Saturday, March 21, 2009

#6 Song of the Decade- "John Wayne Gacy, Jr."

Sufjan Stevens- "John Wayne Gacy, Jr."

With Illinois, Sufjan Stevens proved he was one of the most accomplished, ambitious songwriters of recent memory. During the year-end lists season, his third album crossed over from indie darling to modest hit, helped certainly by's decision to make it their number one recommendation of the year.

The dour "John Wayne Gacy, Jr." was never released as a single, but it calls attention to itself as the fifth track, letting us know that this social history of the Prairie State has its downtempo, lachrymose side as well. It profiles the titular serial killer, one of the more feared and hated figures in Illinois history (other than Steve Bartman). While the fingerpicking guitar and somber minor chords are memorable, the chilling song sticks with us because it refuses to conform to our expectations about what it is trying to say.

Songwriters are often described as "novelistic," and they are too often praised for detail--not detail that advances a narrative or provides characterization, but any detail at all. Why mention that something happened on a Thursday if that has no relevance? Why mention the color of someone's shoes if that tells us nothing about them? Stevens reveals his first life as a, well, novelist by providing economic details that seem completely necessary after the fact. The first couplet of this track is "His father was a drinker, and his mother cried in bed/Folding John Wayne's t-shirts when the swingset hit his head." It reveals a tense childhood, an unhappy but still doting parental unit, and a trauma that might explain or even excuse what happened later. In two lines. It is because of that first verse, which sounds almost charitable toward Gacy, that we don't quite understand the tone of the song. If Stevens is apologizing for what Gacy did as a man by explaining how he became that man, it would be pretty novel indeed. By stressing the "Jr.," even the title seems to nail down that Gacy was not a monster but, quite literally, someone's son.

In the second verse that tone is affirmed by the generous "he took off all their clothes for them," as if Gacy was doing these young victims a favor by undressing them. But it's also contrasted with lines of hyperbole like, "He killed ten thousand people." Why is the speaker making the tone harsher if we're supposed to sympathize with the killer? What are we supposed to be getting out of this?

With the final two heart-breaking lines, Stevens masterfully resolves these contradictions. Trailing off, echoing an earlier construction, he sings, "And on my best behavior, I am really just like him/Look underneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid." He has just finished humanizing what some people saw as evil incarnate, and then he puts himself in that same company. The point isn't, of course, that Sufjan Stevens is a murderer. The point is that we can't put an empirical value on sin.

It's tempting to look at the dark side of human nature to rationalize the way we behave, as if God is grading on a curve. What's more difficult--and all too often devastating--is interpreting our morality on its own plane. What if my skipping mass on Sunday has the same consequences as John Wayne Gacy killing a young boy? That may strike some as silly, but it's also silly to assume that our system of logic is the exact same as God's. Furthermore, if someone has the same guilt for skipping mass as Gacy does for murder, does that change God's judgment? In the ultimate case of "Let he without sin cast the first stone," Stevens presents these issues and leaves it to us to interpret them. It's not every day that a song teaches us about the Problem of Evil and moral relativism, but that thoughtfulness is something Sufjan Stevens always brings to the table.

Monday, March 16, 2009

If I Can't Do It, Homie, It Can't Be Done

50 Cent's feud with Rick Ross had no logical beginning, but it probably met its end this weekend when Fif, after promising to do so during the week, released a sex tape featuring the mother of Ross' child. (This is definitely NSFW.) In the tape, a blurred-out male figure (probably not 50 Cent) performs various sex acts on her, and--more chillingly--50, as his Pimpin' Curly character, narrates with pearls of wisdom such as, "Look at that R.R. tattoo. Is that for Rick Ross?" and "Think about your daughter, Ricky. Every time you look at your daughter, you're going to think of this." I might not be quoting it exactly, but I'd rather not watch the video again.

From almost any standpoint, this is probably the worst thing 50 Cent could have done. (Again, for no real reason. This is just his brand of shit-stirring that he patented with Ja Rule and Irv Gotti and perfected with Fat Joe and Kanye West.) Even he seems somewhat ashamed by it, feeling the need to perform his commentary through his alter-ego of Pimpin' Curly. Whatever beef was being perpetuated in Ross and 50's music is over now because it's hard to imagine anything eclipsing an act this dastardly. That was the point. Maybe Rick Ross could kill 50 Cent, and then he would "win" I guess? Hopefully this battle is over and doesn't escalate.

The jewelry says "pimp," but the smoke behind him screams "cuckold."

So what has the reaction been in the hip-hop community? Faint praise that 50 won this argument. Because, you know, that's how mature men settle disputes. Commenters sometimes mention what I just did, that the only way to top this is killing someone. And you might think I'm about to argue that we're completely de-sensitized as a culture, that this is proof of the end of the world or something. People's spouses and kids used to be off-limits in battle raps, but now they're not even off-limits on video. But that sounds facile. The truest reaction to 50 Cent filming a porno with his rival's baby mom is, rightfully so: "Oh well. Whatcha gonna do?"

As much as you disagree with what 50 Cent did--and I do think it's disgusting--you're not going to do anything about it. The Internet has taken away any vigorous sense of outrage that we might have. Being shocked is one thing; we can still manage that. But a sense of righteous anger, the type of showy purpose that results in a boycott, is all but gone from our society.

In the past if the Beatles said they were bigger than Jesus, people rounded up their records and made a bonfire with them. Even a few years ago, radio stations across the country took the Dixie Chicks off playlists because of their anti-Bush remarks. But am I going to go through all the 50 Cent tracks I didn't pay for in iTunes and delete them? No. And I'll probably keep waiting for his movies to appear on cable a year after their release before watching them. My opinion of 50 Cent may have changed, but I have no way of expressing it concretely. As our media has become increasingly intangible and abstract, so has our interaction with it.

I don't think Fif dresses well, but Eminem always looks terrible. He's one of the most successful musicians of our lifetime, but he looks like he shops at gas stations.

If I decided I was so disgusted by 50 Cent's actions that I could never listen to his music again, if I decided to delete all of his songs, what would it accomplish? It would be completely anonymous in the same way it was when I electronically stole it. I didn't contribute to his success in any real way, so how can I take away from it?

The most inspiring part of outrage is our ownership of it, the thrill we get by communicating that we have standards that have been crossed. That which outrages you, the place where you draw the line (if you do anymore), is a big signifier of your personality: I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore. When we reduce our participation in culture to a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a streaming video, we also relinquish our agency to voice our displeasure with those videos. Our faces are just as blurred as the guy sticking it to Ms. Ross.