NIN: Defining Post-Industrial Youth in America

The focus of this discussion is on the band Nine Inch Nails, led by singer-songwriter Trent Reznor. Reznor had an ability to combine the elements of industrial music (experimentation with electronic sounds) with the structure of popular music to create a unique sound that was successful in the public sphere, while maintaining a dark, heavy aesthetic that was oftentimes horrifying and difficult to listen to. His artistry defined a period of economic instability in the United States during the late 1980s and 1990s, when middle-class American youth were aware of this turmoil and therefore angry at the world.

The foundations of Industrial music started in the 1970s with the band Throbbing Gristle, whose lead vocalist was a woman named Genesis P-Orridge. The members of TG lived in a time when the physical world around them was changing: human-run factories were closing, and anarchy was springing up against the political scene in England. P-Orridge and her bandmates, living in post-industrial Europe, had this philosophy: any object that makes noise is an instrument, any person who can create the sounds is a musician, and there are no rules about how to make music.  They had no formal musical training, no frame of reference for how to create sounds, they just did what came to them organically, from their environment. Their sound was weird, to say the least: it did not have any of the patterns or chord progressions that were used in music up to that point; it was more ambiance, noises that they layered together to convey their feelings.

Throbbing Gristle – Maggot Death (youtube):

The movie “Nine Inch Nails and the Industrial Uprising,” posted on YouTube in a seven-part series, goes into a lot of background and influencers of the industrial sound, of which there is no one specific style. Brent D. Woods, in his thesis Industrial Music for Industrial People: The History and Development of an Underground Genre, also discusses  bands and sounds that contributed to this genre, among them Depeche Mode, Cabaret Voltaire, Kraftwerk, and styles like electronic body music (EBM) and the avant-garde. He defines industrial music as having four key components: synthesizers, anti-music, extra-musical elements, and shock tactics (Woods 41). These components developed through experimentation and the use of electronics to turn sounds into music, which is industrial music at its core.

When industrial music reached North America, the artists combined its electronic sound with elements of rock and roll, metal, and thrash. Examples of these bands are Skinny Puppy, from Canada and Ministry, from Chicago, Illinois. They took synthesizers, which had already been around in music, but used for structured pop music, and created deep, scary sounds to add to their metal elements of guitars, bass, and drums.

Skinny Puppy – The Choke (youtube):

These early industrial acts influenced Trent Reznor directly, when he moved from Philadelphia, where he was receiving formal education and apprenticeship in music, to Ohio, along America’s so-called “rust belt.” The environment there during the 1980s was similar to that of England in the 1970s: industry changing, steel mills closing, people losing jobs. All of this, combined with miserable weather, contributed to a general feeling of pessimism and meaninglessness, especially among the youth, as described by NIN member Chris Vrenna and scholars in the documentary (part 2, 2:40-4:30).

What ended up happening is that artists began to create music that was more and more abrasive, never being satisfied with the sound that they were producing, and always seeking more thrill and shock value. This phenomenon was described by Luigi Russolo in his “Futurist Manifesto” (1983), as cited by Woods:

“The ear of the Eighteenth Century man would not have been able to withstand the inharmonious intensity of certain chords produced by our orchestra (with three times as many performers as that of the orchestra of his time). But our ear takes pleasure in it, since it is already educated to modern life, so prodigal in different noises. Nevertheless, our ear is not satisfied and calls for even greater acoustical emotions” (Industrial Music, 38).

So you have bands taking typically pop-oriented instruments, synthesizers, and using them in their thrash metal, reflecting the angst that they felt toward the political and economic system.

Reznor was able to market the industrial sound by being relatable to a large audience, having a hook, telling a story. When NIN’s first single “Down In It” came out, people were a little confused because the production was polished, making it sound like pop, unlike the stereotypical, rampaging, chaotic industrial music of the time, but it was also experimental, as industrial should be. He brought production value to industrial music. Other pop bands, like depeche mode, were not afraid of a hook, could make industrial “noises” into structured “songs,” but Reznor kept that unsettling element of industrial as a key component of his music while making it just pop enough to be well-received.

NIN – Down In It (youtube):

Compare that with the following work by NIN, the EP Broken, and the song “Happiness in Slavery.” The video for this song was grotesque and gut-wrenching (literally). Reznor had some fascination with morbidity, and though it is extremely disturbing, he definitely had fans who supported his art, otherwise he would not have achieved the level of fame that he did. A very important aspect of his popularity is the fast beats at low frequencies and catchy bass-lines that have a heart-pumping quality about them, making people want to move and dance, even if that dancing was rather violent. This theme persisted throughout the band’s career.

Violence is another aspect of the industrial music scene that Rich Patrick of NIN describes in the film. The youth at the time had all this pent-up anger, and it came out as violence at live shows, which is a typically masculine behavior. Not only were fans in the audience moshing and slam-dancing, the performers themselves incorporated violence into their shows, and that was a very masculine depiction of them. The physical violence went hand-in-hand with the destructive noise.

Finally, I wanted to mention the song “Closer,” which is by far their most popular song, off the album The Downward Spiral. I remember hearing this song on LA radio station 106.7 KROQ in middle school, and having the uncensored version on my iPod. There is no way my parents would have let me listen to it if they heard the actual lyrics, yet it achieved such fame. This is the perfect example of how Reznor was able to penetrate the music industry with his perfectly-imperfect formulated sound, brutal as it may be. He borrowed from many styles of music that existed in different times and spaces and was successful in bringing industrial music to the masses during a time of economic disparity in the United States.

NIN – Closer (youtube):

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How Political is N.W.A. Really?

2. McCann discusses how a lot of popular rap music does not focus on political movements but sells “music that valorized black-on-black violence, provoked deadly industrial rivalries, and demeaned female and queer members of the African-American community”. What do you think NWA addresses most? 

I think N.W.A. focuses mostly on police aggression and brutality against African Americans, as well as gang and drug culture in Compton. It can certainly be argued that N.W.A. and other gangster rap groups do glorify these undesirable aspects of society, however it is more accurate to describe the phenomenon as ethnographic portraits of their realities. That being said, I think that N.W.A.’s music was definitely a political movement in its own right. They called attention to the harsh realities of being a minority in a ghetto in the midst of the War on Drugs. Although they claimed this was not an outright political move, their intentions were to advocate for a change in the social climate of the time. In the dissertation “Contesting the Mark of Criminality: Resistance and Ideology in Gangsta Rap, 1988-1997,” author John McCann argues that “the track [F— Tha Police] intervenes at a precise political and cultural moment when most Americans have been exposed to a fantasy of the inner city; one in which law enforcement cleans the streets of drug dealers and violent gangsters” (129). Essentially, N.W.A. were the first widely popular group of musicians to directly attack the oppressive structure of authority they were exposed to as people of color. They worked to change how people viewed police officers, and by extension, the American government and social policies. I believe that the controversial nature of N.W.A.’s messages to their listeners was mostly constructive, despite the destruction of social norms that followed in their wake. They encouraged criticism of the dominant power structures of the time, which is part of a healthy democracy, and in this way they became a political group as well as a musical one.

N.W.A..jpg

NWA & The Representation of Black Youth

In this argument I want to assess wether or not the movie Straight Out of Compton (SOC) helped the representation of black youth in America. When discussing gangsta rap’s commentary on racial politics there are two main arguments. The first being that the violence and demeaning of societal morals in the lyrics furthers the monstorization of African American men. On the other hand, it is a very effective and popular way of broadcasting the message of discrimination that is felt. In my opinion the movie was able to support the second argument.

While the album SOC undeniably perpetuates the stereotype of the dangerous black male I believe that the movie was able to humanize the stereotype. As you watch the story of these young men whom you know are violent criminals the viewer becomes connected to them. While they are a perfect representation of what America is supposed to hate you can’t help but love these young men, even Easy E a known drug dealer. You get to experience the discrimination first hand in this movie and it allows the audiences who have never seen this before to understand the issue of police brutality. For viewers  who had little contact with this type of brutality it is eye opening. Viewers sympathize with these violent young men in a way the media has never allowed before and this is how the SOC was able to positively comment on black youths.

The movies highlights the political and racial facets of crime. Law is not necessarily moral clear but it is black and white. Here I want to use McCann’s explanation,

“crime is political. By this, I do not mean simply that politics inform public policies related to crime and punishment… I am arguing that crime is in itself an act of political agency. As historian Peter Linebaugh states plainly in his study of political economy and crime in eighteenth century England, “In short, people became so poor that they stole to live, and their misappropriating led to manifold innovations in civil society.” If political struggle is at its very core about survival (and I believe it to be), then crime is no doubt political. Although the practices of a criminal will not be as politically conscious or beneficial as those of a street protestoror community organizer, they nonetheless partake in the social antagonisms that giveform and shape to political and rhetorical subjectivity. While crime from a punitive standpoint enables myriad discourses of racial, gender, and class scapegoating, it similarly enables alternative discourses of criminal behavior from the perspective of, or on behalf of, the incarcerated and their communities.” (McCann 14-15).

In essence, crime is subjective and determined by the politics of our country. SOC shows that the subject of our nation is to constantly mark black men as criminals.

This movie also released at a critical political moment with the popularity of movement like Black Lives Matter and was able to show the younger generations the parallel issues from previous generations. If kids today weren’t versed in the lyrics of NWA before they are now and NWA is a huge icon in pop culture right now. (Just look at all the “straight out of____” T-shirt’s ). This recycling of political music and pop culture fueled activism today.

Some important scenes from the movie I want to include,

The first scene included is one of the many examples in SOC of police brutality and profiling but I believe this one makes this most powerful statement because of the powerful dialogue of the black police officer. The scene ends with him saying “listen to your master” which is a stunning slave comment coming from a black man. The scene embodies the Fuck the Police lyric “black police showin out for the white cop”. The second scene I have included shows a perfect encapsulation of the two arguments for rap as a representation of black youth I previously spoke about.

On the subject of the music I think that NWA sells authenticity. McCann speaks a lot about this idea that in order for rap musicians to be successful they have to be gangster and this means their music gets progressively more violent as validation. While their music is full of political commentary because crime is political I believe the majority of NWA’s songs center around violence and degradation of society, women, and homosexuals.

The political music from decades ago is much mellower in comparison to NWA. This is due to many reasons. Rap music didn’t have the traction in the 60’s and 70’s,  and by the 80’s the civil rights movement was so long ago I think music became more frustrated. Musical artists grew impatient with the lack of change where as artist in the 60’s had just seen some success and sang with less anger.

The power of this music is due to its popularity. People far and wide listen to these albums with little personal connection to the issues. I think this is due to the clean and unique musical style of Dr. Dre and the taboo subject of the music. By now we know that people in American society love to watch a good societal deviation.

Finally, this may be outside the lenses of race and politics in this weeks discussion but I want to bring up HIV. When Eric is diagnosed with HIV his response is, “but I ain’t no faggot.” I think showing the death and diagnosis of Eric gave viewers another disdained group to sympathize. By this time you’re invested in they character and rather than feel that media perpetuated distaste for and HIV patient, you just feel bad for Eric. I appreciated the tone of this subplot and thought it was a positive contribution to the dialogue on HIV today. This commentary in the 80’s brought attention to a strongly misunderstood issue.

HACK #5: Hip Hop, Black Power, and Rap

Tupac.jpg

As we discussed earlier in class today, rap music is generally perceived negatively in American society because it confronts many of the undesirable realities of many individuals, mainly experienced by African American communities. One of my favorite artists, due to his prolific lyrics and constructive approach to social issues, is Tupac Shakur. I chose to examine his song “Words of Wisdom” because in it, he discusses very directly the inherently oppressive structure of American society. Tupac is an incredibly unique individual, especially in rap culture – both of his parents were involved in the Black Panther Party, so he grew up surrounded by political activism. Additionally, he attended the Baltimore School for the Performing Arts, which contributed to his distinctly eloquent lyrics and poetry.

“Lady Liberty still the bitch lied to me
Steady strong nobody’s gonna like what I bumpin’
But its wrong to keeping someone from learning something
So get up, its time to start nation building
I’m fed up, we gotta start teaching children
That they can be all that they want to to be
There’s much more to life than just poverty
This is definitely ah words of wisdom
America, America, America
I charge you with the crime of rape, murder, and assault
For suppressing and punishing my people
I charge you with robbery for robbing me of my history
I charge you with false imprisonment for keeping me
Trapped in the projects
And the jury finds you guilty on all accounts
And you are to serve the consequences of your evil schemes
Prosecutor do you have any more evidence”

It is clear that Tupac does not identify with American patriotism. According to Karin Stanford, author of the article “Keepin’ It Real in Hip Hop Politics: A Political Perspective of Tupac Shakur,” Tupac rejects the deep-rooted capitalist nature of American society. He was a member of the Youth Communist League at the Baltimore School of Arts, as well as a handful of other political activism groups throughout his educational career (10). Tupac wanted to create a more fairly structured society; one that did not exclude people of color and the impoverished.

“Words of Wisdom
They shine upon the strength of an nation
Conquer the enemy on with education
Protect thy self, reach with what you want to do
Know thy self, teach what we been through
On with the knowledge of the place, then
No one will ever oppress this race again”
These lyrics express Tupac’s anger at White American culture for its oppression of black Americans. He uses his background in the Black Power movement to advocate for the civil rights of his people and to challenge the oppressive structures of the white, patriarchal, capitalist American society. He calls out America’s history of the violent oppression of blacks, which is an attempt to hold policy makers accountable for their actions. “Words of Wisdom” is the expression of frustration with the many social injustices Tupac had experienced, as well as a call for education so that the cycle of black oppression can finally be broken.

Hack #5: Ghetto Bird by Ice-Cube

ice sube

[VERSE 1] Why, oh why must you swoop through the hood
Like everybody from the hood is up to no good
You think all the girls around here are trickin
Up there lookin like Superchicken
At night I see your light through my bedroom window
But I ain’t got shit but the pad and pencil

I can’t wait till I hear you say
“I’m going down, mayday, mayday.” I’m gonna clown

Cause every time that the pigs have got me
Y’all rub it in with the flying Nazi
Military force, but we don’t want ya
Standin’ on my roof with the rocket launcher
“So fly like an eagle.”
But don’t follow us wherever we go
The shit that I’m saying, make sure it’s heard
Motherfuck you and your punk-ass ghetto bird

“Ghetto Bird” (1993) – Ice Cube

The song Ghetto Bird (1993) by Ice Cube is about racial tension and discrimination between the police and ghetto neighborhoods. Ice Cube makes it apparent that cops play on black stereotypes, and how these ideas affect the treatment of minorities or how these minorities view police under these circumstances. More importantly, Ice Cube offers the perspective of someone who is discriminated by the police while narrating a police chase, illustrating the aggression that both sides—law enforcement and constituents of LA ghettos—have toward each other, building awareness for the roots of anger that occur from constant surveillance due to race.

la's most annoying icon

To begin, Dr. Gwendolyn mentions author Arthur J. Gladley’s connection of Hip-Hop to the youth culture, acknowledging that the content early rappers offered were “artistic and designed to cope with urban frustrations and conditions” (Gwendolyn). Often times, various Black Panther parties set the precedence for this type of expression against law enforcement, creating bold and passionate lyrics that would eventually inspire groups like NWA to create songs like Fuck the Police (1988) (Gwendolyn). The beauty of Hip Hop and inspirations like the actions of Black Panther parties with rap created the foundation by which rap groups found it acceptable to begin voicing out against established institutions. In this case, the aggressions begin with ghetto stereotypes, and are quickly followed by discriminatory actions by the police; Ice Cube begins with blatantly calling out the police for thinking that there is nothing in the hood except for crime and sexual delinquents.

“Why, oh why must you swoop through the hood
Like everybody from the hood is up to no good
You think all the girls around here are trickin”

In response to a fault that Cube acknowledges for its existence in the hood—partially denouncing the fact that this is not a good representation as to what good the hood has to offer—he accuses the police for their foolish arrogance.

Up there lookin like Superchicken
At night I see your light through my bedroom window
But I ain’t got shit but the pad and pencil

He essentially tells the police, directly, that entering a ghetto neighborhood does not give police the right to think that they are above-all, since they look equally as ridiculous in the sky, searching for trouble that may or may not exist (searching for/expecting trouble instead of responding accordingly to it). The police, through these unnecessary actions, are discriminating against entire communities of people, creating the racial tensions and aggressions that the Black Power Movement began to express.

Tupac Shakur’s cultural-political activism causes this song by Ice-Cube to be a direct reflection of the reality of police relations in the ghetto; at the same time as showing the discriminatory actions of the police, Ice-Cube presents the perspective of urban youth and explains where the aggression comes from. Tupac utilized Hip Hop music as both a rallying source as well as a nuanced way of calling attention to the way old social interactions are affecting the urban youth of America (Stanford).

I can’t wait till I hear you say
“I’m going down, mayday, mayday.” I’m gonna clown

Cause everytime that the pigs have got me
Y’all rub it in with the flying Nazi
Military force, but we don’t want ya
Standin’ on my roof with the rocket launcher”

Cube’s song is not meant to be a rallying source but answers the complaint that white-America tends to have in dealing with the growing attitude of urban youth. The Black Power Era was notorious for using terms like “pigs” toward law enforcement and incurred militant actions from people who already stood above them from a racial standpoint; as a result, groups like the one that involved Tupac Shakur’s mom found the bravery to act militantly as well (Stanford). Ice-Cube uses the word “Nazi” to emphasize the depth of police brutality—police seemed to target only a certain race of people (African Americans) and white-privilege kept them concentrated in areas in which they were to be constantly monitored and harassed (in ghettos). He says “flying Nazi” to explain the watchful discrimination that the police impose upon ghetto communities from a noisy helicopter.

Like Tupac, Ice-Cube brazenly states:

“‘So fly like an eagle.’
But don’t follow us wherever we go
The shit that I’m saying, make sure it’s heard
Motherfuck you and your punk-ass ghetto bird

Ice-Cube expresses the request of the ghetto youth toward the police: Stop following (us) like we’re always doing something wrong. Coupled with a later set of lyrics, Ice Cube further emphasizes the frustration he has with police monitoring him as if he’s a criminal due to the color of his skin and his location.

“Now, my homey’s here to lick on a trick for a Rolex
And let me try the fo’ next
Now the fo’ I was driving was hotter than July
Looked up and didn’t see a ribbon in the sky
Saw a chopper with numbers on the bottom
‘Calling all cars, I think we’ve got em.’”

Here, Ice-Cube shows the scenario in which his friend in a richer neighborhood allowed him to borrow his car for fun, in which police saw him and attempt to arrest him for driving something so nice. With such heavy prejudice and discrimination, it is obvious that Ice-Cube was aiming to provide realistic scenarios in ghetto communities that illustrated the reasons for African-American irritation/attitude toward police. Unlike NWA, he does not just create an “us versus them” argument, but rather an explanation for the rage and anger that minorities have in similar situations.

Lastly, what I found the most interesting about Ice-Cube’s choice to illustrate the life of urban communities, is that this specific song almost mimics that of Tupac’s incident with shooting cops in Atlanta, GA. The helicopter that constantly ruins people’s nights in Ice-Cube’s neighborhood exists because the cops are expecting trouble and are outright searching for it to happen. The drunk cops created that type of trouble, and they chose to take it out on a ghetto neighborhood and on a minority, most likely due to the premonition that the person and location were quite insignificant in comparison to the power they held. Ghetto Bird provides a concise explanation for the anger and annoyance that minority groups have in regard to police activity; it artfully and effectively shows the way police abuse their rank and power, using it to outright oppress and harass ghetto communities and play on the stereotypes of the people who live there.

tupac yuh

Sources:

Pough D. Gwendolyn, “Seeds and Legacies: Tapping the Potential of Hip-Hop”

Stanford, Karin L. “Keepin’ It Real in Hip Hop Politics: A Political Perspective of Tupac Shakur.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 42, no. 1, 2010, pp. 3–22., doi:10.1177/0021934709355122.

Dark Humor and the Subversion of PC Culture

Primary Source: Figures 1-5 above: Taken from James N. Tidwell’s American Folklore archive at San Diego State University; transcripts of different styles of insult, morbid, and dark jokes used around the nation.

Secondary Source: https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/455713.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Ab18dabb438077c747f5b9ccae2110aa9

(Refer to pages 397-401) Journal: Taken from Professor Edna Andrews’ ” CULTURAL SENSITIVITY AND POLITICAL CORRECTNESS: THE LINGUISTIC PROBLEM OF NAMING” (1996)

 

American comedic culture, more than anything, is a free-flowing counterculture that subverts every single aspect of American society; from race relations to gender issues, comedic culture openly criticizes the subjects that people do not normally discuss or bring about. More specifically, situational relevant “black humor,” otherwise known as dark or hate jokes, have a specific niche in progressive social relations among American citizens throughout history. Rather than a debilitating tool used to humiliate various groups of people, black humor, “skewers convention, looks beyond and through racial and gender identity, and mocks sexuality and death…not [being] concerned with the moral quality of society and instead aims to deconstruct moral certitude” (Standfest). In other words, dark humor has been historically used as a cross-cultural medium, discussing otherwise unwelcome subjects regardless of background or historical period. According to professor Jerry Zolten of Pennsylvania State University, American dark humor is heavily laced with satire, which was mostly about race and ethnicity in the early 1800s, and became more popular in mainstream comedy and media in the mid to late 1950’s (Zimmerman). Around the latter time, literature and language professor James N. Tidwell archived many of these commonly tabooed jokes during his travels throughout the country, and stored them in the American Folklore collection in the Special Collections and University Archives. Figures 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 consist of examples of such archived jokes, ranging from morbid, cannibalistic, violent topics to that of cross-dressing children; such archives epitomize the very nature of this style of humor. Dark humor strays from the politically correct environment that American culture emanates, subverting common racial, ethnic, gender, and customary stereotypes in order to deconstruct the peculiarities of overt and covert discrimination and taboos present in society.

Regarding gender and sexuality stereotypes, dark humor often attacks the constructs of what makes men and women look like and act like their established social identities of the time. Tidwell’s travels throughout 1950’s America allowed him to experience different levels of typical American gender roles and nuclear family households: a stay-at-home mother who cooks and cleans, a daughter playing with dolls, a son with toy soldiers, the bread-winning father, etc. A direct antithesis to this lifestyle would include anything that is not heterosexual and patriarchal. One such example of patriarchal gender stereotyping is the gentleness of a mother, to which Tidwell presents the aggressive joke, “‘Mother, why does Daddy lie so still?’ / ‘Shut up and keep digging!’” (Tidwell), implying the fact that the mother may or may not have killed her husband.

In taking a dark turn, black humor has the cynical tendency to subvert normal behaviors to “address dire social circumstances, but with a specificity of intent that adhered to topicality in a way that [‘correct’] humor does not” (Standfest). At face value, this joke is highly immoral, but carries many social implications: Are mothers always good or can they ever be bad? Do BOTH men and women have violent tendencies? Can the man actually become a victim? With the difference in established power, it was actually atypical in the past to see a man being the helpless victim and the mother acting in a tough or dangerous way, especially when the lens is given through an innocent child’s eye. Moreover, when it came to the difference in male and female interaction, there has even been a submissive expectation regarding intellect.  The following video satirizes the female ability to engage in a “man’s” conversation:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LS37SNYjg8w

Black humoristics purposefully exaggerate common social constructs and stereotypes for the sake of exposing the peculiar behaviours that result from such harsh societal judgement. The skits and jokes spur conversation, and introduce uncomfortable topics with light-hearted an shocking ease. Figure 1 includes the joke, “Mommy, can I wear a bra?” to which the mother refuses, yelling, “NO! Thomas!” (Tidwell) to her son after much persistence. Homosexuality and cross-dressing during the 1950’s to 1960’s remained a huge taboo in society, often being viewed as an anti-establishment ideal for American men and women; as a result, the government often shut down or did not, until recently, pass laws that would be in the favor of the LGBTQ community (Cohen and Richards). In other words, these topics of conversation were controversial. Comedy Central’s show Saturday Night Live frequently presented skits that included situations of homosexual advances and cross-dressing, to both provide laughable material as well as show the ridiculous extent to which American society taboos the gay community. “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” in season 24 of SNL is a prime example of exaggerating the stereotypes of the gay community that made people question how absurd it was to worry about couples who may or may not be gay, by introducing characters who cross-dressed, overplayed gender stereotypes, and mined for humor in “gay panic,” but were heros (Pierce). Of course, like Tidwell’s cross-dressing joke, the material was accepted with shocking surprise, eventually leading to the question: What is there to really worry about with the LGBTQ community? Dark, satirical humor in American society subverted the common misconceptions of how badly one should actually worry about such issues.

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/tv-funhouse-ambiguously-gay-duo/n11043?snl=1 

The goal of a dark humorist is to be painfully honest, and observational humor provides just that. As time progressed closer to the 1960’s, around which the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements came about, dark humor became a particular form of “American outrage” that exploded from the social unrest of the time. According to curator Ryan Standfest, “The postwar desire to aggressively shape a singular middle class ‘American Dream’ eventually rested in a brand of comic subversion in the mid to late 1950’s” as a “literary conceit with the occasional nod to stand-up comedy” (Standfest). This American Dream was to be more inclusive, leading to a common pattern in the growing popularity of stand-up comedy in the late 1960’s. Rosenfield from the American Comedy Institute claims that “it starts with certain groups or minorities–immigrants, blacks, women, old people, Jews, Muslims, gays, Arabs, Asians–being the target of stereotypical jokes” (Cohen and Richards). Racial and ethnic stereotypes have a precedence in stand-up and observational comedy, both of which utilize dark humor as a way to advance minority significance when it comes to having a “voice.” This form of dark humor actually deconstructs mainstream American political correctness by confronting the racial stereotypes that political and social groups try to avoid or “sugarcoat” in order to make American society look better than it really is. On the Greg Giraldo show, Giraldo himself admits that “A lot of racially charged shit happens here in New York City…Yet mainstream culture likes to pretend that race issues don’t exist…Unfiltered honest talking on race is rare, but comics are comfortable with race…comics are honest” (Cohen and Richards).

By exaggerating or even accepting stereotypes onstage in front of millions of people, stand-up comics present a more dimensional character to audiences who may know very little of the stereotyped group. Talking about these issues with humor effectively presents awareness while also humanizing a seeming representative of that racial or ethnic group, creating human connections to that person/those people and breaking down any original stereotypes, making them “harder to perpetuate” (Richards and Cohen). Comedian Dave Chappelle is one such comic who takes stereotypes toward the African American community and plays along the uncomfortable line of using racially charged language to prove a point:

http://www.cc.com/video-playlists/s7d301/where-to-start-with-chappelle—s-show/mlg0y7

Another example of this would be the typical “smart Asian” joke, with strict parents who “live and breathe education and good grades.” Thanks to the advent of Vine and other video-based social medias, slapstick humor with original content by multitudes of minority groups presented similar situations among all racial/ethnic groups. Minority comics eventually destabilize the stereotype, taking away the power of prejudices to actually hurt and offend (Richards and Cohen). Hate jokes, no matter how shocking, create a direct counter-culture to the recognized establishment of mainstream media. They directly criticize and expose discriminatory actions as well as debunk prejudicial thoughts. And rather than being ignored, dark humor allows these criticisms to society to be heard and actually listened to.

Morbid and wrong jokes–albeit, can become the most offensive in certain situations if not timed right–play a vital role in the normalization of tragic events. As comedian and British writer of The Office Rickey Gervais states, “Not everyone will like what I say or find it funny…There are enough comedians who try to please everyone as it is” (Gervais). American society has a tendency to only allow, on media, what is optimistic and comfortable, often staying away from material that can either offend or hurt masses of people (Gervais). This political and social correctness, although comfortable, never addresses a trauma or tragedy at hand. Tidwell’s inclusion of the joke, “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln–how was the play?” is an example of pure American satire. After the death of the president, it is almost certain that news about losinga leader would not bode well with American citizens. However, making an ironic joke to laugh at a traumatic situation is a step toward acknowledging that it happened in order to heal rather than pretending it never happened and acting “stronger” as a nation because of it. While it can be very critical of an event and its details, jokes like such are meant to calm the tensions that arise that would otherwise cause mass hysteria or communal anxiety. On a largely recent account, the contribution of comedy that Comedy Central’s Saturday Night Live show shortly after the tragedy of 9/11 is a prime example of comedy’s power to unite over taboo humor.  In fact, SNL was one of the first television shows to air directly after the tragedy of 9/11 and help retain American sanity.

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/cold-opening—homeland-security/n11645?snl=1 (2002)

In the video above, Robert de Niro on SNL is a newscaster being pranked by college and highschool students on national television while reporting alleged terrorist members. This is a direct play on the widespread racial fear that ensued toward the Middle-Eastern community by other Americans. Other skits that SNL produced after the incident included “‘American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie’, Washington hubris ‘U.S. Vows To Defeat Whoever It Is We’re At War With’, citizen helplessness in ‘Not Knowing What Else To Do, Woman Bakes American-Flag Cake,’ and presenting reactive xenophobia in ‘Arab-American Third-Grader Returns From Recess Crying, Saying He Didn’t Kill Anyone’” (Sneed). Each and every skit provided specific insight into American behavior and made it laughable, so as to show the American public that it is aware of how people are reacting to the situation. Rather than giving into hysteria, SNL was trying to give the Americas public a reason to analyze itself; by pointing out these weird hypothetical or ironic situations that are almost ridiculous, people were able to feel as though they could relate to the shock or watch someone else act worse than they ever would. It is a laughable way to gain acceptance for the fact that it happened, and a way to acknowledge that it is not a large enough reason to break down the American morale. Dark humor purposefully subverted the atypical news message of “We will rise again” by providing America the comfort to actually recover.
Dark humor/comedic culture allows for American society to have an outlet to speak about the tabooed topics and issues that need discussion as well as an introspective medium in tough situations. By subverting American political correctness, truth is allowed to be spread and discussed, progressing society through racial, ethnic, gender, customary, and traumatic issues in a light-hearted setting. Comedy not only provides comfort, but insight. As for American culture, it enhances the opportunities for groups of all types to have a voice in a culture that DOES have problems by merely not adhering to the “orthodox” behaviors expected of them.

Works Cited

“American humor.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Feb. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_humor.

“Understanding American Jokes.” Columbia West College, 17 Aug. 2015, www.columbiawestcollege.edu/2015/04/01/understanding-american-jokes/.

Cohen, Rogers and Richards, Ryan. “When the Truth Hurts, Tell a Joke: Why America Needs Its Comedians.” Humanity In Action, www.humanityinaction.org/knowledgebase/174-when-the-truth-hurts-tell-a-joke-why-america-needs-its-comedians.

Gervais, Ricky. “Ricky Gervais: The Difference Between American and British Humour.” Time, Time, time.com/3720218/difference-between-american-british-humour/.

Khazan, Olga. “The Dark Psychology of Being a Good Comedian.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 27 Feb. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/02/the-dark-psychology-of-being-a-good-comedian/284104/.

Love, Matthew. “50 Best Stand-Up Comics of All Time.” Rolling Stone, 14 Feb. 2017, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/lists/50-best-stand-up-comics-of-all-time-w464199.

Sneed, Tierney. “”After 9/11, How we Learned to Laugh Again.” USA Today. 11 Sept. 2013, https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/09/11/after-911-how-we-learned-to-laugh-again.

Standfest, Ryan. “Black Humor and the American Comic.” RYAN STANDFEST, Rotland Press, 2010, www.ryanstandfest.com/writings-/black-humor-and-the-american-comic.

Zimmerman, Bill. “Professor explores American culture through comedy’s history.” Penn State University, news.psu.edu/story/143653/2012/12/18/academics/professor-explores-american-culture-through-comedys-history.

 

Visual Artifacts Cited

Andrews, Edna. “Cultural Sensitivity and Political Correctness: The Linguistic Problem of Naming .” Duke University Press, 1996, doi:10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f.

Tidwell, James N. “Hate Jokes.” American Folklore Collection. (Primary Source)

Hack #4: “Give Peace a Chance” -John Lennon

Give Peace a Chance
Songwriter: John Lennon
Released as a single in 1969, “Give Peace a Chance” written and performed by John Lennon was a hit song around the world, but specifically in America as this was the height of the Vietnam anti-war movement.   The clear peace first message of the song made it quickly become the anthem of the anti Vietnam-war and counterculture movements.  At its height, this song was sung by half a million demonstrators in Washington, D.C. at the Vietnam Moratorium Day Protests, on 15 November 1969 (James, 1989).
Verse 1:
C’mon, everybody’s talking about
Ministers, sinisters, banisters and canisters
Bishops and Fishops and Rabbis and Popeyes and bye-bye, bye-byes
This verse elaborates on the various ministers, meaning religious leaders and also government leaders aka ministers, and their various viewpoints on the Vietnam War.  Lennon is appealing to them and pleading to them to listen to the anti-war protestors by acting on their message to “Give peace a chance”.
Verse 2:
Let me tell you now
Everybody’s talking ’bout
Revolution, evolution, masturbation, flagellation, regulation, integration
Meditations, United Nations, congratulations
Lennon clearly elaborates on the failed role of various institutions both international and domestic who are not attempting lasting peace resolutions. The United Nations was not doing their job of keeping peace in the world, which is their major duty to the global community.  One unfortunate aspect of the United Nations, was the fact that the U.S and the Soviet Union both have the power to veto resolutions made by the Security Council.  Since these two countries were on opposite sides of the war, this essentially made the United Nations useless and ineffective since the two major powers would not agree with each other.  Lennon is clearly upset with this and specifically calls out this international peace organization to listen to the vast amount of individuals interested in peace over war (James, 1989).
Chorus:
All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance
All we are saying is give peace a chance
Lennon was  clearly anti-war and believed in peaceful negotiations to end the conflict in Vietnam.When the song was released, the Vietnam War had escalated to a point were there many deaths on both sides and destruction was constantly on the front page news.  President Nixon was also recently elected and the song serves as a reminder to political leaders that the world wants peace.  Lennon also substitutes “Are you listening Nixon” into an unofficial verse of the song which demonstrates a clear message to the president that Americans are tired of the unnecessary death and want him to try achieving peace (James, 1989).