Saturday, January 08, 2011

"I'm Afraid Of Americans" by David Bowie

I figured since it's David Bowie's birthday, and since I'd already shown a 70s video and an 80s video, I'd better now show a 90s video of his - in this case I'm Afraid of Americans, from the 1997 album Earthling; lest those of you out there who are sensitive to such things become overwrought and insensible with worry that either Bowie or I are engaged in even more (or, indeed, any) America-bashing I should first let you know that the title is ironic. The clues are subtle, but they're there:
  • the song comes from an album called Earthling, which Bowie clearly is not, so how could a song he wrote with that title also be literal
  • it was written and recorded in 1997, when Americans were much less scary than they would become circa 2001-2006
  • in it, Bowie is in collaboration with industrial music pioneer and noted American Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails fame
  • since Bowie doesn't appear to be afraid of Trent Reznor he's probably not afraid of anyone
  • Bowie lives at least part of the year in New York City, a well-known place in America
  • as the song's lyricist and co-composer (alongside Brian Eno) he says it's not - therefore he should know - and,
  • it just isn't, okay?!?
If anything, the song (and especially its video) satirizes the paranoia with which much of the rest of the world views America and its people, seemingly inured to the horribility of their own populations. After all, as the lyric says 'I'm afraid of Americans / I'm afraid of the world'; let's not forget kids, it's not Americans that are awful, it's humans in general...

I hope that helps put your collective minds at ease...

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Prince Albert Victor: The Lost King

The tradition of disappointed heirs to the throne is one of the British Crown's most durable ones. Edward VII was already an old man before he succeeded Queen Victoria; as great as he eventually became, at first George VI's appeal was a pale shadow of Edward VIII's popularity; Elizabeth II's youth was sacrificed to duty; and even the current Prince of Wales has waited and waited*...

PhotobucketIn his own generation, Prince Albert Victor - son of the future Edward VII and Queen Alexandra - was intended to be King, only to die young and thrust an unprepared George V onto the throne. Fortunately, the British Crown has another tradition, that of those who ascend it to not merely rise to the occasion but exceed all expectations...

Yet another of the Royal Family's redoubtable traditions is that each of its generations has a member whose memory is plagued by scandal, and in this case Prince Albert Victor more than fills the bill. Already considered a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders when they began to occur in August 1888, from the moment the Cleveland Street Scandal broke in July 1889, his name was forever linked to the last royal taboo, namely that of homosexuality - the mere existence of which is seen as the principal threat to an organization founded on heredity.

Although widely travelled as a naval cadet at a time when most people lived and died within five miles of where they were born, the Prince known to his family as Eddy was far from worldly, with even his kindest biographers referring to him as 'thick'. Born on this day in 1864 at Frogmore House (located in the Home Park near Windsor Castle) early on the Prince's tutor John Neale Dalton referred to his pupil's brain as 'abnormally dormant', whereupon it was suggested that a military career was likely the best option. It wasn't. No matter what the field of study, Eddy was ill-suited to learning, and from a young age expressed grave misgivings about fulfilling the role he was expected to undertake.

By 1891 his grandmother the Queen had brokered a marriage between Eddy and an impoverished German Princess, Mary of Teck; before they could be wed, though, Eddy perished in an influenza pandemic in January 1892...

During the customary mourning period the ill-fated fiancee became friendly with her former paramour's brother, the Duke of York, and rather than letting an eminently suitable Protestant bride go to waste, the pair initially united in an official show of grief were soon also united in matrimony in the Chapel Royal at St. James's Palace**.

Eddy's legacy, then, wasn't a disappointing reign which may have ended in the abolition of the monarchy but the only honourable setting aside of an unsuitable heir in favour of one whose solid foundation has kept the House of Windsor in power even as their cousins across Europe have fallen from grace.

*And is bloody well gonna keep on waiting, if I have anything to say about it...
**So successful was their marriage that George V became one of the first English monarchs to never take a mistress.

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In Memoriam: Wilkie Collins

In many ways the popular Victorian novelists Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens functioned as mirrors of each other; each wildly successful in their times, each responsible for overly-sentimental, verbose, and even maudlin yet hugely popular works, and each plagued by illness which fated them to premature deaths, today the latter and his works are studied with a fervour bordering on the obsessive while the former languishes in a semi-forgotten state that is in its way as tragic as the lives of any of the fictional heroines he created.

PhotobucketSo why the discrepancy? Possibly Collins' bohemianism didn't sit well with the generation that came after him - the one whose role it was to assess his legacy. While Dickens married young and had children as he frantically wrote himself to death, Collins never married, preferring instead to shack up with a widow named Caroline Graves; also, while Dickens suffered his deteriorating health with a stoicism the Victorians would have considered brave, Collins dealt with his by taking increasing doses of laudanum - so much, in fact, that he not only hallucinated but invented himself a subjective doppelgänger he called 'Ghost Wilkie'.

In fact, much of Collins' 1868 novel The Moonstone was written without his recollection of having written it; I had a similar reaction when I read his 1859 novel The Woman in White, only my memory lapse wasn't caused by laudanum, but rather by Byzantine Victorian verbiage and a heroic quantity of THC. But I digress...

Bornin London on this day in 1824, Collins' father was the landscape artist William Collins; when he was a teenager Collins' family lived in Italy, which left an indelible impression on him. Originally employed as a clerk, after the failure of his first novel Iolani Collins studied law at Lincoln's Inn. When his second novel Antonina was a greater success in 1850 Collins began taking his writing career more seriously. It was following his fateful meeting of Dickens in 1851 that Collins went to work on the more successful author's Household Words; by the time his next few novels had been serialized in All the Year Round Collins' fame was assured. By the time he died in September 1889 he'd published 27 novels, more than 50 short stories, at least 15 plays, and over 100 pieces of non-fiction work. All of which makes his subsequent obscurity all the more odd...

The resurrection of Wilkie Collins began when Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick gave their son James the middle name of Wilkie; while it might not seem like much to most people with lives, it was a big deal to the blogocracy when it occurred in October 2002, and was much commented upon. In fact, it was in reaction to this event that I first read The Woman in White - which fact I'm only partially ashamed to admit.
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"Cracked Actor" by David Bowie

David Bowie's song Cracked Actor was originally released on his 1973 album Aladdin Sane; this footage of him performing it is derived from a 1974 documentary of the same name, made by Alan Yentob for the BBC series Omnibus.

The song's shocking story and frank lyrics are as redolent of the 1970s as Bowie's costumes and cocaine-addled demeanour, and point to the genius of the man which continues to grow, even as he passes his 64th birthday today.

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World City-Zen: Monaco


Monaco is a place which has long exerted a pull on my interest - and I'm not alone; first settled in the Paleolithic era as early as 300,000 years ago, by the sixth century BCE it was the site of a Phocaean Greek colony where a temple to Hercules was built, which temple gave the area the name Monoikos (or 'lone-dweller') from whence its current name is derived. This Mediterranean-adjacent jewel located in the south of France passed from empire to empire until 1191 when it was granted by Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI to Genoa; a fortress was begun atop the Rock of Monaco in June 1215, from which time the modern history of Monaco can be said to begin.

François Grimaldi captured Monaco on this day in 1297, since which time the city state has been continually in the possession of the House of Grimaldi; while Monaco itself has gradually evolved itself into a principality so has its ruling family evolved into a princely one. Nominally under the protection of France - without whom it and its tax-free status could not exist - Monaco has chiefly been ruled by absentee rulers, who preferred their decadent life at Versailles and Paris over a life of despotism in the sleepy, if lovely, village from which their power and station were derived.

The Franco-Monegasque Treaty of 1861 was the first to formalize this relationship, which has since been refined numerous times, especially whenever the succession has been in question - as it was in 1918. In fact, the parlous state of the Monegasque succession is still a worry, given the propensity of its rulers for philandering and their seeming unwillingness to produce heirs within wedlock.

It was Louis II who first took a hands-on interest in his most important holding, although the modern state is almost entirely the creation of his grandson and successor Rainier III; Prince Rainier did more than diversify Monaco's economy, he put the place front and centre in the world's imagination when, in April 1956, he married the glamourous actress and humanitarian Grace Kelly. Miss Kelly, in fact, did her part to put Monaco on the map even before she'd met the Prince, when she starred in Alfred Hitchcock's 1955 fim To Catch a Thief, opposite Cary Grant.

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In Memoriam: Soupy Sales

As pranks go, it will go down in the history books as one of the greatest; on New Year's Day 1965 Soupy Sales addressed the kids watching his TV show and asked them to get those 'funny green pieces of paper' from their parents' wallets and purses and send them to him at the station, in exchange for which he'd send them a postcard from Puerto Rico.

PhotobucketHistory doesn't record how much money arrived, but obviously some did, and Sales was suspended from work for two weeks for encouraging children to steal; now who ever said television executives had a sense of humour?

It's just one of the wild stories connected to Soupy Sales, and like many of the others, it's actually true; one of the more ubiquitous untruths had Sales slipping innuendo into the shows to entertain the Moms who might have been watching at home. As though a respected broadcaster like him would ever be caught dead slipping it to other people's mothers, especially in the middle of the day.

Born on this day in 1926, the legendary children's entertainer has two sons - Hunt and Tony Sales - professional musicians who performed with David Bowie in the band Tin Machine - not to mention Todd Rundgren and Iggy Pop - as well as having formed their own band Tony and the Tigers in Detroit; Hunt Sales composed the signature riff in Iggy Pop's classic song Lust For Life.

Alas, Soupy's 83rd birthday would be his last; he died in October 2009.
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"Let's Dance" by David Bowie

The David Bowie of this era was the first incarnation of his with which I was familiar; not only was Let's Dance the first song of his I'd knowingly heard, it came from the first album of his (not coincidentally also entitled Let's Dance) I'd ever bought, and so therefore this is the version of him which provides me the necessary context for him and his extraordinary career. Naturally enough, the tres cool video isn't available; in lieu of this, I've decided to post a clip of the man himself performing the song live during his Serious Moonlight tour.

Of course, entire websites are devoted to each of his personae - with their webmasters slavishly devoted to supporting the claim that their favourite is best to the exclusion of all others - but here at the Pop Culture Institute we take the long view... A single-affect Bowie would have burnt out his appeal long before now; it's his chameleonic tendencies which specifically commend him to iconic status*.

Amazingly, today marks Bowie's 64th birthday, and it's one which sees him still going strong despite a 2004 cardiac incident he suffered while performing in Germany.

*That and his willingness to embrace new music, even unto mentoring up-and-coming bands such as Arcade Fire.

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In Memoriam: Helmuth Hübener

First, he was a Boy Scout; after the Nazis suppressed that organization, Helmuth Hübener was more or less compelled to join Hitler Youth. However, the events of 1938's Kristallnacht soon enough crystallized his opposition to the atrocities of National Socialism; in his mind both anti-Semitism and totalitarianism ran counter to his Mormon beliefs.

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1925, Hübener was the youngest person ever sentenced to die by the Volksgerichtshof when, in October 1942, he was beheaded at Berlin's Plötzensee Prison; he was only 17.

Along with friends Karl-Heinz Schnibbe, Rudolf Wobbe, and later Gerhard Düwer, Hübener aided in the delivery of about 60 different pamphlets throughout the city of Hamburg decrying the futility of Germany's erstwhile attempts to conquer the world. He had also been monitoring broadcasts of the BBC, which was strictly verboten and considered treasonous; much of the content of his inflammatory literature was gleaned from this activity. 'Through their unscrupulous terror tactics against young and old, men and women, they have succeeded in making you spineless puppets to do their bidding,' ran one courageous screed.

Although his friends were merely given long prison sentences for the part they played in undermining the Third Reich, the authorities allowed Hübener's death sentence to stand, on account of his extraordinary level of intelligence, brains being the greatest enemy of Fascism.

Today his name lives on in his hometown, where a youth centre and a pathway between Greifswalder Straße and Kirchenweg in the Hamburg neighbourhood of Sankt Georg - appropriately enough, the patron saint of the Boy Scouts - commemorate one teenager's heroic battle against the forces of evil. A movie tentatively entitled Truth & Treason - which has been in various stages of pre-production since 2008 and now seems set for release in 2011 or 2012 - stars Haley Joel Osment as the boy who stood against Hitler while all around him grown men cringed in silence; the short life of Helmuth Hübener is also the basis of Hübener vs Hitler by Richard Lloyd Dewey, which examines these events through a distinctly Christianist lens.
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Pop History Moment: LBJ Declares "War on Poverty"

You see, this is what Presidents did in the olden days, kids... They declared a War on Poverty, rather than on the poor, like certain redneck throwbacks I could mention but won't whose father was also President.

PhotobucketIn his State of the Union address on this day in 1964, US President Lyndon Baines Johnson continued to further the agenda set by his predecessor John F. Kennedy, using his substantial powers as a bully for good, rather than declaring an illegal war in a foreign country based on a lie and some specious intelligence... Er, uh... Ha ha ha...

A n y w a y... Instead of that other war, which has become his legacy, LBJ wanted the War on Poverty to continue the work set in motion by the New Deal of another of his great predecessors, Franklin Delano Roosevelt in that other great State of the Union address of January 1941, the Four Freedoms, to which LBJ had been witness as a Representative of Texas' 10th District.

'Because it is right, because it is wise, and because, for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty...' he intoned, introducing legislation creating the Office of Economic Opportunity, which intervened during a boom economy to give everyone a share of the wealth, not just those who were already wealthy. Nearly 45 years later, it remains to be seen in a War on Poverty can, in fact, be won; but the nobility of the thing was in the attempt, in the desire to make it so, which gave the War on Poverty a moral victory at least.
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"In The Ghetto" by Elvis Presley

I suppose there will always be those people who will consider Elvis Presley a racist; indeed, the comments section of this very video at YouTube bristles with enough racism of its own directed at him and his memory to gladden the shrivelled heart of even the most embittered Republican.

Claims that Elvis stole black music and made himself wealthy with it - Chuck D of Public Enemy and Eminem are the most vocal proponents of this theory - are specious at best; without such appropriation, black music might have never made such inroads into white culture in the deeply racist 1950s, bringing with it such stars as Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Recording artist Jackie Wilson goes so far as to insist that this appropriation went both ways, and that what Elvis did was in fact meld black and white music (in later years, Elvis' stage persona and delivery were more Pat Boone than Chuck Berry) making him a unifier as opposed to a polarizer*.

As a Southerner, if Elvis had wanted to he could have been volubly racist and wouldn't have cared who heard him, much like the white bigots who dogged his concerts throughout the South beginning in 1956 - who at one point even torched his car - and more often than not the venues where he appeared had to be protected by the National Guard. Despite the concerted efforts of some to make Elvis into a hater, no claims that he was have ever stuck, even after extensive investigation by such publications as Jet magazine.

By his behaviour alone it appears he did what he could to lower the colour bar in America; one such action was the recording of this extraordinarily sensitive song, which looks at race relations from the most liberal of viewpoints. Still, there's comfort in belief, even if those beliefs are based on misinformation and the unexamined prejudices of other people; certainly it's easier to repeat what someone else has said than it is to develop one's own opinions, a kind of intellectual laziness which is the modern malaise.

Born on this day in 1935, one of identical twins (the elder of whom, Jesse Garon, was stillborn) Elvis Aaron Presley simply appeared at the right time in the right place with the right look and the right sound and took the world by storm. Others - notably Charlie Rich - had a similar look and sound but never caught on like Elvis did.

In The Ghetto was written by Mac Davis and was first recorded by Elvis in 1965; it became a smash hit when it was released as a single in 1969 following his '68 Comeback special. This particular video is of a performance given in 1970 called Elvis: That’s The Way It Is.

*Let's not forget that Berry Gordy groomed his performers at Motown Records by making them listen to the likes of Doris Day and Pat Boone, as reported in J. Randy Taraborrelli's biography of Diana Ross, Call Her Miss Ross...

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POPnews - January 8th

[From a castle on a hill built in 1191, Monaco has grown into an international banking centre, while its princely family the House of Grimaldi has provided France all the fun of a royal family with none of the responsibility.]

871 CE - At the Battle of Ashdown, Ethelred of Wessex and the man who would one day be known as Alfred the Great defeated an invading army of Danes commanded by Halfdan Ragnarsson - killing his fellow king, Bagsecg, in the process.

1297 - Monaco attained its sovereignty when (as the legend has it) Francesco Grimaldi captured the Rock of Monaco from the Genoese after arriving at the gates of Palace of Monaco with his cousin Rainier I, Lord of Cagnes, while both of them were dressed as Franciscan monks; the tiny principality has been ruled by the House of Grimaldi ever since.

1499 - France's King Louis XII married Anne of Brittany, apparently.

1734 - George Frideric Handel's Ariodante had its premiere at the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden.

1790 - President George Washington delivered the first State of the Union Address in New York City, which was then the US capital.

1811 - Charles Deslandes led an unsuccessful slave revolt in St. Charles and St. James, Louisiana.

1835 - The US National Debt was $0 for the only time, under President Andrew Jackson.

1877 - Lakota chief Crazy Horse, Cheyenne chief Two Moons, and their warriors fought a battle with Nelson A. Miles of the US Cavalry at the Battle of Wolf Mountain in what was then the Montana Territory.

1912 - The African National Congress was founded.

1918 - US President Woodrow Wilson announced his Fourteen Points for the aftermath of World War I at the Paris Peace Conference - an event best recounted in Margaret Macmillan's Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World.

1926 - Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud became the King of Hejaz, renaming it Saudi Arabia.

1940 - Food rationing was introduced in Britain during World War II.

1962 - Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, was exhibited in the United States for the first time, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; the story of the greatest cultural exchange in American history - brokered by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who charmed France's Minister of Cultural Affairs Andre Malraux to do it - was recently told by Margaret Leslie Davis in the pages of Vanity Fair, in an excerpt from her book Mona Lisa in Camelot.

1975 - Ella Grasso became Governor of Connecticut, the first woman to become governor of any state who didn't follow her husband into the job.

1979 - The oil tanker Betelgeuse exploded in Ireland's Bantry Bay, resulting in the so-called Betelgeuse Incident.

1989 - Japan's Showa era ended with the death of Emperor Hirohito; the Heisei era began with the accession of Emperor Akihito.

1991 - A 16-year-old from Richardson, Texas, Jeremy Wade Delle shot himself in front of his English class, inspiring one of Pearl Jam's best-known songs, Jeremy.

2002 - US President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act; it's been leaving children behind ever since.

2004 - The RMS Queen Mary 2 - the largest passenger ship ever built - was christened by her namesake's granddaughter, Elizabeth II.
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