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Published: Wed, 24 May 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Wed, 24 May 2017 17:51:30 -0400

 



Police Investigate a Cult Killing; It Turns Out to Be a Rock Video

Fri, 12 May 2017 12:01:00 -0400

(image) "It all began one peaceful Michigan morning," narrator Rafael Abramovitz explains, "when a farmer named Robert Reed woke up to check on his corn field. Farmer Reed looked up towards the sun that morning and saw something strange floating across the sky. It wasn't the usual flock of Canadian Geese. It looked more like a UFO, if you ask him."

So begins the tale of the time the FBI investigated the death of a man who was in fact still alive, as told by the tabloid show Hard Copy. It was 1989. The UFO turned out to be some weather balloons with a Super 8 camera attached. After they landed on his farm, Reed turned his find over to the police, thinking it might be a surveillance camera searching for marijuana. When the cops developed the film, they discovered what they took to be a cult murder or some similarly grisly crime.

A yearlong investigation followed, and in the course of it the FBI was called in. Eventually, the police figured out the truth: The supposed snuff film was actually lost footage from a Nine Inch Nails video. The crew had attached the camera to the balloons to get some low-tech aerial shots, and their helium cinematographers then blew away. The "murder victim" was Trent Reznor, and he was very much alive. Indeed, he was somewhat famous.

In the Hard Copy report, Reznor is amused by the whole thing. The cop they spoke with also seems a little amused. The one person trying very hard not to seem amused by the mistake is Abramovitz, the reporter, who's intent on making Reznor the villain of the piece, blaming him for a "wasted year of police work that could have gone into solving some real crimes." And if Abramovitz had anything to do with the tongue-in-cheek "reenactments" that accompany his narration, I suspect that deep down he was chuckling about it too.

The report aired in 1991, complete with some closing comments about the alleged dangers of rock videos. It is a work of art:

src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/5gV8yQc0m7g" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">

(Via Dangerous Minds. For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)




Boujee, Bougie, Bourgie: Who's Appropriating Whose Culture? An Answer in 12 Songs

Fri, 21 Apr 2017 13:45:00 -0400

In order to empower "a culture of controversy prevention," administrators at American University (AU) prohibited the school's Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity from calling its badminton fundraiser "Bad(minton) and Boujee," a pun on the popular Migos song "Bad and Boujee." AU officials told the frat that them using the word boujee might be seen as "appropriating culture." "Which culture?" asks Catherine Rampell at The Washington Post. "Latin? French? Marxist? Urban hip-hop? Maybe their own?" Administrators weren't clear. But as Rampell notes, the term boujee comes from the Latin "burgus," which described a castle or fortified town. This evolved into the French "bourgeois," for people who live in town rather than the countryside. Town dwellers were more likely to engage in commerce and craftsmanship, and so rose over time to achieve middle-class incomes. That's why Karl Marx later used the term to derisively refer to the class that upheld capitalism. Over time, "bourgeois" morphed into a more generic description of middle-class (and eventually upper-middle-class) materialism and obsession with respectability. More recently, "bourgeois" was shortened to the colloquial "bourgie ," alternately spelled "bougie" or "boujee," used disdainfully to describe upper-middle-class or high-end tastes (driving your Prius to Trader Joe's after yoga class, for example). The "boujee" variation is common when referring to middle-class or upwardly mobile blacks, as in the Migos song. That's hardly this spelling's exclusive usage, though, as is evident from its entries in the crowd-sourced slang glossary Urban Dictionary. So, in a way, "boujee" is indeed an appropriation — or rather an appropriation of an appropriation of an appropriation. That's how language works. It's fluid, evolving, constantly taking from other tongues, dialects and usages. Did administrators really consider all this? Probably not, considering their refusal to articulate who was appropriating what from whom and emphasis on "controversy prevention." More likely, they just heard "frat event named after rap song" and decided to act out of that bureaucratic favorite, an abundance of caution. As Freddie de Boer notes on Facebook, the AU situation nicely illustrates how students, regardless of their ideology, "are powerless in the face of a relentless pink police state that renders every unruly impulse anodyne and unchallenging through an architecture of limitless conflict avoidance. Neither the black bloc nor the alt right can possibly defeat the army of chief litigation officers who have machined the controversy-avoidance mechanism to perfection." But back to bourgie. Google defines it as "exhibiting qualities attributed to the middle class, especially pretentiousness or conventionality." Yet the term is used differently in different subcultures—the people and milieu that Ke$ha calls bougie are different than those that the guys of Migos do, to keep in the musical vein. And they're both shades off from the "Bourgie, Bourgie" folks sung about by Gladys Knight and the Pips in their 1980 disco hit, or those conjured in The Submarines 2008 indie-pop "You, Me and the Bourgeoisie," or Discobitch's 2009 "C'est Beau La Bourgeoisie," or Jacques Brel's 1962 "Les Bourgeois," or Prince's 2013 "Da Bourgeoisie." I've heard white Midwesterners use bougie to describe anything associated with hipsters/liberals/The Coastal Elite, and liberal coastal hipsters use it to describe anything that might be quintessentially suburban or "basic." Sometimes bourgie might be a big-ass McMansion, sometimes a pumpkin spice latter, a snotty attitude, a $10 burger, Manuka honey lozenges, Sheryl Sandberg-style feminists, picnicking on a first date, or ordering first-date food that's too fancy. So, yes, the term might mean certain things in American black culture that it doesn't among lower-class white Ohioans, leftist academics, or French techno bands, and vice versa. But whether you spell it bougie or bourgie or boujee, the underlying concept is the same; it's simply that the precis[...]



Meet Eric July

Thu, 20 Apr 2017 07:00:00 -0400

It starts out as a typical music video. A camera follows a rapper into an abandoned warehouse with urban hieroglyphs spray-painted on the walls. Inside, artists thrash their heads in time to a Richter-magnitude rock riff. A guitarist dressed like a skateboard punk leaps into the air as if performing a half-pipe aerial. But this is no ordinary rap-metal group. Listen close and you'll hear the black M.C., Eric July, rapping about how taxes are theft: "They say, 'Who's going to build the roads?' without taxation / So you give them a reason to confiscate my payments / And that's exactly what the state needs / for you to think you need them." This is Backwordz, a band that bills itself as "the libertarian Rage Against the Machine." The song in the aforementioned video is called "Statism," and it appears on the Dallas quartet's debut album, Veracity. Backwordz recently signed to Stay Sick Recordings, the record label of Chris Fronzak, singer of the immensely popular metalcore band Attila. Fronz boosted Backwordz's profile by guesting on another single. The video for that one, titled "Self Ownership," depicts a disillusioned government employee telling protesters outside city hall that politicians won't save them. Other songs on the album, which sold more than 3,000 copies in its first week, rail against handouts and preach self-reliance. It's music that won't be showing up on the Bernie Sanders Spotify playlist anytime soon. Last fall, Stephen Humphries talked to July about his intellectual journey from Obama supporter to advocate for liberty. Reason: Tell me about your upbringing and how you wound up at the University of Memphis on a track and field scholarship. July: It's just a typical story: Young black kid, no father around, ends up being a knucklehead. My mother was working two or three jobs at a time just for me. I was getting in trouble a lot. She put me in Mansfield Summit [secondary school in Arlington, Texas]. She gave me her car to drive me out there to go to a much better school. It's funny, because we [libertarians] talk about school choice. We had to go through back ways in order to get admitted into a school by using other people's addresses. I was gangbanging. I never really got into the thing of selling drugs and wasn't around people that did all that. But I never turned down a fight. I was beefing on people because they were on another side of the city. It was that childish. I saw a lot of people that I would hang around get shot and killed. The person I was dating...ended up getting put in harm's way. Some guys rolled up on us when I was just hanging out, and I thought, "If they start shooting at me or they jump me, she's right here with me." The reality really set in. It was a life-changing experience. During the latter half of my senior year...I wanted to make a change. I was a good track runner. Track and field was my ticket out of the boneheaded stuff I was doing in high school. You campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008. What's your view him and the legacy he's left? I look back at my photos of Barack shirts and it's so embarrassing! The thing that was attractive to me was the same thing that was attractive to a lot of young black folks in college—that he was a black guy. He had the swagger and he was one of us. The legacy he left us is [bad] not just from an economic standpoint with precedents like Obamacare. He expanded government, expanded power, he was a warmonger, and he bombed more countries than [George W.] Bush. But because he was one of us, we didn't hammer him like we did Bush. Tell me about how and when you became a libertarian. I always credit economics. I had never heard the word libertarian until I went to college, [but] I wanted to know about black economists. I had a friend at the time, Bab, who was going through that same phase of getting interested in things outside of the box that we tend to fall in because we're black. He would say, "Have you heard of this guy Thomas Sowell?" In getting more knowledgeable about him and his ideas,[...]



Donald Trump's Fantasy World (Reason Podcast)

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 10:30:00 -0400

"We're using the rhetoric of cuts, and fiscal responsibility, and Republicans pairing things down to the bone for a budget that's not actually smaller than its predecessors," says Reason magazine Editor in Chief Katherine Mangu-Ward.

And thus we lose.

On our latest Reason podcast, Mangu-Ward, Matt Welch, and Nick Gillespie discuss a preliminary federal budget that "takes the things that lefties like and dumps it in to the things that righties like;" the "strangulation of Big Bird in his nest;" the existential despair at three-year-old birthday parties in Washington, D.C.; Jeff Bezos and the coming of the robot overlords; Chuck Berry as our cultural Apollo project (or is it Wikipedia?); the coming, extended, nauseating theater of the Gorsuch hearing; and the greatness of pop music as "an endless parade of freaks differentiating themselves."

Click below to listen to the conversation—or subscribe to our podcast at iTunes and never miss an episode.

src="https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/313470559&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0">

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Remix Culture Meets the Scolds

Fri, 24 Feb 2017 09:30:00 -0500

(image) These days the internet is littered with political remix videos, but they were still novel when Don Was made "Read My Lips" in 1992. So PBS aired the item—which dinged President George H.W. Bush for breaking his no-new-taxes pledge, among other complaints—and then invited a pair of eminences to discuss this strange new thing they'd just witnessed.

The video itself is only mildly interesting—it may be an early political remix, but it wasn't the first and it's far from the best. But the roundtable is pretty amazing to watch today. Bill Moyers opens, in his TV-for-people-who-say-they-hate-TV way, by asking what "happens to the political sensibilities of young people watching a political discourse like that." The publisher of The Hotline replies that the video "debases the process"; the dean of the Annenberg School for Communication calls it an "invitation to cynicism that I think is very unhealthy." And they both go on from there, condemning in advance the entire media landscape of 2017. I'm not sure 1992 has ever felt as distant as it does while I'm watching this:

src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/gvmrLuw4l0g" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)




Songs of the Presidents

Mon, 20 Feb 2017 09:40:00 -0500

Usually we mark Presidents' Day here with some sort of quiz or game, but this year I thought I'd play DJ instead. Below you'll find some songs about our nation's chief execs, from Washington to Trump. Needless to say, this just scratches the surface of all the presidentially themed music out there; you are encouraged to recommend more tracks in the comments. George Washington Cox and Combes, "Washington" Not safe for work. Possibly not historically accurate in every respect either. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/sbRom1Rz8OA" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Abraham Lincoln Camper Van Beethoven, "(I Don't Wanna Go to the) Lincoln Shrine" An ode to a boring field trip. src="https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/308614650&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0"> Franklin Pierce The Two Man Gentlemen Band, "Franklin Pierce" The saddest song on the list, but only if you listen to the words. The same duo did a ditty about Taft too. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/BV_ByY7O9yE" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> James Garfield Johnny Cash, "Mr. Garfield" An assassination ballad. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/rJbTkiYpszs" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> William McKinley Bill Monroe, "White House Blues" Another assassination ballad. Vassar Clements later revamped it for the presidents of the 1970s; to hear that version, go here and jump to the 5:00 mark. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/QqrN9TBmfZQ" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> John F. Kennedy Steinski & the Mass Media, "The Motorcade Sped On" Yet another assassination. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/JjyFwbSNh4o" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Richard Nixon Margo Guryan, "The Hum" From Dallas to Watergate. This was the first of Guryan's trilogy of songs inspired by the Nixon scandals; you can hear her whole trio here. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/V0HrmaeiP8c" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Gerald Ford James Brown, "Funky President" The lyrics defy interpretation, but Brown insists that the song's about Ford. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/MivxFXsJyx4" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Jimmy Carter Blue Mountain, "Jimmy Carter" Carter gets the heroic-ballad treatment. Strangely catchy. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/OVFuyehlLlQ" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Ronald Reagan MDC, "Bye Bye Ronnie" Reagan has gotten the heroic-ballad treatment too—check this out—but the guy inspired something like 60 percent of the punk records of the '80s; it seems wrong to go with any other genre here. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/lmCgd5k6SzU" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Barack Obama Mariachi Aguilas de Mexico, "Viva Obama!" A bid for the Latino vote. This musical ad from the 2008 Texas primary fascinated me so much that I interviewed an anthropologist about it. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/0fd-MVU4vtU" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> Donald Trump Ice-T featuring Rhyme Syndicate, "My Word Is Bond" I'm wrapping up with this one because of the lyric at the 3:39 mark: "Yo Ice, I did a concert in the White House/And after that me and Donald Trump hung out." This record is from 1989, people. The signs were all there; we just weren't prepared to understand them. src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/cOmBTX076M4" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">[...]



Great Balls of Fire, Sun Records Puts on a Show

Fri, 17 Feb 2017 15:00:00 -0500

The Good Fight. CBS. Sunday, February 19, 8 p.m. Sun Records. CMT. Thursday, February 23, 10 p.m. "All rock 'n' roll came out of Sun Records!" declares Jerry Lee Lewis in the opening moments of CMT's bopping new miniseries. Like a lot of things in Sun Records, it's not quite true, but you'll be too busy dancing to care. Sun Records rocks! Filling out the early-1950s birth certificate of rock 'n' roll is no easy task. Did the water break in Chicago, where Chuck Berry was underlining his tone poems about the lives of an emerging demographic, the teenagers, with a jangling guitar? Or Philadelphia, where Bill Haley was punching up western swing music with machine-gun saxophone lines? Or West Texas, where Buddy Holly's nerd glasses distracted parents from his ragged cries to their kids to rave on? Memphis, perched just above the Mississippi Delta at a strategic spot where icy bluesmen and hillbilly shouters were bound to collide, has as good a claim as any of them. And Sam Phillips, owner of the corner-store Sun Records, if not the father of rock 'n' roll, was surely its midwife. Phillips in 1951 cut what is perhaps the first rock 'n' roll record, Jackie Brenston's Rocket 88 (though fans of Wynonie Harris' 1949 Good Rockin' Tonight will argue the point unto death and beyond). He discovered and signed Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, then eventually lost them all because his mom-and-pop business instincts never rose to the epic level of his artistic vision. Three generations past the rise of rock 'n' roll, the thrill of its rise—the most exciting cultural revolution in American history—is in danger of being forgotten in an age of fans who don't know who Paul McCartney or Wings are, much less that he was in a band before that. But Sun Records is more than up to the task of its tale. The 10-episode miniseries starts out in 1951, just as Phillips is turning away from a successful career as a radio-station engineer to concentrate on his bandbox recording studio. Moving away from his bread-and-butter business of taping funerals and weddings, Phillips starts encouraging musical acts he spots in the down-and-dirty clubs along Beale Street, the main artery of Memphis' black nightlife. But his efforts are met with relentless hostility by record distributors, radio stations, parents and even his own wife. "I swear I heard the heavens open up," he exclaims as he plays his newest record for his wife. Sniffs she: "Sounds like the gate to Hell to me." Intercut with Phillips' story in Memphis are scenes of simmering discontent from a restless post-war generation. In rural Arkansas, a teenage Johnny Cash is trying to escape not only the fields where his parents sharecrop, but the dead-end schools where the three R's are reading, writing and the road to Detroit in hopes of a job on an automobile assembly line. In Louisiana, an adolescent Jerry Lee Lewis and his priapic-TV-evangelist-to-be cousin Jimmy Swaggart are sneaking into whorehouses to ogle the girls and, in the process, inadvertently picking up a thing or two about jump-blues piano. Back in a public-housing project, shy high-school kid Elvis Presley's cultural tourism is taking the opposite direction: He's slipping away from sermons at his own church to listen to the gospel singing at a black congregation on the other side of town. And in Nashville, Presley's soon-to-be manager, carny barker Tom Parker, has hustled his way from a gig with nickel-a-peek dancing ducks ("You shoot 'em! You eat 'em! You chase 'em around the yard! You see 'em in the pool! But you ain't never seen 'em dance!") to promoting country crooner Eddy Arnold. The backdrops to the inexorable march of these characters toward a rendezvous with musical destiny are the racially constricted South, still strictly segregated right down to the water-fountain level, and the music industry, locked in its own straitjacke[...]



When Play Drives Progress

Thu, 16 Feb 2017 06:00:00 -0500

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, by Steven Johnson, Riverhead Books, 322 pages, $30 At the 1996 Republican convention, Newt Gingrich gave what the editors of The Weekly Standard condemned as "the worst and most embarrassing speech of his career." Pulling Olympic gold medalist Kent Steffes up on stage, the speaker of the House and leader of the Republican Revolution sang the praises of the unplanned creativity that had produced…beach volleyball. "There's a whole new world of opportunity opening up that didn't exist 30 or 50 years ago—and no bureaucrat would have invented it," he said. "That's what freedom is all about." Yikes. Newt obviously didn't get the memo. Conservatives weren't supposed to celebrate beach volleyball. They were supposed to be serious, to praise hard work, self-restraint, and small-town virtues—"God, family, honor, duty, country," as nominee Bob Dole said in his convention speech. Not fun in the sun. Or anything else spontaneous and creative, especially if it came out of California. "Locating the spirit of American freedom in Olympic beach volleyball," the Standard said, was completely off-message. (Never mind that the convention crowd cheered.) I highlighted this strange political moment in my book The Future and Its Enemies, published two years later, because it captured an important clash of worldviews. On one side were those who celebrated entrepreneurship, spontaneity, innovation, and the market's ability to produce new pleasures. On the other were those who believed that prosperity flowed from diligence, thrift, and self-denial, and worried that too much fun threatened to destroy culture, markets, government, and all things good and true. The latter view, particularly dear to neoconservatives, I dubbed the "repression theory of progress." Best articulated in Daniel Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, which built on Max Weber's idea of the Protestant ethic, the repression theory predicted that consumer culture's emphasis on "play, fun, display, and pleasure" would ultimately undermine the whole system. Capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. Steven Johnson does not buy the repression theory of progress. Nor does he accept its counterpart on the left, where technology and markets equal oppression and drudgery. A man of the center-left, he is a classic dynamist: a genuine liberal who appreciates the power of inventions and institutions that emerge from the bottom up. In Wonderland, Johnson, whose previous works include How We Got to Now (the basis for a PBS series) and Where Good Ideas Come From, explores the playful sources of innovation. "When human beings create and share experiences designed to delight or amaze," he writes, "they often end up transforming society in more dramatic ways than people focused on more utilitarian concerns. We owe a great deal of the modern world to people doggedly trying to solve a high-minded problem: how to construct an internal combustion engine or manufacture vaccines in large quantities. But a surprising amount of modernity has its roots in another kind of activity: people mucking around with magic, toys, games, and other seemingly idle pastimes." Johnson is not a theorist. He never attempts to define play or to clarify why he highlights some experiences designed to delight or amaze rather than others. (Why so little on sports in a chapter on games? Why so down on the automobile? Why spices rather than, say, dyes and pigments? In a resolutely global and multicultural work, why so little on China?) He doesn't separate playful forms of consumption from playful forms of production, nor does he try to explain why some types of play lead to bigger things while others are simply ephemeral fun. He mines the scholarly literature efficiently but superficially, telling enjoyable stories without worrying about debates over, say, exactly wh[...]



The Donald Trump of Texas

Fri, 20 Jan 2017 13:05:00 -0500

There is precedent for this president. There was another man who leapt directly from pop culture into politics, using showmanship and populist rhetoric to draw huge crowds to his rallies while the pundits pooh-poohed his chances of winning. He was a businessman and radio star named Wilbert Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, and he was elected governor of Texas in that state's bizarre election of 1938. I wrote about O'Daniel in a Reason story about a year ago. With Donald Trump now assuming the presidency, it's a good moment to remember a man whose rise looks a lot like Trump's: When it became clear that something big was afoot, [newspaper writers] argued that no one could tell whether the crowds consisted of supporters or just gawkers. Did those mobs actually agree with O'Daniel's vague platform? the pundits asked. Or were they only there to enjoy, in the words of the syndicated columnists Drew Pearson and Robert Allen, "a mellifluous radio voice that women gush over and a hill-billy band that delights both young and old"? When the Star-Telegram finally acknowledged that Pappy was attracting "larger and more enthusiastic crowds than any other candidate," it added that many members of those audiences were nonvoters and wondered whether the movement was a "bubble." ...and whose reign may well turn out to look like Trump's as well: When re-election time rolled around in 1940...he hadn't gotten much done at all other than alienate a great deal of Austin. That and start a newspaper. Declaring that "no recent governor has been so unfairly dealt with as the press has dealt with me," he launched The W. Lee O'Daniel News. There and on his radio show, he blamed his failures on evil outside forces—and not just the big failures. When two musicians quit his band, Pappy informed his listeners that "the gang of professional politicians" had "struck another blow at your governor." The sunny side of Pappy's populism was starting to give way to something darker. There are some notable differences as well, starting with the contrast between O'Daniel's moralistic persona and Trump's hedonism. It's hard to imagine Pappy bragging that he grabbed anyone "by the pussy." (O'Daniel's original band, the Light Crust Doughboys, did record a double-entendre song called "Pussy, Pussy, Pussy." But that was after the group and the governor had parted ways.) Still, the parallels are pretty strong, and I've just scratched the surface of them here. To see more of them, you can read my article. In the meantime, since it's Inauguration Day, here is O'Daniel's radio broadcast from August 3, 1941. The governor had just won a special election to the U.S. Senate, and this show went out the day before he took his oath of office: src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/inJQ7swZxuw" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> And here, along with a nice collection of photos from O'Daniel's career, is Pappy's band playing his theme song, "Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy": src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/w2RlFA8tSq0" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0"> One more tidbit for you, though this one isn't a parallel so much as it's a strange coincidence. When O'Daniel's band recorded "Please Pass the Biscuits," the singer on the record was named Leon Huff. Many years later, another musician named Leon Huff co-wrote a tune called "For the Love of Money"; and many years after that, "For the Love of Money" became the theme song for a show called The Apprentice, hosted by one Donald Trump. (For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)[...]



SCOTUS Seems Inclined to Nix the Ban on 'Disparaging' Trademarks

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 09:15:00 -0500

Comments during yesterday's oral argument in Lee v. Tam, a First Amendment case in which an Asian-American dance rock band called The Slants is challenging the federal ban on registration of "disparaging" trademarks, suggest a majority of the Supreme Court is inclined to overturn the 71-year-old rule. In addition to skeptical questions from three conservative justices, Deputy Solicitor General Malcom Stewart's defense of the trademark policy faced strong challenges from two left-leaning justices that he had trouble countering. Justice Stephen Breyer asked Stewart to identify a legitimate government interest served by the Lanham Act clause barring registration of trademarks that "may disparage...persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols." Stewart said the rule is aimed at avoiding terms that "distract the consumer from the intended purpose of the trademark qua trademark, which is to identify [the] source" of the product or service. Breyer was clearly not satisfied by that response, saying he could come up with "perhaps 50,000 examples of instances where the space the trademark provides is used for very distracting messages, probably as much [as] or more so than the one at issue." Later Breyer repeatedly summarized Stewart's position in a way that suggested he did not think much of it. Justice Elena Kagan emphasized that the disparagement clause draws a distinction based on viewpoint, since it allows positive messages but prohibits negative ones. "I always thought that government programs were subject to one extremely important constraint, which is that they can't make distinctions based on viewpoint," she said. Under the ban challenged by The Slants, she noted, "you can say good things about some person or group, but you can't say bad things about some person or group....I would have thought that that was a fairly classic case of viewpoint discrimination." Stewart conceded that a trademark restriction approving praise of politicians but forbidding criticism of them would constitute viewpoint-based discrimination. But he argued that the breadth of the disparagement rule, which applies to all groups of people, makes it less problematic because it means the government is not trying to suppress specific messages. "That's like saying it does so much viewpoint-based discrimination that it becomes all right," a skeptical Kagan replied. The point is crucial because viewpoint-based speech regulation is subject to "strict scrutiny," which makes it presumptively unconstitutional. It can pass muster only if it is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. Even if we assume that preventing consumer distraction "from the intended purpose of the trademark qua trademark" is a compelling government interest, a rule that applies only to disparagement is clearly not narrowly tailored. Stewart himself conceded that the disparagement rule cannot survive strict scrutiny, meaning it will be upheld only if the Court decides it is not a viewpoint-based speech regulation. The government maintains that the disparagement clause is not really a speech regulation because it merely sets a requirement for obtaining benefits the government has no obligation to provide. Chief Justice John Roberts was unpersuaded. "I'm concerned that your government program argument is circular," he said. "The claim is you're not registering...my mark because it's disparaging, and your answer is, 'Well, we run a program that doesn't include disparaging trademarks, so that's why you're excluded.'" Pressed by Justice Samuel Alito, Stewart admitted that "it would be unconstitutional to deny copyright protection" for a book that was deemed disparaging. But he argued that copyright "is much more tied to First Amendment values" than trademark because "the incentivization of free expression" is [...]



‘The Slants’: The Asian-American Band Name the Government Says Is Too Racist to Trademark!

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 16:16:00 -0500

Can the U.S. Patent Office deny trademark requests it deems disparaging or offensive, or is that a violation of the First Amendment? The Supreme Court will decide in the case of Lee v. Tam, which began oral arguments today.

The case, which Jacob Sullum wrote about earlier today, centers around an Asian-American rock group called "The Slants," which attempted to trademark its name in 2011 but was denied on the grounds that it was offensive.

"When I first heard about this," the band's founder and bassist Simon Tam told Reason's Meredith Bragg, "I though it was a practical joke."

Ironically, Tam says, the name was intended "to flip the slur around" and convey a "positive, self-empowering" message to fans.

Interview by Meredith Bragg. Cameras by Joshua Swain and Mark McDaniel, who also edited the video. Music by The Slants.

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Offensive Trademarks Are Free Speech

Wed, 18 Jan 2017 00:01:00 -0500

In 2004 the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office agreed to register Heeb as the name of a magazine covering Jewish culture. Four years later, the PTO refused to register Heeb as the name of a clothing line conceived by the magazine's publishers, because the term is "a highly disparaging reference to the Jewish people." Such puzzling inconsistency is par for the course at the PTO, which since 1946 has been charged with blocking registration of trademarks that "may disparage...persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt, or disrepute." A case the Supreme Court will hear today could put an end to that vain, vague, and highly subjective enterprise, which sacrifices freedom of speech on the altar of political correctness. The case involves an Asian-American dance rock band called The Slants, a name that self-consciously repurposes a racial slur. In 2011 the band's founder, Simon Tam, tried to register the name but was rejected by a PTO examiner who deemed it disparaging to "persons of Asian descent." An administrative appeals board affirmed that decision, even while conceding that the band's name was "an attempt not to disparage, but rather to wrest 'ownership' of the term from those who might use it with the intent to disparage." The board said "the fact that applicant has good intentions underlying the use of the term does not obviate the fact that a substantial composite of the referenced group find the term objectionable." In 2015 a federal appeals court agreed that Tam "may offend members of his community with his use of the mark" but noted that "the First Amendment protects even hurtful speech." The court ruled that the ban on registration of disparaging trademarks amounts to viewpoint-based speech regulation, which the Supreme Court has said is constitutional only if it is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. The interest in this case—protecting the feelings of people who might be offended by an outré trademark—does not even qualify as legitimate, let alone compelling. The PTO maintains that it's not really regulating speech, since Tam is free to call his band whatever he wants. But denying him the trademark-protecting benefits of registration clearly imposes a burden on his speech, analogous to denying copyright registration for a book that bothers a bureaucrat. The PTO also argues that trademark registration should be viewed as government speech, similar to messages on license plates. But as the Cato Institute notes in a friend-of-the-court brief (which was joined by the Reason Foundation, publisher of this website), that contention is pretty implausible when the list of registered trademarks "includes such hallowed brands as 'Capitalism Sucks Donkey Balls' and 'Take Yo Panties Off.'" Those examples also appear in a brief filed by the corporate owner of the Washington Redskins, which is engaged in its own legal battle over an allegedly disparaging trademark. The brief lists hundreds of arguably disparaging registered trademarks, including band names such as N.W.A., White Trash Cowboys, Whores From Hell, Cholos on Acid, The Pricks, Barenaked Ladies, and The Roast Beef Curtains. Since disparagement is in the eye of the beholder, registration decisions vary with the moods and sensibilities of the PTO's examiners. It is therefore not surprising that "the PTO's record of trademark registrations and denials often appears arbitrary and is rife with inconsistency," as the appeals court found. Among other examples, the court noted that "the PTO denied the mark HAVE YOU HEARD SATAN IS A REPUBLICAN because it disparaged the Republican Party…but did not find the mark THE DEVIL IS A DEMOCRAT disparaging." The PTO "registered the mark FAGDOG three times and[...]



Nat Hentoff, 1925–2017

Sun, 08 Jan 2017 09:59:00 -0500

Nat Hentoff, the prolific critic, journalist, and civil libertarian, passed away yesterday at age 91. His son Nick reports that he "died surrounded by family listening to Billie Holiday," which I suspect is exactly how he wanted to go. Hentoff wrote many things, from young adult novels to the sleeve notes of an early Bob Dylan album. But he was most famous for two great passions: his defenses of the Bill of Rights, especially Amendment One, and his enthusiastic writing about music, especially jazz. When people talk about old-school liberals who'd defend to the death your right to say anything you want, chances are good that Hentoff is the fellow they've got in mind. In his columns for The Village Voice and The Washington Post and in articles for countless other venues (including Reason), he pounded away at the evils of censorship, and he didn't care if the censor had a left-wing agenda or a right-wing one. If anything, he seemed especially perturbed when people he expected to share his values started stomping on individual liberties. Hentoff was less likely to be called a liberal later in life. That's partly because his brand of free-speech absolutism was growing less common on the left, and it's partly because of his heterodoxy on abortion. (Hentoff was pro-life, arguing against abortion on the same grounds that he argued against capital punishment and war. Or, at least, against some wars—he eventually rended his seamless garment to support interventions in Rwanda and Iraq.) But you couldn't really cast him as a man of the right either: Besides his intense distrust for the police agencies that conservatives tend to revere, he was a longtime democratic socialist who held onto a lot of his leftist economic ideas in old age. It's not even quite right to call him an ACLU liberal, because he kept butting heads with the ACLU. (The nation's most prominent civil libertarian organization wasn't always civil libertarian enough for him.) Best to think of him as his own man, with at least a couple of views to offend pretty much anyone. He would have left a substantial legacy even if he had never written about politics at all, thanks to his work in the music world. His criticism covered several genres—one of my favorite articles of his was an appreciation of the country singer Merle Haggard—but his great love was jazz, a topic on which he wrote whole volumes. He produced several jazz albums too, by artists ranging from Max Roach to Cecil Taylor, and he had a hand in the great 1957 TV special The Sound of Jazz, which my colleague Kurt Loder once called "a landmark of televised jazz that has never been surpassed." (Watch it here.) But it was his political writing that left its biggest mark on me. I grew up reading Hentoff's attacks on censorship and surveillance, and whatever disagreements I sometimes had with him on other topics I learned a lot from his uncompromising consistency on those issues. For a taste of just how committed to free speech he was, I'll wrap up this obit with a video of him attacking the existence of libel laws, a hardcore position that even some of the fiercest civil libertarians aren't willing to accept. (For the record: I think he's right.) The video, shot in 1986, shows him debating the Objectivist philosopher David Kelley, who argues that we need libel suits to protect our "right to a reputation." When it came to regulations on speech, Nat Hentoff could make even a Randian look like a big-government guy by comparison: src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/ge57bIoTXoY" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">[...]



Protesting This New-Fangled Sales Tax

Fri, 06 Jan 2017 12:18:00 -0500

When states started enacting general sales taxes in the 1930s, it wasn't long before there were songs complaining about the new levies. In 1934, the Mississippi Sheiks recorded "Sales Tax," which starts with a spoken skit in which the band is alarmed to learn that they now need to pay three cents more for their cigarettes.

"They say that's the government's rule," one of the Sheiks explains.

"The government's rule?" another replies. "Well, there's lots of things sold that the government knows anything about." And then the bluesmen break into a song where even the bootleggers and prostitutes are now charging extra for their services:

src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/2hv7xxrmyh8" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0">

You might be curious why anyone would still be buying liquor from a bootlegger in 1934, a year after the Prohibition Amendment was repealed. Answer: These were the Mississippi Sheiks, and Prohibition in Mississippi lasted a lot longer than Prohibition nationwide. It was the last place to keep a statewide alcohol ban on the books, eliminating it not in 1933 but in 1966:

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(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. If you want to see one about repealing alcohol regs in the South, go here.)




The Best Books, Films, Music, and Television of 2016

Thu, 22 Dec 2016 08:15:00 -0500

As the year drew to a close, we asked Reason's staff to select some of the best books, movies, and other media released in 2016. Our picks range from a novel about economic apocalypse to a sitcom about aliens, from a book about cocktails to a film about Hannah Arendt. Dig in. —Jesse Walker Eric Boehm, reporter With Painkillers, former Gaslight Anthem singer Brian Fallon leaves his Springsteen-meets-the-Replacements roots for a folksy-rock exploration of failed relationships, nostalgic romances, and the freedom that comes from letting go of the past, even if you'll never be rid of it. "You can't make me whole, I have to do that on my own," Fallon sings on the album's introspective closing number, a reference in equal parts to his recent divorce and to the breakup of his band. The simple Americana arrangements here put Fallon's skills as a songwriter—and he's one of the best out there right now—in the spotlight, particularly on "Rosemary," "Among Other Foolish Things," and "Smoke." He may be going in a new direction, but Fallon spends most of Painkillers looking back, examining hazy memories or half-remembered dreams of what might have been. There's borrowed cars, girls who love whiskey, and Rites of Spring. The good times, Fallon sings, are "lost in the songs they don't write anymore." Shikha Dalmia, senior analyst Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, a documentary by the Israeli director Ada Ushpiz, may not be the best offering of 2016, but it is arguably the most relevant. The West is experiencing a rise of demagogues, fuelled partly by right-wing populist movements. It is possible that in resisting them, Western liberalism will strengthen itself. It could also collapse into something horrible, as Weimar Germany did. The film, which hit select American theaters this year, offers a glimpse into the mass psychology that would allow that to happen. Arendt, a Jewish philosopher, fled to America from Nazi Germany. The documentary delves into her thought to understand how the land that produced the greatest minds in philosophy, literature, and music collapsed into the barbarism of Auschwitz. It excavates rare footage of Germany during Hitler's rule to show the campaign to dehumanize Jews that preceded the Holocaust. But the more crucial step, per Arendt, was the triumph of what Frankfurt School philosophers call instrumental or technocratic rationality over critical rationality. The film depicts Arendt's 1961 journey to Israel for The New Yorker to cover the famous trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi accused of war crimes. After observing months of testimony, Arendt coined her phrase "banality of evil" to convey that Eichmann, a diminutive and soft-spoken man, wasn't motivated so much by hatred of Jews. Rather, he believed that his job was to find the most efficient way to execute his assigned tasks, not raise big questions. Arendt was condemned for soft-peddling the Satanic nature of the Nazi regime. But the documentary shows that she was laying bare something still more horrible: how ordinary people can stumble into unspeakable evil when they let their civilizational guard down. Anthony Fisher, associate editor Louis CK blew up the concept of the 30-minute sitcom with his FX show Louie, where the main character's backstory would change without explanation and where excruciatingly painful situations could be both hilarious and cathartic. Now he may have blown up the episodic television show itself with the eight-part miniseries Horace and Pete, originally released on his own website but now available on Hulu. Though occasionally funny, this is no comedy—in fact, it's as much of a horror show as a drama. Set in the hellscape of a 100-year-ol[...]