Tommy, I Can't See You

After typing out the previous entry, I thought it would be worthwhile to refer again to my weekend viewing of The Who’s Tommy at the Genesius Theatre’s 10th Street venue. (The performances continue through August 13). As I stated, the show was thoroughly enjoyable even though the text itself is quite poor. It’s the intellectual poverty of the text that struck me most and so I indicated that criticism in the previous entry. But a more thorough deconstruction is in order – because this text demonstrates quite a bit about the kind of maladjusted views of self and society that are de rigueur in youth-oriented mainstream (popular) culture. The various versions of Tommy – the minimal exposition of the original double-record set, the 1975 Ken Russell film, and this latest stage incarnation – all share the same mindset. It is strikingly representative of the self-centered contemporary worldview that came to fruition in the US by the late 1960s. Tommy is first of all a traumatized victim of abuse and neglect. This is crucial – because we have been persuaded to believe that all families are dysfunctional and we are all victims. Our culture of victimization allows us to feel that we’ve not been dealt a fair hand and that it’s not our fault if we’re not all we could have been. There’s always the messed-up family and the materialistic society to blame for our problems.Tommy reflects the radiant innocence of the child – our inner child. There is the sense of unlimited potential that we like to believe is everyone’s natural birthright. When the infinite potential of the idealized child meets the existential and pragmatic necessities of the historical landscape our sympathies are with the child, of course. It’s an easy self-identification that we’re too willing to make.The central character is further victimized by the degeneracy of the world around him – perverse sex, alcoholism, and illegal drugs. That’s an interesting situation, since these are the same vices celebrated by just about every other piece of pop music that comes down the pike. It’s like the Rolling Stones’ fake moralism of Mother’s Little Helper. I suppose the idea here is that we’re not to blame for our addictions because we’re surrounded by a world that was already full of addictive behavior before we arrived on the scene. Our sympathies are with this damaged character because we’ve been manipulated to identify with him. He’s shown to be a deaf-mute-blind genius by virtue of his special ability to play pinball with great skill. (That the childish pastime of the pinball game underscores the uselessness of this kind of “genius” seems to escape the intellects in love with this text.)We like to think of ourselves as undiscovered geniuses – our brilliant candles hid beneath the bushel of the insensitive materialistic world to which we’re bound. We see Tommy’s relationship to his public admirers echoing the rock-star fantasy that’s projected in droves upon the blank slate of young people’s dream lives. Predictably, Tommy is ultimately portrayed as a Christ-like figure. This common literary device is so blatant and obviously clichéd in the various versions of Tommy scripts that it points out the paucity of imagination suffusing this entire enterprise since it was just a stoned gleam in Pete Townshend’s eye. When in doubt, cast your character as Christ. I mean, if it was good enough for Herman Melville, well then it oughta be good enough for rock and roll. All I can say about that is: I’ve read Herman Melville and Townshend’s not Melville.We’re so manipulated by popular culture that sometimes I think I should just type out the standard fluffy reviews and cute critiques that I typically encounter out there in the media at large. It would allow me to appear hip and with it. It would probably help me to impress important people with my insider’s appreciation of the ironic contradictions inherent in postmodern conceptions of self and society. I could be another savvy supporter of pop culture – and by so doing I could bathe in the projected radiance of that most venerated of all qualities – youth itself.But alas, when I see my peers giving standing ovations to bad ideas such as The Who’s Tommy (no matter how professionally expert its presentation) I figure it’s time to stand aside and cast a castigation into the mix. We owe our young people more than we give them these days. Sure, we like to cast ourselves as heroes in their impressionable minds. But one thing for certain about artists and intellectuals is that we are almost never heroic.

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