This essay appears in a revised form in my book An Incomprehensible Condition: An Unauthorised Guide To Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers. Paperback, Hardback, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), other ebook formats
(Before I start, a quick apology to any visually impaired people reading this. I posted all this before, with alt tags for the images, including one with a little extra bit about the use of the handkerchief in the minstrel show, but WordPress ate it. I’ve reposted this, but don’t have time to retag the images tonight – I am unwell with what I’m hoping isn’t stomach flu. I will do so as soon as practical. I’ve also not re-italicised titles.)
Before I start this, an admission. I am a white man. Further, I am a white man from England. I say this up front because I am going to be treading on some astonishingly touchy ground regarding race in the USA, and while I consider myself to be a passionate, committed opponent of all forms of racism, I am aware enough of my own privilege to know that it’s entirely possible I will make mistakes here, even though I am making every effort not to. Please feel free to inform me of any problematic aspects of this.
“I found that Hoyle and Narlikar had already worked out Wheeler-Feynman electrodynamics in expanding universes, and had then gone on to formulate a time-symmetric new theory of gravity. Hoyle unveiled the theory at a meeting of the Royal Society in 1964. I was at the lecture, and in the question period, I said that the influence of all the matter in a steady state universe would make his masses infinite. Hoyle asked why I said that, and I replied that I had calculated it. Everyone thought I had done it in my head during the lecture, but in fact, I was sharing an office with Narlikar, and had seen a draft of the paper. Hoyle was furious. He was trying to set up his own institute, and threatening to join the brain drain to America if he didn’t get the money. He thought I had been put up to it, to sabotage his plans. However, he got his institute, and later gave me a job, so he didn’t harbor a grudge against me”
Authenticity is a tricky subject, isn’t it?
It used to be so simple. Fats Domino doing Ain’t That A Shame was definitely authentic. Pat Boone doing the same song wasn’t. Of course it wasn’t. Pat Boone wanted to change the words to “Isn’t that a shame?”
But then, Chuck Berry is definitely ‘authentic’ too, isn’t he? He pretty much invented his genre. But have a look at Hail! Hail! Rock And Roll, the 1986 documentary about him. There’s a scene where he talks about how he’d admired musicians like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, as well as Domino, but realised that their music was ghettoised. So he changed his vocal style to sound less black, and more like Boone – “Why can’t I do what Pat Boone does and sell records to the white people, too?” [FOOTNOTE: Unfortunately I’m currently unable to check this quote for perfect accuracy, as I can no longer play my old VHS copy of this film. Should anyone be able to provide a corrected version, I will post it to http://andrewhickey.info/errata.%5D
This appears to have worked. Witness the scene in It by Stephen King (a novel about seven misfits who go off to fight a giant spider that’s really a far more malicious and powerful force than it at first appears), where one character wants to go and watch TV to see if Neil Sedaka is ‘a Negro’, because he’d been fooled into thinking Chuck Berry was white until seeing him on TV. [FOOTNOTE: This, as with much of King’s work, is semi-autobiographical. See http://www.stephenking.pl/sk_artykuly_ew_58.html, in which King argues that white people like Bob Seger and Snow Patrol can now sound every bit as good as black people like Chuck Berry.]
Is someone ‘authentic’ when they’re copying an ‘inauthentic’ performer who is in turn copying an ‘authentic’ performer?
I still know a few people who prefer the Rolling Stones to the Beatles because the former are more ‘authentic’. Is an LSE economics dropout from Kent singing Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters songs more or less authentic than an art school dropout from Liverpool singing Marvelettes and Isley Brothers songs? Discuss.
Chuck Berry is, of course, known for suing artists such as the Beatles and the Beach Boys, who he considers stole his ideas. Johnnie Johnson, Berry’s pianist, sued him in 2000, claiming to have co-written most of Berry’s hits without credit. The lawsuit was thrown out.
In Mister Miracle, Shilo Norman complains that Baron Bedlam, an imitator made out of plastic, is ripping off his act. Shilo Norman is the third Mister Miracle.
“You’re tokenising me! I’m not a white man, I’m a Scot, OK? My fucking country… my country has been ruled by the fucking English for five hundred years, so don’t tokenise me, okay?!”
Grant Morrison, reply to a fan’s question at a convention panel, 2006
In Final Crisis, Grant Morrison’s 2008 follow-up to Seven Soldiers (and specifically to the Mister Miracle section), Anthro, the first boy ever born and the DC Universe equivalent of Adam, is given the secret of fire by Metron of the New Gods.[ FOOTNOTE: Metron is the Greek for ‘measure’. One of the quotes I considered but discarded for one of these section headers was from Antiphon the Sophist – “Time is a thought or a measure [metron], not a substance.” – but I couldn’t find a source for it other than Wikipedia] The scene is somewhat reminiscent of the scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey in which knowledge is given to hominids by aliens. Unsurprisingly, Jack Kirby, the creator of the New Gods, adapted 2001 in comic form in the mid-70s – both Kubrick’s film and Kirby’s comics dealt with the idea that ultimately, what makes us human comes not from ourselves but from aliens who took the clay that was the crude form of proto-humanity and shaped it into something other and different.
Popularised by Eric von Däniken, a convicted fraudster, the ‘chariots of the Gods’ idea holds that beings from elsewhere arrived and civilised a poor bunch of ape-people who could never have achieved anything by themselves, by turning those ape-people into a poor imitation of themselves. For some reason, I can’t imagine why, this idea is a lot more popular among the nastier sections of the right-wing than among others.
Here, though, Metron is explicitly linked to astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who has become the modern-day symbol for knowledge and intelligence, even though his own initial reputation was based on having taken secret knowledge from others and making it public. Hawking, who uses a wheelchair because he lives with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, was, when Seven Soldiers was written, the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge – the same position Isaac Newton had held centuries earlier. The chair that allows Hawking to move about is paralleled by Metron’s Möbius chair, which allows him to travel throughout time and space.
Much of Hawking’s work over the decades has been to do with black holes, and in particular the black hole information paradox, which we discussed back in the chapter on Zatanna. To refresh your memory very briefly, black holes suck things into themselves. They also radiate particles (Hawking radiation). But those particles should, according to the ‘no-hair theorem’, be totally random. So the information in the objects originally sucked into the black holes is destroyed. And information is supposed to be unable to be destroyed. This would violate all sorts of things, including our old friend the Second Law Of Thermodynamics.
One solution to this, which we’ve touched on earlier, is the holographic universe idea. Another is that the information gets pumped into another universe. Hawking, though, at around the time Seven Soldiers was being published, decided that Hawking radiation is just non-random enough to allow the information to escape back into the universe it came from.
“In active (feedforward and/or feedback) regulation, each disturbance D will have to be compensated by an appropriate counteraction from the regulator R. If R would react in the same way to two different disturbances, then the result would be two different values for the essential variables, and thus imperfect regulation. This means that if we wish to completely block the effect of D, the regulator must be able to produce at least as many counteractions as there are disturbances in D. Therefore, the variety of R must be at least as great as the variety of D.”
Principia Cybernetica – http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/reqvar.html
It’s generally regarded that American popular song began with Stephen Foster. Foster, who died aged 37 the year before the American Civil War ended, wrote songs for blackface minstrel shows. These shows, which remained popular in the UK into the 1980s but thankfully died out in the US some decades earlier, involved light-skinned performers ‘blacking up’ as black people, and singing and dancing in a parody of what they imagined the black manner to be. Interestingly, many of the performers in these shows, who would now be regarded as white, were Jewish, Italian or Irish – ethnicities and nationalities that were regarded as inferior at the time.
Foster’s songs, and the other songs of the type, were advertised as being authentic examples of ‘African’ or ‘Ethiopian’ music (as well as some much more offensive terms). But they were in fact far more in the style of Irish ballads and European parlour song, and owed little or nothing in their composition to the actual songs of the enslaved black people of the period. However, they were intended for playing on the banjo, an instrument adapted from one used by slaves to perform their own music, and to be sung in ‘negro’ voices.
In fact, many of the earliest professional black entertainers in the USA performed in minstrel shows, wearing black makeup and performing in the same style as the white performers. These shows were apparently hugely popular with black audiences, who were glad to see any black performers on stage at all, even if they were reduced to playing caricatures of white people playing caricatures of black people.
The cult of ‘authenticity’ in popular music comes from much the same place, and is largely the responsibility of people like John and Alan Lomax. The Lomaxes and their ilk were well-meaning in their attempts to record a culture that was already dying, but their wish to ‘preserve’ music meant that if a black performer had a song that didn’t, to them, sound black enough it must have been contamination from white music. Likewise white folk singers were discouraged from singing blues numbers.
The person worst served by this kind of thing was probably Robert Johnson, known among his peers as a sophisticated musician in a multitude of styles, but who only ever got to record in the blues style for which he’s now known [FOOTNOTE: Johnson was recorded by commercial producers, rather than the Lomaxes, who I’m using as the most prominent example of a general trend of thinking.] Johnson, of course, died young, and to add insult to injury it became widely believed that he had sold his soul to Satan in return for musical facility – it being, of course, impossible that a young black man could have become a virtuoso guitarist through a combination of natural ability and practice.
Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter did somewhat better. While the Lomaxes insisted on recording only his blues music, rather than his impassioned political songs or gorgeous ballads, and only gave him the money he earned in small amounts, supposedly to stop him spending it all on drink (until he threatened to sue them), he later managed to record pieces like Goodnight, Irene which are among his most enduring works.
But we see, time and again, the theme of the black artist being defined by what the white people think the black people should be doing, stretching from Lead Belly all the way back to the ex-slaves copying their ex-masters’ on-stage aping of them.
In Mister Miracle, Shilo Norman is an escapologist. He puts on chains and escapes from them for his audience.
“LEAD BELLY Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel”
Headline in Life magazine, 1937
The second law of thermodynamics is what both gives us our freedom and eventually dooms us. It states that as time goes on, entropy (disorder) must increase. This is quite possibly the most fundamental law in the universe, and it’s what gives us the arrow of time at all – we can define time, simply, as the increase in entropy.
But the second law is also mathematically equivalent to Ashby’s Law Of Requisite Variety, which states (in lay terms) that it’s impossible to control a system unless you have as many options open as there are ways the system can do things you don’t want. The more complex a system – the more disordered a system – the more options you have to have to control it. So all attempts at control are, ultimately, futile. Dark Side can find as many ways to hem Mister MIracle in as he likes, but the escape artist will always find a way out. The controller has to be lucky every time – the controlled only has to be lucky once.
Black holes are the ultimate expression of the law of gravity. Gravity pulls everything towards the centre, and get something massive enough, and this force will pull all the mass toward the centre to such an extent that even light is pulled toward it. Once you’ve crossed the ‘event horizon’ – the point at which the attraction of the singularity becomes great enough – you can’t get out.
In most black holes, movement towards the singularity (the centre of a black hole, not the geek rapture) is the same thing as the increase in entropy – this is why you can never escape. But there’s a special type of black hole – the extremal black hole (and really, what other kind could a superhero ever deign to try to escape from but an extremal one?) – where that may not be true. These are the smallest possible black holes that can exist (which also means that they’d be the perfect type to be artificially created, like the one Mister Miracle escapes from).
The physicist Sean Carrol has shown [FOOTNOTE: for a value of ‘shown’ that means ‘done some mathematics about objects that have never been shown to exist in nature, in a situation that would be unlikely to occur even if they do exist’] that if these are charged in a particular way, there are actually two event horizons. There’s an outer one, which is inescapable – once you’re inside it, increase in entropy becomes equivalent to movement toward the centre, so it’s impossible to get out of.
But then inside this, there’s a second event horizon. Inside this, time works normally again. Anything in it can move towards the singularity, or just hang around in the inner event horizon forever. Were you to find yourself in this inner event horizon, and somehow managed not to die instantly from the extraordinary gravitational forces, you would find you had room to move. You could never get out into the outer event horizon, but you’d have wiggle room.
And the singularity of this type of black hole, should it exist, would be something of a type unique in this universe – it would have zero entropy, according to Carrol. What Carrol suggests this means is that the entropy of anything entering the singularity would escape into another dimension, which he calls Whoville.
“Taking the extremal limit of a non-extremal Reissner-Nordström black hole (by externally varying the mass or charge), the region between the inner and outer event horizons experiences an interesting fate — while this region is absent in the extremal case, it does not disappear in the extremal limit but rather approaches a patch of $AdS_2\times S^2$. In other words, the approach to extremality is not continuous, as the non-extremal Reissner-Nordström solution splits into two spacetimes at extremality: an extremal black hole and a disconnected $AdS$ space. We suggest that the unusual nature of this limit may help in understanding the entropy of extremal black holes.”
Extremal limits and black hole entropy, Sean M. Carroll, Matthew C. Johnson, Lisa Randall
So we’ve seen that a notion of authenticity is ultimately an oppressive one. Coming originally from the best of motives – to try to preserve the unique music of an oppressed racial group, and later to protect black musicians from having their music sanitised and popularised by more ‘acceptable’ white musicians – it’s ended up trapping musicians in artistic ghettos.
The songwriter Mark “Stew” Stewart actually went so far as to name his band The Negro Problem, partly in reference to An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, a 1945 study into racial prejudice, but mostly because that’s how he’s regarded. Nearly 80 years after Lead Belly’s heyday, it has now become so accepted that black people make ‘black music’ that the idea of a black man playing a guitar or singing melodies, rather than using a turntable and rapping, is anathema to the music industry. In albums like Post-Minstrel Syndrome, and in his musical Passing Strange, Stew has created some of the best songs in any genre for the last thirty years.
When ‘authenticity’ means a songwriter like Stew is punished for trying to escape from a musical ghetto, is it another tool of oppression? Is it worth letting a troop of plastic clones come along, one after another, and make sanitised copies of ‘authentic’ art, if that’s the price of setting people free? Can we get rid of Pat Boone, the minstrel show and Vanilla Ice without getting rid of Fats Domino, Lead Belly and the Wu Tang Clan? And should we even want to?
Chinese guys can jump real high and Germans cook soul food
white boys rap and hippies nap up their dreads to look rude
jazz is now suburban, it’s Marsalis-ly clean
and now we’ve got Viagra everyone’s a sex machine
so black men ski
Some kids I’ll describe as friends say I am race-obsessed
the luxury of your opinion shows you that you are blessed
I have poems about sunsets, flowers and the rain
I’ve read them to policemen, but it was all in vain
Stew – Black Men Ski
“Barker and Taylor do that, too, but after describing the marketing manoeuvres that made country and the blues racially “pure” categories (and left much of folk a politically impotent exercise in earnestness), they shy away from the legacy of that divide: rock purists and anti-hip-hop crusades on the one hand, and, on the other, pop music that entertains but rarely provokes, and never threatens any real danger but suicide, packaged and sold as a gesture of romantic authenticity. By the time they get to punk, a genre defined by politics, they’re so committed to avoiding the authenticity trap that they celebrate punk’s overlooked showmanship, failing to recognise that their embrace of inauthenticity as the essence of popular music is itself a trap.
But, as they write of the Monkees’ utterly contrived “I’m a Believer”, so what? It’s still a great song. And Faking It is a great collection of true stories about “fake” music. It’s the essay as Möbius strip; a literary illusion that ultimately makes less of an argument than it seems to, and yet tells us more about what’s true, what’s not, and why that doesn’t always matter, than a more straightforward confrontation with the secrets and lies of pop music ever could.”
Jeff Sharlett, Keeping It Unreal, New Statesman 16 April 2007
Lead Belly is buried in Shiloh Baptist Church, Mooringsport, Louisiana. He died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Comic issues Mister Miracle #1-4
Artists Pasqual Ferry, Billy Patton, Freddie Williams II(pencils), Pasqual Ferry, Michael Bair, Freddie Williams II (inks), Dave McCaig (colours)
Other credits Pat Brosseau, Nick J Napolitano, Phil Balsman, Travis Lanham (letters), Michael Siglain (asst editor), Peter Tomasi (editor)
Connected Morrison works Most of his DC work after this has followed on from it – 52, Final Crisis and The Return Of Bruce Wayne are all sequels to this.
Look Out For Freedom, responsibility and entropy
Still to come in Seven Soldiers The end