Sunday, November 11, 2007

Six months ago, I wrote the following paper for the EMP Pop Conference. For some reason I never posted it; I think I had the idea I might try to use it as the basis for something larger and/or paid, but that never really happened (aside from a rewritten condensation I submitted for Stylus's first "The Diamond" column). So here it is the way I read it. Enjoy.


A Matter of Trustafarians: Behind the Bob Marley Poster on the Dorm Room Wall

On October 5, 2005, America’s finest news source, The Onion, featured on its front page a story reported from Williamsburg, Virginia: “Bob Marley Rises From Grave to Free Frat Boys From Bonds of Oppression.” It read in part: “Marley's recordings, which originally raised awareness of the Rastafarian faith and the plight of underprivileged Jamaicans and Africans, have taken on an even deeper meaning as the Greek fraternal system, a maligned, misunderstood minority group itself, has fervently embraced the driving, soulful music.” A student is quoted: "The only thing that would be better is if Jim Morrison himself rose from the grave to jam with Bob." An accompanying photo features the reggae icon hovering over a young white man bent over a toilet. The caption: “Marley helps a frat boy release his body from the tyranny of alcohol.”

We all know this stereotype, or think we do. Less than five months after The Onion piece ran, Slate posted something similar by New Yorker editorial staffer Field Maloney. Only he wasn’t kidding. The piece was titled, “Free Bob Marley! He's been hijacked by stoned suburban teenagers.” Maloney attacks Marley’s later music, in particular the compilation Legend, which he calls “A defanged and overproduced selection of Marley's music,” as if the production had occurred while putting the collection together instead of beforehand. Maloney prefers the three Wailers albums produced by “the brilliant, certifiably insane, Jamaican producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry”; and he derides as “cheesy and annoying” Marley’s fans, “at least in this country,” depicting a mass of “feel-good party boys and mountain-biking philosophy majors who cling to his memory.” Maloney then bows to Marley’s “strong following in the Third World, especially in Africa.”

“Say you're a middle-class American white kid,” says Maloney, constructing his perfect strawman. “It's spring term freshman year, and you've just discovered pot, Bob Marley, and ultimate Frisbee. You really want to drop that organic chemistry course, but you know your parents will be pissed. In such a scenario, Bob Marley's songs, with lines like ‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery’ and ‘No chains are on my feet/ But I am not free,’ seem to be talking to you in a way that's deeply profound. Sure, that's laughable. But let's take a different scenario altogether. What if you're black? Or from the Third World? Then the lyrics take on a lot more historical force and contemporary urgency.”

But . . . what if you’re middle-class American white kid who doesn’t take those words personally? What if you hear them as art, as something that delineated the way one person felt at one point, but do so transcendently? Doesn’t that change things? Maloney’s scenario works best if we go on a number of unspoken assumptions: that all white people are inherently middle-class, no matter what kind of money they come from; or that for a white person to experience black art is to thereby romanticize the artist’s race; or that the white middle class just ain’t nowhere near as genuine, as gritty, as down-to-earth, as real as the black folks who get it, in a way that only they, and Field Maloney, truly can.

Here’s how Maloney concludes his piece: “[E]ven when he sounded a peaceful note, there was an edge in [Marley’s] voice. He once told a reporter, ‘There should be no war between black and white. But until white people listen to black with open ears, there must be—well, suspicion!’ As it turns out, Marley had every reason to be suspicious about how he'd be listened to.” How the singer felt about being listened to by New Yorker editorial staff romanticizing the edge in his voice and the certifiable insanity of his producer in precisely the same way he accuses college students of romanticizing Marley, Maloney didn’t say.

This isn’t to deny that Maloney might have had a point. Or did he? The truth is, I’ve never really been in a position to know. I never attended college. I knew plenty of people who did, and I heard as many jokes about trustafarians and dorm-dwellers with Marley posters as anyone. I made plenty myself, though I tried not to fly off the handle doing it. (The Onion’s piece is better than Slate’s, paradoxically, because it’s less silly.) Two months after the Slate piece ran, I was at a Brooklyn panel about hip-hop and politics; at one point, a panelist, the musician and critic Greg Tate, mentioned a parlor game he’d been playing with some friends in which they’d tried to determine who the most famous black man in the world was. The answer they came up with was Bob Marley. I thought, that makes perfect sense, in large part because he’s dead, and his image can therefore mean anything the people gazing upon it want it to. And who gazes upon Bob Marley’s visage like a stoned college student?

So that’s why I decided to try to ask some college students with Bob Marley posters precisely what they were staring at.

This wasn’t as easy as I’d imagined. Everyone I encountered while working on this paper had pretty much the same mental image of the white, collegiate Bob Marley poster owner. My 20-year-old sister Brittany, responding to a MySpace bulletin query, wrote, “Good luck finding a college student who doesn’t own a Bob Marley poster.”

“Brittany,” I responded, “you’re a college student and you don’t own a Bob Marley poster. Do you know any who do?” It turns out she didn’t. This was a common theme in my research: Lots of people think they know student Bob Marley poster-owners, but either actually don’t or only know them through other friends, which dovetailed nicely with my suspicion that what I was dealing with was as much urban myth as existing type. Most of the people I interviewed for this project were found by entering the words “Bob Marley college” into the MySpace search engine, sending mail, and hoping for responses. In other words, I had to spam this paper into existence.

By my deadline, 24 people had returned a 27-item questionnaire. They ranged in age from 18 to 31. Twelve of them were 18 to 21, twelve more 22 to 31. My research isn’t especially scientific. It wasn’t meant to be, though maybe if I’d gotten more responses I’d feel more confident statistically analyzing the data. Instead, this is going to be more anecdotal, which seems appropriate, given the topic.

To contrast the data, I spoke with two people with some experience in the matter. Marisa Bergquist, who’s 27, and Ricky Walsh, who’s 26, are a Brooklyn couple that Bergquist describes as “traveling poster salespeople.” Twice a year, for six to eight weeks at a time, when she isn’t working in television or film production, Bergquist and Walsh hop in a car along with 65 three-ring binders containing a dozen poster images apiece, drive to a number of four-year colleges and universities--“Everything from your jumbo state university with 40,000 kids to private colleges and even some high schools,” says Berquist—and sell posters on campus for According to Bergquist, “The company has 80 teams on the road at a given time during the season. They give us the track and all the merchandise and training. They set us up at schools and give us a route and a [schedule]. We set up tables, set up all the posters, sit back, and watch college kids shit their pants over Scarface, Bob Marley, and Audrey Hepburn, [who] was very big this year because of all those Gap ads.”

There are, she guesses, eight Marley posters in the selection of nearly 800. “I’d say the Marley posters are bigger sellers at the large universities as opposed to the tiny, moneyed liberal arts colleges. It’s definitely more of a poster for the masses. Everybody buys Bob Marley. He’s the sort of common denominator among different sorts of social groups. I think he’s definitely got the strongest base of buyers [among] students of color, particularly black students.” Walsh concurs: “Everybody buys them. I’ve been to over a hundred colleges selling them, and they go for everybody. You know that people are going to buy certain posters, but so many people buy Marley posters that it’s the phenomenon to me.”

According to Bergquist and Walsh, Marley posters are historically among the Top 3 sellers in the company’s line, along with the Beatles and the Al Pacino movie Scarface. “It’s funny,” Bergquist says. “People [often] buy Scarface and Bob Marley in combination. Scarface is this ultraviolent movie, and I think people think of Marley as peaceful and mellow.” (Ten students cited Marley’s “message of peace and universal unity” as one of their major points of interest in him. Then again, one said, “I just like his music and his stoner-ness and Rastafarian image,” and another, “I do know he died from toe cancer, which sounds like a crappy way to die,” so who knows.)

Bergquist guesses that most of her customers have a background “just below middle income. I’d put them on the leftist liberal side of the spectrum. I would suspect that the students are perhaps coming from families that are more conservative than they themselves are. There’s such delight in purchasing these posters, it’s like they’re getting some certain rebellious glee out of it; you just get that feeling. I could see a lot of them doing it as a sort of fuck-you to the parents.” Walsh elaborates: “I think most of the kids come from churchgoing families, and they might be feeling a bit rebellious.”

My responders differed from the saleswoman’s sketch in terms of income. As a group, they were overwhelmingly middle-class—that’s how a dozen of them typified themselves, with three calling themselves upper-middle-class, three lower-middle, and two lower-class. (Three, each in different income groups, made sure to mention that they’d fallen a notch due to college costs.) Walsh may have a point about religion; a dozen cited it as either in their background or current life: Christian, Catholic, Lutheran Protestant, Southern Baptist. Three others claimed, vaguely, to be “spiritual.” There were three atheists and four agnostics.

Bergquist’s guesses were pretty spot on when it came to politics, though: Eighteen respondents cast themselves in a spectrum ranging from moderately liberal to strongly liberal, with only four describing themselves as “indifferent,” “moderate,” or “nonpolitical.” Several liberals made comments along the lines of, “I’m a Democrat because of no better choices that would make an impact.” No one described themselves, flatly, as conservative, though one wrote, “I’m pretty new age politically. Liberal Republican, conservative Democrat.” Twelve respondents described their families as conservative (seven people), or split between liberal and conservative (five). Seven people reported being from liberal families—the same number as conservative. Two claimed to be more conservative than their families though, again, nobody claimed to be conservative themselves. (“My family is WAY more liberal and hippie than I,” one wrote.) Only two painted their families as politically neither/nor.

One question I asked about the students’ campus activities was in fact a very flimsy ruse to find out whether or not they played hacky sack or Frisbee. Though I found out that 12 students involved in campus activities, and 12 were not, I was disappointed that no one took the hacky sack or Frisbee bait. My next question related to drinking, smoking weed, and taking other drugs. Only three responded that they don’t drink; 17 do, only six of them rarely or occasionally. Harder drugs were mentioned by only ten respondents: seven use them (two occasionally, five regularly), three don’t.

At one point in our conversation, Marisa Bergquist guessed that her students “probably smoke weed, talk about smoking weed, and listen to Bob Marley.” She said she tends to overhear bits of conversation in which the students “talk about what they did last night. They look at the poster and they see the blunt and say, ‘Oh shit, that looks awesome. Let’s do that later.’”

Nobody wrote those words on my questionnaires, but Bergquist is still spot on. Only two students claimed to not smoke weed. Six used to but don’t anymore, five only do it occasionally, and ten smoke regularly. Which means 21 out of 24 randomly-spammed Bob Marley poster-owning college students are very, very familiar with the sweet Mary Jane. Well, as Field Maloney or The Onion might say, “Duh.” But here’s something interesting. The people who agreed to be surveyed have no problem copping to their use of controlled substances. But there is still a stigma about the poster-owners as a group, within the group: No one wants to admit to playing hacky sack or Frisbee.

Ricky Walsh points out that “Games like hacky sack and Frisbee are geared toward a more hippie crowd; someone like that is more apt to buy a Grateful Dead poster.” But where smoking weed and listening to reggae in American colleges used to be enough to brand you a hippie, those things are de rigueur now whether you’re a punk, a Rasta, a hip-hop fan, or a raver—for many if not most American musical-based subcultures. The sublimation of rebellion into habit, outrage into lifestyle, may for some be the most insidious aspect of Marley Posterdom. Everybody else is doing it, so why can’t we? “There are kids [where] you don’t know why they’re buying a Marley poster, because they’re also buying this religious poem, ‘Footprints,’” says Walsh.

Hacky sack and Frisbee marathons, though—that’s how you annoy people, by sticking to the most unreconstructed, or maybe unreconstructable, aspects of your sect. You fly your freak flag high, especially if that flag comes in the form of a rosin bag you kick around on the quad.

But how many people devote themselves to subcultures? Not very many, comparatively—that’s why they’re subcultures and not the main culture. How, then, can we be surprised by this? Walsh said that the students he sold posters to are “probably pretty casual music fans. I don’t think anyone is very serious. They probably have a very small spectrum: Marley and Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.” But this is an indictment only if we expect college students to be as fanatical about music as we are—and why would we expect that?

In my selection’s case, it might have something to do with the fact that 23 of 24 students typified themselves as “very” interested in music; only one wrote “somewhat,” and no one, “a little.” Seven of them wrote “very” in all-caps; three repeated it multiple times. When asked what they listen to beyond Bob Marley, 24 artists came up more than once. Most of these were icons: Beatles, Doors, Grateful Dead, John Coltrane, Led Zeppelin, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Nirvana, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix. A handful date from the mid-’90s forward but are in the same arena-ready ballpark: Incubus, Oasis, Eminem, Modest Mouse. Three are straight up frat-hippie hybrids: Sublime, Jack Johnson, and Slightly Stoopid, which one respondent helpfully ID’ed as “alternative reggae.” And one—tied for first, along with the obvious Hendrix and the worrying Jack Johnson, with four mentions each—is Damian Marley.

Here, according to Bergquist, is a typical exchange: “You got reggae posters?” “Yeah, we’ve got Bob Marley. He’s right over there.” “Oh sweet, thanks.” She goes on: “There’s no demand for any other reggae besides Bob Marley. There was one season when we had Ziggy Marley in our set and we sold one, maybe, out of 11 weeks [on the road].”

Ten poll respondents, when asked if they were interested in Jamaican music other than Bob Marley, said no. Eight named artists and genres that dovetailed with Marley’s era, and an equal number named post-Marley artists and genres. Five people apiece named Ziggy Marley and Damien Marley; one person who named both said, “Anyone with the same last name.”

I asked students to choose favorites: one album and one song from the Bob Marley catalogue. Six chose a studio album; ten went for a compilation, as the sales couple figured. The winner was Natural Mystic: The Legend Lives On, Island’s mid-’90s sequel to 1984’s ten-million-sales-and-counting Legend, mentioned three times. Bob Marley poster owners know to be wary of cliché, apparently—but the double-CD set Gold, essentially a combination of Legend and Natural Mystic, got votes, too, so maybe not. (The Songs of Freedom box set was named twice, as were Legend and Gold). The most popular songs by far were “Redemption Song” (five mentions) and “Buffalo Soldier (four); two people apiece mentioned “Satisfy My Soul,” “Concrete Jungle,” and “One Love.” Only one person mentioned “No Woman No Cry,” once the symbol of cheesy Marley ubiquity. It may be a cliché, but you might even call that progress.