The dominant discourse about the Vietnam War (and Apocalypse Now), particularly in terms of its incorporation into the American Narrative, is that it’s the Great American Trauma, unhealed like Maya Lin’s black scar cut into the earth. While this is true to a certain extent — there is no denying the fact that working-class kids of all colors were sacrificed for the defense of freedom and Western civilization — it’s also accompanied by much bleating about America’s supposed loss of innocence. The ghosts of the war still loom over every foreign policy decision since; it is perhaps unfortunate that they don’t haunt American politicians more persistently.
MacDiva writes about “loving the artist, hating the song” — in particular, Billie Holiday singing “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do:”
…there I was, listening to a woman declare herself a willing candidate [of domestic violence] and almost singing along with the chorus.
I have no magical formula to offer in regard to this issue. Indeed, the answer may be that one learns to tolerate a degree of imperfection in artists one admires and each individual decides where to draw the line. I’ll delete “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” from my iPod because I find the song too irritating to continue listening to it. Other decisions about lyrics that make me uncomfortable will be made on a case-by-case basis. In some of them, I will keep right on loving the artist and hating the song.
Songs like that one probably constitute a fourth of Lady Day’s recorded output, but that’s how it goes. My very first Billie Holiday purchase was the live Billie’s Blues, which contains the classic “My Man:”
Two or three girls
That he likes as well as me
But I love him
I don’t know why I should
He isn’t true
He beats me, too
What can I do?
Oh, my man, I love him so
He’ll never know
All my life is just a spare
But I don’t care
When he takes me in his arms
The world is bright
Later on MacDiva writes about “Sweet Home Alabama” — a retort to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” — and how the song’s “hot guitar riff” still won’t earn it a place on her iPod.
Let me take the topic a little further, because it’s something which has (or hasn’t) bothered me as well. As a voracious (and fairly omnivorous) consumer of music, I listen to a whole bunch of artists and groups associated with dodgy themes or politics, whether as window-dressing or (unfortunately) in real life. Michael Moynihan has made clear in the very good Lords of Chaos the very real connection between the Norwegian black metal scene and various acts of homicide and arson, among others. (Yes, I listen to Darkthrone.) And a lot of the early Industrial/noise groups also used graphically violent imagery as part of their shock tactics. (Yes, I listen to Whitehouse too. And Boyd Rice. I confess it all: behind the mild-mannered, defender-of-minorities facade, the Wily Filipino is a rabid, Satan-worshipping thug in jackboots.)
It reminds me of how one of my Filipino friends from New York shook his head in disbelief when I told him I was a big John Zorn fan; this was because Zorn had gotten into trouble from the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence for the covers of the Naked City albums Torture Garden (naked Japanese women suspended and tied up in elaborate knots) and Leng T’che (Chinese man ripped apart in a public execution — you Bataille fans would have already seen that one). (Surely that hidden Araki photograph in Taboo and Exile would have gotten Zorn into hotter water, but it didn’t.)
(And probably my favorite film of all time is Apocalypse Now, which is deeply racist, but in an interesting way. Which may have been Coppola’s point, but I’m not sure that it is. But as Frank Chin writes: “We have to be able to accept Conrad and Coppola’s works as the white racist works they are and still recognize them as great white lit and film. And I think most writers from non-white peoples can and have been reading racist white lit and recognizing it as great lit.”)
MacDiva also brings up Miles Davis, which is funny because he’s always my primary example of how I conveniently ignore the musician’s personal background for the music. He was, by all the accounts I’ve read, extremely abusive towards women. (But his indefensible behavior is somehow “excusable” because the man is a genius. Is that the logic in operation here? Because I’ll be damned if I never listen to Miles again out of principle.)
In any case, it is an interesting quandary…
Wow — my favorite film of all time, the magnificent, drug-addled, seriously flawed masterpiece by Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now, was just selected by Sight and Sound Magazine as the greatest film of the last quarter century.
Coppola expounds on the usual themes (and cinematic truisms about the Vietnam War that we all take for granted now) — that in war lies madness, that this was the first rock-and-roll war, etc. — but delivers the message with such uncontained, sprawling, self-indulgent ambition that keeps one totally riveted. (Who can forget the hallucinatory opening with The Doors’ “The End” and the fiery wall of napalm and the frightening swish of the helicopter blades and a broken-down, liquored-up Martin Sheen? Or the frightening thrill during the helicopter/Valkyries ride?) The fact that the film itself was made as an act of sheer colonial hubris adds another fascinating layer to the movie.
The film is, of course, seriously flawed in that it is not really about the Vietnam War — there are, after all, hardly any Vietnamese in it, as if already erased, Hegel-like, from the face of the earth, never to be discussed again — but Coppola at least makes the daring (for a mainstream director) and necessary connection between the war in Southeast Asia and colonialism. (But perhaps he is right, as it really was “the American War” in Vietnam.)
(Unfortunately, the parallels between “Apocalypse Now” and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness end there, as the lamentable director’s cut showed; the tedious dinner scene with the French stragglers showed that Coppola didn’t get it either.)
Of course, what has always interested me as well is that the film was made in my home province of Laguna, and the fake Angkor Wat-like constructions in Kurtz’s compound are still standing in one of the resorts. (I’ve always wanted to write a paper about the Philippines as a stand-in for various banana republics, or for Vietnam…)