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Friday, December 12, 2014

December 12, 2014: Cold Culture: Ice Ice Baby

[To complement last week’s series on winter histories, I wanted to focus this week on cultural representations of the cold, wintry and otherwise. Add your cultural connections for the cold, in all media and genres and with all meanings, for a frrrrrrrigid weekend post, please!]
On two AmericanStudies stages to Vanilla Ice’s story—beyond the obvious one, that is.
When Dallas-born rapper Robert Van Winkle chose “Vanilla Ice” as his stage name, he embraced quite overtly and strikingly the complex cultural dynamics that have accompanied “white rappers” for as long as both the musical genre and the identity category have existed. In case that wasn’t overt enough, it was Ice’s single “Ice Ice Baby” (1990) that became not only his first and biggest hit, but also the first hip hop single to top the Billboard charts. And just in case that still didn’t introduce such cultural and social questions sufficiently, the song and rapper were subsequently embroiled in accusations that its famous bass line had been sampled without permission from the Queen and David Bowie classic “Under Pressure” (an accusation that Ice answered with one of the more humorous plagiarism defenses in cultural history). Lots of AmericanStudies contexts and connections for a simple ditty that just asked us all to stop, collaborate, and listen.
Ice has never been as popular or culturally resonant as he was in that initial, 1990 moment of ascension, but that doesn’t mean that his evolving American story hasn’t included other telling moments and stages. With his late 1991 action film Cool as Ice Ice made a bid to become the latest in a long line of American musical artists who had parlayed that success into film stardom: Elvis Presley is often cited as the prototype, but Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra both got there first, and subsequent superstars such as Madonna have made the same move (if, in her case, with more mixed success to be sure). Yet Ice’s film debut tanked, both in box office and with the critics—so much so, in fact, that it led his record label, SBK, to decide he was overexposed and pull back on their support, a shift that would mark the beginning of the end of his stardom. I haven’t seen Cool as Ice, and it’s possible that the film is just that bad—but it’s not like all 31 of Elvis’s scripted films were Oscar contenders either, so it’d be fair to ask whether the backlash against Ice’s film had something to do with our contemporary cultural tendency to first obsess over and then push back against ubiquitous cultural icons (see also: Hammer, MC).
Whatever the reasons, Cool as Ice’s failure coincided with—if indeed it did not cause—Ice’s fall, and as quickly as he had become a star he was out of the public eye. As I noted in this post, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous belief that “there are no second acts in American lives” was framed in specific response to first act collapses or failures; if we measure such acts by fame or other prominent markers of success, than Ice has indeed not found a second act to match his first. But why should we measure a life’s acts by fame or the like, especially in the aforementioned short-attention-span era, when we move on to the next new celebrity as quickly as we embraced the last one? Why not simply follow the acts and stages of every artist’s career and life, and see where they might take us? Seen in that light, Ice has had a varied and interesting post-stardom arc: it includes a clichéd but unfortunately authentic battle with substance abuse, but also features time as a professional motorcross racer, aesthetic shifts to both hard rock and reggae (among other genres), and an extended and ongoing participation in the notorious Juggalo community (fans of the Insane Clown Posse). Not a neat or simple story to be sure—but a very 21st century American one.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,

PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other cold connections you’d highlight for that weekend post?

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