Monday, April 19, 2010

Catching up on a little reading...

In the early 90s, when I was working at the U.S. General Accounting Office, I sometimes brought a bag lunch from home and took it down to the dungeon-like lunchroom that had been set up for library staff. Usually there would be a woman sitting there, intently reading the Washington Post, too busy to talk to anyone else.

I admired her dedication. She started with the front section and worked her way through every page, in page order, section by section. I seem to remember her running her index finger under the type, making sure she caught everything. Then one day I realized that K. wasn't reading that day's Washington Post, but one from three months previous.

When I asked her about this, she said, "I didn't get to read it then, so I'm reading it now." Oh, I thought, she must bring papers to work that she missed reading at home. That's a good idea. No fear of losing a fresh paper in the shuffle to and from work. But the next time I saw her, she was reading another Post from almost exactly three months before from that day's date.

"I'm three months behind," she said, when I asked her why. "So I'm reading them in order." She then explained that she wouldn't read any current issue until she had finished all the previous issues. K. was still doing this when I left a couple of years later. Her news was always three months old—the weather forecast was for the wrong season, the movie listings were useless, the people in the obituaries long buried.

If I had more time or imagination, I would make K. a character in a short story. But I don't, so I'm leaving her here (though I imagine that Joyce Carol Oates, if she had read this far, would already know K.'s fictional destiny).

What brings me to write about her is that I have a similar relationship with the New Yorker. I subscribed to the New Yorker full of hope and excitement a couple of years ago (taking advantage of the unbelievable offer of $25/year). The best magazine in the United States would soon be coming to my mailbox. I eagerly started reading the first issue that arrived, but too soon the next arrived, and then the next.

I tucked a couple of issues here and there—in my beach bag, in a reading basket in the bathroom, in the car. But it was no use. It felt like I was waging a losing battle, each new arrival a fresh defeat.

I let the subscription run out. Now a pile of two-year-old New Yorkers hovers above me on a tall shelf. I can't throw them out because they're too full of good writing to just toss them into the recycling bin.

Another bargain offer to the New Yorker arrived in the mail last week; I was so tempted to check "yes" and mail it back, but that pile of unread NYers taunted me. I tell myself that I don't want to turn into K., so I let them gather dust. Yet perhaps such neglect is a fate worse than hers, for at least she tried to continue the task, no matter how desperate or impossible it grew to be.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Am I Tipper Gore?

After my last post, in which I tsk-tsk-ed the appropriateness of Lady Gaga's videos for her tween/Nick Kids' Choice fans, and I had a letter published in the Washington Post last week suggesting that they should keep the "Kids Post" section of the paper kid-friendly even on the days it doesn't run, my son asked me a question.

"So, are you becoming one of those outraged parents?"

"What do you mean?" I asked, innocently.

"You know, like Tipper Gore."

Ouch. This is an especially sore point with me, not only because I am a writer who believes in artistic freedom, but because I am a librarian by training. Whether non-librarians realize this or not, you almost have to take a vow in library school that you will offer up information freely and uncensored. The question was posited in my introduction to librarianship class (called "The Block" in those days): if a teenager asked for information on how to commit suicide, would you give it to him or her?

I, surprisingly, was in the minority of those who were hesitant to hand over such material. My suggestion of also tucking in a pamphlet or phone number for a suicide hotline was met with hoots from some of the most ardent students.

I thought I was done with that question until I applied to be a reference librarian at a local public library a few years later. Facing a circle of librarians and managers, I was asked what I would do if a teenager asked for information on how to commit suicide.

"Well," I said, breaking out in a light sweat, "I guess I would help them find the information, but I would worry about them. I might also want to steer them to information on depression or suicide prevention." Wrong answer. Scribbles were put down in notebooks, the head librarian frowned. Later, after the interview questions were done, I was asked if I had any comments or questions. I said that I would like to revise my previous answer about the suicidal teenager.

"I realize, now, that really this is a question about censorship, and whether I feel that it's my place to censor the information that people access, and the answer is 'No, it's not.'" The head librarian smiled and nodded, and I was later offered the job (which I ended up not taking).

Yet I couldn't help wanting to add a parenthetical postscript, a whispered aside, "I'd give them the information, but I would wonder why they were researching it. If a teenage boy said he wanted to know how to hang himself, how could I rightly and forthrightly offer him instructions without trying to hear why he wanted it?"

The local libraries are so crowded and short-staffed now, it's unlikely that there would be time for such a conversation anymore.

And Tipper Gore is a sore point with me, as well, because I didn't think that her crusade was all that bad years ago—as a parent I appreciate the "Explicit lyrics" tag on albums and songs, which resulted from it. No one objects to the rating system on movies; I'm sure most people can agree that they wouldn't want a seven-year-old walking into a Quentin Tarantino movie.

Yes, I know that 99 percent of rock songs are about sex—no need to stop the presses for that revelation. It's the songs about violent sex I object to, the humiliation of women, the glorification of murder, especially in rap lyrics. While I defend the right of the artists to sing what they want to, I don't want to buy it and I'd like to shield children from it.

In wanting to get to some kind of conclusion here, I looked up Tipper Gore just now on Wikipedia. The song that started her crusade, "Darling Nikki," is from "Purple Rain," which I still think is a fantastic album and movie. In context of the movie, Prince is denigrating a woman because he is hurt and mad; it's supposed to be a nasty song. I understand that—the song never bothered me. But I wouldn't want little girls to prance around singing it, magazine in hand. That's not censorship, that's good sense.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Gag Lady Gaga?

Last week, while casting her votes online for the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, my daughter chose "Papparazzi" by Lady Gaga as her favorite song. There wasn't much competition, really, since the other choices included "I Gotta Feeling," which she is sick of, and something by Miley Cyrus, whom she claims not to like. And, she has the song on her mp3 player (the original, not the KidzBop version).

My teenager remarked to me later, "But have you watched her videos? They're kinda nasty."

So, after she was in bed, I sat down and watched the video for "Papparazzi" in addition to her MTV Music Awards performance of it. There are a lot of disturbing images in each one—at the end of the MTV performance, she ends up with fake blood coming out of her eyes, hanging from a wire like she's dead. The music video features images of murdered women—one with a bullet hole in the forehead, one lying in a pool of blood, one whose face is wrapped in Saran Wrap. You get the idea. In the middle of the video are flashes of Lady Gaga seated with other women dressed in what looked like S & M leather ensembles, licking each other's faces.

I didn't really like the music video—in fact, it has diminished my enjoyment of the song since I picture those dead women when I hear it now. I have no problem with adults watching it, but I'm queasy when I think of the tween girls who like "Papparazzi," the song, trying to find the video for it.

Years ago, parents were worried about the influence of Britney Spears, all tarted up and marketed to tweens. I don't think Lady Gaga is marketing herself to tweens, but tweens have navigated to her because they like her music when they hear it.

So, do I want her censored? No, not really. But I wish those videos weren't as easy to find and access as they are. I typed "Lady Gaga" into Google just now, and her official web site was the second link listed; click on it and you see a screen for the "Music Video World Premiere" for "Telephone." If you open it, you'll see what looks like a bad prison movie; within seconds, the prison guards rip off Lady Gaga's clothes and throw her in a cell. (It does say "Parental Advisory EXPLICIT CONTENT" in a small box in the lower corner of the window.)

What is it with Lady Gaga killing people at the end of her videos? So far, in the three videos of hers that I've watched, they've all ended in murder, two of them by poison. Does she want us all to share her fetishes, her narcissism, her psychosis? Even if it's just entertainment, it's weird and nasty stuff. And it's not for kids, obviously.

So, despite the fact that "Papparazzi" is a popular song, I don't think Nick should have put it on that list; kids don't need to be pushed in her direction. That's not censorship—it's just showing well-needed restraint.