Jan 212014

Who fans will often think, ‘This is my song, it belongs to me, it reminds me of the first time that I kissed Susie, and you can’t sell it.’ And the fact is that I can and I will and I have. I don’t give a fuck about the first time you kissed Susie. . . . It’s my song. I do what the fuck I like with it.

That was Pete Townshend of the Who in 2002, in a Rolling Stone interview. He was responding to the interviewer’s question about the song “Bargain,” which first appeared on the album Who’s Next in 1971. The interviewer had noted that the song was actually about being “prepared to give yourself up for enlightenment or spiritual satisfaction.” Townshend had replied, “That’s right. Yeah.” When the interviewer went on to express some perplexity—perhaps even dismay—that the song was now being used in Nissan commercials, Townshend responded that he didn’t “give a fuck about the first time you kissed Susie.”

I wonder how Rodger Hodgson might respond to a similar inquiry. Roger Hodgson, formerly of the band Supertramp, is the guy who wrote “Give a Little Bit.”  That song absolutely rocked my soul at age 18—so vulnerable and beautiful were the lyrics and melody, so bravely and unabashedly did it proclaim (and even celebrate) the human need for tolerance, transparency, and tenderness. “Give a Little Bit” is now featured in Coca-Cola commercials.

Age 18 was a long time ago for me, and the song’s importance in my life receded decades ago. Nonetheless, now that it’s used to sell Coke, even my sentimental fondness for it has been stripped away. Listening to it now, I feel absolutely no emotion whatsoever.

Roger Hodgson wrote a number of songs with a “spiritual,” heart-opening sort of theme. A few years ago I youtubed him and saw he was still giving solo shows, reprising his greatest hits, and that he generally wore all white, like some kind of rock and roll elder-saint. Well, what’s an old rock star to do with himself? Anyway, he probably has a kid or two he needs to put through college. Maybe that Coke commercial pays the tuition (and then some, I’m sure).

Nonetheless, it is unquestionably a cynical thing to do—to sell a song of spiritual aspiration to a car company, or a clarion call for compassion to Coca Cola.

Because, make no mistake: It sends an unambiguous signal that the songs were never anything more than a commodity and the sentiments they expressed never anything more than a sales pitch that some of us bought when were young and impressionable. Now that we are older and more sophisticated, we should be wise enough to seal off the soft places in our hearts where we once invested such songs with luminous meaning. It was a put-on from the get-go, and we were hoodwinked if we ever believed differently.

Or were we? Were the songs (and their lyrics) tinged with cynicism from the start, or was the artistic impulse that birthed them as pure and passionate as they were received by millions of young listeners? The sale of “Give A Little Bit” to Coca Cola is—to my 18-year-old self, who still lives in me—equivalent to Walt Whitman loaning a few verses of Leaves of Grass to a Monsanto ad. Quite frankly, I have to believe that 16-year-old Roger Hodgson (he was only 16 when he wrote the song) would have felt exactly the same way.

It is sad that Hodgson, Townshend, and other songwriters arrived at such a place of disillusionment that they sold away, with their songs, their own youthful ideals and their integrity (such as it was) with their fans.

Then again, “There but for the grace . . .” Personally, I can slip into cynicism multiple times a day. Sometimes it takes a miracle, or fantastic luck, or un-ignorable pain, to bring me back to my heart. Not ever having endured the corrupting, corrosive influences of rock stardom (which are quite unimaginable to me), how can I blame these guys?

Jan 182014

Often I’ve enjoyed youtube clips that feature people stating things I already believe in a powerful way.

It is rare, however, to see something that actually modifies my perspective, as this video has:

I have long suspected that reverse racism was a dubious concept, but Aamer Rahman brought it home in a way I failed to understand before. Yes, it would be different—very different—to mock the way white people dance, if white people were a historically oppressed ethnic group, whose native home had been decimated by slavery and plunder over the centuries. It would be cruel and highly insensitive. It would, in fact, be an entirely different thing than what it actually is.

So. Rahman’s point is well taken, and it got me thinking about how all humor is contextual. A joke that goes over well at a wedding could be mortifyingly inappropriate at a funeral. Also, who tells a joke, and to whom the joke is told, are critical elements of context. For example, a black comedian poking fun at black culture means something different—and has a completely different emotional impact—than a white comedian attempting the same thing, even if the “material” is identical.

This issue of context extends beyond humor of course. And here is where it is possible that I might have a small disagreement with Mr. Rahman.

In the video above, in a backhanded, satirical way, Rahman demolishes the concept of reverse racism. But I do think reverse racism exists. The reverse racists I’ve known are white. Again, it’s all about context.

In another one of his comedy clips on youtube, Rahman begins by saying, “I have a question for white people in the audience; it’s a general question that’s been on my mind for a while, for white people. Umm . . . what the hell is your problem?” This lands pretty funny coming from a black guy. From a white comedian, of course, it would make no sense.

Similarly, when I’ve seen dramatic movies or documentaries that illuminate racial oppression in America—and then a white friend says to me something like, “What exactly is wrong with us white people?”—it makes absolutely no sense to me at all. A black person could say that and I would understand. But for a white person to say something like this (and maybe it’s just because I lived in Berkeley, CA for decades, but I’ve heard this kind of talk on multiple occasions), it just strikes me as a peculiar expression of pointless self-hatred.

And that is my definition of reverse racism.


Jan 032014

There’s a certain fellow I often run into at the gym, a very pleasant, intelligent guy. A week or two ago, in the locker room after our respective workouts, we somehow struck up a conversation about Edward Snowden and the NSA. My friend’s opinion was that Snowden’s revelations are proof we need to “shrink the size of government.”

“Well, I’m a liberal,” I said. “I believe in government spending and safety net programs—like food stamps and unemployment compensation. And I’m a big fan of Obamacare.”

My friend chuckled. “I really don’t think the government is qualified to take over one sixth of our whole economy.”

This was my I-wanna-run-screaming-for-the-hills moment.

I’m okay with reasonable disagreement—all for it, in fact. But unthinking stupidity depresses me.

Native stupidity is all right. People are endowed with varying degrees of reasoning power and intellect; I accept that. Also, people have different ways of thinking. I don’t even believe intelligence can really be measured on a linear scale, like IQ.

But what I find inexcusable is that so many people in our society simply neglect to use their brains.

I’m sure my gym buddy is far from the only one quoting the Republican meme about the government takeover of one sixth of the economy. If it was not an effective political message, the Republicans wouldn’t keep repeating it.

But what I don’t get is—does anybody who swallows that line ever stop to think about what a government takeover of healthcare might actually look like?

Is the government socializing all the hospitals? Replacing all private hospitals with new government-run facilities? Are there new government officials in everybody’s doctor’s office? Have new government medical schools been established? Do you now have to go to government-trained doctors and nurses to get care?

I mean, you don’t even have to read the fine print, much less read between the lines to see that the “government takeover of one-sixth of the economy” is horseshit: All you have to do is open your eyes and check.

But maybe the government is taking over healthcare insurance, which is still a pretty big deal.

Except—again—are all the insurance companies now being socialized? Last I checked, under Obamacare, my policy was issued by Blue Shield, not Big Brother.

Blue Shield, Humana, Blue Cross . . . they all offered slightly different policies with slightly different terms. But they are pretty similar! So maybe they’re all a front now for one big government entity . . . ?  Maybe they’ve all secretly been merged?

Does anybody really believe this??

Here again, critical thinking skills would come in handy. People do not even have to read the news carefully to understand that whatever Obamacare is or is not—and regardless of whether it’s a good or a bad thing—it is clearly, indisputably not a government “takeover” of the health insurance industry, much less the entire health care industry of the United States.

To put it in the most general terms possible, the Affordable Care Act is a law that has changed the rules of how the health insurance industry works, by imposing certain requirements on insurers—as well as on the public (to buy insurance).

I could go on and on about why I like Obamacare. But the point is, before the discussion even begins, people have to agree on what they’re talking about. Right?

Unless people don’t really care about communicating. Or thinking.

think think think!

think think think!