SS: Well I remember when Gen X — I guess I’m Gen X, I think that’s the cohort I fit into — in the ‘90s when Gen X were the young people, I remember. There was something called a “slacker”, that’s not an identity that exists now.
KN: “They don’t work for a living – they just bum around!” And all that genre of movies, I don’t know if you ever saw Richard Linklater’s Suburbia ― just a movie about ne’er-do-wells hanging out in front of a convenience store.. and then of course Richard Linklater made a movie called Slacker. Of course, that’s all indicative of that era, and it happens every single time, and people seem to fall for it every single time.
Bill Maher today, he was the young firebrand, now he’s like ‘these kids today…’ it’s a cautionary tale. None of us wants to turn into that person, the person who feels out of touch and is condemning the young. But it takes effort, it sometimes is alienating when everybody younger than you knows something that you don’t. It can feel like you’re lost at sea, you don’t know what people are talking about.
These days, I’m sure like many others, SNL will announce who the new host and music act is this week, and you have no idea who either of them is. And it’s such an alienating feeling, whereas once upon a time you knew who everybody was.
SS: That’s one thing I’ve noticed with rock music, in the last 20 years rock music in many ways has become the music of the reactionary old guy. Someone did a meme where it was ‘I’m glad I grew up doing this, instead of this,’ and the first picture was a bunch of long-haired guys playing guitar, and the second was a bunch of girls looking at their phones. And it’s like, at any time in the previous 50 years, the second picture would have been the long-haired guys, with the first a picture of Frank Sinatra or something.
KN: The irony is that the young girl looking at her phone is probably watching a clip of that long-haired guy.
SS: Your book is more of a cultural analysis than a legal one, but I’m kind of curious about how the First Amendment fits in. That comes up a lot in the cancel culture debates right now ― free speech comes up and the First Amendment comes up. Did people always talk that way? Or was there some point where First Amendment jurisprudence became part of the argument?
KN: Well, I think the concept of it is more mainstream today. I think in the past it was more legalese. When Lenny Bruce would talk about it, people would hear about it. But the irony is that I don’t think any of us, myself included, could rattle off the names of all the amendments, from the top of our heads. Certain ones are repeated the most, so we’re familiar with them; so First Amendment, we know, free speech, and Second Amendment, we know, guns. But there are all these other Amendments that people who repeatedly rattle the saber or go with the mantra: Second Amendment, Second Amendment, Second Amendment, but what’s the 12th Amendment? They wouldn’t be able to tell you.
I don’t know if people have always invoked the First Amendment. Censorship was a more popular concept during the first half of the 20th century and all the centuries presiding it in American history when religion had a far more powerful influence over government, law, and culture. So safeguarding people against that which was considered immoral or corrupting had this religious basis. And I would say that the religious power for most of America’s history was more powerful than its legal protections.
So there were all these exceptions to the First Amendment in the name of protecting the common good. And we still have that with the rules imposed by the FCC.
The FCC claims that they’re not a censorship body. But if they’re not a censorship body, then they’re a blackmail body because they threaten you with fines if you use certain language over the air or if you were to use nudity. So ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, they’re still beholden to these old-fashioned rules imposed by the FCC, you can’t say the word “fuck” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. You couldn’t say it when it was Johnny Carson. You couldn’t say it when it was Steve Allen. But you can say it everywhere else ― cable TV, satellite radio, podcast, the internet, live on stage, and nobody cares.
But you rarely hear anybody invoke the First Amendment when it’s about those things. Janet Jackson’s accidental nipple in 2004 resulted in a half-million dollar fine from the FCC. It just seems so archaic and sanctimonious, and that is because it is. It was imposed because of a religious influence. The censorship rules that were instated by the FCC on TV during its earliest years were based on the rules that were already established for network radio, which came about in the 1920s, and the rules of censorship that were imposed on network radio were based on the rules imposed on vaudeville.
So in this weird way, the restrictions that we still have on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, despite the fact they all have streaming services where you can say whatever you want, harkens back to the vaudeville era, and the rules imposed on vaudeville sort of harken back to the Puritan era.
So there’s still some of that lingering. And all through that history, very seldom did you hear the word First Amendment invoked to condemn it. It was almost like there was an acceptance of these religious-based restrictions, but the last of which remains are influenced and informed by those archaic rules established so long ago.
(In part two of this discussion, we talk about Lenny Bruce, Dave Chappelle, the state of comedy today, and what you can and can’t say anymore.)
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.