Friday, April 27, 2012

Express Yourself?

People of my generation may remember the song Louie Louie. My friends and I spent hours sequestered in someone’s basement trying to make out the lyrics, which, rumor had it, including dirty words spoken in slurred, barely intelligible speech. The thrill we got when we thought we caught a phrase is not easily comprehensible to an adolescent in 2012 listening to today’s pop music lyrics. The old taboos are gone and we baby boomers can take the credit—or the shame.

So today driving to school, I passed a young innocent-looking high school student on her way to the halls of education with a sweatshirt that said in big letters, “PULL THE TRIGGER, BITCH!” Really? Is this the reward for our efforts? Is that what the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley was aiming for? Back in the early 20th century, D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller challenged the permissible in literature. blues singer Bessie Smith snuck past the guards at the gate with her brilliant metaphoric sexual innuendo, Hollywood kept pulling up on the windowshades of censorship to show us what went on behind closed doors as essential to the human drama. Later Dizzy and Miles blew trumpets at the Walls of Jericho to tumble the archaic taboos and Victorian repressions. But for what? So this high school girl can carry this message on her sweatshirt into our institutions of cultural transmission?

We all know the costs of repression— politically, socially, psychologically. The machinery of denial and the conspiracy of silence is good for exactly no one. What people refuse to talk about or face, as a family, community or individual, is always precisely what longs to be said out loud. Once it is spoken, once a topic is publicly breached and brought into the conversation, the capacity to deal with it is born.

But the antidote of repression is not uninhibited expression. Just getting to say whatever you want and have the T-shirt and bumper sticker people print it and sell it, the music moguls throw it on the airwaves to make their buck, the TV sell sex and violence on prime-time, the movies up the gore and flesh quotient, the Internet put it all at your fingertips with a button click, doesn’t solve the problems of repression. Just creates new ones and when you see children constantly exposed to it all, almost makes you yearn for the “good old days.”

Of course, the answer is not return to censorship (though in regards to children, I would advocate much more protection), but transformation within, making good honest conversation and art with integrity more interesting than flash and dazzle, sensation and titillation. Someone was talking to me about an up-and-coming rapper who seemed talented, but whose subject was the same old tired “bitches” and “hos.” I suggested we look for another talented rapper who’s into gardening and can sing about “ditches” and “hoes.”

Meanwhile, I’ll close with a tip from a friend who I told about the sweatshirt. She said that detectives have testified that if someone is pointing a gun at you, it is a bad idea to invite them to shoot. Taunted like that, they often do. Hope that will never come in handy, but you take your lessons from where you can get them. 

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