Thursday, February 4, 2016

Musical Explanation 2/4/16: American Crime Story - The People vs. O.J. Simpson

Let us cease for another day to give praise to music and give praise to the high music of great TV. Music is the most abstract, and perhaps therefore the highest, of all arts. But all great art is capable of rising to the quality of music in which the action is flows so inevitably that it can be described no other way except 'musical'; and that art which doesn't seem so inevitable to be particularly musical is often operatic.

Seinfeld is such pure music that it's practically Bach - even if Seinfeld is the opposite of spiritual, it has all the same equanimity and precision given to the four contrapuntal voices as though perfection is being conjured before our very eyes. The Simpsons, like Mozart, goes beyond perfection, and floats about in the air with an infinite array of permutations. If The Simpsons are Mozart, then Arrested Development is Haydn, an upper-class madhouse in which the most ridiculously surreal things are always possible. The Wire is a much more modern, nihlistic kind of music - closer perhaps to Schoenberg, trying to break free of systems beyond its control, yet only further entangling itself within it. Six Feet Under is Mahler, tragicomic, obsessed by death, with every emotion intermingling freely with one another so long as it's larger than life. And of course, then there's Louie - which is Beethoven himself. Two grand solipsists, the incorruptible artists, the self-dramatizing heroes who go on living in spite of a world that actively seems to plot against them.

Mad Men, on the other hand, is pure opera, and the heavy Wagnerian stuff too, in which the archetypes we all see in our dreams discourse slowly and at length about the metaphysics of their experiences. The Sopranos is pure Puccini, with all the same outsize emotions and lusts, and the same relish for cruelty and violence. Breaking Bad is Verdi, that special operatic realm where tragically noble figures are addicted to their weaknesses. If The Simpsons is Mozart in instrumental form, then Cheers is a Mozart opera, smiling through its tears, with a perfect blend of compassion and contempt for its characters.

So far, we've only seen one episode of American Crime Story, but that episode is pure operatic Richard Strauss - the Strauss of Salome and Elektra who so artfully deals with decadent archetypes in the sleazily exploitative manner they deserve. Like those two operas and Der Rosenkavalier, it deals with cluelessly wealthy people who dance upon a volcano, blithely unaware that their trivial world of easy wealth can collapse so easily. And like so many Strauss operas, the real subject is not its characters but its audience.

From the vantage point of 2016 America, the 2000's seems like a weird interregnum. We were so concerned with the authoritarianism of the Bush years that all the persistent problems of American life took a back seat. No doubt, there yet will be a decade when we have to reckon with the put-off sins of the Bush years, but now, twenty years after the fact, America is finally coming to terms with the sins of The Nineties, and there is no greater indictment of 90's America than the OJ trial.

I'm not quite as willing as people to my Left to indict the Nineties for the mass incarceration that finally lowered crime after a quarter-century of horrific urban decline. What else was America supposed to do? What other solution was there? But even if mass incarceration temporarily solved the issue of crime, it was a deal with the devil, and ensured that millions of families would never lift themselves from poverty - the overwhelming majority of which were black.

Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Martin O'Malley, and god knows how many dozens of other would-be-statesmen, saw that there was a tradeoff to be made. The choice was stark - economic prosperity and fiscal restraint, or an attempt at real social justice. The benefits of economic prosperity would be immediate and perhaps even a moderate Democrats like President Clinton thought that the economic benefits would trickle down to the impoverished.

As Der Fersko correctly pointed out to me last night, the OJ trial virtually made Clinton's decision for him. The trial probably set back the cause of criminal justice reform by decades. To every white person in America, it was obvious that OJ Simpson was guilty. The whole trial solidified the poisonous idea in the heads of White America that Black America in some ways deserved their misfortune. It gave us all moral cover to shut our eyes to the suffering happening right next door to us. If every murder trial was anything like OJ Simpson, then, so we unconsciously reasoned, obviously every black man standing trial was guilty.

OJ became an indictment of everything about race relations in America - a soul search from which we drew exactly the wrong conclusions. It's true, no reasonable person can believe that OJ was innocent. And yet, the real people trial was us, and we were at least as guilty as he was.  

Nineties America was the most prosperous and secure country in the history of the world, yet how did we spend the political capital of being the world's sole superpower? We spent it by devoting our lives to following trivial, naval-gazing celebrity scandals. We cared only about the rich and famous, and couldn't give a fig about the poor and anonymous. We looked at all those millions who didn't share in our prosperity and security, and we yawned. Human nature is such that perhaps we were never going to do anything else, but we should never forgive ourselves for it.

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