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An Especially Surreal Day in the All-Too-Real Trump Reality Show

By now we should be well inured to these weird celebrity reality shows, but we were nonetheless taken aback by rapper Kanye West’s guest appearance Thursday on President Donald Trump’s hit television program. In case you somehow it missed it, it was a fascinatingly bizzarre mix of “The Jerry Springer Show,” “The Real Housewives of Wherever,” and that show whose name we forget that was about the ongoing mental breakdown of Flava Flav.
Despite being old white guys with old white guy musical tastes, we’ve been aware of West’s existence for some time now, although we can’t claim any familiarity with his music. He’s been a very successful rap “artist” for some time now, and young people we know with more up-to-date and less discriminating tastes than ours have vouched that he’s actually quite good at it, but we mostly know him for his frequent intrusions into the rest of the news.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans he used the podium of some music awards show or another to say that President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people.” He later crashed the front pages when he crashed the stage at some music awards show or another to snatch the microphone out of the hands of a pop chanteuse named Taylor Swift during her acceptance speech and complain that the award should have gone to his friend Beyonce, who is apparently another popular hip-hop performer of some repute, which prompted then-President Barack Obama to call him a “jackass.” Since then he’s become more famous as a co-star of the hit Kardashian family reality series, as he’s married to the famously callipygian co-star Kim Kardashian and is thus somehow related by marriage to co-star and former Olympic decathlon winner Bruce Jenner, who is now more highly celebrated as a transgender woman.
More recently, he’s been in the news because of his outspoken support of Trump. A while back he made headlines by ending a concert with a rambling pro-Trump rant, then again the next day when his spokespeople announced that he was seeking mental health treatment. Just a week or so ago, he was back in the news when was the musical guest on “Saturday Night Live” and started into another rambling pro-Trump as the final credits rolled. The stunt went un-aired but was widely reported, and earned West his nationally-televised guest-starring turn in the Oval Office on Thursday.
If you some haven’t sat through the whole thing we’d urge to summon the courage to do so, because it’s perhaps the most perfect example of celebrity reality show grotesquery we’ve come across yet, and a damning indict of the celebrification of our politics. Clad in a red “Make America Great Again” ball cap and some coat-and-tieless street gear, and using street language similarly unsuited to the past dignity of the Oval Office, West went on an unhinged rant for the ages. He derided the 13th amendment that abolished slavery, bragged about bringing the Adidas sports shoe company from a billion dollar deficit to a multi-billion dollar profit, talked about a hydrogen-powered Air Force One to for the “Flyest president ever,” promised to restore Chicago’s manufacturing base and it’s high murder without stop-and-frisk. He also confessed, as if he were on the old “Oprah” reality show, that he supported Trump at least in part because he’d grown up in single-mother home without “male energy” and that the family he’d married into was similarly lacking in “male energy.”
Reigning reality show alpha male Trump sat silently behind the historic Resolute desk with his arms crossed through the whole 11 minutes, never once interrupting to tell his guest to take off his cap and pull up his saggy britches and stop saying “motherfucker” and start showing some damned respect for the Oval Office. Trump was no doubt annoyed by all the airtime West was taking, not to mention that touchy-feely talk about no stop-and-frisk, as well as West claiming preemptive credit for any Chicago revival that might occur, but what he could he do? West was mostly saying very flattering things about him, which always obliges Trump to say nice things in return, and he’s hardly in any position to criticize a fellow reality show star for a self-aggrandizing and obviously exaggerated and inappropriately vulgar and clearly unhinged rant.
Besides, Trump clearly covets a bigger-than-usual Republican share of the black vote. Trump has a history of discriminating against black tenants applying to live in his apartments, continues to call for the execution of black and hispanic men who were once convicted but have since been clear by scientific evidence for the rape of a white woman in Central Park, and more recently found “very fine people” among a deadly neo-Nazi mob in Virginia, but the black unemployment rate is currently low, and Trump can claim that some of his best friends are black. He’s not only got the foul-mouthed and clearly crazed West on his side, but all-time football great and convicted spousal abuser Jim Brown was also in the Oval Office on Thursday. Dennis “The Worm” Rodman, an undeniably tough basketball rebounder and defender, a cross-dressing trash-talker who was a reality show star on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” and a pal to North Korean dictator Kim Jung long before Trump was, is also on board. Trump also has the friendship of boxing legend and convicted rapist and boastful wife-beater “Iron” Mike Tyson, as well as boxing promoter Don King, who overcame a couple of manslaughter convictions to make fortune exploiting such naive black boxers as Tyson.
Trump’s penchant for braggadocio and bling plays well in certain parts of the hip-hop world, where his admitted pussy-grabbing tendencies aren’t much of a problem, and West still seems to have some sway with that mostly-male audience, so it might nudge Trump’s approval ratings among black Americans into the low single digits. The mostly white and male supporters who were rihghtly outraged back when Obama hosted a similarly foul-mouth rapper probably won’t mind, as it’s not as if Trump actually shot somebody on Fifth Avenue, and they surely won’t notice that West’s unhinged rant came while Hurricane Michael was devastating the East Coast, so it might have done him some good.
Even so, we don’t see how it helps make America great again. You don’t have to be crazy to be a Trump defender — although it helps (insert rim shot here) — but this West fellow is is quite clearly off his rocker. There’s something disconcerting, too, about watching a President of the United States sitting with arms folded behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office during such an unhinged rant and then offering such effusive praise. If that makes us Republican in name only, then so damn be it.

— Bud Norman

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A New Year’s Resolution: No MTV

Way back when the Music Television network first started coming through the cables we watched 24 straight hours of its fare, drinking coffee and keeping notes along the way for a rather snarky feature story in the local newspaper, and since then we’ve rarely tuned in. MTV does occasionally come up in our daily news reading, though, mostly recently when it offered its New Years “resolutions for white guys.”
Being white guys ourselves, we couldn’t help wondering what the network was suggesting. We hoped MTV was urging its youthful white male audience to shave those ugly beards and stop getting tattoos and start taking an occasional glance up from those newfangled telephones they’re always looking at, but of course it was just the usual white guilt-mongering and man-shaming.
The video begins with a head-and-shoulders shot of a clean-cut and pasty young white guy addressing his “fellow white guys,” with the usual quick cut to the same shot of a chubby Latino-looking fellow noting that it’s about to be a new year, with another quick cut to the head and shoulders of a non-threatening young black man who explains that “here’s a few things we think you can do a little better in 2017.”
Another quick cut the to head-and-shoulders of an attractive young woman of fashionably indeterminate ethnicity, who advises that first of we should “try to recognize that America was never ‘great'” — with the disdainful internal quotation marks emphasized by that two-fingered gesture the kids use — “for anyone who wasn’t a white guy.” After another quick cut to a bookish-looking young black woman saying “Can’t we just all agree that Black Lives Matter isn’t the opposite of all lives matter?” That clean-cut and pasty young white is quick cut to again to say that “Blue Lives Matter isn’t a thing,” and there’s an even quicker cut to that non-threatening young black again who laughs at the very idea, noting that “cops aren’t born with blue skin, right?”
With the cuts coming in dizzying quickness, a white guy with one of those ugly beards urges white men to stop bragging about being “Wook,” or at least we think that’s how it’s spelled, and the aforementioned chubby Latino says to stop saying “Wook” altogether. A bookish-looking young white woman says to “learn what ‘mansplaining’ is,” or at least we think that’s how it’s spelled, and to stop doing it. Then there’s that clean-cut and pasty white guy telling us to believe any woman who alleges she has been assaulted by an Ivy League athlete. There’s something about someone named Beyonce and a dig at Fox News, some inside joke about Kanye West that we take to be a dig against his friendship with president-elect Donald Trump, the bearded white guy’s advice to not mention one’s black friends, and the non-threatening young black man’s brief rant that having black friends doesn’t mean you’re not racist.
They throw in a brief admission toward the end that not all white guys are bad, we think it was the bookish looking young white woman who said so, but it’s all in the same cheerfully hectoring tone. Pretty much every word of it is astonishingly stupid, too.
Countless non-white-guys have found America great enough to sacrifice their lives for it, and at the moment it’s probably better for that attractive young woman of fashionably indeterminate ethnicity than it is for those coal-mining white guys who voted for Trump. We agree that Black Lives Matter isn’t the opposite of all lives matter, and don’t know anyone who doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t going to wind up costing a whole lot of young black lives. No, cops aren’t born blue, but that doesn’t mean their lives don’t also matter, even if that isn’t “a thing.”
We’ll go along with the ban on saying “Wook,” whatever that is, but so far as we can tell “mansplaining” is when a man explains something to a woman, and we often find ourselves in dealings with women when we have to explain things to them. Usually we’re explaining our tardiness and temporary penury, but at other times such things as quantitative easing or the infield fly rule, and try as we might we can’t avoid it. That bookish-looking young white woman should also know that we more often find ourselves having women explain things to us, oftentimes with a certain vehemence that we rarely muster, but we suppose she would consider that properly assertive feminine behavior. We’d ask one of our black friends how they deal with the inevitable need for the occasional explanation of something or another to a woman, as “mansplaining” is apparently a behavior unique to white guys, but we’re also told it would be racist of us to acknowledge that we have black friends.
We’re not sure why that clean-cut and pasty white guy singled out Ivy League athletes as sexual predators, rather than the Southeastern Conference or the Big XII or some and blacker and more big-time association, but we suspect it’s because he thought it would sound less racist, which strikes us as a rather racist assumption. There are black athletes in the Ivy League, of course, and even those white guys on the non-Ivy but still pretty highfalutin Duke University lacrosse team turned out to be innocent. We’ll consider these occasional college rape allegations on a case by case basis, thank you, and be glad that it’s ultimately left to the judicial system.
We’ll also happily refrain from any mention of Beyonce or Kanye West, unless it allows us to take a dig at Trump from an old-fashioned Republican perspective, and try to be at least less obnoxious a white guy than the old white guys running MTV and the young white guys they keep sending out through the cables. Although we can’t stop being white guys altogether, not without expensive surgery and a whole lot of explaning to some of the women we know, it’s the best we can do.

— Bud Norman

L Is For Super Bowl

Although we’ve pretty much lost all interest in professional football, which lately seems an interminable series of obnoxious commercials for pickup trucks and pharmaceutical aphrodisiacs followed by a few brief seconds of tattooed behemoths beating their chest as they stand over some supine opponent and then an endless series of pointless play reviews, we still tune in for the annual Super Bowl extravaganza. By now it’s an almost obligatory secular rite, at least for any red-blooded American male who doesn’t want to be left out of the new few days of guy conservation, and it’s also our annual foray into contemporary popular culture.
The rest of the year we’re playing old jazz and hillbilly and garage rock tunes on the stereo, watching the occasional old sit-com over the rabbit ears on our analog television set or taking in Netflix’s offerings of the good old black-and-white days on this newfangled computer machine of ours, or reading books mostly by dead white males and a few dead white women, and our sports spectating is mostly limited to such old-fashioned fare as Missouri Valley Conference basketball and American Association baseball, so we’re annually curious to see what’s going on out there with the young folks and their modern world. It always comes as quite a shock, of course.
There’s always a slight surprise to find that they’re still playing the Super Bowl at all, for one thing. Football has always been a rough affair, and was arguably even rougher before President Theodore “Rough Rider” Roosevelt sissified the the rules to eliminate the frequently fatal “flying V” formation, but these days the players are so big and strong and fast that the kinetic energy exerted against the players on each down is so great, and the lifelong physical consequences are so severe and common, and the entire culture is suddenly so risk-averse, that we might have expected the lawyers and the oversight sub-committees to have put a halt to it all by now. The effort is well underway, naturally, but such a profitable organization as the National Football League can well afford to buy plenty of its own lawyers and oversight sub-committees, and vicarious risk will always be a big draw on television, so perhaps the fight might take a while.
In the meantime, sports in general and football in particular remain the last redoubt of unapologetic masculinity in America, for both better and worse. The Battle of Waterloo truly was won on the playing fields of Eton, as Lord Wellington famously observed, and the men who stormed the beaches on D-Day were already veterans of hard-fought wars in backyards and on vacant lots where not everybody got a trophy, and every successful culture since Sparta has honored the victors of rough games, and we’d like to think there’s still some role for unapologetic masculinity in American culture. So long as the players are fully apprised by the best medical experts of the risks, and have agents and hangers-on to advise them how to weigh that against the not inconsiderable benefits of a professional football career, we say let them play, and let the lawyers and the oversight sub-committees and the rest of the risk-averse and all-too-feminized culture be damned.
Still, for such history-minded sports fans as ourselves there’s also something unsettlingly bread-and-circuses-like about these roman-numeraled Super Bowls. After five decades they went with the more standard arabic “50” instead of the roman “L,” reportedly because “L” would confound a public that was never taught to count that far in roman numerals, and “Super Bowl L” looks kind of odd to even the most Latinate priest, but the same imminent-fall-of-Rome vibe was still there. The guys they’ve got playing in the Super Bowl these days are so big and fast and strong that they’d whip your childhood idols easily, even that Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs squad of of our long-ago wide-eyed youth, but there’s a tattooed and preening thuggishness about them that Lord Wellington would have disdained and an unabashed self-interestedness that would not have sat well with those boys who played for the team at Normandy, and there’s little of that helping-a-guy-up-after-you’ve-knocked-him-down sportsmanship that was always part of the western tradition on the playing fields and battlegrounds and business deals and interpersonal relationships.
The same tendency to unnecessary roughness that afflicts football is evident in popular entertainment, where Quentin Tarantino’s post-modern revenge fantasies and thuddingly aggressive hip-hop and heavy metal music and bondage-fantasy romance novels are now standard fare, but there’s also a slightly more respectable mainstream left over from the Ed Sullivan days that the Super Bowl annually books for its much-ballyhooed half-time shows. This year it was some band called Coldplay, or Cold Play, or however they might write it, and some woman named Beyonce, who has an accent mark over the last letter that we’re not willing to figure out how to put there, and some guy named Bruno Mars, whom we think we can vaguely remember from Super Bowl halftime show of a few years. The band was dressed up in nostalgic jeans-with-flower-patches and played electric guitars just like the garage bands used to do, although with a football-field-sized dance group jumping around, and the Beyonce woman with the accent mark over the last letter did some kinetic dancing with her noticeable legs and group of similarly leggy young women and did some song that supposedly has something to do with the edgy “Black Lives Matter” movement, and the Bruno Mars guy sang something about “funking you up.”
In past years the Super Bowl has featured what are politely called “veteran” acts of the late rock ‘n’ roll era, but lately there’s been a spate of those dying off. The past month has seen the passing of heavy-metal hero “Lemmy,” glam-rock innovator David Bowie, country-rock star Glenn Frey, popular funk-lite performer Maurice White, and our Super Bowl was especially saddened by Sunday’s news of the passing of Dan Hicks, who wasn’t so well known but played a delightful blend of jazz and hillbilly and garage rock and old-fashioned goofus music that we’ve dearly loved ever since we borrowed a friend’s VW Beetle to cut class one day in high school and found Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks’ “Last Train to Hicksville” in the eight-track player. Musical culture has since been in severe decline, judging by the recent Super Bowl halftime shows, and we’ll admit it probably began even before that.
We do try to keep up with politics and other unavoidable matters, and of course we notice the same decline there. On the Democratic side of the race they’re talking about trophies for everyone and trying to pretend there are no more battles of Waterloo or D-Day to be fought, and the putative front-runner is claiming that any biological masculinity should be disqualifying and her pesky challenger self-described socialist challenger isn’t do much to dispute the argument. On the Republican side that pick-’em-up-after-you’ve-knocked-’em’-down approach to the playing fields and battlegrounds and business deals and interpersonal relationships seems out of fashion with at least a plurality of the party. Neither side seems to have any good music, for that matter, and judging by the endless commercials during the most recent Super Bowl even the private sector seems wanting.
At least the game was pretty good. At the risk of violating that warning about “unauthorized accounts” of the game, and bringing down the wrath of the NFL’s lawyer’s and oversight committees upon us, the Denver Broncos’ defense beat the Carolina Panthers’ offense. This kept the Panthers from their infamous beating of chests over the supine bodies of their opponents, and allowed the seemingly good guy Peyton Manning a crowning glory to his scandal-free and sportsmanlike career, and maybe the youngsters will get something positive out of this rough game.

— Bud Norman

When the Music Stopped

A television was on Sunday evening at one of the locally owned stores we frequent, and as we made our purchase we caught a glance of what looked like Madonna cavorting in a skimpy outfit among a chorus line of beefy fellows in what looked like minotaur costumes. We momentarily assumed it was a Super Bowl half-time show before recalling that a Super Bowl had recently been played, with some other scantily-clad chanteuse doing the half-time honors, and we figured there probably wouldn’t be another one until next winter, so we asked the clerk and he explained that it was the annual Grammy awards ceremony honoring the best of the recording industry. That was all we saw of the show, and the snippet of the forgettable song being performed was the most we’d heard of the recording industry’s latest offerings in a long while, and we didn’t worry that we’ve been missing out on anything.
The next day’s news was full of stories about the event, however, with some of them spilling over into the political pages that usually command our attention. This led us to wonder if we were blissfully ignorant of some important cultural phenomenon blasting through everyone else’s car stereos while we’re listening to the monophonic sounds of Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee on the old folks’ station, and if we might soon arrive at some social event and find ourselves in the embarrassing position of being the only ones there not wearing a minotaur costume. Then we headed out to a writer’s meeting for the upcoming Gridiron Show, a satirical song-and-sketch fund-raiser that is our annual amateur theatric experience, and were confounded by all the unfamiliar titles of songs that the younger members of the ensemble wanted to parody. We had thought that popular music was no longer a significant influence on the broader culture, not like in the days when shaggy-haired, shirtless rockers were exhorting the youth of America to burn to their draft cards and speak truth to power and do it in the road and all the rest of that youthful rebellion schtick, but apparently one is still expected to have some familiarity with the sort of music that is being played on those newfangled FM stations and performed at the Grammy’s.
Judging by the breathless coverage of that extravaganza, studded with stars whose names we vaguely recognize, it hardly seems worth the effort. The big brouhaha of the evening involved someone named Kanye West interrupting one of the winner’s acceptance speeches to protest that the award should have gone to someone named Beyonce, which is apparently his habitual practice at these sorts of affairs, although there was also scandalized talk of the outfit Madonna wore off-stage that revealed her 56-years-old but still shapely buttocks. At the edges of the conservative media there was worry that prominent Democrats Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz were in attendance and might have been there on the taxpayers’ dime, and others were mocking the president’s video-taped statement made the dubious claim that one-in-five American women have been raped and urged the audience to knock it off, but at this point it hardly anyone seems to find it worth mentioning that the entirety of the recording industry except for a few studios in Nashville is outspokenly associated with the Democratic party. If these people do exert an influence on the broader culture, all the more reason they should be ignored. This Kanye West fellow strikes us as merely rude rather than revolutionary, even the most callipygian fifty-something should have acquired some sense of dignity and decorum, and with no draft cards left to burn and speaking truth to power no longer required during a Democratic administration all that seems to be left of the youthful rebellion schtick is doing it in the road, which seemed to be the Big Profound Message of that Madonna number we happened to catch at the store, and so far as we’re concerned the Democrats are welcome to it.
We console ourselves with the belief that the popular culture isn’t so popular as it used to be, and that the recording industry’s influence in particular has waned along with its rapidly declining sales. That’s largely because the music streaming freely through the internet has dismantled the industry’s old model of pitching music through a limited number of radio stations and then selling it on long-playing albums or cassette tapes or compact discs or MP3 downloads or whatever the tech guys have lately come up with, but we suspect it’s also because no one thinks it is worth paying money to have the music permanently. The plethora of terrestrial and satellite and internet radio stations has fragmented the market, which happily allows listeners to indulge a taste for doo-wop or Dixieland or polka or Hawaiian slack key guitar or techno-house whatever other obscure genre they might prefer, and no one seems to have a truly mass appeal even if the marketing schemes for them existed. A handful of highly publicized acts still dominate free streaming audience at sites such as YouTube, and cash in with concerts full of elaborate choreography and high-tech stagecraft that fill huge arenas at exorbitant ticket prices, but none are nearly so ubiquitous as Glenn Miller in ’41 or Elvis Presley in ’56 or The Beatles in ’64, and even the most hyped of them will likely have little effect on the sizable chunk of the country that won’t shell out for the over-priced shows.
Although we’re heartened that the likes of Kanye West aren’t a particularly pressing problem, it’s kind of a drag that there isn’t a popular American musical culture. In a golden age that ran from about the early ’20s to the early ’70s there was a flood of great of music pouring out of America’s radio speakers, from low down blues to up-tompo swing to rough-hewn country laments and sophisticated pop standards to fervent gospel and rowdy rock ‘n’ roll straight from the garages, and sharing the experience of the best of it with everyone else was one of the cultural advantages of being an American. We’d love to see that old American musical inventiveness revived, and a new generation of performers emerge who will cover up their buttocks and ditch the elaborate showmanship and share some lovingly hand-made music at reasonable ticket prices, and we’d even shell out for a vinyl record or compact disc or whatever else it takes to put it permanently on our shelves to share with posterity. In the meantime, we’ll be tuned into the old folks’ station.

— Bud Norman