In her essay collection Sea World Tales, Debra DiPaolo tells the story of an elderly communist man who travels to the U.S. to visit his son. Soon after his arrival, his son takes him to Sea World to watch the “Shamu the Killer Whale Show.” The show is a reenactment of George Washington crossing the Delaware with a trainer, dressed as General Washington, riding the back of the great killer whale. The father turns to his son and says, “Any culture that can do this to its own history, and survive, is invincible.”
I think the old man was on to something.
During the final days of the Cold War, I recall hearing a comedian talk about America’s self-deprecating sense of humor being a distinct cultural advantage over the Soviet Union. While the Soviets seemed to lack any ability at self-mockery, the Americans could not stop laughing at themselves. Fifteen years later, American Idol reject William Hung and his recent ascension to celebrity, offers proof that we’re still pulling our collective leg. What might our elderly communist gentleman proclaim upon hearing a few bars of William Hung butchering, “I’m a rocket man…”
Hung’s musical act does evoke laughter, but ultimately it succeeds on a comic level by reaching beyond satire and into theater of the absurd. In the latter half of the 20 th Century plenty of bad rock, country, rhythm & blues, folk, and hip-hop has been produced since beginning their runs on the cultural stage. Mainstream music entertainers achieving renown or monetary success with minimal talent or artistic vision have not noticeably decreased from decade to decade, fad to fad, style to style. The modern pop star’s rise, compared to that of popular entertainers in bygone eras, has been swifter and more significant due to having big business on their side. It also doesn’t hurt to point out that Mozart and Van Gogh did not die rich. Vanilla Ice and Ricky Martin probably will. With record sales already over 100,000, William Hung may well be on his way. Personal drive combined with professional craftsmanship in the studio and relentless marketing can take someone a long way in our liberalized business climate. Mediocre music might never stand a chance if not for the competency of producers, engineers, marketers, and promoters. After all, Shamu’s colonial-garbed trainer had to go through extensive training in order to be a whale rider. A gambler could drop a confident wager in betting that we’ve put more effort, energy, and finances into producing camp, schlock and kitsch than any other civilization in history.
Mediocrity in the cultural marketplace does have its positive aspects. If someone is willing to put it out there – sing, play guitar, dance – and can avoid what they consider to be meaningless labor in support of the financial elite, more power to them. Entertainment is not all bad and everyone can’t make great art. The downside however, is that the popular performer’s attempt at creative production rarely moves beyond entertainment and into art. It does not seek to engage or invite introspection but more often becomes part of a greater distraction. But as with many endeavors operating in a liberal democracy, if we want something, we have to be willing to give something in return. So if entertainment is the choice, we can’t be upset when we don’t receive work that’s moving or artistic.
I’m excited about the popularity of William Hung. Not just because his act is hilarious, but right now I think a good shot of theater of the absurd is healthy. As a pop culture figure, Hung takes the abilities of the common citizen to a new level, a lower level as it were. It is now possible to get by on no talent or training. All those pop stars with a two note range or a three step dance routine have been outdone. Thanks to Hung, it is possible to achieve a degree of fame by totally sucking, and because you suck. You are allowed to suck as a verb and a noun. How delicious. Think of the aesthetic possibilities! The expansion of American poetics! You can now suck and quit your day job. I’ve heard that William Hung has put his engineering studies on hold for a while. This is great news for middle and working class Americans. The Dream has been expanded!
Not only do William Hung’s tone deaf and off-key songs add a dash of comic health to the cultural landscape, they aggravate our ears at a most opportune time. In a darkening political climate such as the one we find ourselves in at the moment, theater of the absurd can provide a highly effective counterpoint.
Václav Havel and his fellow Czech dissidents used theater of the absurd as a sharp artistic tool during the Cold War in order to keep the imaginative and intellectual canvas expanded when pressured on all sides by a suffocating ideology. They were direct artistic descendents of their countryman Franz Kafka, whose novel The Trial laid out in absurd terms what George Steiner described as “the alphabet of our totalitarian politics.” Kafka was said to have thought The Trial was a comedy. What lay just beyond his writing of The Trial – and what he did not live to see having died in 1924 – turned out not to be so funny.
We are at this time in the U.S. in as much of a pre-fascist condition as we were when McCarthyism’s stench polluted the air. We are also creeping far too close to the direction in which Europe began moving during the late 1920s when minor political and cultural extremist groups began their grab for power. Our state of affairs has been created in a short time and already has a long rap sheet.
People being detained illegally and held indefinitely without charge or legal representation again presents the manifestation of Kafka’s art and his writing as prophecy. The detentions combined with citizens now informing on one another, thereby willingly surrendering the title of citizen, completes an equation of a direct totalitarianism.
Illegal detention is the initial expression of the right-wing willingness to surrender freedoms for security and impose that decision on the rest of the populace. The compromise of liberty was the first action conservatives took in the aftermath of the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Relinquishment of liberty for security by conservatives was one of the first political decisions in early 20 th century Europe and many historians consider it to be a major pillar on which fascism stood. Regarding this particular concept of freedom, Americans would do well to side with their founding fathers rather than of the pack of screaming yahoos currently minding the store. In this case it would be Benjamin Franklin’s secular American psalm which proclaims that anyone who would surrender liberty for security deserves neither.
The roots to the assault on liberty derive from a misguided expression of patriotism that leads to overt nationalism. An international conflict, such as the one in which the U.S. is currently engaged, cannot be fought on nationalist terms and not with nationalistic language when a major component of the conflict is the battle of ideas. Articulate and thoughtful people are needed to wage the battle, not those who are uninterested in ideas.
The movement toward nationalism extends from an infantile religiosity that neglects centuries of serious religious scholarship and thought. It has led, among other things, to the erosion of the wall separating religion from state.
The arena of ideas and intellect is under attack from truth-telling falling outside the norm in public discourse and being misappropriated as propaganda when espoused by those in dissent. Dismissing truth derived from the accumulation of evidence and fact is especially disconcerting in a country with greater access to information than any nation in history. That people would base their decision-making on what they believe versus what they are convinced of demonstrates an increasing lack of respect for truth.
Analyses of historical movements and complexities are disregarded in their capacities to provide educational, insightful and practical applications to current circumstances and conditions. One desperately wants to ask those who invoked war upon Iraq: which artificially constructed nations remained intact once they were no longer glued by the barrel of a gun? Yugoslavia? The Soviet Union? The colonial borderlands of Africa? On what historical models are you basing your assumptions?
Doublespeak, and Orwell’s newspeak and doublethink have become normal expression in public discourse and go unchallenged by disseminators of that discourse. An obvious recent example are the proclamations of someone favoring laws that “support marriage” or “support families” and therefore put forth the idea of a constitutional amendment “defining marriage only as the union between a man and a woman.” What that person is actually saying is: I am an anti-gay bigot. I do not think that gay people should have access to hundreds of laws available to straight people. I support a constitutional amendment that would trump the 14 th Amendment and officially relegate millions of Americans to second-class citizenship in the exact same manner as Jim Crowe laws subjugated blacks. Furthermore, the official prejudice of organized religious institutions is the basis on which the Constitution of the United States should be amended. In addition, the government should jump into the business of defining words – another direct pillar of fascism.
We have not yet crossed over into a police state. The good news for us is that the country’s founders made it extremely difficult for a dictator to come to power. But an Oligarchic fascism is not as difficult. The ideologically far-flung who come to power in America do not have to be fully akin to Nazis or brownshirts. It is not necessary. They do not have to implement inquisitions, progroms, or COINTELPRO, they can gain power simply by watching us give up our liberty. We can hand ourselves over. What then would we do if we did find ourselves in that dark wood?
Could laughter be one of the things that saves us?
William Hung obviously does not possess the weight of Kafka or Havel. With America’s classical culture still in formation, theater of the absurd in America coming from the plane of popular culture, even the ridiculous wing of it, is not necessarily surprising given the media machines at its disposal. It has a comedic and satirical system supporting it by way of television, live theater, comedy clubs, and now the internet. Theater of the absurd existing in the mainstream, and not as yet as an underground movement such as with Havel and his fellow artists, could perhaps make it a more powerful tool in a socio-political context.
It would, of course, be theater of the absurd in itself to suggest that William Hung could save us. Still, comedy and theater of the absurd often employ reflective thought. I can’t help but think that anything that holds up a mirror is positive. William Hung is not alone on his American Idol platform. If there is one thing the show American Idol puts on display it is that too many people in our celebrity-obsessed society think they can be stars on the prepackaged terms dictated by celebrity culture. They can’t. It’s probably good they can’t – I think those prepackaged terms stifle creativity and originality. Nevertheless, for those who buy into the imposed construct of stardom, it’s fortunate that they can view their inability to succeed through the prism of William Hung. Taking a look in a humorous way often softens the blow. It allows people to see without stripping their dignity. If we laugh along with the joke, the shame of being laughed at does not exist, and shame is replaced by education and reflection. It is a simple proposition as to why it matters that William Hung makes us laugh: comedy, in all its forms, might just play a greater role in making our spirit invincible, and we all have a part, in our unique American circumstance, in saving one another from ourselves.