Category Archives: media

This is NOT a Gift: That U2 Album You Didn’t Ask For and the Possibility of Generosity

If you own any kind of electronic device that has ever used iTunes, you may have noticed you received a gift from U2 last week. Or did you? The band’s thirteenth album, Songs of Innocence, “released” itself into the accounts of every single iTunes user.

Apparently, U2 wanted to give the music away, but they also didn’t want to give it away—because of the degradation of the value of music caused by giving music away. So, they asked Apple to buy it, reportedly for $100 million, and give it away to every one of their customers. (Of course those of us who aren’t Apple CEO’s or members of the Illuminati will never know how this deal was actually arranged, but…). Says Bono:

[Apple] bought it as a gift to give to all their music customers. Free, but paid for. Because if no-one’s paying anything for it, we’re not sure “free” music is really that free. It usually comes at a cost to the art form and the artist… which has big implications, not for us in U2, but for future musicians and their music… all the songs that have yet to be written by the talents of the future… who need to make a living to write them.

At first take, this seems generous of U2. It seems to subvert the transactional nature of capitalism, so it’s kind of sticking-it-to-the-Man-ish, or at least kind of like sticking the Man with the bill so the little guy can get some free music. U2, one of the biggest bands in the world is giving away their new album. They didn’t need to do that. Millions of people would gladly have paid good money for it. If it’s free to me, it’s a gift, right?

Except the problem is, in the process of selling the album to Apple, U2 turned it into advertising. It’s fuzzy exactly how it’s functioning as advertising, but it’s not at all unclear that it is. It’s sort of an ad for the new iPhone. The debut single from the album was performed live for the first time ever at the product launch for the iPhone 6. And a video (called an “ad” on their website) for it, which can be viewed at apple.com, ends with an image of the Edge smashing his guitar which the viewer is seeing on a screen-within-the-screen of an iPhone 6 being held by a revolutionary fist.     

It’s sort of an ad for iTunes. The aforementioned video for the first single is shot in the now-recognizable, heavily branded visual language of iTunes commercials: high-contrast, near-sillouettes of human figures against solid backgrounds.

And this time the colors of the near-sillouettes have been updated to the not-quite-flourescent-not-quite-pastel color scheme of iOS7 and 8 and employ Johnny Ive’s signature use of gradient. So it’s sort of an ad for iOS8 too.

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All of which is to say, it is no longer an act of generosity. It is no longer surprising or countercultural that it is free. Because advertising is always free. Which is to say it’s not a gift.

But, you might protest, the fact that it became a commercial in the process of the business rigamarole that got it into my hands for free shouldn’t matter to me. How I got it doesn’t change the music itself. Except that it does. Try as I might to hear it as something else, “Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” is a commercial to me. It came to me as a commercial. It sounds like a commercial when I listen to it. I cannot NOT hear it as a commercial. The chunky, fuzz-toned guitar riff is still enjoyable to listen to, but invariably sparks a kind of Pavlovian association to the Apple brand and thickens a linkage between my aesthetic tastes (and, therefore, my desires) and Apple products.

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[There’s a whole nother layer of this around the fact some of these songs are about U2’s punk rock roots and the fact that they are dragging their punk rock heroes into these advertisements, but the subsumption of counterculture by consumer capitalism is a theme I’ve already explored elsewhere, so I won’t go into that in this post].

I’m not hating on U2 here. In fact, I hate U2 haters. I like U2. My instinct is actually to trust that their intentions are entirely innocent (Get it?). But I’m not making a comment about U2 here at all. What I’m talking about is the gesture. The gesture of giving music away for free (even music that someone else paid you for) and what the possibilities are for the meaning of such a gesture in our current cultural context.

[Sorry, another thing about the punk layer that I’m not going to write about: Another way I’m not hating on U2 here is that I’m not saying that they are appropriating or a co-opting punk rock in a way that’s disingenuous or predatory. I’m old enough to remember that U2 has a legitimate claim to being a part of the punk revolution. They are not stealing Joey Ramone or Joe Strummer or reconstructing a personal history that isn’t true. They really did make really important, influential music that was heavily influenced by the original punk scene. Joshua Tree was mind-blowing and deserves the spot it has claimed in rock history.]

There may have been a different way that U2 could’ve given this album away—Radiohead and Jay-Z and the Wu-Tang Clan have all tried slightly different models—a way that would’ve not turned the music into advertising. But even if they had, would the music still have retained the qualities of a gift? Would the gesture of giving it away still have meant what a gift means?

I’m doubtful. No matter how they had chosen to do it, there’s is no way a band as big as U2 operating in an economy such as ours could’ve given away their music such that it didn’t some how redound to their benefit (e.g., free publicity, increased sales of their other albums, concert ticket sales, etc.) Even if their intentions were good, the net result would be a scheme, a PR stunt, a “new business model.”

And the nature of a genuine gift is that it involves a sacrifice on the part of the giver. Generosity involves giving someone something beyond what you owe them or what they deserve without  regard for the cost to yourself.

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The reason this is so interesting in relation to U2 in particular is because grace—the religious name for this kind of selfless giving—is such a prominent theme in their music. The most obvious example being the song “Grace”:

Grace, she takes the blame

She covers the shame

Removes the stain

It could be her name

Grace, it’s a name for a girl

It’s also a thought

That changed the world

I believe in that kind of grace. And I believe that it did change the world. But I’m pretty sure me getting a free copy of Songs of Innocence has very little to do with that kind of grace.

Global capitalism and cloud servers might create the illusion that humans can do something genuinely generous for 500 million people, but I’m not convinced that’s even possible. And I’m certain that if it were possible, whatever that gift would be, it wouldn’t be an ad.

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My Bike and White Privilege Revisited

A few weeks ago, I posted this about white privilege–explaining how riding a bike for transportation has helped me to understand it more. And it has gotten quite the response. Way more hits than anything else on the blog. Reblogged all over the place. Almost 1,000 comments so far. Obviously, white privilege is something people want to talk about.

A lot of people said it was helpful, but lots of other people told me it was dumb or terrible or racist. So I’d like to respond to a couple of the arguments and critiques that I see as themes in the comments.

First, a lot of people pointed out that the analogy fails at the point where I choose to get off my bike. This is a really valid point to make. The experience I have as a cyclist—the disproportionate sense of power, the inequality of our road system, the fear of getting squashed—those all disappear for me when I get off my bike. For people of color, however, there’s no getting off the bike. I didn’t say that explicitly in the original post. But I understood that when I wrote it. So I really want to validate that that IS important to remember.

But I also don’t think it damages the usefulness of this analogy. The analogy still works at lots of other salient points. If you read through the comments, you can see where people made lots of smart connections and extensions of the analogy. (Warning: you will have to wade through a lot of dumb comments, I was pretty hands-off with the moderating).

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Second, a couple of people were offended because they felt like the comparison was belittling. I just want to make clear: I was in no way saying that my experience as a cyclist is EQUIVALENT TO what people of color experience in terms of the level of inequality or the amount of struggle that it creates in my life. It was meant as an analogy, not a direct comparison.

The point was that having an experience where I am a) a minority, with b) significantly less power, who is c) trying to operate in a system that is designed around the majority—an experience that I don’t have very frequently as a white man—has helped me to empathize with folks who have those kinds of experiences in life for other reasons. I shared my experience because I know that other white people have trouble listening to privilege talk and analogy is a way of coming at it sideways and hopefully building some empathy.

In addition to those two critiques of the analogy, there were lots of other commenters pointing out other ways they thought the analogy broke down (or just unsubstantiated complaints that it was a bad analogy). To all of those folks, I guess I would just say, that is the nature of analogies. They show likenesses between two unlike things in a way that helps us understand one of them better. The two things being compared are necessarily not EXACTLY the same, otherwise there would be no point in comparing them. And on some level, this how all language works. We connect abstract ideas to concrete pictures so that we can better grasp their meaning. See, I just said “works.” Language doesn’t really work, but the concrete image of a person or a machine working helped you get what I meant. (Ah, I just did it again, “see” and “get” are not what’s actually happening when…You get the picture…Oh!) One commenter, Colubris, in response to someone who didn’t seem to get this, said all this much more succinctly (and sarcastically):

Yeah, metaphors can be hard. Keep working at it.

In short, if you didn’t like the post just because you were able to find some point where the analogy breaks down, your beef is with language, not with me.

Thankfully, I had lots of people tell me that it did help them get white privilege for the first time, so, whatever its weaknesses, I think it works. In fact, I had folks say the analogy was “perfect,” that it was the “best analogy they’ve ever heard,” and that it “moved them to tears.” So, I think we can still trust the power of language, specifically metaphor, to convey meaning. Some white people said, “OK, I get it. Now what do I do?” My friend Noah wrote a good what-now? piece here (in which he cries a lot about me copying him).

Third, a lot of white folks said that the problem with my post was that it just whined about my experience as a biker and didn’t make specific connections to analogous experiences people of color face. E.g. John Klapproth of Anchorage, AK, who read the article over at Quartz wrote in:

You do not define, in any way, what white privilege is, nor do you give any concrete examples of white privilege.  You make a nice comparison to bike riding but you don’t tell me what it is you’re comparing the bike riding too. 

This is a valid critique of my post as an argument for the existence of white privilege. But my post is not an argument for the existence of white privilege. It is an attempt to help people hear the language without automatically getting defensive. A thought experiment to help create empathy in folks who might otherwise have trouble empathizing. It was a way of helping white people (other cyclists at least) to be open to the idea that in the same way they know they experience something on the road that drivers don’t see—because of their vantage point—people of color experience something in life that white folks have trouble seeing because of our vantage point.

To draw out all of the specific connections between cycling under-privilege and racial under-privilege would be to put me in the place of speaking for people of color, which I tried not to do. I let people speak from their own experiences in the comments. Some folks pointed out some more subtle things like media (mis)representation of black people or studies that show that non-white-sounding names on job applications are less likely to be called for an interview, but one commenter went right for the jugular:

The white privilege of not having your murder justified by showing “thug” pictures, pointing to marijuana use… and militarizing against peaceful protests in the name of said victim.

Fourth, a lot of people accused me of being racist for simply using the term “white” or bringing up racial categories at all. I can understand why some white people think the color-blind route is the way to go. But here’s the thing: most people of color are saying it’s not, so maybe we should listen to them. This is complicated, because “race”—as we’ve come to understand it in the US—is most definitely a socially-constructed thing. As a Christian, I am definitely a non-essentialist, i.e., I believe we are really all a part of the human race. And as someone in a “mixed-race” family, the socially-constructed nature of race is transparent to me. Within the confines of my home, “race” disappears. My kids don’t see me as a white dad, they just see me as dad. I don’t see them as my black kids, I just see them as my kids. As in, we literally forget about race. But we don’t live within the confines of our home. We have to go out into the world, where people say dumb things like, “What country were your kids adopted from?”, where I have to worry about how they might be treated and how it’s impacting their self-understanding, where, as one of them is about to be a teenager, I have to worry if he might get arrested for wearing a hoody, or worse, get shot.

So the fact that race is fictional—or as Henry Louis Gates says, race is a trope—doesn’t mean that just invoking the human race will make all the injustices it has caused or perpetuated go away. We have to acknowledge it still matters if we’re going to work toward a future where it matters less.

Lastly, a lot of drivers argued that I was just wrong about my experience as a cyclist, or made some kind of comment about all cyclists being jerks or drivers being justified in thinking all cyclists were, because most of them are. Like Mike S.:

….sometimes [drivers] are just frustrated that many bikers act like superior jerks who own the whole road and put multiple people at risk with bad behavior.

Ironically, even though these folks completely missed the point of the article, they accidentally proved it. Drivers who think that cyclists aren’t facing significantly more risk on the road, or that we don’t have to do more work to get to the same place, or that the transportation infrastructure isn’t made for cars with bikes as a mere afterthought, can only be speaking from a lack of experience of riding a bike for transportation. Thus, they demonstrate the point about white privilege–you don’t see it because the system is designed for you. (I’m really, really tempted to say they need to check their privilege here…but I won’t). 

Do What You Want With My Body: Beyonce, Gaga, and the Pornification of Feminism

[Caveat: this post is rated P-13…at least].

In college I was a part of a group called Sexual Assault Peer Educators. We went to Human Sexuality classes and frat houses and talked about what constitutes rape, how prevalent it is, and how we can all help prevent it. I learned from that experience that it is not self-evident to everyone that nobody deserves to be raped, no matter how they dress. And after actually hearing guys says things like, “Hey, if you wave a piece of meat in front of a hungry dog, you’re gonna get bit,” I came to understand what is now called “rape culture.”

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 And I became even more concerned about how our culture commodifies sex and views the female body as an object of consumption. To me, it seemed relatively obvious that porn culture and rape culture go hand-in-hand. You make sex and the human body something to be bought, owned, and consumed for self-gratification, and you are contributing to a culture in which people think like the dude who made the meat analogy. Right?

Then a few years ago, I participated in a Take Back The Night march that was a response to a serial killing of women in my neighborhood, several of whom had been prostitutes. There was a group of radical feminists at the march, and I was surprised to learn they didn’t share my views about pornography. They thought that sex-work, as they call it, and pornography were actually liberating for women—spaces where woman can take control of their sexuality and actually exert power over the men who desire them. On this view, sex workers and porn stars are liberators, “transgressing” patriarchal norms of modesty and morality that keep women oppressed. And prudes like me—who think prostitution and porn are harmful to women—are actually part of the problem. What we need is not less porn and prostitution, but less stigma surrounding them.

Its not surprising that this line of academic feminist thinking—which lends itself so readily to consumerism—has been taken up by pop singers and their marketing teams. And divas who formerly would’ve been seen as playing for the wrong team are successfully packaging their wares as feminist.

Take for example Beyonce’s latest album, which purportedly contains “strong feminist themes.” The album is referred to both as simply Beyonce and as “the visual album,” which is about right, since it amounts to a video magazine of close-ups and glam shots of Beyonce in all manner of hyper-sexualized scenarios. Almost to a video, Beyonce is teasing, stripping, or telling-all, and almost never while wearing pants. Half the videos are marked “Explicit” on iTunes, and most of the ones that aren’t should be.

The lyrically content of the songs is equally erotic and explicit. Most of the lyrics I can’t even reprint here, but here’s a little sampling of what I can: “Drunk in Love” is actually just about getting drunk and having sex (“I get filthy when that liquor get into me”). “Rocket” is a collection of innuendos (“Climb until you reach my peak, baby/And reach right into the bottom of my fountain”) and not-innuendos (“Punish me, please”) that reads like a string of sexts. “Blow” is about just what it sounds like. “Jealous” is about wanting to cheat for revenge after she “cooked this meal for you naked.” And “Partition”…no, there’s nothing I can reprint here. 

What’s noteworthy about this album is not its visually and lyrically quasi-pornographic nature (though dropping 80 minutes of high-def nearly-naked Beyonce all at once does ratchet this game up a notch). No. What’s interesting is the that two songs that bookend the album that attempt to frame it as a kind of feminist manifesto.

The album opener “Pretty Hurts” indicts our culture for its obsession with physical beauty and its narrow definition thereof (“Perfection is a disease of a nation…Blonder hair, flat chest/TV says, ‘Bigger is better,’ South beach, sugar free/Vogue says, ‘Thinner is better”). Pointing up how destructive media images of beauty are to the psyches and self-perceptions of women, Beyonce laments:

It’s my soul that needs surgery

Plastic smiles and denial can only take you so far

Then you break when the fake facade leaves you in the dark

You left with shattered mirrors and the shards of a beautiful past

The solution offered to all this superficiality and pressure to be perfect is to learn self-acceptance. The song asks “When you’re all alone by yourself” (seems a bit redundant) “are you happy with yourself?” And Beyonce finally answers, “Yes” as the song closes. With that, the stage is set for all of the indecent exposure that follows to be understood as a demonstration of the fact that Beyonce doesn’t hate her body like the media tells her that she should.

Now, I don’t doubt the genuineness of Beyonce’s own personal journey with self-image and body-hatred. But the idea that this collection of videos is a) a vehicle through which she discovered her own inner beauty/learned not to find her self-worth in her appearance, and therefore, b) some kind of feminist statement of freedom that should be liberating for other women too, and therefore, c) a work of art that somehow subverts the patriarchal media machine that objectifies the female body—is absolutely, positively ludicrous.

And here’s why: First, the idea that Beyonce does not conform to traditional conceptions of beauty, or that in “celebrating” her particular body, she is somehow challenging or subverting the media’s definition beauty/femininity, is just laughable. Who doesn’t think this woman is beautiful? She is, as Jay-Z told us when she started “wearing his chain,” “the hottest chic in the game.” True, skinny, white 15-year-olds are still used in Ralph Lauren ads and high fashion runway shows, but that is not the “dominant paradigm” of beauty in our culture. Beyonce is. Huge eyes, thick lips, flawless skin, toned stomach, big curves in all the right places. Beyonce possesses not a single feature that lies outside of the ideal of what the media was already telling women is beautiful. I can’t imagine that women who are overweight or abnormally tall or have problems with acne suddenly felt permission to love themselves in way they never had before when they first saw these videos.

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Second, even if Beyonce were “ugly” or “fat” by media standards, the idea that she is doing something liberating or feminist by proudly displaying to the world every nook and cranny of herself is, again, just ridiculous.

Now, I’m all for people being comfortable with their bodies and agree that those of us who don’t or can’t look like some media proffered ideal should still love ourselves and our bodies. But proudly exposing and flaunting a body that (supposedly) doesn’t conform to the media ideal is no less superficial than flaunting one that does. Beyonce doesn’t say or do anything on this album to demonstrate she’s found her value or self-worth in something other than physical beauty and shallow sexuality. Her answer to “pretty hurts” is not “You are loved because you are a child of God” or “Your value comes from your whole person,” it’s simply to redefine “pretty” (which we have already established she does not actually do). So when Beyonce brags to us in “Rocket” that she’s “proud of all this bass” [camera shot: close-up of her butt], she’s still a woman finding her self-worth in her ass.

This becomes glaringly clear in the other bookend. Near the end of the album, the song “Flawless” incorporates a long sample from the TED talk of African feminist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in which she laments, “We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men…we teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are…” I don’t know how Adichi intended these comments, but as they are appropriated by Beyonce, they end up a kind of self-contradictory mess.

The song’s title is a mantra of self-affirmation. It tells us that Beyonce, now through to the other side of her journey of self-acceptance and sexual empowerment embraces herself just the way she is (“I’m flawless!”). And she wants other women to be able to do this too, inviting them: “Say, ‘I look so good tonight.’”

But ultimately she can’t resist framing her flawlessness in comparison to other women: “I know when you were little girls, you dreamt of being in my world,/ Bow down b*tches.” Well, maybe that’s because the kind of sexuality Beyonce is trying to claim for women, the kind that’s like what men have, is inherently competitive, superficial, and destructive.

Bow down, b*tches? So Beyonce’s journey of feminist self-actualization ultimately arrives at a place where she can call other women b*tches because of how flawless she is. Hm.   

Despite Beyonce’s reporting that “this album is all about honesty,” these videos, and their accompanying lyrics, are all about objectification, which is actually a form of dishonesty. Regardless of Beyonce’s own role in the writing of these songs and production of these videos, their effect is to separate her body from the rest of her and turn it into an object of desire for consumers to purchase and use to their own ends. This is fundamentally dishonest. And ultimately, Beyonce isn’t being honest with herself if she thinks that just because she is the agent of her own body-hawking she is somehow empowered by it. This makes about as much sense as saying that cutting or eating disorders or suicide are empowering. Self-harm is still harm. Self-objectification is still objectification.

Which brings us to Lady Gaga. Gaga has built an empire on dressing and undressing her body in various transgressive ways that shock and provoke (oh my, a meat dress!) And because of this, she’s hailed as a smart, self-aware feminist of the future. (There’s even a whole book written about this). But if we scratch beneath the patina of avant-garde affectation and irony, Gaga’s just as guilty of self-objectification.

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Let’s take “Do What U Want,” the second single off of her latest album, Artpop, as an example. The song is supposedly smart because it operates on two levels. On one level, it’s a thumper of a club song about drinking and sex, with Gaga giving us permission over and over again to “do what [we] want with [her] body.” On another level, it’s Gaga critiquing the media for objectifying and misrepresenting her.

Write what you want/Say what you want about me/

If you want to know/I’m not sorry

…You can’t stop my voice/Cause you don’t own my life/

But do what you want with my body

So she wants us to know that she’s in control here. Even though we can buy her body and use to our own ends, she’s the one who decided that. And she won’t give us the stuff that really matters (her heart, etc). “Do What U Want” is supposedly Gaga asserting her autonomy over an oppressive media machine that would seek to subjugate her.

Except guess which level of meaning the marketing of the song is based on? The video–which, to be fair, was never actually released, but clips of which were leaked online–looks to me a lot like porn. In it, Gaga plays a (naked) patient to R. Kelly’s doctor, who has a party with a dozen “sexy” nurses and Gaga’s limp, anesthetized body. (Get it? He’s doing what he wants with her body. Clever.) This is intercut with shots of her being photographed wearing a paper dress that she progressively rips apart until she’s naked and writhing on the floor.

The cover art for the single is a close up shot of a G-string-wearing Gaga bent over with her butt in the camera. The shot is slightly overexposed, in the photographical sense. According Gaga, it represents the fact that her “ass is all she chooses to give us.”

Do you see what she did there? As with the song, she wants us to think that the meaning of the cover art is entirely based on her intentions. She can choose what she’s giving us. She’s saying, ”I know that this looks and sounds and smells exactly like the kind of pop music that objectifies women. I know that it contains a duet with a guy who was once arrested for making child pornography  and urinating on a 14-year-old girl. I know that on the surface level the lyrics are about me degrading myself and allowing myself to be degraded in the back of a club. But [wink, wink] if you’re smart, you know that this actually means the exact opposite of all that.”

So the difference between degrading objectification and liberating art boils down to whether or not the author intends it to be ironic?

At the end of the day, avant-garde porn is still porn. And porn is still something that contributes to, rather than helps to dismantle, rape culture. The human body, male or female, is not something that can be objectified or commodified or sold without being degraded and dehumanized. Even if the one doing the objectifying and commodifying and selling is the person to whom the body belongs.

Thank God Sinead O’Connor was willing to speak this truth to Miley Cyrus. In her words, “Nothing but harm will come in the long run, from allowing yourself to be exploited, and it is absolutely NOT in ANY way an empowerment of yourself or any other young women, for you to send across the message that you are to be valued (even by you) more for your sexual appeal than your obvious talent.”

I know I’ll be accused of slut-shaming and not being sex-positive, but, oh well. Somebody’s got to say it: Nobody is being liberated by the idea that porn is feminist. Nobody is being liberated by these quasi-pornographic pop videos. Not Beyonce, not Lady Gaga, not the other women who watch them or have to live in the culture now poisoned by them.

If Everything is Awesome, Nothing is Awesome: The LEGO Movie, the Death of Resistance & Transcendence, and the Only Way Out (Part 1)

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I am a Lego parent, twice over.  So it was pretty hard not to enjoy The LEGO Movie. All of the clever references about how kids play with Legos and what kinds of junk get mixed in with their Legos are really funny to me. And of course the visual effects of the movie are just really impressive. (Not awesome, but really impressive.)

But trying to come to some sort of resolution about what I thought about the message of the movie is sort of making my head spin.

In a sense, it is a perfect illustration of our postmodern predicament. I mean, it’s a movie about a mass-produced consumer product—a toy, an entertainment—and while the film pretends to be about some real human themes like belonging and rebelling against authority and authentic self-expression v. conformity–it ends up ultimately being about none of those things but really only about Legos…and playing with Legos. Like everything about our postmodern moment, the film is mired in layers of meta, and the gestures that it makes toward transcendent meaning are in fact just distractions from the fact that it really only points back to itself. (Thus, the decidedly un-awesome title, The LEGO Movie, is really quite telling).

If I were going to invite three people to a conversation about this movie to help me get a grip on it and stop my head spinning, they would be Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, and Thomas Frank. (I would invite Marshall McLuhan too, but I’d like to also be able to follow the conversation myself).

Chabon, a writer and a dad, wrote an essay a few years back lamenting the advent of cross-marketing into the Lego world. In the days of his youth, prior to the introduction of the licensed mini-figure, Chabon remembers, a box of Legos could literally become anything a kid imagined. Legos did not come with pre-imagined characters from existing story worlds (Lego Batman, Lego Harry Potter, Lego Star Wars, etc.), and the point of Legos was not to replicate a scene from some existing movie by building a model designed by an adult. Kids could make up, whole-cloth, worlds and characters and scenarios, exercising genuine imagination. Chabon writes how miffed he is by the “authoritarian nature of the new Legos,” and the fact that playing with them is more like solving a puzzle with a singular solution that has already been provided than actually creating anything.

But just as you think Chabon is going to end the essay as a lament on the triumph of marketing over imagination, the inevitable dumbing down of the next generation of late capitalism, he pulls it back and offers hope. His kids, he’s noticed, once they follow the instructions the first time and build the corporately predetermined sets, don’t leave them that way. That’s not the way kids actually play with Legos, he realizes. No, once they’re built once, they get broken up and tossed into the box and mixed all together into a giant postmodern Lego chowder. And his kids cross-pollinate all these cross-marketed sets. (E.g., his son liked to put a Lego ghost costume on a Lego Green Goblin minifigure, set it on a horse with a light saber to do battle against a Darth Vader minifugure [also on a horse] bearing a bow and arrow). Chabon sees this pastiche (I’m tempted to say “this brick-olage”) on the part of his children as revolutionary. The childish imagination cannot be trammelled, it transgresses the “structure of control and implied obedience to the norms of the instruction manual.” In short, Chabon’s final scoreboard reads: kids/humanity/freedom/imagination: 1; authority/control/corporations/conformity: 0.

But so here’s the first head-spinner: The LEGO Movie, produced by the aforementioned corporation/authority that is the target of Chabon’s critique, appears to have the very same message as Chabon. The movie’s supposed main theme is that conformity, synecdochized by the trope of following the instructions, is bad. The main character, Emmet, is a portrayed as a nob, a total dufus, held up for our derision and mockery. And his despicable characteristic is that, in a world of conformists, he is the most conformist of them all. At one point he stands in a long, robot-like line in order to buy a $36 latte, to which he responds, “Awesome!”

Conversely (in the supposed message of the film), genuine self-expression and rebellion against authoritarian structure is good. When Emmet is first tested to see if he is a Master Builder, he asks “Where are the instructions?” Wrong question. Master Builders don’t use instructions, man. They can see through the structure of this world—like Neo in The Matrix—to visualize the potential of all the bricks around them. They deconstruct the existing, imposed instructions-generated structure and reconstruct it into imaginative solutions to their problems. The Master Builders inhabit a world—Cloud Koo-Koo Land—completely unlike the pristine, bland worlds ruled by President Business (the villain, obviously). It’s a colorful, zany mishmash of de/reconstructed sets. A world where Lego Batman and Gandalf and Shakespeare and Unikitty are friends with a pirate with a shark for one arm and a canon for the other. I.e., it is just the kind of world built by Chabon’s kids.

I.e. the movie pretends that its message is the same as Chabon’s: Don’t follow the (our) instructions! Don’t be a conformist! Rebel against, you know, like authority and marketing and stuff!

I say “pretends” because, in actuality this seeming proclamation of Chabon’s revolutionary chant is really just a way for them to close the door on the way out he has provided from their “structure of control.”  It is a move by which this resistance is entirely absorbed/incorporated/neutralized.

The best illustration that the movie has absorbed and neutralized Chabon’s resistance is, of course, the toys. By which I mean not the toys in the movie, but the merchandise—the real-life, physical toys marketed and sold in conjunction with the movie. This movie ostensibly about not following the instructions or building the predetermined sets or being a mindless consumer of course has a whole array of licensed, predetermined sets for sale—complete with instructions—so that kids can recreate scenes from the movie about how they should be imaginative and not just recreate scenes from movies. And these boxed sets, since they are made up of toys representing characters & scenes from the movie, come pre-pastiched and pre-mashed-up and pre-de/reconstructed. It appears Chabon’s solution, his escape route from corporate, authoritarian, imagination-crushing consumerism has been swallowed up by said corporation, chewed up, and spat back out as merchandise.

berny

Which brings us to head-spinner #2: As I said to my wife when we were shopping for LEGO Movie Legos for our 9-year-old’s birthday, “You realize that these are not toys. These are meta-toys.” Because the film’s toys are not so much toys per se as they are references to “real” versions of themselves. E.g., if you go out and buy a Benny the Astronaut mini-figure today, it is not just an un-ironic, “direct” Benny the Astronaut toy. No, it comes with a pre-broken helmet and a pre-scuffed space logo, because it is a toy version of a film version of a toy Benny the Astronaut. Yup, it is the toy of the movie character of the (same) toy. So, like the title of the movie of which they are the merchandise, the toys are actually references to themselves. (As in, the original Benny the Astronaut was a reference to actual astronauts, but the LEGO Movie Benny the Astronaut is only a reference to a Lego astronaut).

If all this recursion and self-reference seems clever but otherwise meaningless—sort of like a hall of mirrors—it’s not. In fact, these layers of meta are the crux of the whole matter here. They are the move that keep us from asking for anything more than “bread and circuses” because they make us feel like we’re leaving the circus when we’re just moving to a different seat. But that’ll have to come in the next post. (In case you’re wondering, I am going to connect this to God/religion/theology eventually).