Month: May 2012

Adele, Fulton Sheen, and the "Hookup Culture"

The artists of our world, Fulton J. Sheen once said, have a special role; they often are the first to perceive—and point out—the real problems in a society. Artists don’t necessarily offer solutions to modern problems—but the best of them invariably identify and put before the public exactly what those problems are. This is possible because through art man can be brought to understand that what is evil is ugly (and, by contrast, that what is good is beautiful), even if he intellectually is having difficulty agreeing that what is evil is wrong. 
Lately, I’ve encountered a recent illustration of Sheen’s point; and I may begin by recalling the name popularly attributed to our society: “the hook-up culture.” Our world has seen no less than four decades of skewed moral vision when it comes to romance, since the sexual revolution of the 60s. And now, two or three generations later, the artists of our day are beginning to point out the nasty afterbirth of the free love, hookup mentality in a very provocative way. Modern musicians especially, often themselves deeply imbued with popular notions of sexuality and love, are unmistakably starting to outline the current generation’s desolate frustration and deep-seated dissatisfaction with the hookup lifestyle–in fact, it is arguably the dominant theme of pop-music from artists who write their own songs. Years of rushing into sexual relationships, inevitable and bitter breakups, have left their scars on them, and it’s coming through in their music, perfectly detailing how painful “free love” is in reality.
One such case is probably a British pop-star that has hit the top of the music world in the last few years: Adele.  This contralto’s powerful soul-style songs, which successfully rocked the boat of the American music world, have led the charts for a long while now. And they are almost all depressing. With the exception of some hopeful, committed-to-love kind of songs (like “Make You Feel My Love”), Adele’s pieces are almost exclusively—and all of her top hits are definitely—tortured, frustrated breakup songs. Her music plumbs human heartbreak, exploring the whole wild and wicked scale of tangled emotions and passions: from burning emotional desolation, to sorrowful unwillingness to let go of the past in spite of the pain, to furious, bitter vengefulness.  Invariably at the root of the anguish in these songs is a background story of having let another soul come close in love, of having given away oneself to another, only to have that gift and that sort of “love” necessarily destroyed in a culture that treats relationships as “hookups.” “Rolling in the Deep” is probably Adele’s most famous, and some fans might balk at the idea of it’s being a mark of the hookup culture. Musically, the piece is enjoyable, almost Diana Ross or Mo-Town style, but the lyrics betray that the sentiment of vengeance expressed is neither a normal nor healthy way to end any relationship:

See how I’ll leave, with every piece of you
Don’t underestimate the things that I will do           
 . . .
Baby, I have no story to be told
But I’ve heard one of you and I’m gonna make your head burn,
. . . .
Think of me in the depths of your despair
Making a home down there, as mine sure won’t be shared.
The message beneath the music plainly conveys a firestorm of fury; although the source is somewhat vague in “Rolling in the Deep,” another Adele song about heartbreak, “Set Fire To the Rain,” sheds a little light on the situation. “Set Fire to the Rain” comes from the same album, 21, which Adele supposedly wrote about her breakup with her lover of two years, and tells her story of passionate “falling in love,” consequent breakup, and ends with some disturbing imagery describing the singer’s sense of betrayal:  

When I lay with you
I could stay there
Close my eyes
Feel you here forever
You and me together
Nothing is better 
 . . . there’s a side to you
That I never knew, never knew,
All the things you’d say,
They were never true, never true,
And the games you play
You would always win, always win. 
 . . . . . .
I set fire to the rain
And I threw us into the flames
And I felt something die
‘Cause I knew that that was the last time!
Although less famous than Adele, another striking artist rapidly rising in popularity is Ingrid Michaelson, whose music betrays at the same time a desperate longing for fulfillment and a painful realization that a hookup lifestyle leaves one unfulfilled. “The Way I Am,” certainly her most popular song, describes a desire for committed, faithful love:

If you were falling, I would catch you;
You need a light, I’ll find a match . . .
If you are chilly, here, take my sweater;
Your head is aching, I’ll make it better
Because . . . you take me the way I am.
While she sings of fidelity and commitment, however, Michaelson also recounts how scarred living a free love lifestyle can leave a person, in her less-well-known, post-breakup song, “Starting Now”: 

I want to crawl back inside my bed of sin
I want to burn the sheets that smell like your skin
Instead I’ll wash them just like kitchen rags with stains
Spinning away every piece that remains of you
But before you finally go there’s one thing you should know: that I promise
Starting now I’ll never know your name
Starting now I’ll never feel the same
Starting now I wish you never came into my world
It’s my world, it’s not ours anymore.
There is a tangible pain and bitterness in these shocking lines, which simultaneously describe both the hookup world and exactly what it does to a soul: brings it to the apex of commitment, the utmost physical indication that a total self-gift has been made, only to destroy that sense of love and leave the heart shattered and aching in the end.
If Bishop Sheen was right, and the artists of a time are the first to speak about the problems with a society, then modern music is a signpost pointing unmistakably to the modern notions of love.  There are others; Ingrid Michaelson and Adele are just two of many whose work runs along similar themes. These musician’s voices are singing some poignant truths about our world’s problems, and, while not prophetic or profound, and whether or not they realize it, as artists they are at least unanimously pointing to the same truth: the hookup culture hurts. It leaves souls desperate, thirsty for fulfillment, broken, feeling betrayed and angry. Hopefully, as the world listens to their music, it will start to listen to their words and what they have to say about our society’s stance on love.  


Our New Bigotry

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For a nation whose founding document declares that “all men are created equal,” the U.S. has seen a whole lot of inequality, usually raising its ugly head in the form of discrimination and prejudice against particular minorities. We’ve even seen the widespread legalization of the most degrading prejudice: human beings transacting the trade of other human beings, treating real persons like commodities, something you can obtain if you want and dispose of at your will.
If you think I’m talking about slavery in the South before the Civil War, think again. I’m referring to something that happened earlier this very month.  According to, Kevin and Deb McCrea from Iowa had more kids than they wanted—because through the use of In Vitro Fertilization, they had 18 extra embryos. So Deb found new parents for them . . . on Craigslist. Through the public, online market, she located couples who wanted to have kids, and sent her children to be born and raised through other women.  Deb felt she couldn’t sign off her own embryonic offspring to “just anyone.” “I don’t want to give up that right to see pictures of that child and compare that child to ours,” she said, “And see what they would have looked like and if they’re healthy and happy.”
Even though she just gave all 18 away, Deb wants to keep an eye on her other kids raised through surrogate mothers, because she feels she has a “right” to do so. But the poor woman’s words clearly indicate that she has a warped sense of what constitutes responsible parenthood; she doesn’t seem to understand that “rights” only come with “duties.” Although she must have known, when she paid for a whole batch of embryos through IVF, that she would never fulfill her natural duty to raise the children, she still wants the sense of fulfillment that comes from watching them grow.  
On the one hand, Mrs. McCrea’s desire to find loving homes for the children is somewhat understandable. Yet, unlike when a naturally-conceived child is put up for adoption because it’s parents can’t care for it, the very need for these kids to have parents and homes is purely a result of man’s scientific blunderings in God’s exclusive creation-zone. Situations such as these should never arise in the first place; yet with IVF, kids without parents who want or are able to raise them are made by the dozens in a petri dish. Deb McCrea’s search for new parents for her kids is not like an unwed mother putting her child up for adoption; it’s the moral equivalent of a woman naturally giving birth to as many kids as she possibly can, only then to decide she doesn’t want them and giving them all away.
Deb says she plans someday to tell the children the truth; it boggles the imagination to know what it will be for them to learn that they were the extra ones; that their biological parents chose to make them all, but wanted just one or two of them; that they chose a sibling from the same “batch,” while the others were the leftovers whose coincidental existence wasn’t important enough—or convenient enough—to merit a life lived with their rightful home and family.
Cases like the McCrea’s are stunning examples of what is so disturbingly wrong about IVF: it encourages a mentality of irresponsible parenting under the pseudonym of compassionate solutions for couples who are having trouble conceiving. Because they want a baby, IVF advocates essentially argue, couples should be allowed to create as many children as they want and then pick a few to live, so that they can fulfill their desire for parenthood. The rest of the kids, meanwhile, are given away or remain permanently frozen in storage.
The use of IVF treats children like a product—in the way that a puppy is a product to a breeder: a cute product, a product people get emotionally attached to, but a product all the same. They reduce a real, little person to a commodity, something parents can pay money to get when they want, and dispose of as they choose to, as the McCreas have done with their “extra” kids. But children aren’t puppies; they are persons, whose value is not based on the fulfillment their parents get from seeing them grow up.
“Human beings as a commodity?” I heard someone exclaim when they read about this, “I thought that went out with the Civil War!” But it hasn’t.  IVF is a new kind of bigotry that has become legally accepted in the US—a new legal sale of human beings like products, without respect for their personhood. Just as slavery was rooted in and perpetuated bigotry against blacks, IVF is steeped in a discrimination against embryonic human babies—because it creates many at once, and arbitrarily chooses which ones of the siblings will live with their parents, or live at all, and which ones don’t.  In the same way that the slave trade in the South was based on a denial of the rights and dignities of blacks, the selection process of IVF is based on a denial of the rights and dignity of human babies.
They say times have changed; and they have. Back in the day, you had to be Catholic, or black, or Jewish, to be the object of someone’s bigotry and discrimination. Now? Well, now, you just have to be an unborn human baby.

YOU KNOW THE FACE: A Hat-Tip to the Character Actors

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          “Do not look at the faces in the illustrated papers. Look at the faces in the street.” 

                                         –G.K. Chesterton 
Just before his death in 2007, 100-year-old Charles Lane had begun work on a documentary called “You Know the Face” about his life and work as a character actor.  Unfortunately, the work was never completed; nevertheless, it would have been aptly named, because from 1931 until 2006, Charles Lane appeared in nearly 400 films and television shows, making him one of the most familiar faces in the backdrop of Hollywood productions for whole generations of film-goers.
Charles Lane, looking his usual surly self
Though seldom appearing for long in any feature, Lane filled roles of vastly-varying professions, from reporters to rent collectors, from psychiatrists to census takers, from secretaries to superintendents, and yet he played—almost exclusively—the same sort of character: a sharp-nosed, practical, antagonistic, business-first fellow in spectacles.  Lane himself recognized the queer continuity of all these roles: “Having had so many small parts,” he once said, “there was a character I played that showed up all the time and people did get to know him, like an old friend.”
Walter Brennan
That notion of an “old friend” beautifully sums up the special, undervalued role character actors play in establishing a film’s quality and atmosphere—the way they help make a piece of Hollywood artwork “great” or “classic.” Of course, when we speak of “Hollywood actors and actresses,” it’s tempting to think exclusively of the stars, like Clark Gable or Audrey Hepburn.  But while the stars may be the center of everyone’s attention, the truth is that they never could have made those fantastic splashes of talent and popularity without the steady acting support of the forgettable but reliable “character actors:” actors who were type-cast or continually filled minor roles that colored in the background. Recurring in dozens of films, often playing the same sort of character, as Lane did, or at least playing different roles with a soon-familiar face, character actors made films more complete. They acted like pieces of the set or colors in the backdrop on a stage: even though they were never the center of attention, by their excellence of serving their purpose they made a movie more vivid, more realistic—in a word, more like life.
Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride
as Ma and Pa Kettle 
The inimitable Edna May Oliver
The reason for this was simply because they played people you meet in “real life”: mere “fellows-on-the-street,” non-glamorous side figures, non-heroes—the sort of person you find in the doctor’s waiting room, behind the cash register, on the train. They were there precisely to flesh out the world surrounding the central characters, and consequently they often packed a punch, so to speak, into the tiny tidbit-of-a-role they had.  Good character actors are the spice and color of a film; they are the sort of people of which the world is full—the “common man” incarnate in a particular way, a personality in a crowd.  After all, let’s face it—perhaps it’s true that everyone wants to be Cary Grant (“Even Cary Grant,” as the man himself once said), but the stereotypical hero of a story can often be less colorful than the life-like characters that surround him: the dying old soldier, the hot-tempered Italian grandmother, the dottering country minister, the local drunk, the obsequious villain’s side-kick, the drawling farm boy, the loony old professor, the brusque British police inspector, the wise-cracking taxi driver. 
Victor McLaglen, a Ford regular
These people aren’t the meat-and-potatoes of a film, but they certainly are the relish; and one director who knew this full-well was the legendary Irish-American John Ford.  Ford had a peculiar talent for gathering around him a group of actors and actresses he would reuse again and again as steady characters that seem to link together all his cinema creations into a cohesive whole.  Take for instance, Ford’s cavalry films—She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, and Rio Grande—each of the movies has an almost identical cast, with a few notable exceptions, and some of the characters even have the same names in the different movies. Ford, a compositional genius, doubtless knew that standardizing his background cast could unify and tighten the impression his films were to make on his audience. When you begin watching his movies, you start to grow accustomed to seeing the same faces in their old place; it’s an evocative sensation, giving the impression that members of a family are gathering around to tell a tale together.  There is a peculiar sort of comfort and delight in seeing those familiar figures again and again, in varying roles but always solidly delivering performances that heighten the atmospheric tint of the whole film.
Peter Lorre
Guy Kibbee
         So, here’s to the character actors, the fellows in the background, the faces in the street. They spice up the stories we love and make them that more believable, because they are tastes of real life–equally full of interesting and unusual people who don’t fit the stereotypes of hero or heroine. They remind us of people we’ve met and known, even in passing, and so they have become to us—as Lane put it—like old friends.