Gideon Is In the Drawer
383 · 30 May 02
Pedro the Lion: Control
If you participate in any mailing lists or discussion groups where web links are exchanged by people who mostly self-identify as culturally literate, web-aware humanists, you will probably already have heard of capalert.com and the ChildCare Action Project. It is one of the web's premier sources of earnest small-mindedness, but if your group moved too quickly into ridiculing it, you may not have realized that its stated premise is actually fairly reasonable. Parents and grandparents want to take small children to movies, every once in a while, and if the adult is attempting to actively guide the child's moral development (which, I think we can agree, is a laudable impulse), they would like to know what they're going to see. Most mainstream movie reviewers evaluate films on other axes, and previews often wildly misrepresent the tone and content of a movie (I took my parents to see Sidewalks of New York, which in the trailer looked like a breezy romantic comedy, and as a result my sister is now responsible for all family movie selection until Thanksgiving of 2008). So the site exists ostensibly to brief the adults on the moral content of mainstream movies.
From that well-intentioned premise, however, things go quickly awry. The site is subtitled "Christian Analysis of American Culture", and Thomas A. Carder, who seems to constitute the Project, is a Bible literalist operating on a moral code straight out of the Fifties (and I do not mean the Nineteen Fifties). His rules for acceptable on-screen behavior are morbidly simplistic, and allow no leeway, even, for depicting immoral behavior in order to demonstrate its dire consequences. He meticulously catalogs every nominal blasphemy, right down to uses of the word "ass" (at least, I think it's "ass"; he primly doesn't specify), unmarried couples seeing each other in their underwear (meaning the actors are not married, not that the characters are not married), disrespect for parental authority (even Mary Poppins, one of two movies to ever get through his entire battery of tests unmarked, barely escapes censure on this count), any sort of sensuality (or any acknowledgement that homosexuality even exists), "impudence", crime, alcohol, drugs or, less controversially, murder. It is his belief that an impressionable child cannot, at all costs, be exposed to any of these things, no matter what argument they are part of.
A reader does not, of course, have to accept Carder's conclusions or observe the strictures of the officious blinking traffic lights at the tops of his reviews. You could, at least in theory, read his itemizations of the movies' offenses and judge for yourself which ones you care about. I remember compiling, as a kid, a death-by-death case for Star Trek being morally superior to Star Wars, which wasn't that much different from Carder's censuses. In practice he makes rational responses very difficult to sustain. His site is an awful experience, chaotically laced with amateurish advertisements for other similarly ridicule-inviting sites, ineptly-coded pop-up demands for donations, Escher-like navigation and endless scripture citations. He insists, in addition to merely cataloging things, on wedging them into a monumentally idiotic quantitative pseudo-analytical scheme (on a six-thermometer graph hilariously labeled W.I.S.D.O.M.) whose supposed impartiality he trumpets peevishly and constantly. He insists on going to see R-rated movies to which any conscious adult could immediately determine from advertisements that they should not bring small children, which seems to call into question his motives. He begs shrilly for money to "support" a project that, I feel uniquely qualified to note, requires less time and less monetary outlay than a web site of interminable quasi-reviews of pop records, a service certain people have been known to provide entirely at their own personal expense.
And mostly, you can't factor Carder's claustrophobic intolerance out of his informational reporting because he won't let you. There isn't a dubious facet of his careening enterprise that he doesn't defensively reiterate at every conceivable opportunity. His preposterous "statistics" are calculated to three significant digits. He doesn't want to be useful to people whose moral systems only partially overlap his; either you're with him to the last "dressing to maximize the female form" or "irresponsible cycling", or you are a foot soldier in the army of darkness. He is a dolt, and if you are not a dolt, you will find it difficult to read his pedantic explications of his doltishness without it clouding everything he says, to the point where you find yourself siding with reprehensibly venal Hollywood crap that you would otherwise have been the first to excoriate.
And although obviously I am not the choir to which Carder is preaching, it still seems ironic to me that he so thoroughly alienates me despite some parts of my expectations about religiously-motivated criticism having more or less inverted over the course of the last decade. I'm sympathetic to his predicament. I no longer laugh at people who claim that moral relativism is destroying our culture. In cogent moments, admittedly, I'm more apt to think that moral absolutism has been destroying our culture for centuries, so relativism is due its turn, but I'm in favor of moral reasoning, as a discipline, and although I don't think moral reasoning requires religious premises, it requires some set of premises, and we don't appear to be ready, as a species, to admit that we're making the premises up. I believe religions are artifacts of our evolutionary immaturity, but one person by one, if religion is what it takes to get you to examine the moral structure of your life, I prefer it to the alternative.
Responsive criticism, however, cannot operate in the absence of its targets. Carder finds himself in the bizarre position of having to describe things to which he objects, in the process of objecting to them having been depicted. This isn't quite as self-contradictory as it might seem, since his reviews are intended only for adults, but the implicit portrait of the human soul that arises out of his interdictions is terrifying, a defenseless creature subject to irremediable corruption at the slightest exposure to the infinitely seductive entreaties of Evil. His model of child-development seems to be shelter in ignorance until the age of movie-going consent, at which point I guess you send the poor things out into the decayed world you've concealed from them, and cross your fingers that they won't mistake any of a hundred sudden confusions and surprises for excitement.
The opposite approach, I think, is to stipulate the existence of Evil, and work to demonstrate the internal flaws in its logic. This is, frankly, the approach that the bulk of religiously motivated art has always taken, very much including the Bible itself. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah, for an obvious example, is an empty lesson if the student asks what sodomy is and you say "It's a bad thing good people shouldn't do". For the holy destruction of an entire city to seem moral in any way, you not only have to know the definition of the eponymous sin (and "gomorrahy" must be really fun, because I still can't get anybody to tell me what it is), but I'd contend that you also need to have some visceral sense of why people might do it, even though they'd been told not to. This can be done by analogy, you don't need lab assignments, but it has to be done in some form. A myth is useless unless the listener can somehow place themselves in it.
And so a surprising number of my favorite moral arguments couched in art turn out to be unflinchingly brutal stories about agonizingly fallible people told by obdurately religious artists. Orson Scott Card's Ender books are probably the exemplars, portraits of nearly unimaginable abuse of children and horrific family dysfunction, written by a devout family-oriented Mormon. Fellow Mormon Neil LaBute's Your Friends and Neighbors (even more comprehensively than his earlier In the Company of Men) is a witheringly ugly movie in which every single immoral character (which is all of them) pays deeply and irrevocably for their flaws. It may be the most biblical movie I've ever seen, and of course Carder wouldn't let anybody near it. I wouldn't take young children to see it, either, but I would know, when I took them to Spy Kids or Monsters, Inc., that I was preparing them to be the sort of adults who could one day watch Your Friends and Neighbors and understand what it asks and asserts. I think Carder is preparing them to be the sort of adults who pay a lot of late fees on Mary Poppins.
And Control, the new album by Pedro the Lion, is not material for young children, either, but it's one of the rare rock albums I'm inclined to take seriously in the same way that I take provocative movies and books. I had to be told that earlier Pedro albums had Christian sub-texts, and I'm not sure how much you'd independently intuit just from listening to this one, either (like there's little specifically Mormon about YF&N), but I don't think you could mistake the tone. The faceless, outlined characters in the liner art are the faceless, outlined characters in the stories in these songs. "I could never divorce you", the narrator starts to aver in "Options", only to clarify "without a good reason", before wearily intoning, where a chorus would usually be, "But for now, I need you". "Rapture" is a storming rock anthem that conceals intense self-doubt and self-hatred, and is a doubly rare empathetic condemnation of sexual transport as personal weakness. The grinding "Penetration" feints towards anti-music-business petulance, but then twists its sexual metaphor back on itself and ends up, I think, deriding the whole culture that breeds and supports greedy industries and sex metaphors. "Progress" (reprised from the Progress EP, on which it was called, confusingly, "April 6, 2039") is one long gloomy contention that we limp through hopeless lives on sheer denial. "Magazine" splits the world into wickedness and arrogance, with no apparent way to reconcile the two. "Rehearsal" finds a cheated-on spouse compounding the evil by trading the moral high ground for deliberately banal vengeance. "Second Best" is one of the most disenchanting empty-victory characterizations of sex on record (try to beat "The mattress creaks beneath / The symphony of misery and cum, / Still we lie jerking back and forth"). "Priests and Paramedics" ends with a funeral preacher asking the dead man's friends why they bother living when it hurts so much. The whole text of "Rejoice" is "Wouldn't it be so wonderful if everything were meaningless, / But everything is so meaningful, / And most everything turns to shit. / Rejoice." And the one that would make the headlines, if Pedro the Lion made headlines and the media weren't afraid, is "Indian Summer", which turns on the venomous "All the experts say you ought to start them young, / That way they'll naturally love the taste of corporate cum." Could we say that in an R-rated movie? I'm not at all sure. But there's probably a full week of substantive discussion engendered by that one couplet, between the indictment of corporatism and the deconstruction of the implications of how David Bazan phrased it. If an American high school teacher tried to stage such a week, they would be fired by the Tuesday morning bell, but turn it around: how could you conscience letting a high-school graduate leave home if you aren't confident that they're prepared to address issues of this maturity? So we shield children from words, while they drown in everything the words are trying to help them rise above. High school kids are listening to this record. What movies and TV and teachers aren't allowed to discuss with them, music and books and friends can. So they grow up, as best they can: the ones that fail learn to trust advertising, and the ones that succeed learn that truth is hidden and seditious, and they all learn that the society's guardians of morality are fundamentally corrupt.
But I'm agreeing with Control, not arguing with it, and after my recent reaction to The Reputation, we might wonder why. On that album Elizabeth Elmore yoked a series of propulsive rock songs to vitriolic character sketches of bitter, self-destructive people. On Control David Bazan hooks a series of churning rock songs to trenchant character studies of variously wrecked lives. When Elizabeth did it, I felt obliged to try to refute each one of what I took to be her points. When David does it, I feel like this has already been done. There are two good reasons for this, I think. The simpler of the two is that it is very possible (bordering, in my opinion, on mandated) to interpret Elizabeth's songs as mostly belonging to a single narrator, and to suspect that the narrator is, at least in part, her. But with David's songs, this would make no sense. The five songs about relationships and sex on Control are thematically consistent, but they involve at least three different narrators: "Options" (he will probably cheat on her, but hasn't started yet) and "Rapture" (cheating and enjoying it) could be stages in an arc, and "Second Best" (in which the cheater has long since ceased to derive any pleasure from their transgressions) could be a third chapter, but "Rehearsal" (in which the narrator has just discovered their spouse's cheating and started planning their own) must be the other person's arc, and arguably "Second Best" is the second chapter of that story, if not another one entirely. And "Progress" is in a detached second person. More importantly, though, I can't really take any of these narrators to be David Bazan, unless I'm willing to believe he'd write a confessional autopsy of a marriage while he's still in it, which I'm not. So where I feared that on some level Elizabeth really believed the depressing things she was singing, here I'm confident David is criticizing these lives, and starting to imply better ones in the negative space. These are bad people making cowardly decisions and suffering as a result; this album doesn't solicit a rebuttal, it challenges us to do better, to understand the seriousness of our commitments when we make them, to anticipate the effects of dishonesty when it tempts us, to picker greater goals, to be less defined by what we buy, to make sex mean more when we're doing it and less when we aren't, to have some better reason than procrastination or inertia to continue existing. To create, you must destroy. This record is a sculptural destruction, hammering off chunks of dead rock looking for the person hidden inside.
Then again, you'd miss a lot of the lyrical nuances of these songs if you didn't read along in the booklet, and many listeners won't. But the other big difference between The Reputation and Control is the musical relationship between the singing and the instrumentation, and you don't need to study anything to hear that. On The Reputation Elizabeth's singing is very much part of the songs' rock drive. A large component of my impression that she is endorsing the things she's saying is that she and her band sound like they're playing to emphasize the things she's saying. On Control, David's singing is usually starkly at odds with the music, especially when the music accelerates. The guitars slash and the drums clatter, expanding on the volume and urgency of the handful of rock songs on Winners Never Quit, a muted emo roar not that different from Rainer Maria's or Helicopter Helicopter's. Bazan has chance after chance to yell or soar, and each time opts instead to sigh, complaining at half-speed, fighting against his own songs' pull. With real marketing, The Reputation could be huge; Control is a doomed cult record. Elizabeth throws herself into horrible mistakes, and we are always willing to be carried somewhere; David stands us down from the other side of a line we wouldn't want to cross, and maybe a few of us are transfixed. Both tensions are, in some sense, artistic errors, but they are important errors, in my opinion, the flaws of significant art, of meaningful records that justify all the hours we spend listening to what turn out to be perfectly trivial ones. It's not yet June, but I am now sure that 2002 is a good year for rock music. Put together, The Reputation and Control are a call-and-response of the frailty of hope, and an advertisement for an unmarketable lifestyle of persistent doubt and the refusal to ignore pain. "I have been wondering", says the preacher in "Priests and Paramedics", "why we go to so much trouble to postpone the unavoidable." "I would leave this town tonight", Elizabeth insisted, "if I could think where to go." But then they play these songs, and don't leave, and so maybe we don't leave, either. They could, and we could, and none of us do. Elizabeth and David start into these liturgies of what can't be the answers, and perhaps we stay, if you're joining me, because if these aren't the answers, maybe this is still what answers sound like, and between knowing what answers might sound like, and a few more possibilities we can cross off, surely we're closer.