November 21, 2012

Best of Doublethink Flashback: The perils of keepin’ it real

By: Michael Brendan Dougherty

Editor’s Note: The following piece, Michael Brendan Dougherty’s discussion of artists in society, is the third installment of a two-week series recalling ten of the best contributions to Doublethink. This item originally ran on May 6, 2008. Many thanks to the three former Doublethink editors — Cheryl Miller of the American Enterprise Institute, James Poulos of The Huffington Post, and Reason Magazine’s Peter Suderman — who assisted in compiling this list. — Joel Gehrke

Last month, the cultural myth-busters at The Smoking Gun revealed that platinum selling R’n’B artist Akon had never been the “ringleader of a notorious car theft operation,” never [run] four chop shops that catered to “drug dealers and celebrities,” and worst of all, had never served hard time in prison. Sure, he did a few months in a jail for joyriding a Beamer, and he was once sentenced to probation for gun possession. Nonetheless, with his story confirmed as fraudulent, the savor went out of his rhymes: “So I suggest ya keep stepping on me/ Cause you’ll rarely find me without my weapon on me.” How humiliating! Crooning felonious lines, doing only misdemeanor time — the discovery of his not-so-criminal past now threatens to ruin him. But why? Must an artist live up (or in many cases, down) to his or her art? What price do we pay for our demands of authenticity, and can any good come from holding ourselves and others to these standards?

Perhaps the best place to begin looking for answers is in the lives of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, who, over a decade ago, obliged the fantasies of their audience by actually being killed. Certainly this was not good for the these men or their loved ones, but for many fans, even those who mourned the loss of their heroes, the story might not be so simple. As when an opera singer, whose dying wails constitute the finale of the act, causes the audience to wipe away tears and then rise up in furious applause, one could nearly hear (or at least imagine) the faint sound of clapping when police drew chalk outlines around the greatest rap artists of their generation. Finally an artist (a pair!) had taken it that far, and expired not in the choking gasps of suicide, but in a whirlwind of violence — violence that the artist courted. They really were gangsters!

Their deaths were part of their personas and their performances. Dying confirmed they were who they said they were and gave them their legacies as pop culture heroes. Their deaths weren’t pretty, but neither would have been the alternative. Take, for example, Ozzy Osborne.

It’s hard now to imagine the weird terror a young, mad Ozzy and the early innovators of heavy metal inflicted on the imagination of preachers and squares everywhere. He once bit the head off a dove and let the blood dribble down his face — taking the life of not just an animal, but the symbol of the third person of the Trinity! But now, in his decrepitude, he is a nostalgia act and the embodiment of kitsch. His reality television show was praised as “family friendly” by Dan Quayle, not only a Republican but the son of Birchers, and the man whose scolding turned Candace Burgen into TV’s most famous single-mom harlot.

Even as someone who never cared for Black Sabbath, and thus could not be let down by its decrepitude or transformation into kitsch, I look now at his stooped posture, his blubbering speech and flaccid stage presence, and think: Oh why didn’t you just off yourself in ’81? You could have even told us you longed to return to Hell. I might have believed him.

Pop music may be an aural experience, but it relies heavily on image; it’s part of the entertainer’s bargain. And even those who rely on tropes other than the criminal and violent imagery of rap and heavy metal can suffer in their fan’s eyes when they fail to live up to their artistic personas. When I was a wiseass teenager who liked fuzzy base lines and Bee Gees-style harmonies, Ben Folds became my hero. He smartly celebrated and lampooned Gen X’s “Battle of Who Could Care Less.” And he certainly looked the part, a skinny kid who used his impish intelligence to navigate early adulthood until his intelligence and sincerity took over. Clever, insightful, and sincere. And sincerity implied goodness, right? But now that Mr. Folds has divorced his third wife (for whom he wrote the touching song, “The Luckiest”), and married someone else less than a year later, I can’t help but chuckle. Also, I’m suddenly less interested in buying his album.

Some genres are immune from our weird and novel demands. Country, both in its classic and alternative forms, tops them: “I take the truck on into town/ And buy whatever we can’t seem to grow/ I work these hands to bleed cause I got mouths to feed/ And I got 15 dollars hid above the stove.” You don’t hear that and think: I know Ryan Adams is a wine-guzzling short guy with a lot of money, not a poor farmer. But for every country artist who gets away with singing something less-than-true, there are ten more artists who must be the songs: Amy Grants who see declining sales of their Christian music after a divorce, rappers afraid of what cooperating with the police could do to their rep.

This intense desire for the identity of the artist and his art to be inseparable has infected our literature too. How else to explain the rise and fall of serial exaggerator James Frey, or the public’s appetite for even more Augusten Borroughs memoirs? If Huckleberry Finn were released today, it’s easy to imagine the mass-market audience responding with a yawn. “Not even written by a fugitive slave.” Fiction is absent from our general interest magazines, replaced by intensely reported narrative features. The message is simple: We want it to be real.

Some novelists try to ride right through the dilemma. Tom Wolfe promotes a form of reported fiction in which the bulk of the author’s time is spent doing intense research. In his view, readers need the immediacy of reported detail. Our changing tastes recoil from abstraction and insist on hyper-verisimilitude. But the temptation is to respond that Wolfe’s own carefully crafted persona — this is a man who wears white spats in January — is his actual trick. He falls just short of creating the reality-novel (see: I am Charlotte Simmons), but he has made himself into a quote-unquote “novelist.” We wouldn’t trust someone who just wrote books.

But in seeking what’s true, yet also thrilling, we’ve promoted an absurd, and often hysterical, view of our own world. The urge for people to be what they do has given us bad music, fake biographies, and reality television. It’s tempting to diagnose our own culture to be retarded one — where we cannot distinguish between voice and speaker. In fact, the decline of print as the primary medium of our culture makes the short slide into atavism inevitable. Lamenting the disappearance of fiction from The Atlantic, as the author Quinn Dalton did, is idiotic (and certainly futile). Our culture is mediated through television and radio, and we’ve mostly resolved ourselves to it.

And we’ve carried these notions out of the entertainment realm and into our own lives. Similar tendencies now infect the corporate world: We carefully assemble our Facebook profiles, our websites, even our social lives, thinking that it will help our career. Not posting your binge party photos online is just a half step away from avoiding those parties altogether. Employers admit, and even advertise, that they don’t just hire people to do tasks, but to become part of their corporate culture, to be a certain “type” of employee. Say, one who “gets work-life balance.” We accept the premise that we do what we are. (Woe, then, to middle managers.)

So it may be more than our non-criminal rappers who are in trouble. The novel, and fiction in general (as least in its older conception), may continue to lose authority in our culture. And our own lives may be subject to the tedious minutiae of P.R.-informed management.

But maybe there are reasons to be happy too. The reunification of person and office, of art with the artist has its excesses (Akon). But in the meantime we might just enjoy the return of social stigma, of the belief that our personal conduct has effects on the people around us, that our reputation is important, that our public performances of ourselves could be backed up with action. This used to be called honor.

When he wrote this piece, Michael Brendan Dougherty was an associate editor at The American Conservative, where he works now as a national correspondent. His writing has also appeared in other publications, such as New York Times Magazine. Image  of Akon courtesy of Big Stock Photo.

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