(1) sir mix-a-lot, "baby got back"
defeats (16) fastball, "the way" 166-28
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchfadness twitter poll. Polls close @ 9am Arizona time on 3/5.
joe wenderoth on "baby got back"
I like big butts and I cannot lie.
Nine decidedly ordinary words—base words, let's say—set in one precise order. Nine words cast, set free together in mid-air… turning gold. Millions of people afflicted with the English language have never been the same. Sir Mix-a-Lot, little known alchemist-Knight out of Seattle, let something slip.
Let's look a lil' more closely at his sound-concoction-treatise on "that healthy butt." Said treatise posits, first, that women have different kinds of butts. (Men's butts aren't discussed, so we'll set them aside—no offense, fellas.) There are, for Sir Mix-a-Lot's purposes, black butts (thick soul sistas, Flo Jo, that bubble) and non-black butts (Jane Fonda, beanpole dames, Cosmo and Vogue). If only things were so simple! But no, things are hecka complex when it comes to butts. Not all black women have that bubble ("my hump"), and not all white women are beanpole dames; some white women have that bubble, and some black women have the flat ass Cosmo endorses. In other words, some black women have a white butt, while some white women have a black butt.
Some white women have a black butt? Some white women have a black butt? What? This is a blatant contradiction of the law of hypodescent, or what is more commonly referred to as the one-drop rule. Said rule is the key to understanding the history of race in america. It operates by way of a contamination metaphor. If you have any known black ancestor, you have been contaminated with blackness… and thus, you "are" black. Seven white great-grandparents are not enough—if you have even one who is categorized as black, whiteness is not afforded to you. Even if you have bone straight hair, a totally flat ass, a pointy nose—even if you play hockey, golf, listen to NPR—so long as your contamination is known, whiteness is withheld.
Whiteness, as the one-drop rule conceives of it, is purity, complete absence of contamination. Blackness operates very differently; a black person is somehow immune to whatever white ancestry he or she has. Whiteness cannot contaminate blackness; blackness simply absorbs and transforms whiteness. To understand the history of race in america, you have to understand the contamination metaphor that is built into its foundations. Said metaphor works in only one direction, and as such, engenders either "race" or "racelessness."
Maybe you noticed my use of the term white rather than non-black in the immediately preceding block of text. I've done so because the one-drop rule conceives of white as the polar opposite—the inverse—of black. To say non-black, then, is not the same as saying white. The only women, in america, who are understood to have achieved completely non-black status are white. That is to say, white women are the only women wholly exempted from racialization. Whiteness isn't a race—it's exemption from race. To be white is to have that peculiar birth-right: presumption of oneself as the default human, completely uncontaminated with race. At the same time, to be white is to be the possessor of the racializing gaze, and so, in a sense, to be the Creator of the imagined races. James Baldwin understood this very well; he always said he couldn't be black until someone somewhere had decided to be white.
"What are you?" kids ask my daughter at her school. Those who have been enticed to racialize, as well as those who have been racialized… need to know her racial substance. She is a threat to the whole idea of race so long as her racial substance remains unknown. In order to racialize someone, you judge any number of things, but first and foremost you must judge physical appearance. Such judgment is often (and more often) unsure of itself. How, in any case, is someone's race to be decided at the level of appearance? In america, the physical traits of a potentially racializable other are always interpreted, first, by overlaying the established "white/black" dichotomies.
Baby Got Back begins with a little satirical skit in which two white women are looking at the butt of a black woman. It seems more than appropriate I should quote that skit in full:
Oh my God Becky, look at her butt! It is so big… she looks like one of those rap guys' girlfriends. But, ya know, who understands those rap guys? They only talk to her because she looks like a total prostitute, 'kay? I mean, her butt is just so… big. I can't believe it. It's just so round. It's like… out there. I mean… gross. Look—she's just so… black.
Beginning the song with a white woman's gaze, particularly when it is directed at a black woman's body, is telling. It frames the song's object, "big butts," as a matter of contention between women. The white woman marvels at a "big butt's" grotesqueness, the self-evidence of which seems—somehow—to have been called into question. The black woman they're looking at is dancing by herself, as if she was sexually attractive to someone. They stand near-by, gawking in disgust. In the song's video, they all seem to be situated in a void, the background of which is something like a pink and orange sky. If I had to place them in a reality, it would be in an Arizona desert in the early dusk, filmed from down low, a la Leni Riefenstahl. Strange scene (stranger ob-scene). In any case, the question—the threat—right from the jump, is clear, if unspoken: who could a grotesquely big-butted woman possibly be attractive to? The white woman begins then to venture an answer to her own unspoken question:
But ya know, who understands those rap guys? They only talk to her because she looks like a total prostitute, 'kay?"
Even black guys only talk to this big-butted woman because they presume she is willing to have sex with them. For these white women, black guys are very clearly other. "Those rap guys," that is, are unintelligible, less evolved; their desire is for sex, not love or beauty. Love and beauty are perhaps too subtle for their crude minds. Such is the thinking of the white women.
The opening skit establishes the white women's perspective, wherein two concurrent, incompatible gazes are attached to the black woman's body: the disgust/repulsion of the white women themselves (self-articulated), and the unintelligible and less evolved desire of black men (not self-articulated but posited from the afar of the racializers). The mention of the black men—their allegedly unintelligible and less evolved desire—when added to the view of the white women, is a step toward filling out the context of a larger scene, which I would call: america. There is a step not taken, however. A step the white women can't—or won't—take. These white women look on to a black woman's body; they are aware, at the same time, that black men are looking on to a black woman's body. Only the white man's gaze remains unknown. This is quite significant, given that the gaze of the white man, historically, has been the primary organizing force of the whole society. Indeed, to try to understand the perspectives of "inferior" gazes, one must first understand the supreme gaze, the gaze under which they toil.
America was founded and developed as a white supremacist, heteronormative, xtian-privileging, patriarchal oligarchy, and there have been "conservatives" enthusiastically devoted to conserving it ever since. The white man's gaze has always mattered most, and has always worked to "conserve" america, i.e. a white supremacist, heteronormative, xtian-privileging, patriarchal oligarchy. The white man's gaze, when it is directed at a black woman's body, should of course fall in line with the white woman's gaze… and be repulsed. This particular should is the problem.
This particular should has always been a real problem in american history. An awkward silence has always remained attached to its unfulfillment. The terrible truth, of course, is simply that white men have always been attracted to black women. The challenge has always been: how to explain this and at the same time maintain the idea of white supremacism? The white woman in the video makes the argument that has been popular from the beginning: if a man desires a black woman, it's not because she's beautiful—it's merely because she's sexually available. She's hyper-sexual by nature, a "total prostitute." That's actually an interesting way to define a female slave: "total prostitute." Prostitute not for the hour, but for life. Prostitute not by choice, or even out of desperation; prostitute by State law.
Example. In the film, Jefferson In Paris, the infamous relationship of Jefferson and Sally Hemings is represented. Indeed, the film's makers were bold enough to represent the key moment—the origin and the impetus—of this relationship. Jefferson is in Paris, seated at a desk in his own ornate private quarters, hard at work writing. His 14 or 15 year old house slave, Sally Hemings (a "black" slave who was ¾ white, and ½ sister to his wife…), is creeping around the room silently, clearly desirous of (maybe even physiologically drawn to) the great and noble man. Her lurking so close seems to evidence a kind of awe at his presence, a nearness-to-master trance. Jefferson pretends not to notice this; he lets her float there, transfixed. He lets her watch his greatness. At some point in all of this letting, however, her quivering desire becomes too much for him… and he suddenly snatches her arm like he was some kind of predatory insect. The point is clear: Jefferson did not seek out this relationship with his 14 or 15 year old slave. Heavens, no! No, the relationship happens because a helplessly interested "black" woman (or girl, if you insist) gave the Founding Father no other choice. The poor guy was trying to get some writing done! The film manages to make a confession of one of Jefferson's failings (it has to, really, given the DNA findings), but said confession does everything it can possibly do to diminish the criminality of the crime. It is able to do so by placing the originary desire in the slave, or even in the slave's nature. Amazing how many slaves are reported to have had consensual sexual relationships with their masters. But thus the master narrative solemnly teaches, and so who are you to question it!? If you start doubting the love of the slave for her master, what's next? WTC 7? (Voltaire: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.")
As we enter the song proper, we switch—rather dramatically—to the self-articulated desire of "the average black man." The repulsion the white women feel has been well established, and now it is suddenly contradicted by a black man's unashamed (and fully articulate, as it turns out) desire. Suddenly, that is, we are thrust into a rap video, i.e. into what has been alleged as the most grotesque of places, wherein the unintelligible and crudely sexual expectation "those rap guys'" make manifest is dangerously free to sound itself out. This sudden shift obviously clashes against the white women's disgust. The "average black man," the "brothers," "like(s) big butts." The white women do not. The massive question remaining is so plain you can look right through it: what do white men think?
It's interesting that Sir Mix-a-Lot evokes, in the first line of the song, Washington and the cherry tree. Lil' George is the Founding Father of this country, purportedly. In the cherry tree story, we see that, even as a child, he was wholly (preternaturally!) bound to tell the truth. Even when it might hurt his own cause, George "cannot tell a lie." The implications are not hard to fathom; america's master narrative was established by way of just and truthful white men. The master narrative said (and still says), out loud and often (with a straight face!), that, in america, all men are created equal, and that all men have inalienable rights. It might as well say that america has been (and still is) governed by 8 year old girls with 6 fingers on each hand. Both statements are huge lies. The latter is more conspicuous and more frivolous, but not more untrue. America has never been, nor tried to be, a "democratic" ot a classless society—to the contrary, its whole history is about the definition and maintenance of class boundaries. Indeed, one of the classes it established was so low that its occupants were regarded (and legally established) as sub-human. One can go through the master narrative's assertions one by one… and what one finds is anything but the truth. What one finds is a bunch of lies.
Sir Mix-a-Lot, for his part, cannot lie. The implication is: cannot lie anymore. The implication is: something has been forcing everyone to lie, but Sir Mix-a-Lot has finally decided to stand in opposition to that force. But what is that force? Is it just these two gawking white women? Is that all that is keeping the lie in place—these ditzy racist women? Or, put another way: WHERE ARE THE WHITE MEN? Surely they stand behind their women, repulsed by the grotesque display of blackness. If they do, however, it isn't apparent in the video. In the video, the white women seem to stand alone. WHERE ARE THE WHITE MEN?
The white men are in office buildings—they are the record label executives and the Mtv executives etc…—they are the guys who prey upon the success of black artists like Sir Mix-a-Lot. Yes, true—and clever to point out. So clever it misses the point. There are wealthy white men on that side of the process, diverting much of the profit to themselves. But there are exponentially more white men on the other side of the process; Baby Got Back was launched, that is, into a vast sea of white men. Unseen, all over the country, white men were made witness to this strange clash, and this bold claim, this sudden purported truth-telling. As witnesses, white men were (and still are) implicitly asked to take a side. Sir Mix-a-Lot believes he knows what side they're on, and he reveals as much as he propositions the big-butted "Ladies" halfway through the song.
so ladies (yeah), ladies (yeah)
if you want to roll in my Mercedes (yeah)
then turn around, stick it out
even white boys got to shout
baby got back
The absence of the white man's public confession of preference, when it comes to style of butt (i.e. black or white), is for the first time made conspicuous in the wake of Baby Got Back. Since it has become conspicuous, it has had to be dealt with. Sir Mix-a-Lot has thrown down the gauntlet: even white boys have to shout. With this assertion, a great silence was broken: the silence the master narrative secures when its absurdities go on unopposed. Even white boys have to shout.
He come right out and said it, and every day since—every day, that is, in the subsequent 25 years—when a white man hears the song, or even refers to or thinks of the song, he cannot help but hear the unambiguous preference implicit in the chorus, and he has thus to face Sir Mix-a-Lot's challenge. He's got to take a look at a big-butted woman and shout… or refrain from shouting. There are white-on-white interactions whereby a white boy might refrain from shouting—and indeed, the whole long history of the minstrel show's audience can be seen in this light. But maybe he faces his own experience and he feels that he has to confess—he has to shout. This particular shout has thrown The Kingdom Of Butt into great confusion… and rapid change growth. The master narrative has alleged, or at least implied, the white man's preference for white butts. For the white man in the pre-Baby Got Back world, this preference was self-evident. At the same time, said preference was casually (and continuously) contradicted… By casually I mean that no one made any remark; the contradiction was not understood to be a problem. It went unspoken. It was allowed to go unspoken. Baby Got Back was the first huge attempt to speak into this particular american contradiction. With Baby Got Back, the master narrative has been opposed, destabilized; the butts themselves, moreover, are now more conspicuously unstable, and more often contradict their possessor's perceived race.
Some songs—not many!—change the world so much that it becomes difficult to remember how things were before they were released. This is certainly the case with Baby Got Back. The white woman's diatribe at the beginning of the song may strike some young people today as unbelievable, maybe even unintelligible. Certainly it would be unintelligible to the many young women who have gotten, or even considered getting, butt implants. In the eighties, white women found the idea of getting butt implants absurd, or they would have, if the idea was even thinkable to them. In the eighties, that skit was more or less real. I heard it, in its myriad variations, all the time.
Today you can openly prefer the kind of butt you actually prefer, no problem. It wasn't always like this. There has been a new birth of freedom, within which a small and late-arriving justice should not go unmentioned. A "black" trait—the trait of a woman, no less—has been recognized—confirmed, even—as a potentially desirable trait (to make the very least of a clear trend).
We're different since we imbibed Sir Mix-a-Lot's Rump-oh-smooth-skin concoction. In america, the realm of the proto-scientific has been altered… and it is now a better place—more just. The Kingdom Of Butt has been driven into a new awareness of the confusion in its Constitution, and has by way of this confusion become more free, and less doomed to artificial (i.e. civilized) restriction.
Joe Wenderoth is an itinerant butcher and a Normal teacher of pseudo-patience. He labors softly at the University of California in the soon-to-be MFA program in creative writing. He's published all kind of books, through which a kind of language has flowed and died, flowed and died.
drew burk on "the way"
There’s a guy named Andrew Burke who travels for business reasons and for business reasons, one assumes, when he travels, he stays at La Quinta Inn. I know this because La Quinta told me. They tell me when he’s going, where he’s going, how long he’ll be there. They tell me when he checks in, they ask me what he thought of his most recent stay, they tell me they’re offering him extra perks, should he want to take advantage of them. Somebody, somewhere, clerical errored the fuck out of some simple data entry (maybe Andrew himself, but most likely the Desk—I’ve spoken to several of the Desks, and suspect them of having gone largely unschooled in the subtle art of Giving A Fuck), and thus involved me in this aspect of Andrew’s life. We are conflated, in the mind of La Quinta. I’ve made three attempts to correct it, and each time the conversation has gone along these lines:
Me: You’re sending me somebody else’s information.
Them: Who’s information?
Me: Andrew Burke.
Them: And who are you?
Me: Drew Burk.
Them: I don’t understand our conversation anymore.
Me: I am not the Andrew Burke who stays regularly at La Quinta when traveling for, I assume, business reasons. My name is Drew Burk, and you keep emailing me his information.
Them: What is your email?
Them: Yes, that’s what we have here. Everything seems to be in order. Is there anything else we can help you with today?
I’m thinking of this now, because Andrew checked into La Quinta today. He’s staying for two nights. I called the hotel, asked them to pass a message along to Andrew, gave them my name and phone number and asked them to have him call me when he checked in. Confusion necessarily ensued. “Mr. Burke,” they said, “you want us to remind you to call yourself when you arrive?” I called back, I asked to buy Andrew a drink, I attempted to open a twenty-dollar tab for him at the bar at the La Quinta. I was unsuccessful. I wanted Andrew to call me because I know where and when he goes. Because La Quinta sends me the information. I know where he lives, I know where he works, I know what he does and my assumptions about his business are my bigger dreams for him, my unambiguous NO when I asked if that was really the what and why of him. I know his phone number. I have it programmed into my contacts. I told myself a story about a year ago about why I wasn’t going to call him, that I wanted to make this thing go away for Andrew, so he would never have to know somebody had access and knew what I knew. I wanted La Quinta to fix it. I wanted a fucking world where fucking La Quinta Inn would acknowledge and correct a simple fucking error. They don’t even have to say thank you. I just wanted to hear—to feel—the OH FUCK at the other end of the line. I wasn’t looking for blame or retribution. I just wanted… I don’t know what I wanted. I knew at the start, I wanted something simple and obvious and the fact that I couldn’t get that simple and obvious thing I think destroyed some physical structures in my brain, the ones responsible for that kind of thinking, as they are obviously of no happy use in terms of my longevity. Because I care for Andrew and his well-being, I won’t substantiate my claims. I decided today, when I again failed to make La Quinta understand that I am not the Andrew they’re looking for, and probably succeeded only in getting a little flag in his file, some warning about eccentricities, some note about how he tries to get his drinks all lined up before his plane has even landed, that I won’t try anymore. I will bear witness to his business activities. I will care, and should Andrew fail to make his appointments (Google automatically adds them to my calendar), I will know and I will take appropriate action. I don’t know if his family has the same access that I do. Whatever the case, I am the backup plan.
Had Lela and Raymond Howard had a backup plan like me, Tony Scalzo would never have written his song.
The song is, of course, “The Way”, from Fastball’s 1998 album All the Pain Money Can Buy, released in March and which went Platinum by September, largely on the back of the aforementioned single which preceded the release of the album by a month and set unrealistic expectations for the remainder of the album. The song itself is essentially a Bible story. It is neither a good nor particularly effective Bible story, its truck in worn tropes the bare scaffold upon which Tony Scalzo hangs the few lyrics he scraped together for his premature romanticization of the far more interesting, far less romantic, actual thing that happened. One might characterize it as a kind of graphic novelization of an Old Testament horror show ported to the New via the NIV, specifically the one with the broad swath of smiling late-70s humanity splashed full-wrap on its soft cover. And yes, the 1978 NIV was itself a truckload of tropes; Scalzo’s truck in same an easy road to that Platinum status. A smart move, an awareness of his audience, this America and the story it wants to hear about itself.
The story he tells is of a couple who drives off. They are of no age. They elucidate no grievance, no desire, they simply up and go. Because this is America, our collective directional understanding is they went West. The song doesn’t say, but our cultural trajectory has, since the inception of this thing, always been West. You go West, and when there is no more West you put the car in park and then you die.
The story that happened is that on a Sunday, June 29th, 1997, Lela and Raymond Howard, an elderly couple in Salado, Texas, decided to go to a festival in Temple, fifteen miles from their house. Lela drove, though their son had offered to drive them, him not wanting them to drive themselves because Lela was going into some early Alzheimer’s stuff, and Raymond had already had a good few bouts of stroke and dementia and head injuries. They lacked the capacity to understand that they lacked the capacity to find the festival. Being American, such trivialities did not impede their Westward progress (Salado to Temple is actually a NE journey, but all American journeys lean West).
On July 2nd, Tony read a story in the newspaper titled “Elderly Couple Missing On a Trip To Nowhere” and he. Fucking. Loved. It. All anyone knew at that point was they went. Though the lyrics don’t say it, and probably he didn’t consciously intend it, he saw in them a modern Elijah-ization, their chariot lifting its rubber from the asphalt and ascending, transcending, the second and third ever of God’s creations to not die—and this is where Scalzo hits his Christian American stride, Old Testamenting into the New to rock his incomplete story of ambiguous meaning. The Ascension of the Howards is described thus:
Anyone can see the road that they walk on is paved with gold
It’s always summer, they’ll never get cold
They’ll never get hungry, they’ll never get old and gray
The scene, as described, is a clear reference to the Resurrection, a game only the dead can play, when all bodies are renewed, and at the head of the golden avenue is a lavish feast where God’s chosen spend all eternity gorging themselves and praising Him. Had Tony reached into the bottom left drawer in the dresser in his room at the La Quinta and retrieved the Bible the Gideons left there for him, he could have gotten this all worked out himself, told a less commercially viable tale. Fun, he said. He said he liked to think of them driving off on an adventure and having fun.
I think Tony knew full well the story he wrote but chose his choices for reasons of business. The song wonders further:
Where were they going
Without ever knowing the way?
Which describes the leap of faith required for all hoping to enter Heaven. It can be easily argued, in the context of the song, that they did, in fact, know The Way, as Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Light, no one can come to the Father except through Me,” and also, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” The driving off is a just such a leap of faith. It is also a romanticization of a suicide pact that cheerfully omits the uncomfortable reality of it having been based upon the tragedy of an elderly couple in the early stages of dementia and Alzheimer’s that made them unable to understand that they were experiencing dementia and Alzheimer’s. In short, Fastball’s “The Way” is a classic Americanization. A reframed retelling to obliquely illustrate an only tangentially-related Christian ideal.
The Howards were pulled over July 2nd in Arkansas, Lela driving with the headlights off. They were spotted the next day at a farmer’s market. They were found ten days later, having driven off the road and into a ravine. Lela put the car in park, she turned the headlights off, she grabbed her purse. She worked her way around the car and opened the passenger door for Howard, then walked about 20 feet from the car, sat down and died. Howard, presumably, did not survive the crash.
The song itself mirrors the musical structure of alternative contemporaries Cake’s 1996 miracle, “Frank Sinatra”, both songs leading with stripped staccato, muted distance—lean forward, I have a tale to tell—which on the second go-round flowers forward and full and you’re there, you’re sucked in, you don’t pull away, they sing their songs in you. Fastball is not Cake. “Frank Sinatra” is an evocation of an infinite universe of secular possibility; “The Way” is, as stated, a more American affair, aping the sonic constructs and tonal structures of its elder sibling. It is a smart and effective piece that sang the words we, then, faced with Heaven’s Gate and the Teletubbies, Versace, Kasparov’s loss to a machine, our loss of Diana, bird flu, Titanic, so desperately needed. In that respect, Cake is not Fastball. The difference between the world we wanted and the world we had.
The Howards did not know the way. The Howards did not have the capacity to know the way. The Howards drove and then they died. Fastball envisioned it as an escape. We took it up as our American anthem for those few moments, our dream of escape from what we were beginning to twig onto: That America is fundamentally a nihilist proposition; that the dream of America is a dream of escape—Forever West—and that the ultimate realization of the American Dream is death.
You go West. You go West and when there is no more West you put the car in park and then you die.
Drew Burk makes books and makes food. He is a part of the physical mechanism of Spork Press.