Pop culture, bloodletting and miraculous cures

Well, I’m a few days late but I did want to mention the Grammys on the weekend, which were quite a spectacle – from Cee-Lo’s dancing puppets to Justin Bieber’s space-age ninjas to Lady Gaga emerging from a giant egg. In fact, the whole music industry seems to be in a race to see who can be the most outrageous, Gaga and Nicki Minaj leading the pack. That said, it was all fairly entertaining, which is the point of the whole exercise. Highlights for me were apocalyptic Canadian indie favourites Arcade Fire winning Album of the Year, Bob Dylan backed by a small army of folk guitar players (it was starting to look like the Eagles up there), Mick Jagger prancing around in a spectacularly prolonged tribute to Solomon Burke, and Bruno Mars proving that he has the pipes to qualify as a genuine R&B artist and not just a packaged pop product.



The Grammys did get me thinking about how an artist earns the badge of “authenticity” rather than being dismissed as superficial, a distinction which is somehow increasingly important these days (in fact, we may well be living in the “age of authenticity“). When I first saw Lady Gaga (performing at the Miss Universe contest a few years ago, which I am not sure how we ended up watching) I wrote her off as just another Eurodance/techno fabrication. But now it’s clear that she does have a kind of cohesive artistic vision, combining performance art, music, dance and fashion in a weird synthesis. Andrea and I enjoyed her 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper as a window into her unique personality; also, it was good to finally confirm that her name comes from the Queen song “Radio Ga Ga.” I think the fact that her new song (“Born This Way”) displays a sort of Bloom-esque “anxiety of influence” as far as Madonna is concerned is entirely appropriate since Gaga is re-inventing the Madonna pop archetype for a new generation.



Moving along: A few years ago, Toronto artist Istvan Kantor walked into the National Gallery in Ottawa and, in an intervention predating Banksy‘s, wrote a giant “X” in his own blood on the wall. Perhaps that’s the ultimate act of “authenticity” as far as art and personal expression is concerned. It also is an interesting thing to keep in mind when considering the music of Eminem, whose tortured personal life – his own blood, sweat and tears – gushes out in his emotionally volatile rapping. The singles on his new album (here is a not-so-enamoured review) showcase his now familiar rapid-fire lyrical style, but more than that they are intense, angry eruptions of his inner struggle.

This is not to say that Eminem is always a great rapper, or a great artist (the whole “Slim Shady” persona is even more grating in retrospect). The point is, however, that no-one can do a convincing Youtube “cover version” of an Eminem song – his (perceived) authenticity as an artist comes precisely from the fact that he himself, Marshall Mathers, is the one opening his veins onstage. Every crystal-clear syllable he enunciates is a window into his – and only his – damaged soul.



(This is Eminem in the “Not Afraid” video, looking not unlike the artist-figure in front of the sublime sea in that Friedrich painting.)



I don’t want to stretch this too far, but the Romantic idea of the artist as the authentic, tortured soul whom we suffer vicariously through seems to be particularly prevalent in rap music. Obvious examples of this idea turning into explicit Christ-imagery are Nas being literally crucified in the video for “Hate Me Now” (way back in 1999) as well as DMX with his bloody, messianic bullet-wounds-as-stigmata imagery. But the underlying theme of the suffering artist continues into more recent “pop” rap: the constant pattern of fall and redemption exemplified in the careers and music of T.I., good old P. Diddy (cf. his new song “Coming Home,” which on his Youtube channel is inexplicably preceded by an ad for Mormonism) and even Kanye West who had to climb his way back from the hellish depths of committing the “unforgivable sin”: interrupting sweet, young Taylor Swift at an awards show.



In any case, Eminem stands among all of these scapegoats and admittedly imperfect suffering saviours, his story of descent into the darkness of addiction/self-loathing and eventual redemption (“I need a doctor,” he laments, who turns out to be Dr. Dre rather than Dr. Drew) taking on biblical proportions even as it mixes in elements of the American dream  and the redemptive-violence dramatics of urban subculture.

On a related note, before Christmas I read a story about how Saddam Hussein was having a Qu’ran written in his own blood. Here again is the urge for authenticity, to make something that cuts beyond the superficial (skin) to the soul. If Eminem was going to write a sacred text – and, in a way, perhaps that’s what all rappers are subconsciously trying to do – he would undoubtably write it in his own blood. But would that make it “authentic”? What does that word really mean? Is Lady Gaga “authentic”? How about Kanye? Justin Bieber? Cee-Lo’s puppets?


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