Thursday, May 25, 2006

On Worshipping False Idols

The other evening my wife and I were dinner guests at the home of friends. After dinner we were asked to join them in watching the grand finale of "American Idol "- a two hour affair in which more Americans allegedly voted for their favorite pop singer candidate than had ever voted in a national Presidential election. As I watched the show, I found myself trapped in the middle of a noisy electroinc jukebox filled with weeping and cheering entertainers. The finalists were an extremely pretty girl (my personal favorite) with a secure but ordinary pop voice, and a young Southerner who looked like one of the chunky Tarlton twins Scarlett married and lost early to the Civil War in "Gone With The Wind." He had a reasonably able voice and a lot of fancy moves but to paraphrase the late Senator Bentson, "I have seen Elvis, sir, and you are no Elvis."

I am intrigued by pop culture and I had previously made an effort to watch this phenom of a show but with no success. In the past I was turned off by the head honcho, a man named Simon, a professionally nasty Englishman who exhibited none of his countrymen's fabled wit, and whose prissy, self congratulating manner, full of sneers and raised eyebrows, took aim at the hapless non talents who were paraded before him as an opportunity to exhibit his fabled lack of charity and his feeble gift for insult. I rather liked Paula Abdul, a genuine performer who had been in the trenches herself, and she appeared to have a kind heart and a capacity for tearful good will. Of course I suspected that here we were witnessing the good cop bad cop scenario of my favorite police dramas. Of the others I have less recollection. I do recall the host, Ryan Seacrist, a feckless Ken doll, with a mouth full of fancy Hollywood dentistry and a Howdy Doody puppet charm. There was a heavy set African American panelist who seemed knowledgeable and forthright, but after my first effort to watch the show both me and my TV were turned off the Fox Network until that final show.

On the evening of the grand finale my wife and I left our friend's home early and returned to ours to watch our local PBS station which had a program devoted to the life of the great blues man Muddy Waters. Not a very nice man, Mr. Waters, but what a life - starting with his rural poverty - and focusing on his great artistry which was brought to the world not by television moguls, but by Alan Lomax of the Smithsonian and a small record company, Chess Records, providing an artist whose work has enriched all of us who love American music.

Now I will no doubt be accused of elitism for claiming that I prefer the blues of a sharecropper's son to the confections of a megahit TV show. This word elitist has been thrown about a lot lately and it has more than once landed on my doorstep. The first time I ever heard the word was as a kid listening to a comedy show, "Duffy's Tavern" whose jocular motto for the seedy saloon which served as the setting was "where the elite meet to eat." In today's America the real elite (those who are privilaged and not accountable for their actions) are usually the people like a Rush Limbaugh who throw the word elite around as if it was a synonym for bird flu. It has become the insult de jour of those who oppose a humane immigration policy, or who view the Dems as being out of step with the three G's of the Republican party, Guns, God, and Gotcha. The New York Times devotes its Sunday magazine section to dire warnings to the Dems that they will lose again if they listen to their party elite and wander too far from the dead middle in politics towards a lefty elitism. The trouble is nobody seems to know where the middle is these days, and one man's elitism is another man's humanity. It seems clear that Americans are looking for an old truth - starting with something as simple as "love they neighbor," not the old lies about trickle down economy which against all the laws of gravity keeps trickling ever upwards. Nor do they want to hear the new lies of being protected by our leaders - leaders who have demonstrated a greater capacity for sheltering their incomes than sheltering refugees from a storm, and whose talent for protecting the country is outmatched by their talent for protecting their mistakes from public view.

The New York Times continues to fascinate me in these troubled times. During the Clinton years the slightest ripple about Whitewater would land on the front page. But in today's Times an important story about Dick Cheney who may be called to testify under oath at the Libby trial is buried in the back of the paper. They also have a story about American Idol in the back pages. Both deserve to make it to the front page because both tell us truths about America today. Packaged entertainment like packaged food may not kill us, but it makes us fat and dull and lazy, it is a Roman circus which distracts us from the failings of the Emporer. When the Times protects its journalistic behind by placing important stories about the administration in the rear, that may be politic, but is not worthy of our paper of record. We will probably watch the story creep forward towards the front pages reluctantly as events unfold. But if you want some relief these days from the elitist lies of the right wing pundits or the elitist cowardice of our paper of record, play a Muddy Waters record - and see how pain and love can be turned into an art that speaks the truth about the human condition.