Debi Smith: Songs for Shopworn and Overlooked Holidays

Hits & Holidays
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I’m on record as supporting unilateral drone strikes on performers who make holiday records. (Dylan’s Christmas album, anyone?) I am, however, willing to give the stand-down order for Debi Smith’s foray into seasonal merriment. First of all, she has a seriously great voice; it has depth, power, clarity, and chutzpah. No wonder she’s both a beloved solo performer and a mainstay of Four Bitchin’ Babes and The Smith Sisters. If you’ve any doubt about how good she really is, listen to her out-muscle a string orchestra on “O Holy Night.” We’re talking diva territory on that one. The other thing in her favor is that she has an expansive view of holidays—not just the mauling mall litany of Christmas irritants, but a calendar’s worth of offerings. I did not know that January 23 was National Pie Day, but I’m feeling festive about that one, and I’m as giddy about Smith’s cover of Doc Watson’s “Pie” as I am of her duet with Watson on “Keep on the Sunny Side.” They’re calling that a New Year’s song and that’s good enough for me. Nor did I know that March 20 was National Proposal Day or that May 4 was Renewal Day, but I’m glad she collaborated with Tom Paxton on the tender “Marry Me Again.” Canada Day coming up? Check out Smith’s “Niagara Falls.” Need a little something extra for Mother’s Day? Smith’s “Mother’s Hands” is rightly a beloved standard. Want to go a little over the top? How about “Chevy Impala” for Collector Car Appreciation Day? Mark your calendars; it’s coming up on July 9.

Rob Weir


Is 12 Years a Slave Too Depressing to Win an Audience?

12 Years a Slave (2013)
Directed by Steve McQueen
Fox Searchlight, 134 mins. Rated R (gruesome violence, nudity)
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Question: When is a historical film too accurate? Director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave films Solomon Northrup’s autobiography with faithful attention to the original and  no punches pulled in depicting the horrors of American slavery. No one can walk out of this film and think, as the Texas State School Board would have you believe, that slaves were actually “servants.” But the hard question progressives must ask is how many people will choose to walk into this film. The problem is that this powerful film of two hours and fourteen minutes often evokes sympathy for those who lived through past tortures by making modern audiences experience them emotionally. McQueen’s film may be too stomach turning to educate those who most need enlightenment. Put another way, the film may be a great history lesson, but lousy entertainment. (Before you jump on me for the latter term, remind me why most people go to movies.)

 When Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853, slaveholders assailed it as fanciful propaganda. The release of Solomon Northrup’s 12 Years a Slave that same year added poignant verisimilitude to Stowe’s novel. McQueen’s film, recounts how Northrup, a free black family man and skilled violinist, was lured from his home in Saratoga, New York, to Washington, DC, on the pretense of joining a musical show for several weeks. In truth, his erstwhile employers were slave traders who wined Northrup until he passed out. He awoke the next morning in chains and was sold into slavery as a runaway. For the next twelve years, he was called “Platt” and worked as a field hand on various cotton and sugar plantations in the Deep South. Only a happenstance encounter with an itinerant carpenter (Brad Pitt in the film) rescued Northrup from his nightmare.  

One of Stowe’s major theses was that slavery was so evil that even good people were dehumanized by it. In the film we see how Northrup (Chiwetel Elofar in what is likely to be an Oscar-winning performance) must learn to suppress his education, his eloquence, and his moral outrage, lest he end up hanging from a tree. His near hanging at the hands of brutal overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano) is among the film’s gut-wrenching segments. To survive, Northrup learns to walk a shaky tightrope between self-preservation and deeply held moral values; in short, he has to be a bit like Stowe’s Uncle Tom in both positive and negative ways.

We also see echoes of Stowe in Northrup’s masters, first Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the prototype of the master whose good intentions are ultimately overwhelmed by his intemperate spending and personal habits, and later by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is even more brutal than Stowe’s Simon Legree. Epps whips slaves when their daily cotton pickings drop from the previous day, has his way with the exotic Patsey (Lupita Nyongo), and tells his wife (Sarah Paulson) he will gladly get rid of her before he ceases having sex with Patsey. His is a plantation based on fear, scarred backs, and–when he deems it necessary–black bodies abused and disposed of with less concern than a farmer butchering a hog. The beating of Patsey is more horrendous than scenes from any blood-soaked slasher film because we know it happened and we cannot retreat emotionally behind a screen of fantasy.

Academics will applaud McQueen’s boldness, his refusal to sugarcoat, and his awareness of historical scholarship. The latter includes often-ignored details such as the ways in which slavery placed Southern white women in a bind. They were supposed to be asexual moral guardians of their homes, yet they also knew that their morality held fat less sway with their husbands than the availability of lustful coerced sex with slave women–a scenario that further degraded white women’s social standing. McQueen got it right; Southern white women such as Mistress Epps often rivaled men in brutality.

But let us return to the modern dilemma. As a historian I’ve little but praise for McQueen’s film; as a film fan, though, I’d never see it again and, as a teacher, I couldn’t use it in the classroom. Ironically, the question at hand is analogous to that of slavery: What right do I possess to traumatize another human being? I certainly want people to be horrified by the very thought of slavery. On one level, I’d love to see every member of the Texas State School Board locked into a room and forced to watch this movie. But let me recount my experience in the theater. I’ve been to plenty of movies in which people cry, but very few in which they sob uncontrollably. That’s what happened at 12 Years a Slave–heaving sobs and howling wails in which viewers were left gasping for breath.

Before you conclude that’s a good thing, let me also point out that there were only about three-dozen people in the theater. The word on the street is that 12 Years a Slave is endlessly depressing and I’m afraid that’s true. I recall debates over the 1993 film Philadelphia in which Tom Hanks played a gay man with AIDS. Some people were very upset by Jonathan Demme’s PG-13 depiction of gay life and the physical horrors of AIDS; they wanted the movie to be more “realistic.” I agreed that it was saccharine, but because of the kid gloves it made over $200 million, which means lots of people saw it, including (one hopes) a lot of folks who would not have thought about gay life or the AIDS crisis in a more challenging film. As any teacher knows, education begins when you meet a student where he or she is, not where you think they should be. We shall see how McQueen’s film fares, but it’s been out for six weeks and has generated about 10% of what Philadelphia earned. My question remains: When is a film too accurate? I think 12 Years a Slave is a milestone, but does it matter if the audience is little more than the usual liberal suspects? --Rob Weir    


Trust Me I'm Lying Raises Issues about the Message and the Messenger

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. By Ryan Holiday. New York: Portfolio Penguin, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-59184-628-4.

This review first appeared on the NEPCA website.
How bad are things in what has been dubbed the “lame-stream media?” If Ryan Holiday is to be believed, Fox News is indeed “fair and balanced” when compared to online sites such as Gawker, The Huffington Post, Mashable, and BNET.  Or maybe not. One of Holiday’s major points is that what’s left of the mainstream media has been so drastically pared that it relies upon bloggers for news feeds, tips, and breaking information. That’s not a good thing. Holiday insists that trolls, shills, and liars like him populate the blogosphere.

The book title invites us to distrust Holiday and you should definitely raise your skepticism shields before plowing into his book. Still, given that Holiday pioneered and profited handsomely from some of the online media’s worst tactics, he’s at least a semi-credible source. The world he describes makes the days of yellow journalism seem charmingly innocent. Forget the adage that perception is reality; the blogosphere invents and commodifies each. A slow news day is no problem for bloggers skillful enough to tailor a rack of suits from a single loose thread. Ask Toyota, which paid millions of dollars for lawsuits, retrofitting, and manufacturing redesign when blogs began humming of stuck accelerators. In nearly all cases, nothing more sinister than operator error was in play, but soon every speeding yahoo on the freeway was blaming Toyota for his actions.

How did it get this bad? Didn’t open web gurus like Jeff Jarvis promise us that the information highway and citizen journalism would democratize information and politics? Holiday argues that “process journalism”–publish immediately and allow stories to evolve organically–gave way to “iterative journalism” in which a central message is put forth and endlessly repeated, facts be damned. The latter created a culture in which hits on one’s blog are more important than truth. Buzz sells and a well-crafted, oft-repeated story becomes fact-resistant. If you think buzz hasn’t replaced time as money and truth as perception, check out Holiday’s case studies–including his efforts to convince us that the generic offerings of American Apparel are high-fashion chic, or how he made millions for ‘fratire’ peddler Max Tucker by enhancing his misogynist image through a manufactured backlash.

In essence, journalism has been hijacked by advocacy advertising with all its inherent propaganda tendencies. When forced–and that’s the right word–to issue corrections and retractions, bloggers simply bury them at the bottom of websites where few will see them. Holiday categorically states, “Corrections online are a joke” (178). Really clever bloggers reduce legal liability through judicious use of weasel words: might, according to reports, escalating buzz, possibly, we’re hearing…. (170) But make no mistake; buzz and publicity are so potentially lucrative that no one can ignore the bloggers that peddle it. Holiday identifies the blogger’s nine tactics through which they win clients and influence the public, a list that includes: “tell them what they want to hear” (49), “give them what spreads, not what’s good,” (69) “make it all about the headline,” (87), and “just make stuff up” (113). Most horrifying of all is that these are often now the people who are the original ‘source’ of stories that appear on the nightly news or on the pages of the New York Times.

Holiday tells a distressing story that will be of enormous interest to journalism scholars and those studying digital media. Alas, I wish the study was better told. Toward the end of the book Holiday warns us of the dangers of “snark” (195), but that’s largely the tone of this book. Holiday clearly dislikes several other bloggers and, denials notwithstanding, it often sounds personal. What purports to be the confessional of an individual who has had a change of heart, comes off like one rapper dissing another. Moreover, Holiday’s conversion experience seems (note my weasel word!) to have occurred when he found himself and his clients on the attack end of the blog culture he helped create. His writing is both sophomoric and soporific. We should pay serious attention to the issues Ryan Holiday raises, but one longs for a more articulate reform advocate with a less ambiguous moral core.

Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst