paul Simon’s Graceland be imposed on an unsuspecting public. Far better for Western art to stay Western — perhaps in the mode of Riefenstahl, who Susan Sontag wrote fairly admiringly about and enjoys something of a reputation as a feminist pioneer.
Safe spaces, at any cost.