In 1965, on the cusp of the counterculture movement, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized the first “teach-in” at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In contrast to a lecture or symposium, the teach-in was oriented towards action; indeed, SDS’s goal was to teach about Vietnam and organize students against the war. Remarkably, thousands attended the teach-in, yet this paled in comparison to the tens of thousands who turned up a few months later at Berkeley for an anti-war teach-in that included a range of intellectual luminaries, including Norman Mailer, I.F. Stone and Alan Watts.
(L to R) Irene Lucio as Eliza Doolittle, L. Peter Callender as Col. Pickering, and Anthony Fusco as Henry Higgins in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Pygmalion, directed by Jonathan Moscone; photo by Kevin Berne.
The word Pygmalion does not resonate with most young people, myself included, but about halfway through enjoying the show at Cal Shakes’ eucalyptus-nestled outdoor amphitheater, I realized I was no stranger to the story—indeed, I’d seen its spinoffs many times as a child: in My Fair Lady, Pretty Woman, and She’s All That. Little did I know that while I was starry-eyed for Freddy Prinze, Jr. and Paul Walker (R.I.P.), I was watching a watered-down version of a story rooted in class and feminist criticism. As a socialist, activist and playwright, Shaw was very concerned with class privilege and gender roles. And the show features a powerful female lead, uncommon for the Victorian era in which the play is set. Continue reading →
A quick survey of the most memorable lines from nineties hip-hop is enough to confirm that the dominant hip-hop culture at the time was saturated with a normalized sexism. “B*tches ain’t shit but hoes and tricks” growled Dr. Dre on 1992’s The Chronic; growing up in the nineties, I recall hearing children repeat this during middle school P.E. long before I ever actually heard the song. Likewise, Snoop Dogg’s motto/anthem “G’z Up, Hoes Down” was so embedded that these words were frequently etched onto bathroom stalls at the same school.
One notable response to the industry culture was Lil’ Kim’s 2000 song “Suck My Dick,” an aggressive ur-feminist reaction to the breed of mainstream hip-hop culture that glorifies sexism and objectifies women. On “Suck My Dick,” Lil’ Kim delivers a harsh response in the same vein as the sexist lyrical mode she emulates. She pulls out all the same tropes—glorification of her genitals (“Imagine if I was dude and hittin’ cats from the back/ With no strings attached / Yeah n***a, picture that! / I treat y’all n***as like y’all treat us”) and demands of oral sex and money (“All I wanna do is get my pussy sucked / Count a million bucks in the back of an armored truck”). Continue reading →
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.
By Tony Kushner
Directed by Tony Taccone
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, May 16–June 29
(l to r) At Berkeley Rep, Mark Margolis (Gus), Tina Chilip (Sooze), and Joseph J. Parks (Vito) in Tony Kushner’s “The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures.” Photo courtesy kevinberne.com.
There is a phantom haunting the theater—the phantom of socialism. Look to the Bay Area theater scene, and you’ll notice an array of socialist playwrights and subject matters: Berkeley Rep just opened The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures, its second definitively radical show, after Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. All of California Shakespeare Theater’s non-Shakespeare shows this season were written by socialists (Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun [read our review] and George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion). The (Tony-winning) San Francisco Mime Troupe is avowedly far-left, but then they’ve always been. Remarkably, Shotgun Players just wrapped up a trilogy of Tom Stoppard plays about obscure Russian radical Alexander Herzen, “the father of Russian socialism” (I am unsure which is more shocking—that they decided to put up the entire trilogy, or that Stoppard’s yawn-worthy dialogue resulted in the trilogy’s run being extended).
(L to R) Ryan Nicole Peters as Ruth Younger, Zion Richardson as Travis Younger, Marcus Henderson as Walter Lee Younger, and Margo Hall as Lena (Mama) Younger in Cal Shakes’ A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, directed by Patricia McGregor; photo by Kevin Berne.
My husband quickly tucked his blunt under his baseball hat to save for another time as we hiked up the hillside, towards the Cal Shakes theater, to see Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. We quickly realized we were the only young latinos among an aged sea of silver and white hair in Orinda, California. He had misread this outdoor venue by a mile; obviously this was not the place for him to blow a hazy low cloud from his swisher, which he had brought from our East Bay home in hopes to pacify him, while I dragged him out to see a play on a Friday night.
When I relocated from The Netherlands to Silicon Valley, I was invited to an “ice-cream social” in a cul de sac of Eichler homes. We got talking about the environment—a popular topic in Northern California—and one professor proudly announced that this was the street with the most Priuses in the country. It was also a street that, despite the constant sunshine, did not boast one clothesline; clothes dryers, along with a vehicular commute to the local supermarket, were, it would seem, the most convenient option. Conspicuous consumption is also convenient; it is much easier to buy coffee in a 60% recycled cardboard cup or pay luxury money for a Prius to rack up some nice middle class enviro-points than it is to make arduous lifestyle adjustments. Lifestyle is what you buy, not what you do.
After this experience, conspicuous environmental consumption and absolution by-product became something of an obsession for me living as a tourist to this squeaky-clean dream. I had come to study—or “scrape the fat,” as I like to refer to it—at the prestigious Stanford University, which entailed a generous stipend to fund my voyeuristic fascination with American culture. On my first day I was dumbfounded to find the waste bins full of biodegradable corn starch forks and brown paper cardboard plates. It seemed that having to wash up was too much to ask—as was a functioning compost system to facilitate the actual biodegradation of food and forks.I figured that since I was going to be living without any money for the next six weeks while waiting for my scholarship to come through, I could at least make a meal of the cutlery. Unfortunately, they didn’t taste so good and turned out to be surprisingly unsuited to the microwave.
“Only hipsters like zombies,” my friend commented as she watched the zombies prance around in Watsky’s “Kill a Hipster” music video. The zombie-hipster metaphor is particularly apt given the racialized origins of both hipsters and zombies: Zombies originated in Afro-Caribbean Haitian folklore—corpses that could be reanimated through necromancy—yet in the past decade that history was mostly forgotten, as the zombie became a semi-humorous staple of Western youth culture (evinced by the popularity of media like the book Zombie Survival Guide  and films 28 Days Later and World War Z).
The hipster, too, has its origins in appropriation of both African American and other cultures—something Norman Mailer first noted, but which Watsky does an effective job of illustrating. “Hummus, hummus, I’m getting hummus, hummus,” he chimes at the zombified hipsters lounging in the park, practicing Spanglish at the taco truck. Watsky and the video hipsters’ adoption of keffiyehs—a symbol of Palestinian resistance that became completely stripped of meaning after its hipster appropriation, on ironic par with Che Guevara shirts—illustrates the same kind of cultural forgetting. Continue reading →
Long before Tim & Eric made a career out of avant-garde parodies of commercial culture, American video artist Michael Smith cultivated an alternative persona to do just the same. Meet “Mike,” the lovably simple, middlebrow hero of Smith’s ongoing (now decades-long) series of art videos, “Mike’s World.” In Smith’s own words, “Mike” is “a modern-day Candide,” perennially confused and overwhelmed by technology, glued to routine and infinitely suggestible. He is, in other words, the perfect consumer, naïve enough to be molded by whatever advertisement or scrap floats his way.
In the inaugural (and my favorite) video from the “Mike’s World” series, “Secret Horror,” we are treated to scenes of Mike whining over spilling his bridge mix (his favorite snack), being overwhelmed by appliances that gnaw at his attention, and getting abducted by sheet-wearing ghosts—themselves manifestations of the ghosts in the television to which he is addicted. Continue reading →
Taking Lorde’s 2013 hit “Royals” at face value, the song offers a critique of consumer-oriented capitalism and the cynical culture industry that drives it by juxtaposing the opulent wealth celebrated on Top 40 radio (is that term even meaningful anymore?) with the lived experience of its listeners, who have “never seen a diamond in the flesh” and for whom the life described in those songs is mere “fantasy.” And as was almost immediately pointed out, some of that ish was kinda racist. That is, Lorde makes her case against capital by targeting particular forms of wealth (gold teeth, Cristal, Maybach) that are strongly associated with popular black culture— or at least hip-hop, as one side of it. At best, black culture is collateral damage, and at worst, Lorde allies herself with the forces of white supremacy that claim their power in part by dismissing strategies of survival in black communities.
Now, I’m not about to say that she shouldn’t have known better or that lyrics by a fifteen-year-old are excusable—not to mention the number of other industry workers and executives involved with the song’s production, marketing, et al—because white folks need to be held accountable at every level. But the fact that the song was written not by an American white person, embedded in the particular set of race relations that in part gave historical rise to hip-hop as a cultural form, but by a New Zealander should give us pause. The racialized content of the song reveals the United States’ global cultural imperialism—in how it exports an American version of whiteness, with its sites of racial conflict. Indeed, another arm of that same global imperialism may be responsible for her hometown, at a cultural margin, being “torn up.” Continue reading →