Monday, July 28, 2008

Music Makes the People Come Together: Three Larger-Than-Life Artists or Groups

1. Elvis Aaron Presley

Velvet paintings. Buck knives with his picture emblazoned on the handle. Competing stamps with his “fat” and “thin” portraits. A ridiculous movie released eleven years after his death (and twenty years after his fame had peaked) about how he inspires suburban hippies toward patriotism. Clambake. Who could inspire all this fanmania but the King?

The question that always gets me about Elvis is why he inspired the level of fan attention that he did--why Elvis and not Buddy Holly or Jerry Lee Lewis? (Especially Jerry Lee Lewis, who was making music at the same time and had the same crossover appeal of taking black music into suburban white living rooms.) Obviously, capturing the cultural imagination is like catching lightning in a bottle, and there's never a simple answer as to why one star makes it over another, but I think Elvis's appeal is all about his ability to transgress boundaries of identity, particularly racial and sexual identity. He was dangerously masculine--courting 14-year-old Priscilla Presley and (according to urban legend) packing his jeans with the cardboard tube from inside a roll of paper towels to emphasize his...appeal. At the same time, however, he showed an effeminate vulnerability--his signature leg movements are rumored to have stemmed from uncontrollable nervous shaking, and he was an infamous "mama's boy."

This sexual ambiguity was only reinforced by his racial ambiguity. I'm not sure Steve Allen would have made him sing "Hound Dog" to an actual dog or Ed Sullivan would have refused to film Elvis below the waist if he didn't present the threat of miscegenation by being a white guy performing music that was so unmistakably "black." Of course, Elvis never would have been famous like he was if he'd actually been black--part of the controversy around him as a singer, then and now, is that he's among the first in a long line of singers from Elvis to Pat Boone to Vanilla Ice to Eminem to the Beastie Boys who've been accused of co-opting African-American music for a while middle-class audience. Elvis and Pat Boone deserve this accusation more than Eminem, The Beastie Boys, or even (shudder) Vanilla Ice, since Elvis and Pat Boone re-recorded songs written and already released by black artists like Big Mama Thornton and Fats Domino.

Once Elvis died, however, the nature of his popularity changed dramatically. Instead of race and sex, Elvis fans were obsessed with sex and death and thwarted potential. Elvis's famously excessive personal life captures fans' imagination these days. He's become a much more classically "cult" figure in death, with people positing connections between Elvis and aliens and claiming that he faked his death. The greatest cultural riff on Elvis's lasting cultural appeal (besides Colonel Homer, of course) would have to be the film Bubba Ho-Tep, starring Bruce Campbell and Ozzie Williams as Elvis and JFK, both of whom (the film argues) faked their own deaths. Don't question the logic--just watch the movie--it's awesome.

2. Madonna
If Elvis caught the cultural imagination around the relationship between race and sexuality, then Madonna has exploited our obsession with the relationship between gender and sexuality. As her name suggests, she's always interested in breaking down the virgin/whore dichotomy that structures so much of how people think about gender in our culture.

A confession: the first course I ever took in college was about Madonna, and although I didn't realize it at the time, I think it was there that my obsession with cultural studies started. Madonna garnered a ton of critical attention in the 1980s, and I've heard that it was impossible to go to an academic conference without seeing at least one Madonna paper, if not a whole panel. I remember watching the video for “Material Girl” in class, and then my teacher asking us why we thought feminists were mad about it. More than my answer, I remember being blown away that there was an academic conversation about Madonna at all. I imagine this is how my students feel about Buffy now.

How to characterize Madonna's different stages? There's Underwear Madonna of the early 80s, when she performed at the MTV video music awards and launched a thousand “wannabes.”; scary dominartix Madonna; Evita Madonna, the Serious Actress; Spiritual Madonna, coming back after 40 with Ray of Light, kaballah, and a brand-new British accent; Britney Spears makeout partner and adoption-loophole US Weekly fodder Madonna (her current incarnation). So many different social anxieties seem to coalesce around her: fear of aging, partly, but mostly she seems to address the problem of how American culture can handle an economically and sexually powerful woman. She's interesting to critics because she's infuriating--playing off the cultural stereotypes that have kept her down, but incorporating them into her own image.

Her relationship to the aging process has unsurprisingly taken center stage of late--she turns fifty on August 16 (of course she's a Leo), and so much of the fan art she's inspired revolves around her ability to constantly reinvent herself--and by being constantly new, she never has to worry about getting old.

3. The Grateful Dead
Although you can buy Grateful Dead albums at a store or online (American Beauty is their best, I think), the real deal with this band is live shows. They've been touring nonstop since 1965--have continued touring even after Jerry Garcia's death in 1995 under the new monikers "RatDog" and “The Other Ones.” As this second name suggests, Jerry Garcia was the heart of the band.

The mythology of the Grateful Dead is deeply hooked into that of free love and huge festival shows like Woodstock. As such, the music is only part of the appeal of a Dead show. People follow the band around for years, trading bootleg tapes and selling clothes and bags and jewelry at the shows as ways to make money. Fans love their music, of course, but the real deal is the show itself, and the opportunity it offers to form an alternative community based in free love and free drugs. The connection among freaks and hippies (and the way this connection is always measured against "straight" culture") is awesomely characterized (again), by the greatest television show ever, Freaks and Geeks. This blog entry, too, shows how fans narrate their love for the band like a religious conversion: I was trapped by bourgeois mainstream culture, but then the Doors of Perception opened in my mind and I saw the Beauty of Music. I was Lost, but now I'm Found.

This ethic of the always-touring, drug-addled band has been reproduced in bands like Ween and Phish over the years. Even festivals like Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, while they feature bands thoroughly disconnected from the free love vibe of the Dead, still build on that pattern of sprawling days-long shows and alternative fan-based communities.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

It's all fun and games until someone loses an eye: Five games that players take seriously

1. Dungeons and Dragons
All conversations about games and role playing must start with D&D. As I mentioned last week, the game conceptually builds on Tolkien's Middle Earth, but offers players a chance to create characters and adventures within that world. The Dungeon Master constructs the specific narrative while the players act out the campaign itself, rolling four-, six-, eight-, and twenty-sided dice to see how successful their fights are.

The real appeal of D&D, though, comes just as much from the narrative as it does from the sense of community that's engendered in the game, beautifully captured in the final episode of Freaks and Geeks. Gordon gets to the heart of most of the items on this list when he sums up D&D's appeal, saying "you can be someone you're not in real life." That's true, but the other thing I notice is how it gives these guys the opportunity to be someone they are, but didn't think they could be--Daniel is able to be good at something, Harris can control the scene, and the geeks can finally become cool guys, if only by association.

One thing that strikes me as sadly true about the utopian community presented here, though, is how it's so aggressively male--where are Millie and Harris's girlfriend and the other girl geeks? The homosociality is part of what makes it possible for the characters to lower their guards, but it's sad to me that there's no D&D analogue for girls. I tend to agree with creator Gary Gygax when he decries the lack of imagination needed for video role playing games, but they have made these gendered distinctions beside the point.

Ultimately, though, the real carrot offered by D&D is the opportunity for community--you need at least three people to play, forcing introverted outsiders to come together and form relationships. These coalitions of outsiders are behind the purported connection between D&D and devil worship in the eighties (and apparently still), but the absurdity of these claims becomes clear when you see actual gamers at play.

Since the shape of role-playing games has changed so radically in the last fifteen years, D&D has lost a lot of its geek stigma, and now seems to be part of nostalgic hipster culture, mourned in the AV Club and memorialized in funny t-shirts. The anachronism of classic D&D is key to its viability as a geek-chic marker, I think--after all, you don't see guys with ironic mustaches showing off their obsession with...

2. World of Warcraft
When people talk about "video game addiction," they're usually talking about World of Warcraft (or World of Warcrack), a massive multi-player online role playing game (or MMORPG) based on Dungeons and Dragons. Like D&D, WoW depends on ongoing relationships between players to work. However, because of the limits of the internet, those relationships can be confined entirely to gameplay--forming the kind of alternative community from the Freaks and Geeks clip would thus be considerably more difficult. Since the game is both limitless (unlike a specific Dungeons and Dragons campaign) and competitive, it's easy to play almost endlessly. Furthermore, since MMORPGs like WoW are still relatively new phenomena, people are more likely to jump to radical conclusions about the games' power over their lives.

It's worth pointing out, though, that WoW players exhibit much less control over gameplay than traditional or live-action gamers. The narrative of Warcraft's fictive World is determined by Blizzard Games, and players advance levels by spending more time (and money) online. The best example of this problematic corporate control over gameplay comes in the case of Sara Andrews, who tried to start a GLBT-friendly guild. When she did, she was immediately chastised by Blizzard Games staff that she was violating the game's anti-discrimination policy by mentioning the sexuality of guild members (in an attempt, of course, to create a space where they would actually be safe from harassment). According to the emails she received from the corporate office, mentioning the sexuality of her guild members would serve as bait for attacks from other players--in other words, if they were hassled, it would only be becasue they were asking for it. After Andrews went public with her complaints, Blizzard recanted and apologized, but the incident shows how the corporation is ultimately in charge of the shape of the narrative. As Andrews points out, non-player characters regularly make homophobic puns, and the incident wouldn't happen if she were playing D&D with a queer Dungeon Master.

3. Second Life
This Onion story on "World of World of Warcraft" is funny, but ultimately not that different from Second Life, a MMORPG that abandons the fantastic aspect of hyper-diegesis for a kind of hyper-realism that places this game squarely in the uncanny valley. Well--maybe hyper-realism is the wrong term. You can, after all, outfit your avatar with a "furry skin"or wings in Second Life which severs the connection to reality almost immediately.

But let me back up. Second Life is essentially a MMORPG version of The Sims, but instead of making worlds to control, you enter into an existing world with an avatar--an online version of yourself, but with whatever improvements or additions you want to make. Second Life differs from many other MMORPGs in that there's no competitive object you're working toward--instead, it functions mainly as a kind of social networking site. Unsurprisingly, then, the main activities in Second Life seem to be buying stuff and having virtual sex. Second Life has its own system of currency of Linden dollars, which are bought with real money (unlike gold in WoW, which you earn for various tasks). In the writing class I'm teaching right now, my students and I talk a lot about the way hyperdiegetic narratives offer an "escape" from real life, and Second Life seems to be constructed specifically around that appeal. If your real life feels disappointing or complicated, Second Life offers an uncomplicated alternative, where social ideals are easier to live up to (it's hardly coincidence that there are so few old, overweight, or nonwhite avatars).

In her article “Same Shit, Different World,” Lauren Bans of Bitch Magazine points out how the fantastic aspects of Second Life don't breed utopian or even different ways of relating to
other people:

The problem is that the virtual worlds these relationships are forged within are actively set up as relatively consequence-free play worlds. It's easy to be Hollywood-thin, never put your foot in your mouth, and have porntastic sex in Second Life, which in turn makes it easer to abide by and not question those cultural standards in the first place. What's more, the bias that members can bring into the virtual arena as fairly anonymous citizens--like deep racism and misogyny--remain unchallenged because Second Life is still a lawless universe looked upson as a light pastime people should be allowed to enjoy in whatever way they want, rather than as an active, burgeoning society. (62)

The thing that blows me away about Second Life, though, is how this desire for "realism" makes the world itself so profoundly boring. When avatars talk to each other, they move their hands in front of them as if they were typing on air, and the Second Life "holiday" posted on youtube seems like an attempt to actualize some kind of prefab postcard experience we've been informed we should enjoy. Without the room for play offered by a dense narrative structure, people seem depressingly at a loss to come up with new stories. If we use the model of fan fiction, every story is a "Mary Sue" story, but the master narrative is just life. Dwight from The Office offers the simultaneously saddest and most awesome example of Second Life as a profoundly mundane "escape."

4. Society for Creative Anachronism
Of course, the drive toward "realism" as escape can also direct people into a past world rather than a virtual one. For members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, this means dressing in "authentic" pre-17th-century British garb and getting together for olde-tymey activities like archery or brewing mead. The society started in 1966 in Berkeley, CA when a group of Medieval scholars/science fiction fans (read "extremely nerdy hippies") had a backyard party that almost immediately morphed into a convention. From the beginning, then, the SCA drew on the same population as the established science-fiction/fantasy subculture. As such, the influence of figures like Tolkein can be seen in the map of the different "realms" of the SCA and in the fan-produced videos of staged battles.

The question of authenticity is an interesting one among SCA members--while they admit to only selectively recreating the period (many fans describe their activities as "recreating the Middle Ages as they ought to have been"), they're simulltaneously deeply invested in accurately recreating the period, down to making tunics and using period-specific language. The language might be the best example of the dynamic at work in the group--as much as it's about being a history nerd, it's about marking yourself as part of a group that stands in contrast to the dominant culture. This is the difference between the SCA and fairs like the Renaissance Festival--since no one in the SCA gets paid, the group is truly voluntary and can afford to be exclusive, particularly around these questions of authenticity. My friend Peter wrote a brilliant post on his blog describing the way that groups like the SCA or science fiction conventions can turn into pissing contests for authenticity--who liked Battlestar Galactica before it was cool, who has the most convincing medieval armor. Why is it that even in subcultures--and maybe particularly in subcultures--we set such stringent standards for inclusion? Is it possible to create an in-group that isn't contingent on an out-group?

5. Scrabble
One of the aspects that immediately marks a subculture as such is its modified use of language--do you know what a hit point is? Do you know what RBI means and why it matters? The difference between a Romulan and a Vulcan? The interesting thing about Scrabble, however, is the way that a hard-core player is marked by his/her ability to divorce language from meaning. The way you know a hard-core Scrabble player wouldn't be from her vocabulary--after all, she wouldn't need to know any words that were longer than seven letters--but she would know all the three-letter words without necessarily knowing their meanings. In fact, it would be profoundly poor strategy to learn the meanings of these words, since that time could be better spent memorizing all the words that use the letter "Q" but not "U." Scrabble, then, offers way to be a word nerd without being a bookworm (you could be one, but you could also be really good at patterns and never read anything more complicated than US Weekly). In fact, attachment of language to meaning is the mark of an underdeveloped player, not a mature one.

"But what about community?" you ask. "This isn't a blog about language--tell me about weird gatherings of Scrabblers!"

Okay. Scrabble tournaments are radically different from home play, particularly in the speed and scores achieved. The high-stakes feeling of a Scrabble tournament was gloriously sent up in the episode of King of the Hill when Peggy goes to a Boggle tournament (here's the recap if you can't bear to watch that awful link). The game itself has gone through several iterations over time, most notably as a game show and an internet game (which was then reincarnated as a Facebook application). Following the theme of corporate interference with communities, Hasbro threatened to sue the developers of Scrabulous--that suit remains unresolved. Ironically, Scrabulous and its Facebook double have introduced players to the game and most likely boosted sales of the "hard" version--but the loss of profit signalled by a free online version of the game is too high a price for Hasbro. I'm still bitter about the loss of the Bogglific application on Facebook.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Let's put the "iterate" back in "literate": 5 novelists with cult followings

1. Charles Dickens

When people talk about the literary/high-culture value of “quality television” like The Sopranos and The Wire, they often refer to these texts as “the new Dickens.” Presumably, this comparison is meant to elevate the former--if The Wire is like Dickens, then watching TV could be good for you, right?

Maybe Matthew Arnold was right, and what this really means is that Dickens was a lowbrow panderer, just like all those soulless TV execs, but I choose instead to see the parallels between Dickens' work and contemporary televised serials as a sign of the aesthetic and cultural possibilities of television. Structurally, Dickens' serials share a number of story elements with contemporary serials: multiplot and densely layered stories, grotesque characters, and melodramatic/gothic elements.

At the same time, noticing this parallel offers us a chance to rethink Dickens as a fan phenomenon, on the level of famous contemporary serials like LOST or Star Trek. At the time of their release, the books were hugely popular both in England and America. Famously, when the final installment reached American shores, there was a crowd greeting the boat with the question "does Little Nell die?" This pressing need to know What Happens Next is at the core of many if not most cult texts, and Dickens is no exception.

Like his less legit contemporary brethren, Dickens has inspired fan fiction, reenactments by fans, and even theme parks (Star Trek only has a casino). Even in the realm of academia, there's a shockingly similar vibe among a group of hard-core Dickens scholars as there is at a Star Trek convention. It's not just by chance, I think, that the most famous annual Dickens conference is maybe the only academic environment where you could find a Victorian Ball. Which people attend in costume.

2. J.K. Rowling/ Harry Potter
Rowling, too, is frequently praised in terms of her similarity to Dickens. This is perhaps a more intuitive link, not just because she writes immensely popular serialized novels that are deeply rooted in the minutiae of British culture, but because she has captured the Anglo-American cultural imagination so thoroughly.

The thing that's particularly interesting to me, however, about Rowling is her intensely proprietary relationship to her characters. Her declaration of Dumbledore's secret gay history came months after the final book in the series had been published. Rather than leaving the matter open for fans to discuss in the forum of a classic critical conversation or through dueling fanfics, Rowling seemingly closed the book on the matter (as it were)--and by declaring Dumbledore officially gay, she precluded the possibility of other characters' queerness being “discovered” by fans. After all, if Rowling has definitively stated that Dumbledore is gay, then we can all stop wondering about the possibility of a love connection between, say, Harry and Draco. Rebecca Traister from has an interesting take on Rowling's “outing” of Dumbledore which you can access here.

Like Dickens' struggle over copyright laws, Rowling has attempted to control fan activity w/r/t the Wizarding Universe she created, recently suing the creators of the Harry Potter Lexicon, a website that offers definitions of everything from Abraxan to Zonko's Joke Shop. Rowling used the web site herself as a resource when making a timeline for the film version of Goblet of Fire, but when its creators wanted to publish a hardcover version of the book, Rowling had a litigious fit, claiming that the printed lexicon would preempt her as-yet-unwritten Harry Potter Encyclopedia, and thus infringe on her authorial rights.
Both the Lexicon and Dumbledore's belated coming-out party place Rowling at the center of an ongoing argument over the power of the author and what defines authorship itself. As yet, puppet shows and middle school dance squads aren't considered copyright infringements, but Rowling's vexed relationship with fan activity opens up the question of where (or whether) the line can be drawn between interpretation, appreciation, and "infringement."

3. J.R.R. Tolkien and The Fellowship of the Ring
It would be impossible to talk about cult fiction without mentioning Tolkien: the "father of high fantasy" and the patron saint of the twenty-sided die. Tolkien invented a fantasy language 40 years before Klingon and The Fellowship of the Ring trilogy has remained required reading for three generations of geeks. For instance, although Gary Gygax (the creator of Dungeons & Dragons) denies any direct influence from Tolkien, he did admit that he had to change a number of the creatures so that they no longer resembled Tolkien's, and hobbits thus became halflings. The difference, of course, is negligible. Most of the tropes that define fantasy lit, and particularly its link to Celtic mythology (with all the elves and gnomes) can be linked back to Tolkien. Although the Fellowship of the Ring trilogy and its prequel The Hobbit are most well known, Tolkien also wrote The Simarillion, a compendium of Middle Earth myths that was published after his death.

The film adaptations were hugely successful, winning a record number of Oscars and changing the cinematic landscape (so it contained a lot more dragons and magic), and Tolkien remained the auteur figure at the center of the myth. Even after Peter Jackson blew most of the good will he'd earned with the LOTR films with his floptastic remake of King Kong and Guillermo del Toro was tapped to direct the adaptation of The Hobbit, the anticipation for the new Tolkien film has remained unabated. It's the fictive world rather than the specific director that provides the fodder for fan excitement (this might seem obvious, but Sam Raimi's connection to the Spiderman movies has been key to their success, as has Bryan Singer's name in relation to the X-Men franchise).

Ultimately, Middle Earth might offer the best existing example of the kind of hyper-dense fictive world that provides fertile ground for cult following, and it's thus no surprise that the narrative has inspired everything from over 40,000 (!) stories on, to Harvard parodies, to fan encyclopedias, to quite possibly the most awesome thing Leonard Nimoy has ever done (including Futurama and Star Trek).

4. Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin

According to legend, when Harriet Beecher Stowe met Abraham Lincoln, he greeted her with the comment, "So you're the little lady who started this big war." It's an interesting comment on the place of the author in relation to a work of literature: she's always diminutive (both little and a lady), and her actions seem to have spun out of control, leading to big, historical, and decidedly masculine events.

The truth of the relationship between Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Civil War is (surprise!) more complicated than Lincoln's comment suggests, but Stowe's novel did move its Northern white readers to pity slaves and reject the institution. At the same time, however, it relied on and reinforced narratives of intrinsic racial difference in order to do so, and continued a long and depressing history of offering black bodies up for consumption in the American marketplace. The industry around Uncle Tom's Cabin traded in images and narratives, not real people, but African-American experience was still the currency by which white readers made sense of their lives. The novel remains the gold standard for the double-edged sword of sentimental literature, where readers weep over the plight of the suffering [fill-in-the blank] and then feel their work is done. It's a short leap from Little Eva's tragic death to Gwyneth Paltrow's African identity.

It's possible, I think, for narratives like this to serve as a kind of gateway to concrete forms of activism, but the commodification of the characters and the experiences makes that leap difficult. What do you think? Is it possible to understand the enormity of slavery's inhumanity when it's presented as a doll, part of a Plantation-themed party, or advertisements for thread and tobacco? Either way, Uncle Tom's Cabin has become the ur-text for some of the most enduring racial stereotypes in American culture: the Mammy, the tragic mulatto, and of course, the Magical Black Man.

5. Jack Kerouac/ On the Road

Required reading for disaffected teenagers everywhere, Jack Kerouac's loosely fictionalized autobiographical narrative of his cross-country travels with Neal Cassady and (more briefly) Allen Ginsberg, as well as other Beat luminaries (William S. Burroughs, Alan Ansen) formed the foundation for the contemporary road narrative. The myth of Kerouac's process is as important as the final product: the famous story is that he sat down and wrote the whole book in three weeks on a continuous scroll of tracing paper. The scroll itself now travels cross-country, keeping up the myth of the American Road.

Kerouac's success was as much about timing as talent--the novel came out just at the point when affordable cars and an interstate highway system made individual cross-country travel possible. In the 1950's, people could for the first time live as itinerant travelera without dropping out of society like Depression-era hobos. Even though Kerouac describes a rebellious and marginal lifestyle, he never loses the opportunity to reintegrate into mainstream culture. His work, then, might be read as part of the creation of the modern notion of adolescence as a period designated for rebellion--where you can step out of the expectations of mainstream culture for a period of time, but always have the option of safely returning (as evidenced by Kerouac's ideological shift later in life toward conservatism). As the clip suggests, Kerouac's later life was marred by alcoholism and misery, and he died of cirrhosis at 47.

Kerouac's understanding of the Road as a space for enlightenment and rebellion set the stage for generations of Road Narratives, from Easy Rider to Thelma and Louise to epic poems about road trips to gross-out comedies. Kerouac is distinct from other writers on this list because his influence is so widespread--I wouldn't say there's no On the Road fan fiction, but that it's harder to find, since Kerouac's influence tends to show up as someone trying to reproduce the general feeling of his narrative by chronicling their own alcohol- or drug-fueled trips cross-country. But of course, that's not to say that you can't still find weird fan ephemera like an interview with a Kerouac bobblehead doll.