"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
The thing about famous last words is there aren’t many. “Rosebud” hardly counts, since it was written by a screenwriter who was probably thinking not of his final end but about when he’d be able to knock off work and go get properly loaded. Bartlett’s gives a few “attributed” bon mots for Tolstoy, Dickinson, Wilde, etc., which, tellingly, suddenly thin out with the advent of recording technology. Even Christ was a mixed bag: In Matthew and Mark he howls, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” — a closure-denying humdinger of an exit — but Luke and John give him the flat “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” and the even flatter “It is finished.” (Any of the three, in any event, being undercut by the speaker’s getting two encores in the New Testament.)
The dying, however, at least have the excuse of ill preparation and understandable stress. The living, compelled to offer a sign-off, are on the hook. All of which is to say that I have no proper, Wildean or Wellesian last words to offer you in my last media column for Salon: no big catchy answer, grand wrap-up, fiery, Old Testament jeremiad. Partly because I’m too young to have the perspective and too old to have the arrogance to do it. Partly because I’m not retiring, just moving on to do related writing for a different master.
But it’s also because the world is becoming full of big explanations regarding the media that are reductive, tin-eared and wrong. Popular media — news, entertainment, print, online, broadcast, cable, radio, publishing — are so all-encompassing that, I believe, having an overarching theory of the media is like having an overarching theory of the weather. Is it good? Bad? Dangerous? Indispensable? Sure — all of the above.
Like the weather, the media form an environment we can’t escape if we wanted to, one that we affect even as we’re affected by it. In the simplest sense, the media are all the forms by which people in a society share information and thoughts. To “hate the media” is not just pointless, it’s misanthropic. I’ve done enough crabbing in this space the past two years that I doubt anyone reading my archives would consider me a Pollyanna. But I love the media in all their excess. There have been times, cranking out this column, that I’ve felt my brain shriveling and wanted never to look at another men’s magazine or cable-news show again. But thank God I live in a time when there are entire cable channels dedicated to houseplants, when I can download Serbian protest music composed while B-52s drop my tax dollars on the artists from 40,000 feet, when I can pull up news wires from my bedroom or flip through a magazine for remarrying brides. Any world without handy Internet resources for Brazilian fingernail fetishists is not a world I want to live in.
But today this is a love that dare not speak its name. Make a statement like “TV Is Good,” like ABC did, and you’ll get jumped like a playground dope-pusher. A media writer who doesn’t particularly like the media, though, is worse than useless. Likewise, anybody who purports to cover politics or society and doesn’t get popular media, and there are plenty of them, is wasting the audience’s time. You can learn more about this country watching one night of Comedy Central than you’ll discover in a half-dozen Campaign 2000 stump speeches.
When I started this column two years ago, I was tired of “media criticism” that was either biz gossip or critiques of news coverage — the sort of earnest yawn you still see on “The PBS News Hour.” The great thing about writing on the media is that it means writing on everything: religion, music, literature, politics, sex, money, art, technology, business, food and gardening.
The drawback about it, too, is that it’s about everything: The media form a big, sloppy amorphous blob — one of those handy, fuzzy bugaboos like “society” or “the system”– and, to boot, one that’s all about the transmission of ideas. From there it’s a short step to the argument that the media are controlling the way we think.
And you know, people talk about mass thought control like it’s a bad thing. So media criticism has become especially attractive to the ideologically frustrated: people who are ticked off that their favorite political movement, cultural camp or god is having rough sledding, and have decided it must be because of de facto media cabals and brainwashing. If only their fellow citizens were fairly, thoroughly informed, they’d naturally vote and behave as they properly should — it’s an implicit theme from William Bennett to Norman Solomon. Particularly around the release of “The Truman Show,” this became the big media critique du jour: An inescapable media-industrial complex had turned all life into a massive entertainment, robbing us of free thought and volition.
Back in January, I attacked the weak but attractive argument in “Life the Movie” by href="/media/1999/01/cov_27mediaa.html">Neal Gabler that the media were turning all of modern life into entertainment. This month, this Gablerian line is updated after Littleton in Harper’s — an excellent cultural magazine that’s somehow become dedicated to being dead-solid wrong on media criticism, giving writers like Thomas Frank and Jonathan Dee copious ink to argue that a media-
Thomas de Zengotita’s article in Harper’s, “The Gunfire Dialogues,” is so fuzzy, meandering and jargon-laden — lots of “reflexivity” and “levels” here — that I doubt it will have much influence, but it makes an interesting, and I’m afraid trend-setting, advance. It links the Gablerian and Frankian big-
Saying, “Well, millions of kids listen to Marilyn Manson and never harm anyone” misses the point. Those kids are just as influenced in a different way by the totality that is this virtual space. They go ironic rather than psychotic. They are the “apathetic” ones, for whom politics is, at best, a field of self-expression in which certain people identify with certain issues and “promote awareness” of them — a politics in which issues have fans.
This is barely a taste of the vague, unsubstantiated, meretricious gobbledygook here — apparently we don’t need any further explanation why listening to Manson must necessarily lead either to psychosis or a detachment that has vague, but rest assured negative, political repercussions. (No doubt it’s the only thing keeping, take your pick, Paul Wellstone or Gary Bauer out of the White House.) “Overall violence among teenagers, in school or out, is dramatically lower,” we’re told, but never you mind: “those [media] stimulations might have powerful effects on [nonviolent kids], perhaps just as corrosive in subtler ways.” If you’re counting, that’s two qualifiers — “might,” “perhaps” — in service of the insinuation that millions of seemingly good kids are in fact suffering from “effects” as “corrosive” as murderous psychosis.
Hey, why not? That “totality that is this virtual space” sounds pretty nasty! I’d define it, or “the reality of virtuality,” or whatever, if only the author had bothered to. But why? We all know what it is, right? It’s that new stuff, that — well, that everything people of taste are offended by. That bad fake stuff that conjures a false reality and poisons minds (as opposed to the good fake stuff that also conjures a false reality — music, theater — but is performed in Lincoln Center rather than suburban basements). Shortly, the author switches to the term “the new technologies.” Which are? Video games, partly. But also movies and news. “OJ and Diana and Monica.” And — the kicker — “Times Square and sanctioned graffiti.” If you’re wondering at this point just what the hell he means, it’s no wonder: You are clearly an ironic, apathetic automaton, rendered affectless and numb by “new technologies” that, as nearly as I can tell, include paint.
I wouldn’t harp on one obviously pained response to a mass killing if it weren’t so representative and so potentially useful to censors and self-censors — and if its fatalistic assumptions weren’t so typical. “From ‘The Truman Show’ to ‘The Matrix,’ a slew of recent movies is exposing the project built into these technologies,” the author writes. But “traditional opinion leaders” don’t want to address it because their “material interests … are increasingly vested in the immaterial economy.” But as I noted about “The Truman Show” last year, it was the organs of big media — for instance, Entertainment Weekly and Time (my next employer) — that took the lead in inflating a fine, creepy satire (which the movie was) into a daring, original critique of the modern media complex (which it emphatically wasn’t).
I’m sure there’s an answer to that, too. The voices of power in “corporate central” (that’s a phrase, by the way, from a “Truman” review not in the Nation but in EW) incorporate just enough dissent to neutralize it, etc., etc. I could argue against that, but as a future Time Warner storm trooper — albeit one who’s made the same argument before — I suppose there would be little point. So I’ll say this: If it is true, we might as well give up. And yet the audience hasn’t given up. It is more skeptical and distrustful of the media — especially the news — than ever, yet it consumes media heavily, follows media business dealings closely and questions the media astutely. It is influenced by mass media like earlier audiences were influenced by books and family and religion (and the way today’s audience is, too), but in unpredictable, idiosyncratic ways, not robotically. It wants the media, without always having to like them.
People have a complex relation to the media; and I suspect non-media critics know it better than many of their lofty spokespeople do. “Our world is becoming so intensely reflexive that distinctions between action and performance and reality and representation are eroding at every level of our lives,” de Zengotita bafflingly writes. I suspect it’s more like this: Facile media critics have eroded the distinction between their hyperbole and the way this condescendingly rendered “we” actually lives.
And in fact the Harper’s Readings section includes a piece by MIT media-studies professor Henry Jenkins, about the anti-media hysteria at a post-Littleton congressional hearing he attended, that is as brilliant and sensible as “Gunfire Dialogues” is misguided: “Adults are feeling more and more estranged from the dominant forms of popular culture,” writes Jenkins, a dorm housemaster who discussed his testimony with kids and prepared for it by consulting Goth friends. And, “All of us move nomadically across the media landscape, cobbling together a personal mythology of symbols and stories.” Finally — and don’t let Neal Gabler catch you saying this! — “Real life trumps media images every time.”
I’d like to give Jenkins a medal for this piece. Shockingly, millions of people watch television, consume Disney entertainment — even visit Las Vegas! — and yet not only manage not to mass-murder their neighbors but remain able to fall in love, believe in higher powers and value abstract principles. It is simply wrong, futile, lazy and a self-serving excuse to talk about the media as if they compose an outside entity — the way many lazily consider “the government” and “the economy” — that only does things to us while we’re powerless over it.
Which is not to say that the media don’t need fixing. I said above that you can no more have a grand theory of the media than of the weather. But you can study the climate: specific long-term trends and concerns. Even as I’m going to write for a media conglomerate, I do believe the consolidation of media ownership creates thousands of chances for business considerations to trump editorial; at the same time, readers and viewers need to remember that even “independent” outlets are beholden to somebody. And even as I leave an online publication, I do believe that online publishing and broadcasting will have huge influences on mass media, some beneficial and some rife with potential conflict and mistrust. Online magazines like this one are adding commercial features, while commerce sites like Amazon.com and Garden.com could become the most influential “magazines” online, and all these changes are couched in the mealy-mouthed language of service and empowerment; the more online media become mass media, the more their principles will become accepted for everyone.
But it’s important to distinguish specific, identifiable problems from malaises and bogeymen that only feed reactions like the lingering one to the Littleton shootings. There’s no point denying that the incident aroused a sense of indefinable and pervasive ill in America — one that paired perfectly with that vaguely defined, pervasive target, the media. But blaming your problems on an invincible, mind-controlling media force does you no good — whereas recognizing what you want from media outlets and what they want from you (attention, money) at least allows you to make consumer choices, which are arguably more powerful, and at the least more plentiful, than votes. Here’s where the weather analogy breaks down; everybody complains about the media, but you actually can do something about it — more than ever, as media choices metastasize across the newsstand, cable and your desktop at work.
All of which, of course, has made it a great time to cover the entire freak show here at Salon, and likewise an exciting time to pick up and write on TV at Time. Anyone who wants to reach me can continue to do so at firstname.lastname@example.org, where I promise to try to improve on my last words.
Now — as Orson Welles or Herman Mankiewicz probably never said, though I wish they did — time to knock off work and go get properly loaded.
James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.More James Poniewozik.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)