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Popular culture is awash in examples of individuals taking advantage of the opportunity afforded them by the culture industry to engage in the spectacle of personal revelation, in the very public, most often sensationalized, display of their private and intimate lives -- their desires, needs, misdeeds, thoughts, wishes, experiences, motivations, fears, and secrets.

Don Lennon

Reviewed by John Brady

Monday, November 20 2000, 5:29 PM


The other day, flipping through the channels, I chanced upon one of the many tabloid talk shows that on weekdays fill the airtime between the end of the soaps and the beginning of the sitcom re-runs. I forget which show exactly, but I don't forget the show's theme that blinked out luridly from the graphic at the bottom of my TV screen, "I'm sixteen and I like to strip." And indeed there on the screen was the sixteen year old stripper, a young woman clad only in bra and panties (why clothed? a stripper, shouldn't she be naked?), hands on hips, her chin (and breasts for that matter) thrust out defiantly, provocatively.

As I tuned in, she was yelling at the audience, almost screaming in fact, that it was her right to do what she wanted with her body. She proceeded to proclaim that since she didn't find sex or desire dirty or nudity anything to be ashamed of, why shouldn't she take off her clothes for money? The audience, goaded on by the host or hostess, who like some telegenic moralistic mother hen clucked at the young woman's every assertion, would have nothing of this. Ignoring the undeniable kernel of reasonableness in the stripper's position, however artlessly it may have been expressed, the audience members hooted, stamped their feet, and yelled back, loudly proclaiming their moral outrage at the notion that anyone, let alone a young woman, would want to dance around naked in public.

What's so astounding about this situation is not its occurrence, but its omnipresence. Popular culture is awash in examples of individuals taking advantage of the opportunity afforded them by the culture industry to engage in the spectacle of personal revelation, in the very public, most often sensationalized, display of their private and intimate lives -- their desires, needs, misdeeds, thoughts, wishes, experiences, motivations, fears, and secrets. Afternoon talk shows, Peoples Court, Divorce Court and the various Judge Shows (Judge Judy, Judge Joe Black, Judge Dread), primetime news shows and their staple of personal tragedy segments, Big Brother: all have provided individuals a chance to offer an audience a view into their personal world. In a sense, then, it wasn't unusual that the young woman was screaming. Her yelling can be taken as an indication of the communicative conditions that pervade contemporary culture. In a popular realm so chock full of people vying to tell their individual stories, one of the only ways to be heard is to scream (and perhaps shake your tits for good measure, too).

Make no mistake, I am not one of those conservatives who bemoan the breakdown between the public and the private spheres and who argue that personal matters don't belong in the public eye. On the contrary, the boundary between these two realms should remain permeable. Making the personal political -- as the women's movement has demonstrated repeatedly -- is often the first necessary step to be taken in order to address injustice, oppression, and domination hidden from view within the private realm's confines.

No what makes me uncomfortable about many of the instances of personal revelation that flit across the TV screen, float through the ether, or appear in the high gloss of mass circulation magazines, is the form they take. Sharing aspects of one's private life with others can be an extremely meaningful moment. In personal relationships like friendships or romances, revealing an aspect of one's private self often serves to deepen the relationship, making it more intimate and thereby solidifying the bond of friendship or love. In politics, calling attention to one's personal suffering can be a catalyst for political action as other people, acting out of solidarity or empathy or care, ask themselves why such suffering exists and what can be collectively done to put a stop to it. In these cases, sharing aspects of one's private life becomes part of a communicative chain that promotes greater understanding between individuals and groups.

It is a rather different story with the spectacles of personal confession and revelation that dominate our media-sphere. These moments of personal revelation come in a form that, if anything, tends to erode the rich potential for increased sociability contained in sharing one's life story with others. These spectacles are constructed to shock or titillate the audience. The focus is often on aspects of private experience that can be expected to generate attention and controversy: thus sex, sin, and scandal are in. What is more, these spectacles often pit the individual and audience against one another, fostering not understanding and mutual recognition but rather hostility, aggression, and, at very the least, moral condemnation. In the end, these spectacles, which try so mightily to present individual authenticity, manage to strip individuals of their personality, reducing them to objects of pity, or revulsion, or scorn, or amusement.

Against such a cultural backdrop, Boston singer-songwriter Don Lennon's second full-length album is welcome indeed. Like many others today, Lennon reveals aspects his private life, singing about everything from his debut album, to his feelings about Halloween, to adventures with friends, to the reasons he feels the need to sing. But he does so in a refreshing way, one that cuts across the grain of today's obsession with confession and private life. Lennon does nothing shocking, doesn't reveal anything lurid, doesn't pretend to be breaking any social taboos. Instead he sings about things that verge on the banal. And if it weren't for the way he presents the mundane details of his everyday life, the album would quickly get tiresome. But Lennon has a delightful dry sense of humor and he presents his personal stories with the right amount of irony and self-deprecation. What's more, he doesn't try to add undo melodrama to his stories by drawing on bombastic or overblown musical conventions. Instead he frames the various episodes from his daily life in a wonderfully economical use of the pop medium. As a result, what could be an irritating display of navel gazing, turns into an entertaining tour of one urban hipster's everyday life.

There's nothing profound here. We don't gain any real insight into why Lennon does the things he does or sings the songs he sings. Indeed, Lennon's slightly ironic self-presentation seems to say, "Don't believe everything you hear. You now know something about me, but certainly not everything." But this lack of profundity, this lack of complete personal revelation is just fine. Lennon, in keeping things simple, manages to appear all the more real. And in a culture dominated by moments of private revelation whose sensationalized presentation only points to their essential artificiality, this is no small accomplishment.

Don Lennon is a Martin Phillip release, POB 15097, Boston MA 02215 

Copyright © 2000 by John Brady. All rights reserved.
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