DURING THE OBSCENITY TRIAL OF 2 Live Crew, Henry Louis Gates, a professor at Duke University, opined that what some people (including me) thought was just a rush of foul language set to a pulsing beat was really something else entirely. What I had listened to was, in fact, a rather clever attempt at parody in the tradition of Shakespeare, Chaucer and Joyce, whose uses of vulgar language were, of course, well known. Here, Gates said, was street machismo being mocked by being taken to the nth degree. "P-a-r-o-d-y," Gates said, spelling out the word. The title "professor" is one I respect. I took note.
And then, a week or two later, a car passed me on a street near my house. It was a hatchback, and in the rear of the car were two enormous speakers. Playing on the tape deck was something by the aforementioned 2 Live Crew, and from the speakers came aural dumdum bullets of obscenity: foul words of the four-letter variety hitting the facade of high-rises and pitting the brick, breaking windows and overwhelming infants as they slept in their cribs, ensuring, I am convinced, that they will turn into pyromaniacs, or something, later in life.
Everyone on the street looked up as if a 747 were coming down the block. The words blared, blasted, insisted. The faces of my neighbors reflected a kind of quizzical shock. "Joyce," I imagined them thinking. "Shakespeare. Chaucer." The neighborhood drunk, the very same fellow who had mocked my ignorance of cars, started to recite The Canterbury Tales: "When that April . . ." Only he said it in Middle English, which is hardly heard anymore. Naturally, I recalled Gates. "P-a-r-o-d-y," I thought, and then, parodying parody, muttered some obscenities of my own. Some days, my bent for parody just runneth over.
Suddenly I found myself being transformed into Andy Rooney. My voice got high and insistent as I started to ask myself over and over again, "What has this world come to?" I meant that seriously. I meant it because I value subtlety and a use of the language that brings to mind Chaucer, Shakespeare and Joyce. I meant it, especially, because those writers, whatever foul words they used and no matter how graphic their descriptions of sex (not very, actually), are essentially to be enjoyed in private. Even when Shakespeare's work is performed, it is seen on a totally voluntary basis. If you don't buy a ticket, you can't get in.
This, though, is not the case with the new music. Whatever the virtues of 2 Live Crew, and no matter how they might authentically be parodying what Gates said was the stereotype of the black male as "hypersexed," the fact remains that the music itself is played in an arena that Gates did not take into consideration and 2 Live Crew cannot control. That, really, is not the case with so-called "party records" to which 2 Live Crew's music has been compared nor, especially, with Chaucer, et al. When is the last time you heard "The Miller's Tale" blaring from a car?
In New York at the moment, a certain all-sports radio station proclaims "We've got New York sports by the . . . ," and its announcers are shown holding various kinds of balls. The commercial runs on television. It's a billboard on the approach to LaGuardia airport. Like music blaring from a car, it's in your face whether you choose to get the message or not.
It is that element, the intrusiveness of contemporary art and ads, that is as new as the works themselves. Whatever you might think of pornography or vulgarity, it's one thing to savor it in the privacy of your home and quite another to recite it from your terrace. It's one thing to tolerate Hustler magazine, quite another to have to stare at its cover when shopping with your child. The very word "tolerance," which is the absolute basis of the liberal mentality, is challenged when the permissive foster the intrusive. The old, unstated agreement was different. It went something like this: Okay, but not in my neighborhood.
I suppose we are talking about space -- both as distance and as a concept. Cities, of course, narrow space, but in their odd ways they have tried to be respectful of it. The city of old, especially its slum sections, was undoubtedly intrusive, but then so was life in general -- one-room schools, one-room homes, a general tendency, born out of poverty, to live, work and sleep in the same place. Privacy -- another word for space -- is something of a modern, affluent concept.
But until just recently, the city was organized around avoidance. Fences of sorts were erected. Red-light districts and skid rows confined unsavory or unsightly people to certain sections of town. Now, though, "bums" have become "the homeless," and skid row is anywhere. It is the same with certain messages, both sound and sight. The crude commercial for a radio station, the once-innocent magazine rack, the crude but omnipresent Madonna, the blaring of obscenities from passing cars -- these are all intrusions into our space.
Gates was never asked whether he thought 2 Live Crew could be obscene in one setting and not in another, and so he said nothing on the subject. But the comparisons he made, even if valid, are also irrelevant: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Joyce are not blared from moving cars. If they were -- if, for instance, the more famous passages from Ulysses were blared from passing cars -- then we might have a whole different idea about the worth of their classics. What might well be parody on the stage or on record is something else when it comes from a moving car: It's trespassing.