"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)
Zombie chatter reached unprecedented cultural prominence last week when reports of two murders involving cannibalism appeared in the national headlines.
But since the 2008 financial crisis, zombies have had quite a resurgence in popular culture. First, it was the comedy film Zombieland, followed by 2010’s sleeper hit, AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” During the summer, we’ll get two youth-themed zombie flicks, the high school film Bad Kids Go to Hell and a stop-motion film called Paranorman from the creators of Coraline.
Zombies are everywhere these days – there’s even an Osama bin Laden zombie film coming to the big screen this summer. But why might zombies be so omnipresent at this moment in time? Maybe between widespread feelings of political disenfranchisement and growing economic inequality, it’s easy to feel as if we’re facing, say, a zombie apocalypse.
A year ago, a CBS poll suggested that, “Americans have long felt they have little say in government. But the trends are troubling: While 58 percent said they have little say in what government does in 1990, that figure has risen to 69 percent today. In the new survey, 85 percent say that people like them had too little influence on American life.”
Political alienation in the United States, in other words, has never been higher. A staggering 85 percent of Americans did not feel that American politics allowed them much in the way of participation.
It’s really no wonder that American popular culture has taken a turn toward the grim. Maybe zombies sell these days because, not unlike the sort of nuclear apocalypse tales that resonated throughout the Cold War, they posit an outside threat, a menace beyond the control of regular people. And maybe there are more feelings of futility now than there were then, even as anxieties about nuclear holocaust loomed.
These days, it is hard to believe how optimistic so many Americans were back in January 2001, at the end of President Bill Clinton’s presidency. It must be said that the level of prosperity the nation experienced during the Clinton years is often exaggerated. In fact, Clinton presided over what were then the most devastating social welfare cuts in American history by way of his Welfare to Work Program. He was not a good president for poor people, but even so, the middle classes had reason for optimism, with plentiful jobs and that talking point about how Clinton “balanced the budget” during his first term. The end of the Cold War was more than a decade-old memory, and Americans entered the 21st century without fear.
A little over a decade later, it seems clear to everyone who is paying attention that the United States is only just beginning a period of major social, political and economic decline. The big issues have been well-enumerated: Deeply entrenched wars in Muslim countries that continue even though President Barack Obama abandoned his predecessor’s “War on Terror” rhetoric. The near illegitimacy of the executive and legislative elected branches of government, both in thrall to corporate interests and “checked” only by a judiciary that can’t or won’t rein them in. Growing economic inequality between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of us, even as Democrats offer hollow promises to support working people. A student debt bubble about to burst and leave hundreds of thousands of well-educated young people in dire poverty – all with few, if any, employment options.
Foreign Policy magazine now has a blog called Decline Watch that documents evidence of national decline, seemingly insignificant tiny piece by seemingly insignificant tiny piece. It features a wide range of scary, humorous and absurd cultural and political anecdotes. A few recent headlines include, “Disaster warning system kind of a disaster,” “Congress takes action to protect pizza’s vegetable status,” “US Army fishes for compliments on Twitter,” and “Vietnamese businessmen buy Wyoming town.” Influenced by the political optimism that ensued at the Cold War’s end, political scientists in the 1990s and early 2000s declared the US, for better or worse, a global hegemon. Only a few years later, and we’re just a nation of Onion headlines.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that grim apocalyptic images suddenly saturate the cultural imaginary. The young are often an important gauge of just how entrenched various themes may be. So the question must be asked: Could a post-apocalyptic story about poor children chosen by lottery to kill one another have become a blockbuster hit with the tween crowd at any other moment in American history, or is The Hunger Games a strangely decade-specific phenomenon? It’s hard to answer that question one way or another, but it cannot be denied that visions of apocalypse permeate popular culture nowadays more than they used to.
The latest evidence of zombie fixation hit last week, as mainstream pundits worked fast to sell five recent murders involving cannibalism in the tawdriest possible way – by framing them, however jokingly, as evidence of impending zombie apocalypse. The rhetoric became so widespread that the Centers for Disease Control issued a statement – not quite a parody like the one it issued last year – promising the public that, “[T]he CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms).”
On June 1, CBS News announced, “Face-Eating Cannibal Attack May Be Latest in String of ‘Bath Salts’ Incidents.” Its opening puts writers of satire to shame: “On May 26, Miami police shot and killed a homeless man who was allegedly feasting on the face of another homeless man in a daylight attack on a busy highway.”
Meanwhile, the Huffington Post ran a piece that milked the gruesome stories for every Internet hit they might generate, from the “self-described ‘asexual’ from Tokyo” who “got surgery to remove his genitals, then cooked and served them to five lucky dinner guests at a swanky banquet in Japan” to the “former employee of a Swedish medical university accused of cutting his wife’s lips off and eating them.” But apparently we’re not supposed to blame the media for indulging their baser instincts. As Carl Hiassen argued in the Miami Herald, “For a non-tabloid headline writer, the perverse facts of the crime make it almost impossible not to sensationalize. The case is grotesque even by the extreme standards of South Florida.” They just couldn’t help it, see, because the facts themselves are sensationalistic.
Zombie jokes, meanwhile, have never had so much play in American popular culture. On Tuesday, John McCain told reporters that daughter Meghan thinks her dad is a “nice zombie.” On his Tuesday show, media satirist Stephen Colbert highlighted the absurdity of the news coverage with a series of television clips that ends with a CNN reporter asking, “Is a zombie-like attack part of a growing trend in an American city?” Without flinching Colbert quips, “That’s right. Cannibalism is the hot new trend. And you thought saggy pants were annoying.” Meanwhile, the twitterverse came alive, with chatter about “zombie apocalypse” trending all week.
This isn’t the only time we’ve seen apocalypse talk trend recently, beyond the fundamentalist Christian crowd. The Left Behind books came and went among secular audiences during the mid- to late ’90s. They were moderately successful for a little while, but now they’re nothing more than the names of the only films left to employ the anti-gay and Quiverfull-friendly Kirk Cameron. New additions to the franchise are still being released, but they’re no longer the popular sensation they once were. The non-religious who read the books read them sometimes as fiction stories and sometimes as odd, badly written glimpses into fundamentalist evangelical culture. But beyond Christian culture, there wasn’t a lot of half-serious joking about the end times – nothing like what we’re seeing now.
Who can forget the extensive media coverage Harold Camping, the fundie hack who warned that the end was coming last May, received? That story was no more newsworthy than the Left Behind series, but it assumed a far more prominent place in national media discussions than the book series ever did. For weeks, pundits on both right and left rehashed the history of end times “prophets” in the US, interviewed scores of believers and non-believers and sparked a speculative national conversation about end times survivalism.
Of course, much of the talk was in jest. Then, as now, there was quite a bit of joking about the impending destruction of humanity. Commenting on the media phenomenon at that time, Global Comment editor Emily Manuel wrote, “My theory is that jokes about the Rapture express a deeper anxiety about the decidedly apocalyptic times we live in… It’s clear that there are looming crises in both global capitalism and the environment. When taken altogether, it’s hard not to get the feeling that the end of the world as we know it is nigh.”
There is much to fear these days, so much that it prompted the Associated Press to publish a piece wondering if “[m]aybe it’s that we joke about the things we fear”? Indeed, maybe zombie apocalypse didn’t loom large in the cultural imaginary of the 1990s – at least not beyond geek culture – because Americans were not afraid. But weakening empire, worldwide political alienation, diminished standards of living and growing inequality – these things that characterize the political landscape in 2012 have understandably provoked feelings of fear. In this political landscape, zombie jokes are a coping mechanism. Of course they seem insensitive in light of the tragedies that spawned them, but it should be pointed out that they’re nothing but gallows humor in a time of uncertainty. Culture sure has changed since the 1990s.
There is no doubt that Americans have little reason for optimism these days, and cultural tropes – like the zombie – are born of lost confidence and waning hope. But the sensationalism has, unfortunately, obscured some of the things we might be able to change, if we started talking about justice and equality more than we talk about certain doom. At the Huffington Post, Subhash Khateel offers this to explain the Florida case:
Florida is the second to worst state in the country when it comes to funding mental health services. Of the 325,000 people with persistent and severe mental illness, only 42 percent receive treatment.
-In 2010, the State Legislature cut adult community mental health funding, children’s mental health funding and adult substance abuse services by more than $18 million. This year, the state legislature tried to make Florida the worst state in the nation at funding mental health, and almost succeeded.
-Prescription drug overdoses and the prescription drug death rate are up in Florida by 61 percent and 84 percent respectively. That didn’t stop state politicians from trying to cut funding for drug treatment by 20 percent, which would have kicked 37,000 people out of services while they were trying to kick a habit.
- First responders across the state say that they are seeing mental health cases that they have never seen before, such as a Palm Beach man who was held in custody 50 times in one year under the state’s Baker Act because he was a threat to himself and others.
They’re alarming statistics, to be sure, but they’re also indicative of social problems that could be solved if citizens and politicians got serious about solving them once and for all. It seems impossible given that we’re living in what one comedian – in response to the Wisconsin vote – called the “Citizens United States of America.” Right now, there certainly aren’t any clear paths forward.
So, we’ve got to reframe the problem: Whether or not we did it maliciously, we Americans have created a system that marginalizes the poor with more reckless abandon every day. Meanwhile, the poor grow in numbers – it’s what New Pornographers songwriter Carl Newman describes in 2007’s “My Rights Versus Yours” as a “new empire in rags.”
In 1999, late poet-novelist incidental-prophet Reynolds Price published these words in a volume of collected poems:
…when we thirst in this dry night
We drink from hot wells poisoned with the blood of children
And when we strain to hear a steady homing beam
Our ears are balked by stifled moans
And howls of desolation from the throats of sisters, brothers, wild men
Clawing at the gates for bread
Our well-being means that others will starve. Maybe we’ve simply lost our innocence and begun to realize this. Stories about corporate excess and third world exploitation are no longer the sole realm of left-wing media because they now sell in mainstream audiences. At least, that was the lesson for “This American Life,” which scored its largest audience to date with Mike Daisey’s later partially disproven poverty porn about Apple’s exploitation of Chinese workers through an affiliate called Foxconn.
That suggested a cultural shift of some kind, even if incomplete or uninformed. In that case, the victims were external and “other” – probably we haven’t become accustomed yet to the possibility that the victims are us. But we expect great tragedy any day now, and there’s no better metaphor for the feelings of powerlessness than the zombie menace.
In this age of obsessing about apocalyptic tragedies beyond our control, we stop ourselves from asking the real questions about what is causing such social and political despair, and we abdicate responsibility for figuring out what it will take to fend off the end. The 9/11 generation of young people – those of us for whom September 11 has been shaping political discourses since the beginning of our participation in representative democracy – were taken off-guard all those years ago, and we haven’t quite recovered. The United States we live in today is not the one our parents and teachers told us about 20 years ago.
We didn’t create the unjust system we’re living in, but we’re going to have to change it. And perhaps the beginning of change is the recognition that our problems are man-made and that we do have some control, however slight, over what happens next. It’s not zombies we have to fear. It’s the pervasiveness of the belief that extreme disparity is the natural state of things. It’s alarming that these attitudes persist without question or analysis amid media circuses that offer nothing but spectacle.
Zombies promise certain doom that we cannot possibly defeat. The promise of impending self-destruction, by contrast, offers us a shred of agency – that is, the slight possibility that we can fix this. And however small or unsatisfying this reminder may be, we can at least remember that we have a little more hope than, say, the characters who appear in “The Walking Dead.”
Kristin Rawls is a freelance journalist based near Raleigh. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, AlterNet, In These Times, Religion Dispatches, GOOD magazine and many others. Follow her on Twitter @kristinrawls.More Kristin Rawls.
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)
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