Monday, November 30, 2015
[December 6th marks the 150th anniversary of the ratification of perhaps the most important amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the 13th. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some contexts for five other amendments, leading up to a special weekend post on the 13th!]
On how a classic summer song connects to a generation-shifting amendment.
I listened to a lot of early rock and roll growing up (something about having a couple baby boomers for parents during the era that first defined the concept of “classic rock” and produced countless “Best of the 1950s” type collections), and few songs stood out to me more than Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” (1958). I don’t know that any single song better expresses the clash of youthful dreams and adult realities on which so much of rock and roll and popular music more generally have been built, and I definitely believe that Cochran and his co-writer (and manager) Jerry Capeheart hit upon the perfect way to literally give voice to those dueling perspectives: in the repeated device through which the speaker’s teenage desires are responded to and shot down by the deep voices of authority figures, from his boss to his father to his senator.
Coincidentally, Cochran himself died very young, at the age of 21, in an April 1960 car accident while on tour in England. Cochran’s death came just over a year after the tragic plane crash that took the lives of three other prominent young rock and rollers, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. There’s obviously no direct relationship between these two accidents, nor would I argue that these artists’ youthful deaths were the cause of their popularity (all four were already popular prior to the accidents). But on the other hand, I think there’s something iconic, mythic even, about rock and rollers dying young—or about, more exactly, our narratives and images of such figures—and I believe it’d be difficult to separate those myths from the idealistic and anti-authoritarian attitudes captured in Cochran’s biggest hit. That is, it feels throughout “Summertime Blues” as if the speaker’s youthful enthusiasm is consistently being destroyed by those cold adult responses—and melodramatic as it might sound, the loss of childhood dreams can certainly be allegorized through the deaths of the kinds of pop icons who so often symbolize youth.
Yet of course most young people continue to live in, and thus impact, the world far after their youthful dreams have ended (“Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone,” to quote another youthful anthem), and in a subtle, unexpected way Cochran’s song reflects that human and historical reality as well. When Cochran’s speaker tries to take his problem to more official authorities, he is rejected by his senator for a political reason: “I’d like to help you, son, but you’re too young to vote” is the reply. In 1958, when “Summertime Blues” was released, the national legal voting age was 21, and so the 20 year old Cochran could not vote; but over the next decade a potent social and legal movement to lower the voting age would emerge, in conjunction with the decade’s many other youth and activist movements, and in 1971 Congress passed and the states ratified the 26th Amendment, which did indeed lower the eligible age for voting to 18. Being able to vote certainly doesn’t eliminate all the other problems of teenage life and its conflicts with adult authority—but it does remind us that neither the gap nor the border between youth and adulthood are quite as fixed or as absolute as our myths might suggest.
Next amendment tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
Saturday, November 28, 2015
[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
November 2: Dead Presidents: Warren G. Harding: A series inspired by Harding’s birthday kicks off with what do and don’t know about the mysterious life and death of a president.
November 3: Dead Presidents: William Henry Harrison: The series continues with what may have been lost, and what definitely was, in the most striking presidential death.
November 4: Dead Presidents: James Garfield: How the second-shortest presidential term was still an impressive and influential one, as the series rolls on.
November 5: Dead Presidents: William McKinley: Two reasons why I can’t mourn the loss of the McKinley presidency, despite his tragic assassination.
November 6: Dead Presidents: FDR: The series concludes with public perceptions, private realities, and the influential health of a president.
November 7-8: Five Years!: In honor of my five year blogiversary, I highlight five blogs and bloggers that have been inspiring and important to my own work.
November 9: American Inventors: Franklin and Jefferson: A series inspired by Robert Fulton’s birthday kicks off with a telling invention linked to each of the two founders, and what separates them.
November 10: American Inventors: Eli Whitney’s Effects: The series continues with the famous inventor’s more and less well-known effects, and what they have in common.
November 11: American Inventors: Bell and Edison: Heroes, villains, and another way to see the historical picture, as the series rolls on.
November 12: American Inventors: Boykin and Graham: Two largely forgotten, inspiring and influential inventors, and what links them.
November 13: American Inventors: Steamboat Culture: The series concludes with five cultural texts that make good use of the birthday boy’s inventive innovation.
November 14-15: Crowd-sourced Inventors and Inventions: A busy travel schedule meant I didn’t get to solicit many contributions to this post—so be sure to add yours in comments, please!
November 16: SHA Follow Ups: Our Panel on the KKK: A series following up the Southern Historical Association conference in Little Rock starts with a few takeaways from the panel on which I presented.
November 17: SHA Follow Ups: Special Sessions: The series continues with highlights from the conference’s provocative and complementary special sessions.
November 18: SHA Follow Ups: Panels: Takeaways from a few of the many great SHA panels I attended, as the series rolls on.
November 19: SHA Follow Ups: Books: Five new releases from UNC Press that illustrate the wealth of great scholarship featured at the SHA book exhibit.
November 20: SHA Follow Ups: Little Rock and Race: The series concludes with three layers to how the city remembers race, and the fragile significance of the third.
November 21-22: The Upcoming NeMLA Conference: Speaking of conferences, here’s a sneak peak of my forthcoming President’s Letter about the March 2016 NeMLA Conference in Hartford!
November 23: Cultural Thanks-givings: Longmire: A series on current cultural texts for which I’m thankful kicks off with the TV show that’s both traditional and groundbreaking.
November 24: Cultural Thanks-givings: Grace and Frankie: The series continues with two ways the Netflix sitcom pushes our cultural boundaries, and one way it happily does not.
November 25: Cultural Thanks-givings: Americanah: Two of the many reasons why I’d call Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel one of the 21st century’s best, as the series rolls on.
November 26: Cultural Thanks-givings: Macklemore: Two complementary songs that illustrate why I’m thankful for Macklemore’s engagements with American identity.
November 27: Cultural Thanks-givings: Allegiance and Hamilton: The series concludes with what links and what differentiates two important new musicals.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to write? Lemme know!
Friday, November 27, 2015
[One of the best parts of being an AmericanStudier in 2015 is the abundance of impressive cultural works with which we’re surrounded. So for this year’s Thanksgiving series, I wanted to give thanks for five great works and artists about which I haven’t had the chance to write in this space. Share your own cultural thanks in comments, please!]
On what links and what differentiates two important new musicals.
I haven’t written a lot about American musicals and musical theater in this space, but when I have they’ve been socially progressive and significant ones: Zitkala-Sa and William Hanson’s Sun Dance Opera (1913); DuBose Heyward and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935); and Jonathan Larsen’s Rent (1996). Each of those works is complex and in need of more extended analysis, but all three, it’s fair to say, broke from their genres’ conventions and traditions to portray American identities and communities in groundbreaking and important ways. And what that would mean, to make the complementary point overtly, is that the conventions and traditions of American musical theater tend to be socially conservative (perhaps more so than many of our cultural forms), to feature on the stage identities and communities in ways that flatter our mainstream ideals rather than challenge, complicate, or broaden those narratives. Which is to say, what the Tom Shows did with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, turning a divisive and clearly activist work into a safe and stereotyping mainstream popular entertainment, could be read as a symptom of a much larger trend in American musical theater.
Whether or not that’s really been the case overall (and I welcome comments on other ways to read our musical theater histories!), the last few months have witnessed a couple very prominent steps in the more progressive direction. Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione’s Japanese Internment musical Allegiance, which debuted in San Diego in 2012, opened on Broadway in October, featuring George Takei (on whose experiences in an internment camp the musical is partly based) among its acclaimed cast. And in August, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Revolutionary War and Founding era musical Hamilton moved from its award-winning Off-Broadway run to Broadway, where it has continued and extended its popular and critical successes. Along with their shared attempts to bring American history to the stage, these two musicals also utilize casting to advance their progressive goals: Allegiance features a richly diverse group of Asian American actors (including the three leads from the San Diego debut) amidst its impressively multi-ethnic cast; while Hamilton has famously gone even further in the direction of diversity, casting all Hispanic and African American actors as its European American characters (including Miranda himself in the title role) and reserving the role of King George for its only white actor, Brian D’Arcy James. In who as well as what’s on the stage, both these new musicals are unquestionably changing the genre.
Yet in another way, the two musicals offer two quite distinct illustrations of the nature and politics of the musical as a cultural form. (To be clear, I haven’t had a chance to see either live yet, but have heard many of their songs and am also responding to numerous reviews of each. Again, I welcome further comments below!) The songs and musical numbers in Allegiance are consistently upbeat, and seem (both to this listener and to many reviewers) jarring alongside the much darker moments and settings through which the musical moves its characters. The rap and hip hop songs and numbers in Hamilton, on the other hand, align (counter-intuitively yet pitch-perfectly) with both the musical’s innovative casting and its portrayals of the Revolutionary and Founding figures and histories. That is, the music in Allegiance feels tied more to the musical genre’s conservative conventions, and thus at odds with the play’s progressive goals in ways that create a sense of dissonance; while Hamilton’s more radical musical choices parallel its progressiveness and create a sense of artistic as well as political coherence. I’m thankful that both these musicals are on the stage in 2015, but am especially thankful for the thoroughly innovative brilliance that is Hamilton.
November Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Cultural thanks-givings you’d share?