[Image: Dance at Molenbeek (1564), by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Shown are pilgrims suffering from the so-called dancing mania of 14th- to 17th-century Europe.]
Any artist in any medium — particularly those in pop culture — confronts a dilemma in depicting the poor, the downtrodden and hungry and homeless: how to do it, period. It’s possible to manage the trick accurately, compassionately, and without condescension, but it can’t be easy. Such a goddam downer of a topic, y’know? “Why would I do that to my audience?!?”
In general, you’ve got three easy choices, at least if you’re a writer — all of them satisfying no real need but to make the audience feel better about themselves:
- Maudlin “weepies”: stories of tragedy and despair
- Tales in the noble-savage genre: “Look! These people have nothing… but see how heroically they have it!“
- Inside-out and upside-down celebrations of the experience of poverty: well, they do have a joyously carefree life — no bills! no bank accounts! no jobs…!
I’ve been thinking for a while about posting occasionally on popular music which goes in that third direction. Granted, when they were written, and as they continue to be performed, these songs do not intend cruelty or snobbism. But they just as often exist in fact in a moral vacuum — penned and performed by artists far removed from ghettos and slums, soup kitchens, food stamps and other social safety nets, the simple desperations attributable to life at the very bottom of the food chain.
I recently came across a great passage in Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Hell’s in It: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors (2010) which sort of speaks to the whole thing:
Preston Sturges wrote in Sullivan’s Travels a passionate testament to the crucial and uniquely human need for laughter. He told of a film director (played by Joel McCrea), noted for making ultra-light entertainment, who decides that he wants to create a meaningful social document about “life,” about poverty and suffering. Out into the world he goes with a dime in his pocket to discover what being poor, homeless, and on the run is all about. Eventually he finds himself in serious trouble on a horrific Southern chain gang where the only small respite for the miserable prisoners is the Sunday movies they’re allowed to see at a run-down country church nearby. There he watches a silly Disney cartoon that gives him and his fellow convicts the only pleasure they’ve had all week. After he is rescued, flying back to Hollywood, his producers tell him that they’re now ready to back his serious film. But sullivan explains that all he wants to do now is make comedies. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” he tells them. “Did you know that’s all some people have. It isn’t much but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. Boy!”
By the way, I’m aware of another danger here, for me: elevating myself to some moral high ground — as though I’m superior to anyone who’d stoop to producing Busby Berkeley-style ensembles of dancing hobos and such. When it it really comes down to it, after all, what the hell do I know about poverty? I’m not wealthy by a long shot, but I’ve got a car in the garage. I’ve got a refrigerator full of food — two of them, in fact — as well as a mini-fridge at the bar which contains such subsistence-level items as craft beers and name-brand sodas. I’ve got a JOB, for crissake, and I often look knowingly in the other direction when approached by panhandlers…
Consequently, I really, really do not want this project to come off in an “I myself am so noble and praiseworthy” way. If you catch a whiff of this, please call me on it!
I should add one more caveat: I genuinely like the songs in this series. I like most (all?) of the performers. I’m not humorless, and I don’t think we need to take life — or these songs — too seriously. True, it’s worth sometimes catching ourselves in the act of having, y’know, a bit too much of a good time. But please: do enjoy whatever music ends up in the series — enjoy it as music, as comic relief, as (un)intended social commentary, whatever: on any level at all.
You can expect the first entry in the series tomorrow… if I manage to wrap it up by then!