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Archive for the ‘Pop Culture’ Category

Everybody has been so worked up over the Duck Dynasty/Phil Robertson controversy (and, before that, Megyn Kelly’s “white Santa” drama) that it feels like we’ve misplaced our “peace on earth and good will toward men.” I really appreciate Jen Hatmaker’s wise and passionate words on the subject, but frankly I’d prefer not to add any more volume to the cacophony. Instead, I’ve come out of blogging hibernation to offer my reflections on something a little more fitting for the season. A couple days ago, I heard an engaging segment on NPR about sad Christmas songs.

“Bundled up in Christmas is hopefully a lot of joy and a lot of family and a lot of happiness, but that’s always going to be touched with an element of sadness,” said NPR’s Stephen Thompson, and I agree. Whether it’s Nat King Cole’s classic “The Christmas Song” or Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here,” our favorite holiday tunes usually come with a dash of melancholy. It’s what I used to refer to during my teen years as a “happy sadness.”

Every Christmas I have at least one or two songs that wind up defining the holiday for me that year. The last couple of years, the tracks from Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas comprised my go-to holiday playlist. But this year, I can’t seem to get away from the funky “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” by James Brown. The tune has been in heavy rotation on my iPod for the past couple weeks.

As a child of the 1970s and ’80s, I was a bit too young to witness James Brown in his original glory. My initial impressions of him were informed more by the mild spoofs of himself that he did in The Blues Brothers or Rocky IV. While those performances were genuine James Brown, they were more riffs on his former greatness than fresh manifestations of his true artistic brilliance. James Brown is remembered as “the Godfather of Soul,” “Soul Brother No. 1,” and “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.” Signature James Brown hits like “I Feel Good” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” are not just great R&B songs; they’re among the greatest entries in the American songbook. It’s not hyperbole to say James Brown was one of the most influential artists in popular music. Without him, it’s difficult to imagine how any of today’s variations of pop music—rock, R&B, hip-hop—would exist in their fullness.

“Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” was released in 1968 as part of Brown’s A Soulful Christmas album. When I first heard the song  a few years ago, I confess that I listened to it through the filter of the latter-day James Brown caricature. It’s the funky Godfather of Soul talking about Santa Claus going to the ghetto. That’s pure fun and silliness, right? Upon further listens, however, I was struck by how urgent the song is. Not only is it filled with an understated poignancy, at moments it virtually seethes with a biting desperation. This, after all, was 1968—the year that saw Brown moving from being one of America’s most popular entertainers to one of its most vocal activists.

Most notably, 1968 was the year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis. All at once, the anger and hopelessness of black people boiled over in the form of riots across American cities. As the nation both figuratively and literally burned, James Brown was called upon to help bring peace to a tenuous situation. On April 5, 1968, the day after King’s murder, Brown had been scheduled to perform a concert at the Boston Garden. In the wake of the Memphis tragedy, however, the performance was initially canceled by Boston Garden management until Boston’s first African American city councilman, Tom Atkins, persuaded Boston mayor Kevin White that the James Brown concert should go on and be televised on local public television as a means of unifying the black community and directing its attention away from the despondency and rage that were hanging in the air. James Brown not only supplied a thrilling performance, he was credited with calming the city’s nerves and keeping Boston residents safely away from the troubled streets.

The full story is chronicled wonderfully in James Sullivan’s book The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America. Indeed, the Boston concert marked something of a turning point in Brown’s career. After that show, President Lyndon Johnson implored the singer to perform a benefit concert in Washington, D.C., to promote a message of nonviolence. And later in the year, Brown would release his groundbreaking hit “Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,” which placed him squarely in the fray of the civil rights movement’s struggle for racial justice in America.

It’s against this backdrop that Brown recorded “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.” And once you get past the initial funkiness of the track (check out the quick burst of “Jingle Bells” during the saxophone solo), it’s hard not to hear it as a type of subversive protest song.

Santa Claus, go straight to the ghetto

Hitch up your reindeer, uh!

And go straight to the ghetto

Santa Claus, go straight to the ghetto

Fill every stocking you find

The kids are gonna love you so, uh!

What’s most striking about the song to me is how Brown acts as the tour guide for Santa, the one man whom you’d suppose knew his way around all parts of the world. But in 1968, Brown understood that Santa Claus, and all he might represent in this context—the government? the church? white America?—needed instructions for navigating their way around the ghetto, a place that was presumably foreign to them.

Leave a toy for Johnny

Leave a doll for Mary

Leave something pretty for Donnie

And don’t forget about Gary

“Tell ’em James Brown sent you,” the singer goes on to say, at once offering himself up as the conduit for connecting with the hidden pain of the black community.

I confess, “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” is an odd candidate for the Christmas canon. It does not receive the acclaim of R&B holiday classics such as Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” or the Temptations’ rendition of “Silent Night.”  It will never be sung by neighborhood carolers or during a church Christmas Eve service. But 45 years after the song’s release, in a 21st-century era that still boasts disturbing social and economic disparities between rich and poor, black and white, immigrant and non-immigrant, it might do us well to take Soul Brother No. 1’s desperate plea to heart. Could it be that he’s calling us to pack up our sleighs and remember the contemporary “ghettos” in our midst?

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Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables.

One of the big holiday releases this year will no doubt be the film adaptation of the Broadway hit Les Misérables. Anyone out there planning to see it? I’m not sure if my wife and I will be able to squeeze in a couple of hours to check it out (with the kids usually in tow, we’re more likely to catch fare like Rise of the Guardians — which wasn’t that bad, by the way). But I’m sorta curious about the buzz of contradictions swirling about Les Miz — lots of early Oscar buzz for Anne Hathaway for instance, and it was directed by Tom Hooper who won an Oscar in 2011 for The King’s Speech, but the movie is also getting a lot of mixed reviews from critics. 

However, what really caught my attention was a recent piece in Time magazine about the film’s story line, which of course is based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel about class struggle and redemption in 19th-century France. In the article, actors Hathaway and Hugh Jackman spend a couple of paragraphs contemplating the religious dimensions of the story. A couple of soundbites. First from Hathaway, who portrays the desperate mother Fantine:

The religious overtones of Les Miz … resonated with Hathaway, who was raised Catholic. Her close-knit family left the church in opposition to its anti-gay stance. “Where I’m at now is that I love all religions that don’t hurt anyone. The religion of this film is love.”

And then Jackman, who plays thief-turned-rescuer Jean Valjean, on how his father’s life was changed after hearing Billy Graham:

Jackman grew up watching faith in action too. His father, a single parent — “What he did was herculean, to bring up five kids with a full-time job” — was born again at age 30, inspired by Billy Graham’s crusade. “I remember asking him if he told people at work he was a Christian, and he said, ‘No. What you say is immaterial. It’s what you do that matters.’ If you think about it, that’s very Valjean,” he says.

I know that Hollywood figures typically try to personalize whatever the subject matter is of the films their currently promoting in order to have something to chatter about on talk shows and in magazine write-ups, and Hathaway’s and Jackman’s reflections on faith are no exception. But I’m not cynical enough yet to believe that these roles don’t at times have a deeper effect on the lives of actors. That’s why I found both Hathaway’s and Jackman’s comments refreshing in their honesty and insight about what real faith looks like to people who aren’t living within the protective (and often alienating) bubble of evangelical Christianity.

I’m not suggesting that Hathaway’s apparent perspectivism is without its problems, or that genuine faith is entirely about what we do and not also what we say (though I think a good argument could be made for why the way we treat others must always testify to the veracity of what we believe). Still, I don’t think it would hurt today’s Christians much at all to follow the examples of Jean Valjean and Hugh Jackman’s dad.

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Hello friends. It’s been almost two years since I last posted here. Inexcusable, I know. But now that my gig as the editor of UrbanFaith.com is winding down, I hope to have more time to share some thoughts here. And in the coming months, I’ll have a lot more to say about my new book project. So please stay tuned.

In the meantime, I thought I’d share briefly about a 1940 film that’s become one of my favorites for the holidays since I first discovered it three years ago. It’s called Remember the Night, and stars Fred MacMurray and the lovely Barbara Stanwyck. Written by playwright and screenwriter Preston Sturges, here’s how IMDB.com summarizes the film’s storyline:

Just before Christmas, Lee Leander (Stanwyck) is caught shoplifting. It is her third offense. She is prosecuted by assistant distric attorney John Sargent (MacMurray). He postpones the trial because it is hard to get a conviction at Christmas time. But he feels sorry for her and arranges for her bail, and ends up taking her home to his mother for Christmas. Surrounded by a loving family (in stark contrast to Lee’s own family background) they fall in love. This creates a new problem: how do they handle the upcoming trial?

I’m not sure what it is about this film that has caused me to look forward to it every Christmas season. The film isn’t as inspiring or humorous as a popular classic like It’s a Wonderful Life. And at times the pacing feels much too slow. Yet there’s something about the interaction of the two main characters and their respective transformations from self-centered individuals into giving, selfless people. It has that familiar Dickensian sort of moral arc that informs most great Christmas stories — from A Christmas Carol to Miracle on 34th Street to How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Then, of course, there’s the classic love story of an odd couple falling for each other and becoming better people for it.

But I think there’s also something sadly disturbing about the film that draws me to it each year. It has to do with the relationship between MacMurray’s character John Sargent and his African American valet Rufus (portrayed by actor Fred “Snowflake” Toones). Toones was a charactrer actor who made a career out of playing comedic supporting roles in dozens of films during the 1930s and ’40s. According to his IMDB page, Toones’s “standard characterization was that of a middle-aged ‘colored’ man with a high-pitched voice and childlike demeanor.” Some have referred to this type of character as the “loyal Tom,” others as a “Sambo.” Whatever the label, it’s clear that the filmmakers of Remember the Night viewed Rufus’s servile status as both comic relief and a natural fact of life in the world of the main characters. (It’s interesting that, again according to IMDB, Toones actually ran the shoeshine stand at Republic Pictures, where he was under contract from 1936-1947.) In fact, some of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film are not the climatic moments showing the emotional evolution of Lee and John but the demeaning and truly racist manner in which John addresses Rufus. Yet it is not something that is dwelled upon in the film. As I said, it’s mostly taken for granted as the natural backdrop of the story.

This got me to thinking about both this movie and other pieces of pop culture that I’ve liked in the past that also feature questionable racial elements. Should I view these things as being offensive and reject them outright, throwing out the good with the bad? Or should I simply view them as a historical statement about the times in which they were made? In the case of Remember the Night, I’ve chosen the latter course. I confess that the film fascinates me in odd ways. I wonder about the interaction of the actors on the set in real life: Did Mr. Toones face actual racism from the cast and crew in addition to the insults that were piled upon his character in the movie? Did director Mitchell Leisen and Mr. MacMurray understand that John Sargent’s condescending tone toward Rufus was wrong, and were they hoping to demonstrate this injustice by their film’s portrayal of the white man-black man relationship in 1940? Or was this just the way it was, both in art and life, for this group of people?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I still plan to watch Remember the Night again this year and study the actors’ faces for clues. The movie will air tonight at 9:45 ET on Turner Classic Movies channel (TCM). If you have a chance, please watch it (or DVR it to watch later) and let me know what you think.

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I know that most folks are tired of hearing about the whole LeBron James saga. For the past few weeks, it’s been nonstop speculation and rumors. Then, finally, last week James shocked the world, especially Northeast Ohio, with his decision to bolt to Miami for better weather—and presumably a better chance to win an NBA championship. I reflect on the drama in a commentary at UrbanFaith.com, where I explore the various messianic monikers that have been attached to James by his marketers and himself (e.g., the King, the Chosen One) and I wonder whether now a more appropriate biblical metaphor might be “the Prodigal Son.”

I know there are more important things happening in the world, and that when it comes down to it LeBron is only a basketball player. But, as Washington Post columnist and ESPN analyst Michael Wilbon says in this great piece, the LeBron story touches on so many other cultural flashpoints beyond simply sports. We’re talking issues of money and power, family and friendship, civic pride and loyalty, manhood and responsibility, and, of course, race.

You’ve got Dan Gilbert, the bitter owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, posting a scathing anti-James screed at the team’s website, accusing his former employee of betraying the team as well as his hometown. You’ve got folks in Ohio burning jerseys and scrambling to dismantle the gigantic downtown murals of LeBron that, to the outsider, always appeared just a little bit too excessive (like a shrine to a Greek deity, or like the Jackson brothers strolling triumphantly over the earth). And now you’ve got Jesse Jackson accusing Gilbert of viewing James as a runaway slave.

You knew the race angle was coming. It’s never too far away when you’re talking about professional sports in America, especially in the NBA, where 99 percent of the ballplayers are black and 99 percent of the franchise owners are white. William Rhoden’s controversial 2006 book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is just one of many commentaries linking pro sports in modern America to the slave trade of yesteryear. 

I wish Rev. Jackson wouldn’t have been the one to verbalize the obvious pachyderm in the room (“There he goes again, injecting race into everything!” folks will say), but there it is.

Personally, while I think it’s probably impossible to completely extract race from the issue of power relationships in pro sports, I believe Gilbert should be allowed to rant, rage, and generally come across as an emotional jerk without being accused of racism. He simply reacted like any scorned human being whose business just lost an estimated $100 million in value probably would. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. That said, I think it would’ve been wise for him to wait a few days before issuing a statement. The unintentional damage that he caused his franchise through his outburst could be worse in the long term than losing LeBron James.

Still, it’s unfair to imply that Gilbert is acting out of a “slave master mentality” just because he happens to be white and LeBron is black. That doesn’t excuse the fact that Gilbert might be a mean, arrogant, and impulsive billionaire who was trying to save face. But why add “racist” to the equation without sufficient proof?

But back to LeBron James. As long as he’s still able to do the things that LeBron James does on the basketball court, his reputation as a superstar player, though tarnished, will recover. The real tragedy, in my view, is the way James made his announcement. He had every right to leave Cleveland, but why do it in such a … ahem … cavalier manner? He was apparently so disconnected from the reality of his decision—and focused on his own self-interest—that he could not grasp the full implications of rejecting his former team and his devoted fans in Northeast Ohio on national TV in an overblown ESPN special. Or, as some have speculated, maybe he did it that way to inflict maximum pain on Gilbert and his franchise for some behind-the-scenes reason.

Either way, I hope James will someday grow into a more mature understanding of humility and compassion. Come to think of it, in an odd way, maybe that’s why he’s going to a place with two other elite stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (not to mention team president Pat Riley). Maybe he’s leaving the comfort, security, and adoration found in Cleveland because in his home state he’ll always be venerated as “the Chosen One.” Maybe he needs to escape to Miami to become human again.

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I was profoundly moved by this incredible profile of film critic Roger Ebert, written by journalist Chris Jones for the latest issue of Esquire magazine. Ebert, you may know, can no longer eat, drink, or speak, due to a series of surgeries to combat cancer of the thyroid, salivary gland, and jaw. He communicates primarily through his writing and a computerized voice program. Yet, he is more full of joy and in tune with life than he’s ever been. As Jones observes about Ebert:

There has been no death-row conversion. He has not found God. He has been beaten in some ways. But his other senses have picked up since he lost his sense of taste. He has tuned better into life. Some things aren’t as important as they once were; some things are more important than ever. He has built for himself a new kind of universe. Roger Ebert is no mystic, but he knows things we don’t know.

Then Jones quotes this reflection from Ebert himself:

I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Ebert, the article says, is slowly dying. And he knows it. Yet the way he’s currently facing life certainly offers lessons on living for all of us.

I was reminded of a post that I wrote almost one year ago reflecting on the tenth anniversary of the death of Gene Siskel, Ebert’s famous partner in film criticism, and the wonderful though often combative friendship that they shared. Jones’s profile references Ebert’s poignant tribute to his late friend, and reading Jones’s article caused me to go back and re-read Ebert’s piece, too. It was time well spent.

I don’t always know exactly what to do after reading stories as heartrending as Jones’s profile of Ebert, or Ebert’s own written memories of Siskel. But I do appreciate Mr. Ebert’s insight: “We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”

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Many of you have probably noticed that I haven’t posted in a while. This became especially embarrassing when I was informed last week that Reconciliation Blog had been named to “The 50 Top Evangelical Christian Blogs” by the Biblical Learning Blog. So, I figured I should try to work my way back into that blogging rhythm. Truth is, I get tired of writing about race all the time. That’s why I took a pass on some of the recent race-related incidents, including Harry Reid’s awkward comments and the whole Blind Side debate (which inspired an excellent commentary from my friend Joshua Canada, by the way).

Anyway, I’m not feeling especially insightful right now, so allow me to indulge my bent for nostalgia again. Ever since I turned 40 last year, I’ve found myself spending more and more time reflecting on the music, movies, and TV programs of bygone eras. Some of you might remember my Hee Haw post from last year as a prime example. Lately, I’ve been flashing back to that iconic Generation-X childhood favorite School House Rock! In fact, I’ve been driving my wife and kids crazy singing and humming various tunes from that classic Saturday-morning series of educational shorts. I’m sure our teachers were helpful, but come on–how many of us actually learned our grammar, math facts, astronomy, and American history from “Conjunction Junction,” “My Hero, Zero,” “Interplanet Janet,” and “No More Kings”?

But here’s the thing: I’d argue that School House Rock was not only educational academically; it also was a great example of racial and cultural reconciliation in action on television. Like Sesame Street and The Electric Company before it, School House Rock reflected the diversity of America, both through its wonderful music and animated characters, who comprised a colorful swath of races and ethnicities. The song “The Great American Melting Pot,” with its mellow Karen Carpenter-esque vocals, even spoke about the importance of that diversity. (On the negative side, I think one of the glaring omissions in the SHR catalog is an honest overview of both the history of the Native American people in this country and the civil rights movement; I guess the early ’70s was still too soon to tackle these thorny subjects on Saturday-morning television.)

I loved that the SHR songs — which were written and performed by an exceptional team of musicians (most notably, Bob Dorough and Lynn Ahrens) — experimented with pop, blues, jazz, folk, country, and other musical genres. In all honesty, the “Rock” in the title was only true in the loosest sense of the term. Still, SHR is a nice reminder of the days before extreme niche programming, back when a single radio station could play everything from Frank Sinatra and Marvin Gaye to Tammy Wynette and Aerosmith.

School House Rock also allowed occasional nods to the Bible and Christian culture. For instance, many of the songs featured gospel-flavored idioms. Check out the use of the Noah’s ark story in “Elementary, My Dear,” as well as that song’s “gospelly” vamp.

I know I’m not alone in my affection for School House Rock, so I thought I’d try something different here at Reconciliation Blog and offer up my personal list of the Top 10 SHR songs. These kinds of lists are subjective by design, and they often rile up those who think “this” or “that” should’ve been included or left off. But that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it? So, here we go — my roundup of “the best” School House Rock songs. Once you’re done reading and listening, please feel free to share your own lists — or to tear mine to shreds. Or both.

#10 Sufferin’ Till Suffrage
Not only did this one firmly lodge in my mind the helpful fact that women gained the right to vote in 1920 through the 19th Amendment, it’s also a jazzy tune that reminds me (both in musical style and feminist swagger) of Donny Hathaway’s great theme to the classic sitcom Maude.

#9 Verbs: That’s What’s Happening
Ah, now this was perhaps the funkiest of the School House Rock tunes. I mean, this one is full-throttle ‘70s groove. Plus, it painted a positive picture of an urban neighborhood that still had its own movie theater where kids could go see matinees by themselves, and then run home to the loving arms of their parents. When I was 6, I wanted to live in this community.

#8 The Preamble
This one makes my list simply for the fact that it, probably more than anything else, helped me pass my junior high Constitution test. And I know I wasn’t the only one that used this song’s catchy, banjo-driven tune to help me memorize the “We the People” preamble.

#7 Three Is a Magic Number
Such a sweet song this one is. I used to love how it talked about “faith and hope and charity,” while featuring that precious portrait of “a man and a woman” who “had a little baby … they had three in the family.” There’s also an interesting reference to the “ancient” and “mystical” Trinity.

#6 Interjections!
I love the voice of Essra Mohawk, who sang this one, as well as “Sufferin’ Till Suffrage.” The song also has that Handel’s Messiah vibe, with its exuberant chant of “Hallelujahs” as its coda. I always could relate to the little girl at the episode’s close who would bemoan, “Darn! That’s the end!” I, too, wanted the song to go on and on.

#5 Figure Eight
Like the Charlie Brown TV specials, and Vince Guaraldi’s accompanying scores, there was always something just a little melancholy about many of the SHR songs. For me, this one was the most introspective and melancholy of them all. Being a mildly melancholy kid, I loved it. What’s more, I still hear Blossom Dearie’s breathy and delicate vocals in my head whenever I’m doing math that involves multiples of eight.

#4 Rufus Xavier Sarsaparilla
A great song featuring Latino characters and their busload of kangaroos, aardvarks, and rhinoceroses. The narrator, Albert Andreas Armadillo, presents the strange case of Rufus Xavier Sarsaprilla and his sister, Rafaella Gabriela Sarsaparilla, and demonstrates quite convincingly how pronouns make our lives easier.

#3 Naughty Number Nine
This has to be the bluesiest of the SHR songs. Put your headphones on and listen to the jazzy horn section, the mellow bass, and the rich vocals by Grady Tate, the veteran jazz musician who also teaches at Howard University.

#2 I’m Just a Bill
I used to always think this one, along with “Conjunction Junction” and a few others, was sung by Ray Charles. Only years later did I discover that the actual vocalist is a white singer and actor named Jack Sheldon. His is one of the most soulfully distinctive of the SHR voices, and this song gave many of us a running start for our U.S. Government classes in high school. Maybe this should be required viewing for some of our current lawmakers.

# 1 Little Twelvetoes
I know this isn’t among the most popular SHR songs. I personally never cared for this one as a kid; however, my appreciation for the lyrical depth and musical sophistication of this song has grown over the years. There’s something both progressive and psychedelic about this one. I hear traces of Jimi Hendrix, Steely Dan, and Pink Floyd. For me, this song above all the others demonstrates how musically serious the SHR songs were. Even though they were primarily writing for grade-schoolers, Bob Dorough and the other composers never assumed that their listeners were too young to appreciate clever and complex musical arrangements. There’s also an underlying message in this song, I believe, about celebrating our diversity, sharing our gifts with others, and recognizing the value of those who might be different from us.

Well, I could easily list another 10 SHR songs, but I’ll leave this as my best-of. Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think.

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Very interesting thread happening over at Eugene Cho’s blog about the controversial Newsweek cover featuring Sarah Palin. I even shared my two cents over there. I’m not a huge Palin fan, but I do question Newsweek’s judgment in using that image. Would love to hear what you think.

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