On the Gay Voice and Zen Arcade: A Panel Discussion with Four Critics from The New York Times

06Nov07

After yesterday’s post on the gay voice and American literature, we were invited to lead a panel discussion with A.O. Scott, Edward Rothstein, Michael Kimmelman, and Judith Warner, four critics from The Times whose work in recent weeks has been subjected to scrutiny from The Gay Recluse. The focus of our talk was Zen Arcade by Hüsker Dü ; long recognized but increasingly forgotten as one of the greatest rock albums of the 1980s, it is a post-hardcore masterpiece of dissonance and brilliant songcraft, a double-LP “concept” album filled with a discordant anger that expands on the political tone of earlier Husker efforts into a new territory marked by psychological violence, dismay and — arguably — resignation.

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A.O. Scott: Look, for the record — get it? (laughs) –I think this is a great fucking album that belongs in any serious record collection. Hüsker Dü was one of my favorite bands in high school; I don’t listen to them anymore because it would hurt my kids’ ears and my wife would yell at me — which I hate — but I think it’s a cultural touchstone for anyone interested in underground music from the 80s.

TGR: Judith, how do you remember the 80s?

Judith Warner: For me, when I listen to this, it reminds me of when I used to go to rock shows in college with my friends. And that was a really hard time for people–I saw some drug addicts in the East Village, which was horrible, and there were homeless people, too! I just thank god it’s all behind us now. Would this record even be made today? I don’t think so–it’s too pessimistic. Is that a bad thing? Am I wrong to say no?

Edward Rothstein: I agree with Judy. What I don’t like about this music is not only that it’s pessimistic, but that it’s very angry-sounding, which upsets me. It’s kind of like reading Friedrich Nietzsche: you’re just like, why is this guy so angry and how does it help anything? It’s kind of inhuman, and does it really make for any kind of meaningful discourse in the community?

Michael Kimmelman: I understand what Ed is saying, but I probably wouldn’t go so far in my dismissal. The 80s under Reagan were a period of political conservatism, which led to some interesting forms of artistic expression, and this album is a good example of that; America, of course, doesn’t have a long memory for anything, but I think you could probably draw some parallels between what happened then and what’s happening now.

The Gay Recluse: Let’s talk about “When Pink Turns To Blue,” the Grant Hart song about a heroine overdose. Do you think it’s a stretch to locate this song in particular within what might be called a “gay” narrative tradition?

A.O. Scott: To me, when I hear that kind of question, my response is “agenda!” (Laughs.) It’s one thing to justify a tradition for ethnic minorities — or even gender, if you want to point to certain feminist works — but I think it really pushes the envelope of plausibility to locate this song in a “gay” tradition, much less the entire album.

Edward Rothstein: Isn’t the question of homosexuality really irrelevant here? I mean, so what if Grant Hart is gay? Or even Bob Mould for that matter? The song — which by the way hurts my ears — is obviously about a drug overdose, and it really just distracts — no, diminishes — to imply that the narrator is to any degree gay. There’s just no evidence.

The Gay Recluse: What about the symbolism of pink for girls and blue for boys, and the blurring of the two? Isn’t that a perfect encapsulation of coming out, at least for a guy? Is it fair to entirely dismiss this kind of interpretation?

Michael Kimmelman: I think it is, mostly because it’s just too simplistic given the sophistication of the song. It’s also like what Edward was saying about evidence, namely: where is it? (Laughs.) Now, if you want to look at through a political lens — especially the “no more rope and too much dope” line, which has overtones in a lot of the Soviet blok art made at the same period — well, that makes a lot more sense to me.

The Gay Recluse: Thank you all for both your time and your insight.

“Pink Turns to Blue” (G. Hart)

Going out each day to score
She was no whore
But for me
Celebrating every day
The way
She thought it should be

And I don’t know what to do
Now that pink has turned to blue

She was always by my side
And never tried
To leave
Standing up for me
And like a tree
For what she believed

No more rope
And too much dope
She’s lying on the bed
Angels pacing
Gently placing
Roses ’round her head

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