"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: TV, Television, Lost, The Wire, sopranos, Girls, HBO, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, house of cards, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Noam Chomsky, Kill your television, Neil Postman, Editor's Picks, Paul Krugman, David Carr, emily nussbaum, Media Criticism, New York Times, Homeland, Lena Dunham, Innovation News, Technology News, Entertainment News, Politics News
I think it happened around Season 3 of “The Wire.” Maybe it was “The Sopranos.” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”? “Lost”? I can’t say. I just know I woke up one day confused.
Everyone, it seemed, had become a walking TV Guide: debating a bubbling vat of dramas and comedies, gossiping and blasting alerts about their pundit show bookings, filling out Which-character-are-you? quizzes. TV coverage had overtaken the media, where magazines, newspapers and websites dissected anticipated serial finales like D-Day.
It wasn’t the existence of new cult shows that left me befuddled, or even the tonnage of critical praise heaped on them. It was the hungry-hippo, remote-happy tone that continues to define this “golden age of TV.” Kill Your Television has morphed into Love Your Television. I find this transformation deeply disorienting, but not in an old-person, out-of-touch kind of way. Because watching TV is an activity I associate with retirement homes, it feels more like the world around me has prematurely aged.
For years I’ve dreaded writing this. There’s no way to do it without sounding like that stock villain of the postwar American dinner party, the tweedy bore and pretentious prick who makes a loud public show of not owning a TV. For the record, I’m not that guy. But it’s time to call bullshit on the new consensus that TV, in any of its Internet-age mutations, has become our harmless friend, deserving ever-greater amounts of our time and critical coverage limited to endless plot exegesis. It’s time to shout from our dish-cluttered rooftops what has been obvious for years: this celebration of TV’s new “golden age” is out of control. It’s dangerous, and it’s sad.
Not long ago, the culture, and especially the left, wrestled with television. It was accepted to represent a bit of a mass media riddle: neither easily dismissed, nor easily accepted. It was hard to imagine forcing change or even organizing modern society without utilizing and harnessing its power and reach. At the same time, it was understood, by its very nature, to be a potent conduit for saturation levels of corporate and state propaganda. It was thought to breed passivity and weaken the capacity for critical thought. These debates had been going for decades when they disappeared early in the new century. The rising sea of “must-see” TV drowned ideas that were part of the bedrock of the left’s heritage.
When I began hashing out a worldview as an adolescent in the late 1980s, initiation into this heritage meant reckoning with television. I’d watched my share of “Brady Bunch” reruns and “Silver Spoons,” ingesting millions of commercials along the way, and it took its toll. In my mid-teens I started to intuit TV was causing me problems, both with schoolwork and more generally with my ability to make sense of the world. When I eventually found my way to the then-standard critiques of television, it was revelatory. The arguments rested on multiple pillars: the political economy of the networks; the way that political economy leads to content designed to reinforce the status quo in often subtle but effective ways; the impact of advertising; the medium’s structural limitations and psychological effects; and, most important, how all of this interacted to shape the potential for mass organization and social and political change. It wasn’t called the Idiot Box just because “Hill Street Blues” wasn’t written as well as “The Wire,” or because there were no shows where Nation and Mother Jones writers could talk about their work.
You could trace the lineage of these critiques back to guys like Marx and Adorno (the first asshole to brag about not owning a TV) but it wasn’t necessary. There was no shortage of popular books that modernized and developed the old ideas about culture reflecting and reinforcing society’s underlying economic relations — books like Jerry Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” and Bill McKibben’s “Age of Missing Information,” to name a few. Less than a generation ago, the essence of these books could be found on ringed-binders, skateboards and first cars, distilled to that three-word battle cry, Kill Your Television, which captured a truth that has yet to be upended by TiVo, streaming, HBO or Chris Hayes. That truth, then as now, is this: Staring at images on a little screen — that are edited in ways that weaken the brain’s capacity for sustained and critical thought, that encourage passivity and continued viewing, that are controlled by a handful of publicly traded corporations, that have baked into them lots of extremely slick and manipulating advertising — is not the most productive or pleasurable way to spend your time, whether you’re interested in serious social change, or just want to have a calm, clear and rewarding relationship with the real world around you.
But wait, you say, you’re not just being a killjoy and a bore, you’re living in the past. Television in 2014 is not the same as television in 1984, or 1994. That’s true. Chomsky’s “propaganda model,” set out during cable’s late dawn in “Manufacturing Consent,” is due for an update. The rise of on-demand viewing and token progressive programming has complicated the picture. But only by a little. The old arguments were about structure, advertising, structure, ownership, and structure, more than they were about programming content, or what time of the day you watched it. Less has changed than remains the same. By all means, let’s revisit the old arguments. That is, if everyone isn’t busy binge-watching “House of Cards.”
It’s been something to watch, this televisionification of the left. Open a window on social media during prime time, and you’ll find young journalists talking about TV under Twitter avatars of themselves in MSNBC makeup. Fifteen years ago, these people might have attended media reform congresses discussing how corporate TV pacifies and controls people, and how those facts flow from the nature of the medium. Today, they’re more likely to status-update themselves on their favorite corporate cable channel, as if this were something to brag about.
None of this could be happening at a worse time. According to the latest S.O.S. from climate science, we have maybe 15 years to enact a radical civilizational shift before game over. This may be generous, it may be alarmist; no one knows. What is certain is that pulling off a civilizational Houdini trick will require not just switching energy tracks, but somehow confronting the “endless growth” paradigm of the Industrial Revolution that continues to be shared by everyone from Charles Koch to Paul Krugman. We face very long odds in just getting our heads fully around our situation, let alone organizing around it. But it will be impossible if we no longer even understand the dangers of chuckling along to Kia commercials while flipping between Maher, “Merlin” and “Girls.”
One of the effects of watching so much TV is we start to confuse it with reality. In extreme cases, this can lead to ratings wars as a form of politics. As in, “Ha ha, more of the 25–54 year-old viewers prized by advertisers are sitting in front of a box watching my favorite television personalities than are watching your favorite television personalities.” Let’s skip by the fact that the fantasy abuse on “Game of Thrones” gets as much attention as abuse in our prison system, and go right to the aircraft carrier loads of type dedicated to parsing the representation of young women and feminism on cable shows. Last week, the front page of the Guardian website featured a column called “Genius TV,” in which Ann Friedman gushed that the Comedy Central show “Broad City” was “a huge step forward,” if not for equal pay, then for her crowded viewing schedule. She sent up a loud “Amen” to the words of Grantland’s Molly Lambert, who wrote: “I [once] dreamed of a world on the screen … populated with chill women who refer to everyone as ‘dude.’ ‘Broad City’ is that world. May it run forever.”
Dare to dream, Molly.
Louder “hallelujahs” are often expressed about Stephen Colbert, the quickest-witted TV host since Groucho and with better politics. The problem starts when we forget he’s just a TV personality, and that his show is burdened with the same baggage as every other. The fact that his (and Jon Stewart’s) coverage of current events is often the best around was once seen as a condemnation of everyone else. Now, as Colbert takes over from Letterman, it is just as likely to be seen as a justification for watching more TV. Earlier this month, Salon’s Joan Walsh wrote about Colbert the way a previous generation might have written about a major labor organizer or investigative reporter. Citing his ability to get under the skin of Bill O’Reilly, another TV personality, Walsh wrote, “[Right-wing] bullies see Colbert clearly as an ally to progressive causes and a threat to their privilege.”
Much respect to you, Joan, but only two people feel threatened by Stephen Colbert, and their names are Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel. The closest Colbert has ever come to real politics, as opposed to making satirical points, was his mushy cool-in on the Washington Mall. He had nothing to do with the biggest blip of real street politics since the televisionification of the U.S. left. That was Occupy, which was loud, aggressive, smelly and under no illusions about Comedy Central’s interest in televising the revolution. One of the best things about Colbert’s show has always been its length: 22 minutes, four days a week. It’s a sign of the times that so many of his fans will now transition to watching him five nights a week for a full hour, more of which will be devoted to commercial breaks and interviewing celebrities like Seth Rogen. The right-wing bullies must be quaking in their wingtips. Not that the powers that be were all that worried about the 22-minute version. The last time I streamed Colbert on the Viacom server, I enjoyed four beautiful Boeing ads featuring its new line of laser-guided missiles. Why would Boeing underwrite this “progressive threat”? While the left has forgotten the substance of the old TV debates, the Fortune 500 has not.
Maybe a few missile commercials are a small price to pay for all this great programming. This is the view of our best-paid media critics, whose ranks have enjoyed boom times in the last decade. Reviewing a book that promised TV’s “golden age” will last forever, New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum wrote in 2012, “If you happen to be feeling frustrated by the current state of television—fearing that the economic model won’t hold up, or biting your nails about whether ‘Homeland’ can actually pull off the high-wire act of its second season—[this] collection will cheer you up.”
More recently, a few days after Nielsen released its 2014 numbers (the average American watches more than five hours a day) New York Times media reporter David Carr wrote a piece mock-complaining about all the boob tube bounty. His weekly viewing schedule contains 11 shows, you see, and Carr is worried that “Broad City” might tip the waiter’s tray. As for dialing back his viewing, this is not an option, because people might think he’s a fuddy-duddy.
“The idiot box,” writes Carr, “[has] gained heft and intellectual credibility to the point where you seem dumb if you are not watching it … Even at the Oscars, TV seemed like the cool hipster at the party … All these riches induce pleasure, but no small amount of guilt as well. Am I a bad person because I missed ‘Top of the Lake’ on the Sundance channel?”
No, Carr, you’re not a bad person for missing “Top of the Lake,” whatever that is. What you are is an exceptionally shallow media critic, if you think the problems with television ever had anything to do with the quality of the scripts.
Alexander Zaitchik is a journalist living in New Orleans.More Alexander Zaitchik.
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)