Friday, September 13, 2013

The Time And Scope To Play

Like most of you, I have a love-hate relationship with the internet, one that hardly needs further explanation. One of the things I love, however, is having, literally at my fingertips, the ability to "go deep" into a topic that catches my fancy. 

For awhile now, my daughter has been talking about a South African rap-rave group called Die Antwoord. I'd seen creepy, striking pictures, and even read a short article about them in Rolling Stone magazine (a publication that has inexplicably started arriving in our mailbox) about a year ago, but since neither rap nor rave are my usual genres, I'd forgotten all about them.

In the aftermath of the controversial post I wrote a couple weeks ago about the controversial Miley Cyrus Video Music Awards performance, I was spurred into one of those love-hate internet sessions in which I obsessively watched everything I could about the outrageous female pop stars from my youth: Madonna, The Runaways, P.J. Harvey, Patti Smith, Bikini Kill, and especially the queen of all pop star outrageousness Wendy O. Williams (don't click if you're easily offended), reflecting on how most of them are still around in one form or another, still performing, more mature, but still walking around with the feminist street cred that goes with once having been young and outrageous. And some of them remain outrageous, just not youthfully so.

At some point, while reading through viewer comments at the end of an interview, Die Antwoord became part of the discussion, with one woman writing that a song called "Enter The Ninja" made her cry every time she watched the video. I don't usually think of the genre of rap-rave as having this sort of emotional content, so, with vague memories of my previous exposure to the act, I turned my internet research in that direction.

What I saw and heard was as strange as anything I'd come across, but I didn't get why this would make anyone cry. What I saw was a scrawny, silly-looking man passionately running through every one of the stereotypes, boasting about his physical, sexual, and artistic prowess. Calling himself "Ninja." Chest-thumping, threatening, and posturing. This was countered by a fairy-like female performer with invisible eyebrows, a bizarre haircut, looking for all the world like she might be barely 16-years old, dancing in her bedroom while calling for Ninja's protection.

As silly as it sounds, however, it was compelling enough that I watched it several more times, looking for something that could possibly trigger the emotional response of tears, but mostly because of the driving question: What the hell did I just see? I then proceeded to seek out everything I could about Die Antwoord. I found myself in an alien world held together by a jarring language of symbols, fashion, and words both disturbing and wonderful: what I often think of as "truth and beauty," the two sides of the coin of art. As I went deeper, I began to ask myself, "Is this real?" I'm not the first person to ask myself this about Die Antwoord.

Ninja, I learned, contrasting with his ludicrous insistence upon his "serious gangsta skills," is no kid at 40-years-old, explaining in part why his physical appearance in the context of Die Antwoord is so bizarre. The nymph, Yo-landi Vi$$er, is his wife, improbably in her 30's. They have a daughter and have been making anti-pop music art together for decades. (There is, supposedly, a third member of their "crew," DJ HiTek, who is portrayed in videos and interviews by a variety of people.) In creating Die Antwoord, they have embodied characters in the manner of Andy Kauffman or Sasha Baron Cohen, staying in character both on stage and in interviews, insisting, sometimes angrily (Is it real anger?), that they are who they say they are. I enjoy this kind of joke. I love that even when I think I get it, I'm still, at some level, the butt of it, that we're all the butt of it, that even the performers are the butt of their own elaborate hoax that operates just like the hoax that is most of pop culture. 

Like actual ninja's, and in keeping with the philosophy behind the yin-yang symbol they often incorporate into their work, Die Antwoord has crawled subversively inside the pop music they seek to kill, appropriating it's stereotypes and symbols, distilling them into a ridiculous and rancid brew, causing me to both laugh out loud and recoil, sometimes simultaneously. It's through this kind of fuller understanding that we then see that "Dis Iz Why I'm Hot" is a mockery of pop culture's idea of sexy, "Baby On Fire" is an hilarious exploration of gender double standards,  and "I Fink U Freaky" is a dirty, grimy, funky statement about the squeaky clean sameness of commercial pop. We understand that the barrage of penises in "Evil Boy" as a juxtaposition to the ubiquitous T&A of rap music, the good/bad morality of "Cookie Thumper," and why the lion has to eat Lady Gaga in "Fatty Boom Boom." It took several days of obsessively going deeper to let me see all of this.

Every year there are children in our preschool who are "obsessed," be it with dinosaurs, princesses, bugs, or planets. Parents worry that it will never end, that it is too all-encompassing, that it will push out everything else. They worry that little Johnny won't be capable of sharing the trains or that Suzy will hoard the dollies, and sometimes they do. It's a way of saying, as a boy once told me, in defense of his solitary work on a puzzle of the solar system, "I need to know everything!" This is how play often works. It's in the nature of freely chosen, open-ended activities to lure curious minds deeper and deeper, requiring more research, further inquiry, more science. This is how we construct understanding, how we move beyond the superficial. A teenager once joked that she hated school "because it's not about Beyonce." Well why can't it be about Beyonce? There is art in Beyonce, business, science, math, history, criticism, literacy. It's all right there because the winding, uneven path of play, unlike the straight and narrow of "school work," is holistic, inclusive, and always, always has the potential to include the whole world, including ourselves, if we're free to chose and allowed the time to explore.

I've now returned to "Enter The Ninja" and it's message about gender roles. When Yo-landi sings "I need your protection/Be my samurai," she is playing the role of defenseless, feeble female. And when the pathetic man-child Ninja rapid-fires his cringe-worthy, cliched, profanity-laced, hyper-aggressive boasts, even stopping at the bridge to ridiculously muse on the doubters who said he'd never "make it," I hear all the little boys who grow up with these impossible gender-role expectations. I think of boys growing up in ghettos, in South Africa, in America, but also even of boys like myself who grew up in pastel-colored suburbs, forced by this meme to assume an unsmiling, tough-guy demeanor, to don t-shirts featuring The Hulk or pirates or ninjas. The world needs our protection after all, but we're just little boys, frightened. But the expectations are upon us, so we have to pretend and hope no one notices that we don't really have next level gangsta skills.

That's why I now cry every time I watch the video, tears that were not comprehensible before I had the time and scope to play.

So here's the video. Please don't watch it if you are easily offended by strong language. And if you're like me and become obsessed for a few days, at least it's the weekend.

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1 comment:

Lois Goertzen said...

Thanks, your insights are always interesting. You enable me to do some thinking about various topics. This was a provocative topic.