Saturday, January 14, 2023

"Send in the clowns" / "performance politicians" - antitheatricality + politics - the Comeback!

A not-wholly unexpected resurgence of anti-theatrical tropesm with special emphasis on the circus, has erupted within political commentary, triggered by last week's GOP clown show of the House Speaker selection process in Congress, which occasioned much talk of how the new breed of MAGA congresspersons are "performance artists" as opposed to people interested in legislation or policy, and whose only concern is to appear on right-wing TV. 

For instance here is a bit from The Atlantic's newsletter:

The Ringmaster

Now controlled by its most unhinged members, the Republican Party has returned to power in the People’s House. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the ringmaster of this circus, is happily paying off his debts by engaging in petty payback, conjuring up inane committees, threatening to crash the U.S. economy, and protecting a walking monument to fraud named George Santos, who may or may not actually be named “George Santos.”

In the enduring words of Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends….

Kevin McCarthy will be fine with all of it, as long as he gets to wear the top hat and red tails while indulging in the fantasy that he is in control of the clowns and wild animals, and not the other way around.

Or this column from the Washington Post by Dana Milbank which invokes the  "bread and circuses" idea

Speaker McCarthy needs to stop ‘bread and circuses’ in Congress and start governing for a change,” [Republican Victoria] Spartz said in a statement objecting to the “charade” of kicking members off their committees.

It was an apt invocation of the Roman writer Juvenal’s lament 2,000 years ago that the people had abdicated their duties as citizens of the Republic in favor of “bread and circuses” provided by their imperial rulers.

... In truth, the new majority doesn’t have much bread to dole out (aside from the free doughnuts and Chick-fil-A that Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) offered reporters this week in lieu of answers about his fabricated life story). But it has more clown acts than could fill the Circus Maximus.... 

[spare you the details on the nonsense and chaos, stuff about Republican congresstwats shoehorning 
Taylor Swift and Marvin Gaye lyrics into speeches etc etc] 

"With so many committees overloaded with loons, it’s but a matter of time until things blow up. In an embrace of mayhem, the National Republican Campaign Committee adopted as its new slogan “bring the tiger,” Politico’s Olivia Beavers reports. That’s a reference to a mock lip-reading video of McCarthy’s famous fight on the House floor this month with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) in which McCarthy says “I brought the tiger.”

Yep. He brought the tiger, and now he must ride it. This is life in the circus."

A neat concept - or turn of phrase at least - in this Jennifer Rubin column about the fizzling out of the GOP's promised investigations a.k.a. show trials (itself an anti-theatrical term)

"The GOP’s conspiracy theories and unhinged accusations work best when Republicans are in the minority, when they can throw out half-baked accusations and make leaps of logic with little consequence. 
When they are in the majority, however, they must show their cards about supposed Democratic scandals. And that is already proving to be a problem for right-wing performance politicians for four reasons."

One question is when this "theatrical turn" started its rot within the GOP in particular and politics in general. 

Charles M. Blow, in the New York Times, traces it back to Sarah Palin

"Palin exposed a dangerous reality about the Republican base: that it was starving for disruption and spectacle, that it would cheer for anyone who annoyed liberals, that performance was far more important than competence.

Later Republicans "learned a lesson born during the Palin years: Spectacle produced fame, which produced power, which produced influence and possibly control...."

The person who exploited the new situation to the utmost was the person who already thought like Palin, who understood the power of image and projection instinctively: Trump. 

Then came the mini-Trumps. 

"During the Trump era, the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the party became rock stars among the base, even if they were jokes among their colleagues."

Talking of politicians as rock stars... 

In a bit of a reach, National Review's Jim Geraghty pens an op-ed for Washington Post, blaming it all on MTV's Rock the Vote campaign and its promotion of the notion that politicians needed to be "cool" and entertaining. 

"Everyone has a theory about why American politics today is so awful.

"I blame MTV.

"More specifically, I blame the music channel’s “Rock the Vote” campaign in the early 1990s. That’s the moment when the tastemakers of popular culture decided the widespread perception that politics isn’t cool was a problem to be solved. Politics had to be made cool. And therefore not boring.

"Call today’s politics whatever you like, but it isn’t boring. I can hear the defenses of “Rock the Vote”: That’s unfair! Politics and entertainment have long overlapped — even Richard M. Nixon was on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” in 1968 saying “Sock it to me?”

"But there’s a difference between politicians trying to be entertaining and politicians seeing their role as primarily being an entertainer."

"... It wasn’t hard to discern MTV’s preference among the presidential options of the 68-year-old World War II vet incumbent, the nutty billionaire Texan with the charts, and the cool guy in dark sunglasses who played the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show.

"A few years later, John F. Kennedy Jr. came along with George magazine, “a lifestyle magazine with politics at its core,” giving political figures (Gerald Ford, Madeleine Albright, Pat Schroeder) the Hollywood treatment — when it wasn’t doing the same for actual celebrities (Kate Moss, George Clooney, Madonna — her again). Almost every page and profile and article screamed at readers: Hey, Americans! We know you think politics is boring, but look how cool and fashionable and fascinating these people are!

"With celebrities dressed up on the cover as Betsy Ross (Barbra Streisand) or Abraham Lincoln (Harrison Ford), and the inside relatively devoid of discussions of government policy, George offered a version of politics for Americans who weren’t that interested in politics. Lots of sweet frosting, almost no cake."

Despite closing in 2001, "from today’s perspective, George was just ahead of its time."

He says people expect instant gratification and total satisfaction from their political-consumer choices in the way that they do from their entertainment-consumer choices. 

"Legislation isn’t like that. You’re going to have to compromise and get a bunch of stuff you don’t want. This hard fact of life is very much at odds with our on-demand consumer culture. Your music playlist, online reading list and video streaming options can be completely customized to your tastes, shaped by an algorithm. Legislation passed for the entire country or an entire state can’t."

And to keep people engaged, everything has to be dramatic, in both the eye-catching, shape-throwing (or shit-throwing) sense and the "all is doomed / all is saved" hype senses. 

"Maintaining people’s interest in politics week after week, month after month, requires convincing them that the stakes are always huge, inescapable and irreversible: This is the most important election of our lifetime! If we get this one wrong, there’s no coming back!

"The circus of politics means there’s never a shortage of doom-scrolling material on your phone. There’s always some new outrageous comment, some idiot state legislator you’ve never heard of proposing something ridiculous and blatantly unconstitutional. Every day, you can find some evidence to convince yourself that the inmates are now running the asylum, and that you, commonsense-blessed citizen, are an endangered minority."

Biden tried to go back to normal - a President who doesn't need to be in the people's faces all the time. (Only to get complaints that he was keeping too low a profile, wasn't communicating enough with the electorate). 

"The implicit promise of Joe Biden’s presidential run was that he’d work to make politics boring again, as he had for half a century. Didn’t happen. But that was the right idea."

"... This isn’t a call for not voting, for not paying attention during times of crises such as the Great Recession or the pandemic — or for yawning and shrugging off bad behavior by elected leaders or candidates for public office. This is just a plea — for politicians and the electorate — to stop regarding the federal government and 50 state governments as a stage for a giant, inescapable, never-ending reality show."

Forgotten what inspired this Molly Jong-Fast tweet, but it seems indicative: 

I saw the best (ish) minds of my generation destroyed by main character syndrome, starving hysterical naked, whatever ….

The concept of "main character syndrome" or "main character energy" - and related theatrical-ish tropes ("hero ingredient" as heard on the British Bake-off show)  seem related to this creeping cos-play superhero / videogame-atizing thing that seems to be at work with a lot of contemporary stuff (conspiracy theory that puts you in the role of code-breaker, investigator, researcher....   the yearning to be a figure of destiny, a savior, a rebel against the Dark Forces). C.f. Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death and the lure of "hero projects" as a refusal to come to terms with one's insignificance.  

Rounding things up, an opinion piece at WaPo by David Von Drehle that argues that the Biden-secret-papers-in-the-garage embarrassment-induced collapse of the Classified Papers at Mar-A-Lago potential indictment of Trump would actually be a good thing, depriving the attention-craving ex-Prez of the media prominence he needs to recharge his dwindled reelection prospects by amping up his presence on the national stage. 

"But it can’t be noted often enough: Only one person has occupied both the Oval Office and the world wrestling hall of fame. He got there by turning conflict into celebrity and celebrity into votes. Rather than reboot the old show as a courtroom drama, we must call off the conflict that feeds the beast."

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Vivienne Westwood as anti-fashionista

I was going write something about Vivienne Westwood (RIP) but then realized I already had -  twice last year, in effect. First through the long LRB piece on Viv's partner-in-culture-crime Malcolm McLaren. And then again with a S+A blogpost about Jordan - Viv's first model - which is reproduced here, with some small tweaks. (Possibly three times, indirectly, if you count this piece on Pistol)


Jordan - the most iconic shop girl ever; the original Sex Pistol incarnating the attitude before the band even existed - died last week. 

Before she was a punk - the first face of punk - she was a glam fan. There's a story about her turning up to a Bowie concert wearing amazing self-made earrings and Bowie leaning down off the stage and asking if he could have them - and she said "no!"

The glam connection spotlights the essence of punk - or let's say, a particular strand of punk (to me maybe the truest punk and certainly the most confounding nowadays to think about as a grown-up.    And that is a spirit of empty provocation. 

"Her face was the front of shop" -  shops plural, although all in the same premises: Let It Rock,Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die, Sex, Seditionaries. And what the face was selling was the idea of being looked at, but in a peculiar anti-attraction way. Call it atrocity-exhibitionism. Arrest the gaze and assault it. Kick the passer-by in the eye.

The look - hair, make-up, clothes, expression - mimes out a ruthlessness, that's brandished like a warning (I did this to myself; this is what I'm capable of; beware!).  It's analogous to, yet also the inverse of, actual terrorism (where the goal is to blend in with the populace - "we dress like students, we dress like housewives / or in a suit and a tie", Talking Heads, "Life During Wartime"). Political terrorism and cultural terrorism share a common goal: strike fear. But with punk (this kind of punk) it's all means, no end.  The means is the end: shockwaves rippling across the faces and minds of the normals.

Why so appealing, to be so appalling? 

For sure, it takes fearlessness. More bravery than I would ever have been capable of mustering. And to be the first, and all alone, and female, running the gauntlet of the street  - yes, that is fucking fearless.

Yet it is a peculiar sort of fearlessness. Not the courage of someone involved in the French Resistance, or Greek Resistance. Nor the bravery shown by an eco-warrior in a speed-boat squaring off with a whaling ship or oil tanker, tying themselves up a tree, lying in front of bulldozers.... 

Fearlessness combined with pointlessness.  

More so than even the Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle (where there's some kind of smash-the-Spectacle politique), the filmic expression of this particular fashionista-as-terrorista idea of punk is Jubilee. Not smashing the spectacle but making a spectacle of yourself. Beauty as cruelty, cruelty as beauty. 

Jordan is the star of the show. And here, as Amyl Nitrate, she reads a paean to child-murderer Myra Hindley. 

She starts by talking about how her school motto was Faites votre désir réalité  - make your desires reality, and adds “I myself prefer the saying ‘don’t dream it, be it’ " i.e. the glam maxim first heard a few years earlier in The Rocky Horror Show.

In those days desires weren’t allowed to become reality, so fantasy was substituted for them – films, books, pictures – they called it Art – but when your desires become reality, you don’t need fantasy any longer – or Art. I always remember the school motto – as a child my heroine was Myra Hindley – do you remember her? Myra’s crimes, they said, were beyond belief – that was because no one had any imagination – they really didn’t know how to make their desires reality – they were not artists like Myra – one can smile now at the naivete.

"When, on my 15th birthday, Law and Order were finally abolished, all those statistics that were a substitute for reality disappeared. The crime rate dropped to zero… I started to dance. I wanted to defy gravity.” 

(That last phrase became the title of her autobiography, Defying Gravity)

Jordan's other big Jubilee scene is as a ballerina Britannia. (She'd trained as a ballet dancer as a child until an injury put paid to it).


The odd thing is that the memorials and tributes invariably mention what a sweetheart she was - kind and nice and lovely. 

So it's a false front - an image (Myra Hindley crossed with Margaret Thatcher with a bit of Ruth Ellis) that's the opposite of how you are inside.

There is a fascinatingly detailed Jordan interview transcript that Jon Savage has made available at punkgirldiairies - originally done for England's Dreaming

Jordan starts by denying that the way she dressed was designed to offend. 

"I liked to treat myself like a painting. I didn’t consider that people would be offended or outraged by it. It really never crossed my mind". 

That's a fairly typical punkoid posture of that era - a  profession of innocence combined with a feigned plea for tolerance ("we just want to dress like this,  why are people so closeminded"). See also this bit, which cues off tales of her commuting from Brighton to London wearing see-through chemises that showed her breasts, psychotic spiky hair, virulent make-up (a scene of this creating consternation among British Rail passengers - mums shielding the eyes of their kids, Jordan having to be moved to a First Class compartment by the conductor - is recreated in the new Sex Pistols TV drama by Danny Boyle)

"Some of the men got rather hot under the collar, paper on the lap.... There was absolutely nowhere you could go where people wouldn’t say something. It was just too blatant for them. People up on scaffolding would shout, there’d be tourists running, trying to get photos. This is long before it all burst, taking pictures of punks and what have you." 

[Note how these reactions are presented as if an unexpected byproduct of her dressing that way, hassle that she'd really rather not have gone through - rather than exactly the response actively sought and achieved with enormous effort]

As the conversation goes on, the front of "just wanted to dress this way" drops - it becomes  clear that symbols are being wielded in awareness of their likely effect, the goal is to goad

"People were very offended if you wore a Cambridge Rapist T-shirt; I got a lot of trouble on the buses at that time. They didn’t like people wearing them." 

[Bear in mind that "at that time" = when the Cambridge Rapist had very recently been an at-large rapist depredating on women. He wore a leather mask bearing the words 'Rapist' on it, so victims would have no doubt what was about to happen to them. Sometimes, if he couldn't break in to a house or flat, he would write 'the Rapist was here' on the window', just to sow fear and so his evening wasn't a total bust. Turning the Cambridge rapist into a "pop star" - McLaren & Westwood's provocation and act of "cultural terrorism: here - relies on exploiting the actual state of terror that women lived under]

Jordan on appearing on the TV show So It Goes 

"They got my back up because they wouldn’t let me wear this swastika armband, right, there was the biggest do about it. They eventually put a piece of sticky tape over it." 

On her later-phase twinset-and-pearls Thatcher look

"People found it very perplexing. The look was very rigid, the hair was always very tightly controlled." 

The opposite of a come-hither look.

"People were terrified of coming in [to the shop]. I’d heard reports from people who later became friends, that people wouldn’t go in because of me, that I wouldn’t say anything to them, I’d be horrible.... It was just my attitude. I thought I looked better than anyone else. I was very introverted, I know people thought I was an exhibitionist, but I was pretty stand-offish. Even today I don’t take pictures smiling, because I think I look better when I don’t smile. I felt powerful, and I think I looked powerful, I know I looked very intimidating. People were very worried, even the guy who eventually became my husband [Kevin Mooney of Adam and the Ants] was very worried about coming in to see me. Adam was the same. By that time I’d built this reputation for myself."

On Johnny Rotten's asexuality and her own ability to repel approaches: 

"He didn’t see himself as attractive in any way, I suppose, if you were to ask him. He didn’t want the trappings of a normal person. He was John Rotten, and much the same as myself, I didn’t go out with anyone either, the image was everything, in a way.

"People were scared out of their wits of me. Absolutely.

"I never got anyone saying they’d like to take me out.... I exuded that leave me alone-ness."


The thing about the dialectic of outrage is that there's a constant pressure to up the anti, as it were - you have to go from sticking a safety pin through the Queen's nose and comparing the Royal Family to a fascist regime, to recruiting an actual fascist on the run into the Sex Pistols ("Martin Bormann", symbolically not literally, but this is all symbol play). 

That then leaves you nowhere to go - you either have to escalate ("kill someone / kill yourself" as "Belsen Was A Gas" puts the options) or climb down, de-escalate, relapse into normal life, reveal that hidden niceness.

Although Too Young To Die/Sex/Seditionaries is considered a convulsion within the post-Sixties fashion-etc culture, a drastic break (symbolized by the "What Side of the Bed" T-shirt - with recent heroes consigned to the condemned side of the garment), really there's a fair amount of continuity. Not just with the shock aesthetics of glam (the swastika and iron cross play of the Sweet, Lou Reed and others; Alice Cooper's ghoulish make-up; Rocky Horror, with some of the cast reappearing in Jubilee of course). But actually there's a continuity with the counterculture and underground press. Think of OZ and the infamous Rupert the Bear comic strip that led to the magazine being prosecuted: there's the desecration of a children's favorite in pretty much the same way as Who Killed Bambi and the photograph of an actual dead baby deer with an arrow in its bloody throat (except that being Sixties cats OZ use Eros in all its hairy and tumescent graphic-ness, rather than Thanatos). 

You can see the anti being upped across the '70s in the escalation from defiling beloved images from children's literature (a priapic and monstrously endowed Rupert) to "celebrating" actual torturers of children (Myra Hindley, Ian Brady - both namechecked in "No One Is Innocent", the Pistols tune featuring Ronnie Biggs and "Martin Bormann". And then the brief infamous existence of a band called The Moors Murderers, featuring another exhibitionist later known for geometric make-up, Steve Strange).  


With OZ / Rupert the Bear and "Who Killed Bambi" alike, innocence - the sanctuary of childhood itself, not just its sentimentalization by grown-ups - is the target. And the assault comes from the adolescent, the ex-child who's discovered the power of cynicism

(Also assaulted: the innocence of domestic pets and wild animals: Vicious's "to think / I killed a cat", members of Clash shooting pigeons for a laugh, and the actual living creature killed for a scene in movie, Russ Meyer's aborted Who Killed Bambi). 

Another '60s pre-echo:Jeff Nuttall's 1968 book on the UK Underground,  Bomb Culture, has this passage on the Moors Murderers that rehearses the Jubilee / Jordan monologue about Myra as Artist: 

"Romantics, Symbolists, Dada, Surrealists, Existentialists, Action painters, beat poets and the Royal Shakespeare Company had all applauded de Sade from some aspect or other. To Ian Brady de Sade was a licence to kill children. We had all, at some time, cried "Yes yes" to Blake's 'sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse an unacted desire'. Brady did it."

Vicious lives this idea out... and the echoes continue through postpostpunk with Big Black and Rapeman, zines like Murder Can Be Fun and Answer Me! (a series of issues dedicated respectively to murder, suicide, and rape), the Slacker scene in which the aging radical academic exalts the "Texas sniper" Charles Whitman who gunned down strangers from the top of a tower...  

To this way of thinking, the serial killers, assassins, etc, aren't just Artists; they're superior to artists, more committed.  They don't act out ruthlessness, they take ruthless action. They dissolve the barrier between art and life, take their desires for reality. 


And to close a little bit from the LRB piece: 

"When he flew to Manhattan to bail out Vicious and hire the best defense lawyer in town, McLaren’s next plan was to record a Sid solo album packed with showbiz standards , including the Brecht-Weill song about ruthless killer “Mack the Knife” (which features lines like “On a Sunday, Sunday morning / Lies a body, oozin' life.”)  Alive, Spungen had been seen as a manipulative junkie leading Sid astray; dead, she was just a bump in the road to Vicious’s superstardom. In the New Yorker recollection, McLaren notes with admiration his partner Westwood’s lack of sentimentality: “Vivienne didn’t spare a thought over the death of Nancy. We designed a new T-shirt for Sid: “She’s Dead—I’m Alive—I’m Yours.” 

 "Popular culture is a contradiction in terms. If it's popular, it's not culture."  

Vivienne Westwood

Baroque 'N' Roll

 I did not imagine that I was the first person to come up with "baroque 'n' roll" -   - the title of the chapter in S+A a...