I mean the song, not the state of mind. Let’s go back to ’90s studies, after my Manson essay on the death of rock. This was the alternative, rap or hip hop. This was Tupac’s most famous song. America loved it. The year was 1995, he was fresh out of jail, not yet assassinated, and had discovered California. Like everyone before, he knew immediately this was the land of love, so a new poetry was needed in America, one that orients being American around desire. Necessity doesn’t mean anything in the terrestrial paradise anyway, so it wouldn’t do to think of hard work or strive against nature. Why are people unhappy then? How could anyone be miserable under the tyranny of the life of pleasure?
This is the first strange thing about the song. Both Dr. Dre and Tupac, however embarrassing the stage names, are very good reporters. They talk about being stuck in-between their black communities and their aspiration to California greatness beyond. They’re just successful enough to learn that catastrophe is impending. What do they see trying to take over, ahem, “that sunshine state?” That it’s a mess.
This is not to excuse the irresponsibility of hip hop, which did nothing to make things better–but it did reveal the love of the all-American young white audience for the fantasy of flamboyance and death-daring in young black men. Nor to say that the political argument made by rap–a left-wing attack on rock, hippies, and the rest of the middle-class-identity music–was altogether right. It was a sacrifice of music for more democracy, for including more groups in American popularity, the true and only heaven…
This was after Dr. Dre stopped beating women, a decidedly low class thing to do, but before he made a billion dollar deal with Apple, decidedly an upper-class achievement. The in-between was not middle class, however. That’s part of what California is supposed to teach you. This was before his hipster appeal and the new, clean, business attitude. For a brief period, a bunch of these people–the song has only one producer, Dre, but lots of writers–were clear-eyed about the catastrophe of unleashing desire. This brings us to the second strange thing about the song. The video updates Mad Max for California. Who would think the ’90s in the Golden state were a post-apocalyptic nightmare? These guys did.
Partly, this is because they talk about the criminal underclass of whores and pimps and drugs. But partly because they see in the new world their new success allows them to join the small world they left behind, but writ large. California is a desert in the sense that lots of Americans want to be wild. The appeal of the wilderness is lawlessness, and that’s what California is. The argument implicit in the symbols here is this: It is typical that Americans deceive themselves thinking they want success at any cost–what they really want is to pay the price. This is not an altogether persuasive argument, but it does begin to explain the reemergence of misery in paradise. These men know what darkness they bring with them into the world of success, the world of satisfying desire, and they can therefore recognize the darkness in California.
The video and the song describe the same new class divide: everyone wants to unleash their desires, but only the successful can do so. There is therefore a double quality to the image of crews in dune buggies in the video–the correlative of being a singer representative of a movement. First, the new equality of Americans is a desperate desire to seize the most desirable pleasures. Secondly, only a warlike few can succeed in this new situation. As both song and video show, this new strife of American against American is almost entirely a matter of the imagination, but it’s not less full of misery or death for that reason. The new gods, the celebrities, cannot be kind to their votaries. They can charm by music, but must punish also–there simply is not enough in California to correspond to the tyrannic, demanding, endless love.
Tupac, unlike Dre, did not want to turn all businessman. He could never put behind him the pride of coming from nothing in the teeth of all morality. He did not want his pride humiliated, so he struggled endlessly between blaming white people for the plight of the black community and asserting the moral responsibility of black people for their own fate–between claiming all-American rights to live as he pleased, even in the spotlight, because of his earned success, and damning himself for his rampant immorality and failure to do good for his community. The look of Tupac was a fiction, as celebrity always is; but it was almost uniquely put together by his talent for acting and for clever speeches. Like every American, he tried to put the face of America on his face and show the greatness of his country.
In 1995, Tupac’s album Me Against the World debuted atop the Billboard while he was in jail. Two years later he was dead. He was right, but there was nothing he could do about it. That’s the point of that album–the stories of being a young black man of shocking success are a never-ending revelation of misery. Partly, it’s in the things themselves, but partly it’s the inability of success to do anything good for people. People loved the album, like they loved the continuous scandal of a man coming from Black Panthers and going to celebrity worship. But they stayed away from the scandal, because these things don’t end well. That’s what celebrities do in America. They embody the fantasies of the people. Each personality an exorcism, a morality play, and a fearful prayer that when success turns to ashes in the mouth, there will nevertheless be a way forward, a way to live through the desert desire has made of the world.Published in