How we may very well explain Oprah to our grandkids

"Do not look me directly in the eye!"

No, you will tell your 23-year-old grandkid, Oprah was not the President of the United States. She could have been, but that would have ruined it. Becoming President would have stripped Oprah of all her power.

Oh, well, the United States was a nation that quickly rose to power after a robust Industrial Revolution and victories in three major wars. For about 200 years, it was the most powerful nation on earth, but …

No, Oprah didn’t have anything to do with the destruction of the United States. Not literally, anyway. But we’re kind of getting off topic here. Did you learn nothing at the People’s College of the Americas?

It wasn’t that Oprah was political, exactly, although she did endorse some presidential candidates. She was a talk-show host who was insanely popular with women. She had this book club and a magazine that had her picture on the cover every month. When she would mention a book or a product on the air, it would immediately soar in popularity. People really trusted Oprah.

Well, yes, at that time, people were pretty much allowed to read whatever they wanted. There was this classic book written by Mark Twain called “Huck Finn,” and it had some racial slurs in it and, oh anyway … yeah, Oprah would go on television and say she had read a particular book, and that book would instantaneously become a best seller. There was even this one guy named James Frey, who wrote a book that Oprah turned into a best seller. When she found out he made up most of it, she then destroyed this man on television.

No, I mean, like, verbally, as in with questions and rhetoric. The guy didn’t actually die. He was just really humiliated and it became this really big deal. People were all talking about Oprah demolishing this guy because she felt foolish for recommending his book to her audience. What was amazing was that the same guy had gone on Larry King with no consequence really. Larry King was another pretty famous talk show host who …

Oh, that’s right, he is still alive isn’t he?

The point was, this Frey guy had made Oprah mad and he knew he was going to go on her show and get demolished and he did it anyway, because he knew he had no other option.

No, I don’t think Oprah was a genius in the classical sense. I think she was intelligent, but not unusually so. We both probably know many people more intelligent than Oprah. She was mainly just charismatic and a good business person.

But anyway, Oprah’s show became the place where celebrities either got destroyed or reconstructed. Oprah could do that for someone. Like, if you were some great actor, and you had done something really bad, you would go on Oprah’s show and if she could get you to cry, her audience would forgive you and you’d be considered rehabilitated and it would be OK for people to like you again. People really trusted Oprah.

Other than that, she pretty much just gave away cars and stuff.

Was she like the Pope? I mean, kind of. She wasn’t technically a religious leader of any kind, but the differences between the behavior of people who subscribed to “O” Magazine and those who subscribed to any organized religion were pretty difficult to distinguish in broad terms. Oprah never publicly claimed to be God, but there was definitely a messianic subtext to everything she did.

No, she wasn’t married. It is my personal belief that Oprah was asexual.

That’s a great question. Honestly, I can’t really tell you why people were so compelled by this woman. I mean, she was affable on television and she seemed to have a gift for expressing the exact sentiments women of all ages were feeling about any particular topic at any given time. It helped that she was generally apolitical and I think her backstory helped. She had grown up poor in Mississippi, during the Civil Rights movement and was pretty much self-made. She started out as a journalist.

Oh boy, well, journalists were these people who made reports about things going on in the world, government, sports, crime, that sort of thing. Most people hated them, but they were pretty much essential to the democratic process.

Yeah, they were basically allowed to say anything they wanted. It was the law back then. People were allowed to say whatever they wanted.

No, they weren’t paid by the government. That was sort of the whole point.

Well, things started going downhill when YouTube got started.

But, yeah, she was one of those people and she was pretty likable and pretty good at interviewing people and once she got her talk show, it just took off.

As far as I know, she never had anyone killed, no.

Oh, yes, she was absurdly rich. She was worth a couple billion dollars, and you have to understand that was a lot of money back then. Whereas now a sandwich cost two million, in 2011, having three billion dollars made you one of the richest people in the United States.

No, Oprah didn’t invent anything.

No, she had nothing to do with Halliburton.

Like I said, her TV show was very popular and her magazine did well. People really trusted Oprah.

Yes, I am telling you that an unremarkably intelligent woman with a daytime talkshow and a magazine was the most powerful person in the United States. That’s exactly what I’m telling you. If history books were still a thing, I’m sure she would be in them. Like I said, people really trusted Oprah.


(Sigh). Sorry I even brought it up.


What’s with all the vulnerability lately?

Eminem’s latest album, Recovery, has been described as an emo rap CD, which is darn near oxymoronic, like referring to a glam metal album as “good.”

I haven’t listened to much of it, but based on the tracks I have heard, I wouldn’t say that description is inaccurate. But if you’ve been paying attention recently, there are some changing themes in hip hop.

After the musical arson of Lil John and Soulja Boy and (to a greater extent that is commonly realized) 50 Cent, the genre seems to be dusting off the ashes a little bit with some nuance that for all I know might mean the genre’s paradigm has finally edged off a little.

But you still have to scowl.

Take these three videos from the last few months:

Eminem and Lil Wayne’s “No Love”:

Jay-Z’s “Young Forever”:

And Cee-Lo’s (ahem) “Fuck You”:

All three of those videos — Cee-Lo isn’t a rapper but I include him anyway because this is my blog and I can do what I want — obviously explore themes of youth*.

*Two of them also sampled early 90s pop songs that as recently as six years ago were used as punchlines. Mr. Hudson’s “Forever Young” was included in Napoleon Dynamite (2004) for the same reasons Napoleon’s moon boots and wolf t-shirt were. And Haddaway’s “What is love?” basically had an entire movie (A Night at the Roxbury) based on how ridiculous the song was. I don’t know what this means, except that if you can somehow create one hit song, there is always a chance you’ll never have to work again.

But it’s more than just youth. It’s vulnerability. The kid in the “No Love” video gets bullied. The Cee-Lo kid is a dork who can’t get the girl. And I think it’s fairly obvious that a song called “Young Forever” is really about mortality (though Jay-Z makes clear in the lyrics he considers himself, or at least his work, to be immortal).

The best song of the three is almost certainly “No Love,” because it is the most involved. The other two are excellent pop songs, and Jay-Z’s song has a little more to it than that. But as with a lot of Eminem’s work, you get the feeling what you’re hearing is implicitly autobiographical — and in this case comical that one of the bullies in the video looks like Justin Beiber.

The song’s key line is kind of just thrown in toward the end of Eminem’s verse

“You’ll never take my pride,” he says.

I believe this is what the song is about. It is about Eminem’s life, beginning to end. His being bullied as a kid, mistreated by (in his opinion, I’m sure) practically everybody he’s ever met, his drug addiction, his critics, his terrible last album. The song begins with Lil Wayne saying, “Throw dirt on me, and grow a wild flower” and basically ends with Eminem saying “You’ll never take my pride” as the kid in the video summons the courage to stand up to his bullies.

What is interesting about this is not the pride thing. It is the angle from which this song approaches the pride thing. Pride has always been a big part of rap music, in most cases the central theme. But rappers have basically never depicted themselves as victims, and have certainly never embraced victimhood in any realistic way.

When Tupac actually did get shot five times at the studio where Notorious B.I.G. was recording, he made it clear he had been the victim of a crime, but you don’t get a whole lot of victimhood in his response song, “Hit ‘Em Up.”

The message is quite the opposite, actually. The whole point of the song is, “I’m better than you, which is why I didn’t die when you shot me.”

That, from 1994, was the essence of hip-hop victimhood for basically the next 15 years. Never an acknowledgment of vulnerability. Five shots couldn’t stop me, I took it and smiled.

It is tempting to say this apparently new sentiment in rap is an expression of a broader cultural feeling. A feeling in America, because of the recession or whatever, that we ourselves are vulnerable and that this sense was bound to work its way into pop culture. That may be true, I suppose, or it may be total hogwash.

I think it’s more likely that it is more narrow than that. The last few years, rap looked like it was descending into self parody. It looked like it was breathing its last breaths. Like the genre itself was vulnerable.

And maybe that has something to do with it.