Thursday, April 24, 2008

The "Menace" of Comic Books

I'll admit I have no expereince first-hand with comic books. It may be just a fact of growing up with sisters or perhaps my parents were more cagey about censoring our reading than I knew. The most relateable resource I can come up with was "Garbage Pail Kids." These trading cards were a big deal when I was growing up in the 80's and I do vaguely remember hiding them from my parent's view. Just like the horror comics of the 40's and 50's these cards depicted kids in various disgusting portraits. Often they were vomit or snot-covered and I remember the visceral gross-ness of each character I was lucky enough to get my hands on. I think they appealed to both boys and girls and I was surprised to find them alive and well on:

A new incarnation of these ghoulish kids is now in the form of Hollywood Zombies.

There's a wretched Paris Hilton with her skeleton Chihuahua and a rotting corpse version of Michael Jackson...wait maybe that's just Michael Jackson. Tobey Maguire (Spiderman) is depicted as an almost decapitated upside down corpse. Maybe that's a great example of how pop culture regurgitates itself in so many ways. Spiderman started as a comic, became a blockbuster movie and is now redepicted and defaced in a new comic.

In David Hajdu's article, "The Ten-Cent Plague" he talks about the main appeal of comics to to youth being their goriness and violence. It doesn't surprise me that parents, teachers, and senators alike went after comics citing their immoral, obscene, and offensive nature. In some ways it may be hard to understand what the big deal was considering the amount of violence on television and in video games today, but then again the same parents, teachers, and senators are concerned about these mediums today. My guess is the appeal of comics or any medium intended for youth using gore and violence is only heightened by the fact that "elders" want to take them away. I think the problem with taking such issue with the gore aspect denies the creativity and real story behind most of these comics.

Hadju writes, "In New Orleans, for instance, the mayor and the city council commissioned a report on the comics controversy, which, within its forty-nine pages, noted that comics 'rank with jazz music as being one of the few truly American art forms.' In its conclusion, the report argued, 'The wholesale condemnation of all comics magazines is one of the worst mistakes of some of the critics. The fact is both side are right. The books are not all bad, as the more extreme critics say; nor all good as some of their publishers and defenders contend. Like all other creative products they must be judged individually."

The comic book panic in the 40's and 50's was a precursor to what Laura Miller says was "neither the first nor the last occasion when anxieties about children's exposure to American pop culture got out of hand."

I agree with Miller and even though I have a limited knowledge of comics, I see them not as the first issue that caused a a generation gap, but certainly one of the first pop culture objects that caused a rift between parents and children.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Feeling Helpless: Recent Attempts to Explore War in Pop Music

In the article, Pop Music and the War: The Sound of Resignation Jon Pareles of the New York Times explores how pop artists are dealing with their feelings about war today.

“The war songs of the 21st century have become sober and earnest, pragmatic rather than fanciful.”

Pareles talks about how our present time is unique in that it doesn’t have an exact parallel in history. There is no generationwide appreciable response to the war in Iraq and Pareles suggests that not having a draft is a possibility of why youth aren’t banding together. The combination of a war on terrorism and war in Iraq are causing new cultural responses from all of us and are showing up in the tone and lyrics of popular music – we are feeling exhausted.

When 9/11 happened, the responses from artists were more familiar – “The Price of Oil” by Billy Bragg considered oil profiteers, Eminem with “Mosh” and Outkast with “Bombs Over Baghdad” attacked the President outright, but by 2006 things started sounding a little different.

More recently John Legend and John Mayer, both more folk-y love song artists began infusing their music with themes of war. One of the most familiar may be, “Waiting on the World to Change.” The helpless feeling of this song comes out in the lyrics:

If we had the power to bring our neighbors home from war
They would never have missed a Christmas/No more ribbons on the door

Pareles says, “The righteousness of old protest songs has been replaced by sorrow and malaise.”

Toby Keith, who penned “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” in 2002 recently joined Merle Haggard, a skeptic of the war in Iraq for a duet which Pareles said, “…suggested a reconsideration.”

I don’t know much about Toby Keith other than his extreme support of the Iraq war, but my instinct says that cultural shifts have and are happening if he has reconsidered his position. Extreme views, pro-war and anti-war have seemed to converge closer to the middle in a hopeless space and music seems to mirror those feelings.

Pareles writes, “The 2000s are not the 1960s, culturally or ideologically, but the musical repercussions of the Vietnam War may hint at what comes next. As the war dragged on, the delirious late 1960s gave way to not only the sodden early 1970s of technique-obsessed rock and self-absorbed singer-songwriters, but also to a flowering of socially conscious, musically innovative soul, the music that John Legend and John Mayer now deliberately invoke. It’s as if this wartime era has simply skipped the giddy phase – which didn’t, in the end, turn bombers into butterflies – and gone directly to the brooding. The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 was quickly followed by the rejuvenating energy of punk and hip-hop; there’s not telling what disengagement from Iraq might spark.”

I think Pareles makes an interesting statement here, and upon reflection I think in general, he’s right. Maybe we’ve experienced too many broken or empty promises as a generation and we feel too cynical about the ideology behind flower-power. Music seems to be one of the best mirrors when put in front of society and the songs being written and played on the radio today are reflecting the hopelessness that many are feeling amidst a seemingly never-ending war…