American Oxygen


1) Rihanna, “American Oxygen,” on Saturday Night Live (NBC, May 16). Over the last year countless panels, online threads, and editorials have asked, as if to the tune of the Kingston Trio’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” where have all the protest songs gone? Here. No, it’s not “Masters of War,” but this was powerful from the start and soul-shaking by the end. The official video for the song has Rhianna in a white T-shirt teasing out from under a leather jacket as a video of modern-world imagery — war, assassination, the Beatles, a bum on the street, a march in the street, flags, the Statue of Liberty, a rodeo, everything familiar — unspools behind her. This night, wearing an outfit somewhere between guerrilla chic and a funeral suit, Rhianna sang in front of a wrap-around, three-screen version of the same parade, and it built like the ending of Abel Gance’s silent-color-tryptich finale of his 1927 Napoleon: it all but tore you apart with conflicting emotions. Made by Uprising Creative, directed by Darren Craig, Jonathan Craven, and Jeff Nicholas, the tableau was hard to read, because there was so much loaded into it. Familiar images — iconic to the point of cliché, such as Martin Luther King in front of the Lincoln Memorial — were carried off by those you didn’t know, or almost knew but couldn’t quite place. It was obvious and then it wasn’t; it moved too fast to think about, and the ground under your feet began to shift.

There was a harsh disassociation between Rhianna in front, pushing out repeating lines as if coming up for air — “Breathe in, breath out” — bringing Eric Garner and a hundred other people this spring with their heads shoved into the ground, against a wall, choked, pepper-sprayed, beaten, shot full of holes, humiliated, the names piling up until they’re scrambled — and the pictures dancing behind her. It was as if there was an argument going on, between common memory and what she had to say. Words from the song seemed to float before her eyes, as if they, like the fractured history behind her, were coming to her in pieces: “We sweat for a nickel and a dime / Turn it into an empire” might sound like a non sequitur the first time it surfaces, but by the fourth it’s a mystery. As ordinary language it doesn’t make sense; sucked in by that creamy voice, full of thought, it was clear as day. “This is the new America” — a chant, mournful, shocked, then flat, accepting — is frightening with so many faces and dead bodies and oblivious citizens tumbling over the words; and “We are the new America,” the line that follows, is in some ways even more frightening, because it’s a call less to arms than to a cauldron. It doesn’t explain anything, it doesn’t define a right side and a wrong side, it doesn’t presume you agree with it — because an idea like agreement is not part of its language. As a protest song it doesn’t presume to put ideas into people’s heads; what it puts there are echoes. Rhianna opens her mouth, moves in front of a screen, and it’s 3 a.m. and you’re dreaming three dreams at once.


2−3) Öyvind Fahlström, Mao Hope March (1966) and Antonio Manuel, Repressão outra vez — eis o saldo (Repression Again — This Is the Consequence, 1968), in “International Pop,” Walker Art Center (Minneapolis, through August 29). The key to this swirling show was international — yes, the predictable Warhols, Lichtensteins, Rauschenbergs, Rosenquists were there — even a collage from Bruce Conner. But the real action was all over the place, from everywhere. It didn’t necessarily announce itself. Fahlström (1928−76) was a Swedish artist born in Brazil; the monitor with his video, high on a wall, was easy to pass by. On a New York street, various people are parading with posters of a smiling Chairman Mao, others with Bob Hope looking quizzical, or maybe a little confused. The New York radio man Bob Fass is interviewing people on the street, asking them if they’re happy, if they know who the faces on the posters are, and the scratchy audio keeps bouncing off the posters. “You know, it really stops you, you know,” says one passerby, after arguing with Fass over whether he’s happy (“Are you a happy man?”
”Certainly! Do I look happy, huh?” “Why?” “Because I live the type of life I do.” “What type of life is that?” The man says, “The type that you don’t”). “It makes you sort of stop and wonder,” the man says: ” — what is he running for? Because if you notice that most of these actors are going into politics now, like Ronald Reagan, for instance.” “Whose pictures are they?” says Fass. “Bob Hope and I’m not sure of the other person, but it’s, I think it’s Mao Tse Tung.” “Is there some kind of connection?” “I hope not. The only thing I can think of is that they’re inferring that Bob Hope is a communist, but . . . I wish I knew!” It’s four and a half minutes, and you can’t look away.

Antonio Manuel was born in Brazil in 1947. Before he was twenty he created a visionary installation that led to the police shutdown of an exhibition by young Brazilian artists meant to travel to Paris. In the Walker, again you might walk right by it: what appear to be five large black posters hung in a row. All black — but each has a white cord dangling several feet in front of it. It’s a museum, you figure don’t touch, but you do, you pull the string, and the black face pulls up to reveal black and red silkscreens of pages from the São Paulo paper Última Hora showing clashes between students and police. They suck you right in, not so much for the images or the headlines (“A STUDENT DIED”) but for the symbolism at play. Yes, the black coverings represent censorship, but they’re far more suggestive than that: they also represent torture. When you lift the black canvas, you are lifting the mask off the face of a prisoner in a hood.


4) Bruce Jenkins, “Cleveland’s pain continues, but Oakland shows title-worthiness,” on the NBA finals (San Francisco Chronicle, June 18). “From a Cleveland standpoint, Game 6’s final moments were difficult to watch. The Cavs were surging and flailing in equal measure, and it seemed very much over at the 1:50 mark, when Stephen Curry sailed in for an uncontested layup against a beaten-down defense, giving the Warriors a 98−85 lead. There was a timeout. And absurdity ensued.

The Cavs’ marketing people, utterly clueless in the NBA’s ghastly tradition, busted out ‘Hang On Sloopy,’ a bubblegum-variety hit from the ’60s, over the sound system.

Sloopy lives in a very bad part of town
And everybody, yeah, tries to put my Sloopy

“What was this, a sing-along? No major titles in this town since the 1964 Browns, but let’s all get down with the McCoys? And bring your dancin’ shoes?”


5−7) Kenneth Anger, Rabbit’s Moon (1950/1970) and the Capris, “There’s a Moon Out Tonight” (Lost Nite, 1960) and on Sound Stage (PBS, 1982). In 1950 Anger shot a fifteen-minute film in Paris, which he didn’t finish; in 1970 he added a soundtrack and began showing it. It opens with a mime all in white lying in a forest. Instantly the Capris come on: a Queens doo-wop group with one of the most distinctive records of the form. Leader Nick Santo strikes a pose with the opening of every line, but especially the first: “There’s a — ” he sings in a clear tenor, and then the rest of the Capris come in high, even squeaky, but sending the song into the air — “moon out tonight . . .” and the song goes on like that, until you can’t tell which part you love and which part you hate, until the parts change places, until you’re lost in the music, as Anger clearly was. The mime brings himself to his feet, as the song tells him to do he goes “strolling through the park,” he lifts his arms in supplication, he raises his head, and there it is, a blazing full moon in a blue night sky, and the moon lights his face. The film goes on, but it’s all there in the first scene.

“There’s a Moon Out Tonight” came out on Planet in 1958 and went nowhere; the Capris broke up. But two years later it was reissued by the collectors’ label Lost Nite and the song went to No. 3 in the nation — which was why, more than twenty years after that, Santo was back, with new and old Capris, to sing it on a PBS doo-wop special, and the change is shocking. “There’s a — ” Santo sings, and the Capris come in, “girl in my heart,” but what Santo has invested in his two words makes a whole world. His voice — his body, his sensibility, his memory, his sense of loss, his belief in the future — is rich, flowing, at once behind the story being told and ahead of it. The theme of the song is what “I never felt before,” and as Santo slides back over every appearance of the notion there is a calm so deep it’s hard to grasp, that anyone could want what the singer wants with such certainty — certain not that he’ll get it but that he deserves it. The doo-wahs behind him rise like northern lights — but only because of the glow Santo is giving the song. It wasn’t there in 1958; it’s not there in later TV appearances. It was a moment when the singer talked to the song, and the song replied with something it had never said before, and the singer gave it back.


8) Mezzo (art) and J. M. Dupont (words), Love in Vain: Robert Johnson 1911-1938 (Éditions Glénat, Grenoble). A graphic biography: nothing that imaginative as narrative, exploding out of mere story in the drawings, with a luridness that might have its roots in record company ads for 1920s−1930s blues 78s but shoots far past them, until the pages almost seem to sweat out the alcohol and sex in the panels. There are only hints of invention — at the end, as the Rolling Stones play Johnson’s “Love in Vain” at Altamont in 1969, a hound walks across the stage — but the frames are so crowded, with faces, bodies, bottles, lights, instruments, dozens of them like tiny versions of a Thomas Hart Benton mural, it’s impossible to take them in at once. You begin to study them, and every time you blink you see something that wasn’t there before.

9) Lightning Bolt, Fantasy Empire (Thrill Jockey). Drums, bass, wah-wah: speed and words shouted out of a pit first dug in the Providence, Rhode Island noise music milieu nearly twenty years ago. Perfect, if your dreams haven’t been bad enough lately — or, with the 11 minutes and 21 seconds of “Snow White (& the Seven Dwarfs Fans),” long enough. Even if too much melody sneaks in, as if purists Brian Chippendale (drums, vocals) and Brian Gibson (bass) just couldn’t help themselves.


10) Molly Gallentine reports on Sinatra Idol Contest (Hoboken, NJ, via email). “Across the Hudson river from New York City is a one-square-mile city, birthplace of two cultural mementos: baseball and Frank Sinatra. You won’t find walking tours or statues commemorating the latter. Locals hint at the singer’s contemptuous relationship with his less-than-glamorous birthplace — and a result, reminders of Sinatra’s life in Hoboken are strangely absent. But on June 11, in a packed auditorium, Hoboken reclaimed Frank and his music once again, inviting a special pack of Sinatra sound-alikes from around the country (and Canada) to battle for the title (as judged by Mayor Dawn Zimmer and Frank’s born-and-raised second cousin, Dale Monoco). This year, the competition celebrated the centennial of Sinatra’s birth and marked the beginning of a weekend full of Hoboken-wide pop-up performances by roughly forty impersonators. Most shied away from the term impersonator — a word that would imply there was something base, kitschy, or inauthentic about their performances. Rose Cafasso, a primped and perfect ninety-three-year-old bobby-soxer, listened to her son sing songs from her past while chatting about broccoli rabe and the secrets of a long life. For many of the performers — having survived alcoholism, freak lightning strikes, cancer, and failed relationships — Frank’s music became an anthem during hard times. He may not have won the Idol competition, but Charles Stayduhar Jr.’s soulful rendition of ‘That’s Life’ became the mantra for every performer who has picked themselves up to ‘get back in the race.’ Rose made for the perfect cheerleader.”