Monday, August 17, 2009
Taking stock of Woodstock
The big talking point of August is, for many, Woodstock, classified as a major historical event. As a jazz musician at the time, I was only peripherally interested in rock and paid little attention to the event itself. I did however identify with the political causes that were massively voiced at Woodstock (notice that "peace" is billed ahead of "music"). But apart from its being big, messy and reasonably pacific, I don't remember its making a major impact on the news cycle or a culture that was already imbued with love-ins, protests and other spontaneous manifestations of a highly visible counter-culture. It certainly didn't beat the Democratic convention in Chicago that took place a year earlier and that, in a certain sense, was still going on with the trials of the Chicago seven (plus one). Hoffman, Rubin, Seale and Hayden had achieved media celebrity status for purely politico-cultural reasons. And they were taken very seriously by foes and sympathizers alike.
So why do we remember Woodstock rather than Chicago? It strikes me as particularly odd that we have succeeded in sentimentalizing, as if it was a moment of triumph, an event that was clearly a swansong for the new culture it is reputed to represent. Some analysts have maintained, and I would agree, that Woodstock provided the rationale for the political culture embodied a decade later by Ronald Reagan (who at the time was already the governer of California, the state of the hippies)! The key to this sentimentalization and to the integration of Woodstock into our current cultural mythology was finding a way to eliminate its political and historical component. The singers and groups at Woodstock generated emotion by calling into question all traditional institutions, protesting against the war, demanding civil rights. But all that has been forgotten or simply vaguely recalled as part of the indistinct and very muddy décor, in spite of Bush policies that have provided a real political parallel. What has been retained today - thanks in part to the existence of the feature film of the event - is the celebration of individual talent and its exploitation through the music industry (1969 can be seen as the year when all music started to become intensely industrial and commercial, a phenomenon I hope some specialized historians will someday try to examine).
Woodstock is remembered for its stars, its great musical moments more than the mythical communal experience, which was certainly less idyllic to experience than to read about 40 years later. What is signifcant is that the idea of focusing on talent and stars (including star wars!) has dominated US culture ever since (think "American Idol" and "Dancing with the stars", both utterly unimaginable in the 60s; even Donald Trump's "the Apprentice" partakes of this celebrity ethos).
The strategy of encouraging celebrity ambition has proved powerfully effective in the short-term management of social conflict. For example, the key to reducing the racial tensions that had produced major riots regularly throughout the 60s was to encourage talented African American individuals to become full-fledged, fully integrated, and highly idealized celebrities, strongly admired by other white celebrities. Examples of popular African American celebrities "proved" that all are equal because even blacks can achieve the American dream, provided they make the requisite personal investment. The Will Smiths, Oprahs, Michael Jordans (even OJ in an ultimately less predictable way) have given the white community a better conscience ("we love and admire blacks and pay high prices to see them perform"), which has channeled a lot of the nervous energy of black youngsters away from protest against a system that remains structurally racist and towards goals of personal success (entertainment, sport, music) or, failing that, of collective aggression amongst themselves (gangs). Rap culture combines both by generating a series of media stars apparently whose unique selling point is their "gangsta" values. And while the white community occasionally disapproves of the rhetoric, it consistently celebrates the business acumen and the pure accomplishment and popularity of those who succeed! The rapper rhetoric is provocative in the extreme, but unlike that of the 60s isn't intentionally subversive. (The ancestor of rap was Gil Scott-Heron's 1970 song "the revolution will not be televised", which was totally political).
Of course it was always true that even African American individuals could succeed, but previously they had to make a point of espousing white values and accepting white rhetoric. Louis Armstrong - the smiling and utterly unprovocative entertainer (unlike say, Fats Waller, who never hid his irony) - was the epitome of the successful black at a time when African Americans weren't allowed to compete in major league sports, including basketball. (Yes, before MLK apartheid actually did exist in the US and not just in the South). Paul Robeson was the opposite of Armstrong, initially celebrated for his talent, which he deployed in opera and musical comedy - far more respectable and closer to standard white values than jazz - he was ultimately and brutally excluded from the system for his politics.
There's one other phenomenon related to Woodstock that intrigues me. In an era of burning flags and draft cards, Jimi Hendrix "desecrated" the national anthems, highlighting the mindless and uncontrollable violence couched behind traditional patriotic sentiment. It was incredibly provocative. At the time I assumed that, after the continuous assault on the symbols conducted by my own generation, the status of both the flag and the national anthem would be readjusted to a more normal emotional level (Nixon handled the problem of draft cards by abolishing the draft). Septemeber 2001 showed us that the flag survived the red glare of the cultural rockets and plastic cigarette lighters of the 60s utterly intact, but the fate of the Star-Spangled banner has been a bit different. Living in England at the time, I was a witness of sorts to the disappearance of God Save the Queen from cinemas. I assumed something similar might happen with the Star Spangled Banner at sporting events. I was wrong of course. But something did happen as an indirect result of Jimi Hendrix's performance at Woodstock. The song was increasingly given to black singers (celebrities, of course) to introduce sporting events. They interpreted it with inflections and vocal fioritura derived from motown, soul music, r'n'b, etc. creating a kind of subdued irony that persists to this day as if to say (ok, this is the obligatory tribute to honky culture, but we're going to add our own cultural contribution to it, even if that means taking it in a different direction, and we know you dumb ofays are going to applaud). When white singers (celebrities) are asked to do it, they can no longer "sing it straight". They generally follow the lead of the blacks, with their own original touches (which may, for example, be derived from country music), but one senses that the irony is lacking: it's an exercise of pure imitation or conformity to a media imposed norm.
And now we arrive at the era of Obama, the first black celebrity to be elected president, the man who was caught on camera not holding his hand over his heart during the national anthem! There's a lot of historical irony at play here. But it's clearly far too early to tell this will take us.