Academic Book, biology, Boobs, booooooooooobs, Carinval, Catharsis, Clappy the Sad Clown with Clap, Clopin, death, Degredation, excrement, farting, fertility, Film, film review, Francois Rabelias, Les Miserables, Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition, Literature, M.M. Bakhtin, Nicki Minaj, Pound the Alarm, Rabelias and His World, sexual display, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, solstice, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Topsy Turvy, Victor Hugo
–Life’s a laugh, and death’s a joke it’s true (Eric Idle, Life of Brian)
I watched the Pound the Alarm music video because of Nicki Minaj’s breasts. I’m gonna be honest here. I’m a horrible liar, even in prose, and so moving forward it just seemed like a bad idea to try and bullshit my way through this one especially when shit’s going to become so important later on. Back to Boobs. Pound the Alarm came on the FUSE network on one of the numerous “Best of [INSERT BAND NAME HERE]” series, I think it was “Videos of the Week,” but that’s not really important. The video caught me immediately because it began with a small island drum with a few HD shots of the Caribbean, a man hacking a melon with a machete, people on a beach, a few guys playing football (soccer to my American readers, one day we’ll join the club), before a siren begins as the viewer sees a sign that reads “Trinidad and Tobango The Home of Carnival.”
Not long after that I found myself transfixed by an electronic beat that severed me from my will power, and a pair of breasts constantly surrounded by other breasts decorated with gold beads, feathers, and curly blonde locks. I bought the song on itunes, when I still had an itunes account, along with the video which I watched over and over again. I should probably footnote this story by letting the reader know I was still a teenage boy at the time and I had yet to meet my wife. I wish I could honestly say that my first initial viewings were some intellectual effort on my part, but aging has a way of cutting through that bullshit and your previous actions take on a painful lucidity. I watched the video over and over again because the visuals of the song, and for the fact that the lyrics spoke of nothing but sex, and Nicki Minaj was gorgeous, and had breasts I’m not sure if that’s been made apparent.
My hormones calmed down eventually and I was able to manage the song over time to the point I listened to it at the most, three or four times a year. It became something I stumbled upon when I was searching for the right song, after a long shitty day or else something I needed to satisfy a “song-craving.” When I got to my first semester of graduate school however, I was finally able to justify my regular viewings of the video, principally by looking at it through the lens of a Stalinist era Russian Literary Theorist.
I’m beginning to recognize more and more why no girl ever went out with me in high school.
Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin was a writer, philosopher, literary critic, Semiotician (someone who studies how human beings make meaning out of things) and remains one of the most respected and influential minds of his generation. His most prominent work remains The Dialogic Imagination, four long-as-fucking-fuck essays that probe into the language structure of the novel and how they are able to re-shape said language to reflect the ways in which humanity uses language to define reality, define “others,” and order the structure of the novel as an institution. Point being the dude was a real riot at parties and if you can get him to perform at your kid’s birthday party instead of a clown.
Kid’s dig Russian philosophy, and its way less creepy that hiring Clappy the Sad Clown with Clap.
Bakhtin principally worked with novels, often with Dostoyevsky, however for this piece I will focus on his work with François Rabelais, specifically his book Rabelias and His World. I should let my reader understand, I’m being awfully honest in this essay, that I haven’t read the book in its entirety. The first semester of grad school I took a Literary Theory course thinking that it would help me as I progressed further in my academic career and let the record reflect this was one of the few serendipitous moments in life when this wound up to be true. The class exposed me to great minds like Judith Butler, Karl Marx, Jaques Derrida, Jaques Lacan, Gayle Rubin, Michel Foucault, and Ferdinand de Saussure. We might also have talked about Freud at some point. Bakhtin was not in fact a required reading but my professor, whom I had taken at least three times as an undergraduate, required an in-class presentation and so I wanted to sign up earlier for the first round of presentations so I could get it out of the way. I didn’t know dick about Bakhtin but the name sounded Russian and so I leapt into the passage printed in my Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition.
It was a wonderful moment when I began to realize that this wonderful essay about parties and shit would fit perfectly with Pound the Alarm but also with The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Bakhtin’s essay explores a facet of Rabelais’s novels, specifically the instances of Carnival, a seasonal party that traced back to the solstice and the changing of the seasons. Many Americans would probably recognize their own form of the event in Mardi Gras or Spring Break, though the Carnival of Rabelais’s world is distinct for its own reasons. Bakhtin observes:
As opposed to the official feast, one might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchal rank, privileges, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was immortalized and completed
On the contrary, all were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age. (686)
It’s hard, as an American at least, to really process how profound such a situation or gathering would allow for something like this, given the fact that there isn’t an established nobility in America. I suspect however that they might understand it in economic terms. If the same people who gather in private country clubs joined you for a beer at a Honky-Tonk their presence would have an effect upon you, likewise if you were allowed free access to private golf courses and five star restaurants without a reservation or uproar from the clientele there would likely be some kind of culture shock taking place.
The song Topsy Turvy was my first choice to compare Bahktin’s ideas to Minaj’s video and I wouldn’t realize until I was well into it that I had made the right choice. Looking at just the opening lyrics it’s clear how this dynamic of power and social disruption is dominating the people’s consciousness:
Once a year we throw a party here in town
Once a year we turn all Paris upside down
Ev’ry man’s a king and ev’ry king’s a clown
Once again it’s Topsy Turvy Day
It’s the day the devil in us gets released
It’s the day we mock the prig and shock the priest
Ev’rything is topsy turvy at the Feast of Fools!
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is loosely based, emphasis on loosely based, on the novel by Victor Hugo, the man who wrote Les Miserables and was one of those authors who could never write a happy book. Because of this watching the film and reading the book are entirely different experiences, but that’s for another essay. The point is that looking at Clopin’s song, yes that was his name but I had to Google it so don’t be that impressed, many audiences were able to understand and recognize Carnival because we celebrate Madri Gras in America which on the surface seems similar. We wear masks. We act goofy. There’s Pole dancing.
Wait what was that?
I’ll come back to that one. The problem with this mindset is that it isn’t accurate to the true spirit of a medieval Carnival, or at least the presentation that Rabelias covered in his novels which tended to employ, what Bahktin often refers to a “grotesque realism.” He says:
The essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in their indissoluble unity…
Degradation here means coming down to earth, the contact with earth as an element that swallows up and gives birth at the same time. To degrade is to bury, to sow, to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more and better. To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs; it therefore relates to acts of defecation and copulation, conception, pregnancy, and birth. Degradation builds a bodily grace for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one. (688)
If you didn’t follow all of that don’t worry I’m about to get back to boobs here in a minute. Bahktin in this passage is just trying to lay out a concept of what degradation is so that he can analyze Rabelias and show how that concept is present throughout the entire work before explaining why it’s important. From afar this passage may just sound like the typical, esoteric bullshit that academics tends to peddle in, and in many ways it is, but, it should be noted that Bahktin never becomes so complex that he becomes incoherent. The man has something to say, namely that Carnival is not just about craziness and boobs. Carnival being a seasonal holiday wrapped up in the solstice, and the changing of the earth’s seasons would create a need for human beings to understand the death of the world as well as its rebirth. Because human beings are a meaning making species that favors rituals over psychological probing, they began to create parties and celebrations that would revel in death as much as life in order to cope with this seeming absurdity.
The problem is that somewhere along the line the idea of life became far more entertaining, specifically sex. This development is understandable because after all, sex is fun. When you’re having sex you’re not thinking about dying, you’re not wondering why the world dies and is reborn several months later. In fact you’re not really thinking at all, you’re just behaving and acting.
Looking at the song Topsy Turvy the sex may not be apparent at first sight, but going back and watching the scene there an extended scene of Esmerelda pole dancing. The scene’s easy to miss when you’re a kid, but then again so is Frolo’s sexual frustration that manifests in many well-hidden boners, and then one obvious symbolic one that sends him falling into the fiery pit of molten lead. It’s not enough though she simply grabs a spear and spins around in a motion your step-mom tries to imitate for her friends when she’s drunk, it’s also the regular hip pops, the hair twirls, and the endless series of her breasts jiggling in her red dress. The fact that at the end of her dance the people throw gold coins onto the stage doesn’t exactly help either.
But what’s missing from the scene is any kind of physical degradation.
Looking to Pound the Alarm it fares no better. The lyrics of the second verse alone suggest that Nicki likewise is pushing the idea of carnival as an erotic spectacle rather than one of earth, death, and rebirth:
I wanna do it for the night, night
So get me now, and knock this over
I wanna do it like you like, like
Come get me, baby, we’re not getting younger
I just want you tonight, night
Baby, we won’t do it for life, life
Music, makes me, high
Oh, oh, oh, come fill my glass up a little more
We ’bout to get up, and burn this floor
You know we getting hotter, and hotter
Sexy and hotter, let’s shut it down
Pound the alarm!
When I mentioned to one of my coworkers my desire to write about this song she had never heard of it, and after pulling up the video of Nicki dancing around, waving her butt and boobs, and more butt, and more boobs, her only response was “Pound, the alarm. Pound it. Pound.” She essentially did all the work for me. Anyone looking for death and rebirth within this song will not only be disappointed, they will be actively rebuffed, most likely against Nicki’s curvaceousness, for this song represents a growing trend in most popular music. The visuals of the video are enough to try and cancel any thought of death for Nicki’s body is endlessly presented in a vibrant and fertile display of breasts,
Allright I’ve made my point. One more. Boobs.
Nicki Minaj becomes a kind of fertility goddess as her body is presented with round…luscious…fleshy…Yeah I think you get it. Her lyrics present her body as the site for sexual interaction, but the way she directs most of the visuals in the video she recreates it as a kind of fertility symbol, allowing her large breasts and butt to become part of the fertility ritual that is in fact a desperate attempt to escape death.
At this point there’s really only one important question: if either of these songs involved references to, or displays of people taking a crap, would they retain the popularity they currently possess?
The answer of course is…of course not. Why did you even pause? Weirdo.
Obviously the sight of Nicki Minaj taking a dump on stage is enough to kill most of the boners currently existing on the internet, but this question is important when you consider the original intent behind Carnival as a festival of life. Life is meaningless without death and Bakhtin observes this in Rabelias’s work:
It would be a mistake to think that the Rabelaisian debasement of fear and suffering was prompted by coarse cynicism. We must not forget that the image of defecation, like all the images of the lower stratum, is ambivalent and that the element of reproductive force, and renewal is alive in it.
Excrement is gay matter; in the ancient scatological images, as we have said, it is linked to the generating force and to fertility. On the other hand, excrement is conceived as something intermediate between earth and body, as something relating the one to the other. It is also an intermediate between the living body and dead disintegrating matter that is being transformed into earth, into manure. The living body returns to the earth its excrement, which fertilizes the earth as does the body of the dead. Rabelias was able to distinguish these nuances clearly. (691)
I tutored biology for four years and the woman who taught the class had a charming expression concerning cellular respiration and photosynthesis. In a nutshell plants breath in our carbon dioxide to make sugars and produce oxygen as a waste product. In return human beings inhale the oxygen to make ATP (a chemical most species use for energy) and produce carbon dioxide as a waste product. This would follow with the statement: “So plants breath in our poo and produce their own poo, oxygen, which we breath in. Take a deep breath. You just breathed in plant poop!” This of course created the expected reaction, many people would groan or else gag, and as I’ve noted before in a previous essay this reaction is based in human beings paranoia about death.
Poop is gross and sticky, loaded with germs, and of course it smells awful. This is not up for debate. Nor am I calling for everyone to stop saying that poop is gross and seeing it and smelling it is gross. What is important to recognize however is that the inability to laugh at poop and fart related humor is the real conflict, and ultimately a key part of Bakhtin’s claim. Rabelias as a novelist captured the spirit of Carnival because the festival was about death, and poop by its nature is concentrated waste which amounts to the “death” of millions of cells, food particles, bacteria, and chemicals that the body simply cannot digest. When human beings observe this waste it unnerves us because recognize that at some point our lives are going to end and become waste that in turn will return to the earth. Being a narcissistic species this terrifies us and so we’re left scrambling to combat this realization often through intense displays or carnality.
Carnival was always a carnal affair (oh my god I just got that), and sex was certainly an important component to it. As the earth was dying or being reborn human beings felt an overwhelming desire to procreate and bring new life back into the territory that seemed to be dying or else being reborn. Most contemporary displays of Carnival, including contemporary re-imaginings, also touch upon this idea but what is missing is the acknowledgement of death. Every person on earth is going to die, and Carnival was not about escaping that fact, it was about embracing it. Human beings gathered together to drink, eat, tell jokes, fuck, and revel in their humanity as a way of achieving some kind of catharsis.
Laughing at a joke about poop allowed people the chance to laugh in the face of death even when it was all around them. Nicki Minaj’s breasts are nice to look at, and Esmerelda certainly looks lovely as she rocks that stripper pole/spear, but neither of these displays of wild and liberating sexuality really tries to embrace death for the sake of defeating it or at least coping with it. Both films ultimately try to run from death, hoping that sex and youth will ultimately win out the race, but death is patient and always returns man to the ground.
In the face of our own mortality the way to beat death is not trying to outrun it, but instead to laugh at a cheap fart joke when you can. Life is far too short and absurd not to.
I’ve included a link to Pound the Alarm below. I tried to find Topsy Turvy but all of the editions on the internet cut out the Esmeralda dance sequences.
All selections from Bakhtin’s analysis were cited in Literary Theory: An Anthology 2nd Edition.
***Writer’s FINAL Note***
Let’s see if you learned anything. Enjoy the following poop related jokes:
I ate four cans of alphabet soup yesterday.
Then I had probably the biggest vowel movement ever.
What’s brown and sticky?
If you didn’t laugh at either of those, you’ve got some attitude buster.