Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hearing Babylon Two Ways (and Hearing Babylon Threeways)

Here's my paper from the recent EMP Pop Conference in Seattle. I had a wonderful time, thanks in large part to all the great folks I met. I did feel very much like a smalltown midwestern boy, though. I cannot forget from where it is that I come from.

Those looking for examples of male suspended adolescence need look no further than a man named Taime Downe. In 1987, on L.A.'s Sunset Strip, the band Faster Pussycat were busy resembling 5th grade boys, which fact constituted much of their appeal and charm. On their largely overlooked debut album, the Pussycat recorded the almost-definitive depiction of decadent Babylon, entitled "Babylon," during which lead singer Taime Downe engages in some very decadent behavior. For instance, in verse 1 he yells insults at other drivers while caught in traffic ("Boy, you is ugly and your girlfriend weighs a ton!"). In verse 2 he has sex with a woman, makes a sophomoric joke about how the woman smells with her panties off ("like she might die"). Then he hops back into the car--into another traffic jam, even!--for verse 3, which co-stars two disreputably named women, Buffy and Biffy, and two disreputably named substances, sniffy and Spanish Fly. All of this is accomplished over a rap/rock beat that sounds mostly like the Beastie Boys debut one year prior, with Downe's cartoony voice veering between barks and squeaks, some sort of carnal dervish telling poontang jokes. There's no question these guys are having more fun than the rest of us. When Swedish garage bores the Backyard Babies recorded the song in 1999, it instantly became the best song in their repertoire.

In the first line of the song Downe clearly situates Babylon in L.A., and by extension the Sunset Strip hair metal scene that was, by all accounts, a late-'80s orgiastic fairyland of sex, drugs, alcohol, and cars. So what made Downe choose "Babylon" as an appropriate name for this playland? He may have picked it up from the New York Dolls, who in 1974 led off their second album, In Too Much Too Soon, with another almost-definitive depiction of decadent Babylon, again entitled "Babylon," during which lead singer David Johansen gets pulled over for speeding and maybe does some other stuff. Really, Johansen isn't too specific about the decadent things he's doing. His Babylon is more philosophical, his generalities more sweeping, and his words less clearly articulated. Some fun Babylon facts, according to Johansen: "A Babylon girl ain't got no past." "The Babylon men gonna be a boy." "I won't be safe I won't be free 'til I'm in Babylon." In Babylon, as in Surf City and Taime Downe's car, there are "two girls for every boy." (The two in Johansen's world work as a masseuse and a dancer.) And in the part that's enunciated the clearest, the refrain, we learn an additional, crucial bit of info: Johansen always has to "get away" to Babylon. It's forever someplace else, away from humdrum everyday life, where there's maybe only one girl for every boy and no drugs. When you put the Pussycat's demented carnival of sin together with the Dolls' "I gotta get away," you get the totally-definitive vision of decadent Babylon.

This vision pops up plenty of places, from Kenneth Anger's lurid 1981 (or possibly earlier) book of ill-fated movie stars, Hollywood Babylon, to the cottage industry of similar titles that have popped up in its wake--Hotel Babylon, Fashion Babylon, Broadway Babylon, and yes, Rock 'n' Roll Babylon. This vision is in the crucial "On the Run" chapter of Chuck Eddy's Accidental Evolution of Rock 'n' Roll, which connects Johansen's girls with no past to Donna Summer's bad girls, and to the rest of the Sunset Strip milieu. And Babylon's earliest mention in Rolling Stone was not an article about reggae, but Jules Siegel's 1971 "Midnight in Babylon," a bleak profile of L.A., Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and Siegel himself that today reads like Hunter Thompson adapting The Day of the Locust after downing a bunch of sleeping pills. Says Siegel, "Too many of [L.A./Babylon's] citizens are refugees and wanderers who ran away from the old tangles of family roots and class lines... They wanted to be free..."--just like David Johansen!

But if Babylon is the place you go to get away, does it follow that it's also a place to find freedom? Because for much of its history in Western thought, Babylon has been a symbol not of freedom, but of severe government oppression. One of the central events of the Hebrew Bible is the Babylonian Empire's conquest and exile of Israel, an event that had far-reaching metaphorical implications none of us here can avoid. Essentially, we still think of Babylon through the filter of Israel's exile. Judged on a purely historical basis, the Babylonian Empire wasn't any sexier or crueler than most of her neighbors in the Ancient Near East. Babylon had a more liberal sexual culture than the Hebrews did, as you no doubt learned from snickering over Gilgamesh in World Lit class, but it wasn't especially debauched for a civilization of its or any other time. Babylon's conquest of Israel caused devastation and bloodshed, yes, but it was far less brutal or permanent than the Israelites' earlier conquest of Canaan--the Promised Land--which was, if we give historical credence to the book of Joshua, a massive God-sanctioned slaughter and scorched-earth campaign. (You know "Joshua fought the battle of Jericho"? That asshole also fought a slew of other battles and committed, in the words of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, "nothing less than genocide".) Whereas, after 50 years of exile in Babylon, the Israelites got to return to their Promised Land and rebuild, their faith and culture intact. And because of their durability, we see Babylon through their eyes, even today.

And how does Babylon look through the eyes of the Hebrew Bible? In the Bible, the word Babylon moves from being a real historical location to being a symbol for otherness or opposition. In a paper entitled "The Changing Face of Babylon in Prophetic and Apocalyptic Literature," Howard Divinity professor Alice Ogden Bellis lays out Babylon's four-stage symbolic progression through Hebrew scripture. In stages one and two, some of the earlier prophetic books, Babylon remains a literal place, an "evil empire" that's likened to a vareity of disgraced women and livestock.

It's when we move into apocalyptic literature in stage three that pure metaphor takes over. The book of Daniel is set during Israel's exile, and as such is often taken for a historical account of a brave Jew named Daniel and a godless king named Nebuchadnezzar. (Think Daniel in the lion's den.) In fact, the book was probably written three or four hundred years after the exile, in a Jewish community under the rule of the Hellenistic Empire, as a fable about maintaining Jewish identity under foreign occupation. And by the time we enter stage four, the book of Revelation, you can--and believe me, people do--read into Babylon pretty much what you want. John the Revelator, author of this ultimate apocalypse and a noted sexist pig, depicts Babylon as the "mother of all prostitutes," "drunk on the blood of the saints." Most often interpreted as Rome, the Jews' opressors du jour in the first century, John's "Whore of Babylon" symbol has also been variously decoded as Catholicism, Islam, Satanism, Jerusalem, the Soviet Union, the United States, the Statue of Liberty, anyone who's not a Jehovah's Witness, and both Barack Obama and John McCain. (I just made up those last two.) And it's a short walk from this sort of catch-all symbolism to seeing the Whore of Babylon as a stand-in for any sort of decadent behavior you can imagine--including having extramarital sex, drinking alcohol, doing drugs, and drving really fast.

But what exactly are these guys--and it's nearly always guys--doing in Babylon that's so bad? There's the sex--Taime Downe has Buffy and Biffy, Johansen has his "two girls for every boy," and in Outkast's Babylon song, Andre 3000 recounts sneaking off to the woods and dry-humping during PE class, then sums up his surprisingly puritanical feelings on sex with the line, "They call it 'horny' because it's devilish." But none of this sex is forced or adulterous, and Pussycat and the Dolls seem to be doing it with consenting adults. The drinking and drugs are a little worse--in the Outkast song, Andre is born a crack baby, and Faster Pussycat appear to be doing some of their drugs while caught in traffic, which I cannot in good conscience endorse. But if you look at a song like "Sunset and Babylon," by the LA hair metal band WASP, the level of debauchery is really laughable. WASP, of course, were the guys that so excited Tipper Gore and the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC) with their 1984 song "Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)". Ten years later, lead singer Blackie Lawless was reduced to bragging about all-night parties at the mythical intersection of Sunset and Babylon, his "hand firmly wrapped around a fifth of Bacardi," and inviting his listeners, "Just come on down and we'll get crude." And it's not even like he's drinking while driving--his song takes place safely inside the Rainbow Bar and Grill! I hear the Babylonian surf and turf is fantastic.

Let's face it--in the grand scheme of all the decadent things you could be doing, the least scandalous are probably consensual sex, drinking liquor, and taking limited amounts of recreational drugs. Our attitude toward such behaviors should properly recall that of Joan, the sensible sister in Philip Roth's My Life as a Man. After her brother Peppy confesses to some narcissistic peccadilloes involving his girlfriend and a zucchini, Joan responds:

"To have asked a pretty girl to have intercourse with a zucchini in your presence is morally inconsequential... You announce it... with all the bravado of a naughty boy who knows he has done wrong and now awaits with bated breath his punishment. Wrong, Peppy, is an ice pick, not a garden vegetable; wrong is by force or with children."

Not surprisingly, Steely Dan pick up on this theme of misplaced wrongness, wink, and run with it in their 1980 song "Babylon Sisters." Their narrator is a swanky old dude who enjoys drinking Kirschwasser from a shell and is hooking up with two golddigging babes on the Sunset Strip. The song's perverse irony comes from the fact that we know the girls are just in it for cheap thrills, but the narrator wants love, or some reasonable facsimile. And so he encourages the Babylon sisters to keep shaking it, presumably forever, or at least far into the night.

By calling his two mistresses "Babylon sisters," our creepy narrator shorthands what he perceives as the sordidness of the affair. Maybe he's Taime Downe, only 20 years older and wistful for the traffic jams of his youth. So he names his young charges after Babylon to convince himself that having a threesome is still wild, wild stuff. But really, it's only wild if you need it to be. Whenever I read a rapper quoted about threesomes, he sounds very nonchalant, if encouraging:

50 Cent promotes the merits of threesomes
(, June 9, 2006)
This just in: 50 Cent is a simple man and he likes to double dip.
In an interview with MTV this week, Fiddy professed his love for threesomes, saying that everyone should try a ménage a trois at some point.
"If you can get a threesome, I'd say try it," he said. "Well maybe it's just me. I'm a simple man and a simple man would say: 'What's better than one good woman? Two!' You see what I mean?"

Fiddy is neither plagued by transgressive shame nor overcome with sensory delight. It's like he's recommending a particularly successful low-yield bond or something.

The celebratory hedonism of rock 'n' roll has always been calculated, at least in part, to offend the squares. From Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly" to Sunset Strip songs like Warrant's "Cherry Pie" and WASP's aforementioned "Animal," you hear the delight in bodily pleasure for its own sake, along with the peripheral delight in upsetting people like your parents and the PMRC or the US Congress, people who get far too worked up over the little matter of sex. Like Fiddy and his threesomes, those songs know they're not doing anything wrong, and they only implicitly challenge anyone who'd argue otherwise. But when singers throw the word "Babylon" into the mix, they start to protest too much. If you envision your pleasurable activity as part of someplace called Babylon, you acknowledge that there might in fact be something transgressive about it, something that runs counter to societal norms. Thus, your parents and Congress are no longer just tight-assed killjoys who don't understand the God-given wonder of fucking like a beast--rather, they become the face of acceptable society, and your pleasure violates that society's standards. In other words, calling your pleasure "Babylon" plays right into the hands of those who disapprove, because it gives them unearned moral legitimacy. While you're still free to delight in bodily pleasure, that pleasure now makes you a transgressor in your own mind, when in fact you're probably not doing anything wrong. (Unless you're taking sniffy in your car--don't do that.)

But who are the people that disapprove of all these Babylonian moral lapses? Parents, sure, but they just don't understand, and their disapproval doesn't reach very far. There's Congress and other politicians, when they're roused into one of their periodic furies over inappropriate rap and rock lyrics, media violence, and other such horrors. There are political action committees like the fundamentalist American Family Association, whose homepage encourages me to boycott Pepsi for sponsoring Family Guy and the gay lifestyle, while simultaneously asking me to participate in something called a Taxed Enough Already, or TEA, Party Protest to express my outrage over President Obama's wealth-redistribution plans. In fact, if you add up all these authoritarian figures--the government, the network of influence peddlers surrounding the government, organized Christianity--and if you throw in the military and the corporations who, by and large, would stand to benefit from a successful TEA Party Protest, you get a power structure that looks very close to what Bob Marley called "Babylon System."

Remember Babylon's symbolic progression, from actual historical place to all-purpose symbolic other? My friend, education professor Charity Jennings, has usefully described the Babylon symbol as "the civilization that runs counter to some correct, better, or Right civilization in which one is supposed to exist." That can mean Faster Pussycat's debauched madhouse of wanton pleasures, sure. But it also means that Babylon can be an oppressive empire, the place that Rastafarians vow to "chant down," the strange land beside whose rivers the Melodians and Boney M and Sinead O'Connor can't sing their songs. And if you combine the two, say during some congressional hearing featuring testimony from Frank Zappa or David Banner, you get the bizarre spectacle of imperial Babylon ("the Man," Congress) condemning a place with the same symbolic name, decadent Babylon. At the very least, this should make us wonder about the empire's role in perpetuating the decadence.

This isn't a new point. It's pretty much the central thesis of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, a 2004 analysis of the Republican Party's shotgun marriage between unfettered market economics and conservative social values. Since Frank's book is pretty high-profile I won't rehash much of it, except to point out that in his view, the Republican Party's market interests have used values-driven populist voters to nurture a culture war. While the market interests get rich off values-driven votes, the values-voters' pet issues--restricting abortion and gay marriage, and generally forestalling the coarsening of the entertainment industry--go nowhere and have little hope of success. Now, five years later, with the Republican Party and the market currently in disarray, I should also point out that neither Frank nor the Babylon symbol lets Democrats, or any organized power system, off the hook. Regimes, whether Bushian or Obaman, will find ways to get what they want, sometimes through oppressive means. And when they're getting what they want at our expense, they'll find ways to take our eyes off the ball.

This connection is fully realized in some Babylon songs--for instance, "California Babylon," by California punks the Transplants, depicts a teenage "bad girl" who moves to Hollywood to become a star, and instead can't find work and does a lot of drugs. The other two verses show us striking workers and street fights, and the Transplants sum up all of this--the drugs, the violence, and the market-driven Hollywood glamour that's guaranteed to leave lots of people in the shadows--as "California Babylon." But you can also make the connection if you read between the lines of other Babylon songs. Take the traffic in all those songs I mentioned earlier--WASP and the Dan drive around congested Sunset Boulevard, David Johansen gets pulled over for speeding, and Taime Downe spends most of his song caught in traffic jams. Is it too much to ask that these guys lobby for some decent public transportation? Well, maybe they would, if they weren't so invested in being bad boys. But Babylon the empire has convinced them that decadent Babylon is something they need to fight for. And so Taime Downe gleefully enlarges his carbon footprint, while I'm sure he'd have just as much fun doing Spanish Fly, sniffy, and Buffy and Biffy during a nice, long ride on the Metro Rail.

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