Monday, February 08, 2010

Much ado…about the Who?

I confess to watching my first Super Bowl all the way through in probably 15 years last night. It was a pretty decent game and my chosen team even won. How can you root against Nawlins, especially after Katrina? And how could anyone in their right mind root for any team from the world’s largest collection of overweight pasty white people with their accordions, mobile homes and fundamentalist religion, that collection called the state of Indiana?

Of course, much of the attraction in any Super Bowl is the ads. This year’s collection was fairly lame though the Betty White commercial was a real hoot. But no a cappella frogs, no dogs lurching into crotches, no horse farts igniting debutantes’ bouffants this year, just Timmy and his mom.

After all the cyber vitriol spilled over the Tim Tebow anti-abortion ad, I have to say the actual ad itself was a real letdown. In fact, it went by so fast – kind of like Timmy did in the ad - that I honestly didn’t get the punchline. I did see the festered Focus on the Family website at the bottom of the screen. But no preaching. No overt exhortations, just a jock and his white middle class mom, not terribly unlike the vast majority of the ads for the night. Ho hum.

Of course, it does trouble me that CBS would accept an ad from Focus on the Family in the first place. They are an extremist organization in the culture wars using the label “Family” to disguise just about every right wing agenda known to Sarah Palin (recognizing her cortical capacity to know is limited). And this is the same network who would not allow an actual religious organization, the United Church of Christ, to air their ad which actually featured a (gasp!) openly lesbian couple coming to church. Too controversial, the execs said. Anti-abortion ads are somehow “Family” ads while the welcoming embrace of a Christian tradition is somehow problematic? What kind of family values are we talking about here? Addams Family?

But what did people really expect from a network who would sell their grandmother’s soul for another nickel? This was a calculated risk. Football players, for some reason known only to G-d (and She ain’t tellin’) somehow see themselves as pad and uniform clad evangelists today. Make a touchdown? Point your fingers to heaven and thank G-d for His (sic) blessing. Sack the quarterback (even better, knock him out of the game), thank the good Lord for his mercies.

Frankly, the idea of a jock representing the divine stretches my ability to suspend belief even momentarily about as much as the assertion that George Bush legitimately won the state of Florida in the 2000 election. It might be. But it ain’t likely.

I admit to a begrudging admiration of Tim Tebow. He led one of my alma maters to a very fine season, one tearstained game away from yet another national championship. He won the Heisman trophy as a sophomore, the first in his class to do so. He seems to have a bit more native intelligence than the average jock and he seems to be well liked by his teammates and coaches. He’s what I’d call “a good kid” in my residual redneck speak.

But I am troubled by the use of national television and ostensibly the concern for glare from the sun as the means to take references to Bible verses completely out of context and use them for evangelizing exhortations under the eyes of any jock. At best that cheapens the Bible which becomes a means to an end – a victory in football - and it also manifests the mindless tendency of evangelicals to take verses completely out of context, supplying their own in the process, and asserting the verses as if they somehow mean something to anyone else. Tebow’s practice is absolutely anathema to anyone who sees the Hebrew and Christian scripture as something to be taken seriously on its own terms, not as some magic formula for a jock seeking divine favor - not unlike their Santeria cousins with their potions, voodoo dolls and candles.

Frankly, if Christianity is really about being a jock, how many thoughtful, spiritual people would really want anything to do with it? For the record, I do believe G-d is with athletes as they play. But I believe G-d is also with the other team, the bands from both teams as they perform, the officials as they seek to call the game and prevent bodily injury and the groundskeepers and janitors who will clean up the knee deep garbage left by the predominately white middle class crowd who left the stadium happy, their football (and thus tribal ego) fix safe for another week. I just think the notion that G-d blesses the performance of any athlete, team or school is ridiculous and childish.

That being said, the performance of what’s left of The Who at the Super Bowl halftime was anything but ridiculous and childish. These boys are pushing 70. And yet they got out there in the middle of Miami’s [your corporate logo of the week here] Stadium and put on one hell of a show. They can’t hit the high notes anymore. Perhaps that’s due to the loss of two of the band members. But between the lights on the field, the energy of these aging Boomer era musicians and the singing and swaying lights held among the crowd, it was a great show.

What struck me as I watched the musicians of my own youth playing at America’s major corporately constructed feast day was what this said about the music that supposedly was created since their time. The last Super Bowl show I watched featured Tom Petty and the Heart Breakers, an early 70s Boomer band. The show before that was the infamous wardrobe failure of Janet Jackson (Miss Jackson, if you’re nasty) of the 1960s Jackson Family who clearly outperformed the poor musical misfit and boyband refugee Justin Timberlake who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket if he had to.

What is it about music since the 1960s? Why do we keep coming back to now sexagenarian rockers to represent American music? Clearly we have had a flood of rap music (begin with “My brother threw a rock through the win-dow, to-day!"). And there is the clever technically enhanced dance music of artists from Rupaul to Lady Gaga. So why is it we resurrect a band from the Boomer graveyard to entertain us at halftime?

Easy. As my friend who graciously invited Andy and I over for vegetarian chili and Super Bowl on the big screen last night said, “They stopped making music then.” While that’s perhaps a self-serving, over-the-top statement, the reality is that none of the oxymoron called rap music, the assemblage of techno sounds called dance music or the mixture of the two called hip hop comes close to the music of The Who or their colleagues. The music of The Who asked listeners to think: “Who are you? I really want to know!” The anti-war music of The Who asked an important question: Why the hell are we in this mess killing people for a reason that seems obscure on a good day? The Who required singers who could sing, not slide off with technical manipulations of their voices. They played instruments, not computerized noises. And they sang, they didn’t simply shout out words in syncopated patterns.

Now, perhaps that makes me the grouchy old man that my father’s friend embodied when he called the Beatles “a bunch of niggers screaming” back in the early 1960s. It’d be easy to simply blow my critique off as simply a generational difference as some of my colleagues recently did at a party. But it’s also not honest. Anyone who would compare the quality of the music produced during the late 1960s to the techno sound produced today simply doesn’t have a very discriminating ear or very high standards for music. Somehow the narcissistic chorus of the recent top of the charts number which said “My life would suck without you” simply isn’t in the same league with the lyrics of The Who:

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
And I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again

And here is where CBS was actually right. Whatever else they think, they do know talent when they see it. The show wasn’t great, but it also wasn’t abysmal or shallow. CBS execs might be philistines when it comes to commercial sponsors. But the leading television network knows true music and thus true entertainment when they see it.

One wonders who they’ll get next year.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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