Prepare yourself for a tale of Al Franken, AC/DC and the loss of the idea that we ever truly had an age of innocence. (You might want to grab a cup of coffee because this is a bit lengthy.)
Of all the emerging stories of rape, sexual abuse and harassment coming out recently, I think the one that got to me the most was Al Franken’s. To be clear, I don’t mean because Franken’s misdeeds (not “alleged” since we have photos) are somehow either “worse” or more innocent than any of the other really horrific accounts. There is no scale to weigh these things upon. No, it was more because of his response. Initially, Franken (now) infamously said, “As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t. I shouldn’t have done it.”
This is November of 2017 so, obviously, we all know the correct answer to that one. No, Al… it most certainly was not funny. In fact, it was assault. But I would ask the reader to do me a favor and put a peg in that statement until I get all of this off my chest, please.
You see, here’s the thing. Franken is older than me, but only by seven years. We came of age during the same era and the comic perfected his craft as part of that generation. Throughout his career, Franken did a lot of things which, today, would be absolutely unacceptable in the name of humor. It’s already been widely reported that he pitched an SNL skit about raping news anchor Leslie Stahl. When he decided to run for Senate he was forced to apologize for that, but he later confessed in one of his books that his apology for that joke during the campaign was fake.
“To say I was sorry for writing a joke was to sell out my career, to sell out who I’d been my entire life,” he wrote in the book. “And I wasn’t sorry that I had written Porn-o-Rama or pitched that stupid Lesley Stahl joke at 2 in the morning. I was just doing my job.”
I got to thinking about that this morning. Franken was, most certainly, a product of his times. Or perhaps I should say, our times, since I was growing up and consuming comedy and music in the same era. Which brings us to AC/DC.
My wife and I were returning from a very worrisome trip to a university veterinary hospital this morning (our dog is having surgery today), and we’d turned on the radio to one of the classic rock stations. A song by AC/DC came on which I immediately recognized. I should point out here that I have been a massive fan of AC/DC since I first heard of the group in the seventies. I had all the albums and could recite the lyrics to most of their tunes. I was that kind of fan.
The song on the radio was Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. Just in case there are any of you who somehow never came across it, the song is about someone who does “dirty deeds” for cash at affordable prices, just as the title would imply. But we’re not talking about somebody running up to your math teacher’s home and dropping a burning paper bag full of dog feces on the front step or filling his trees with toilet paper. This fictional guy is offering murder for hire. If that’s not bad enough, the third verse specifically has to do with an option for any random man who is “tired of” his wife or girlfriend.
If you got a lady and you want her gone
But you ain’t got the guts
She keeps naggin’ at you night and day
Enough to drive you nuts
Pick up the phone, leave her alone
It’s time you make a stand
For a fee, I’m happy to be
Your back door man.
Ironically, the first verse of the song is about a teenage girl in high school who is being forced to have sex with the principal in order to get the grades she needs to graduate. The singer offers to alleviate her problem in a similar fashion.
Keep in mind that Dirty Deeds was originally released in the United States in 1981. (It had come out years earlier in Australia but in limited release.) It spent more than a year on the Billboard charts peaking at number 3. The album was 6X Platinum in both Australia and America.
Was anyone shocked, horrified or offended? Perhaps a few, but if they objected it didn’t gain any traction. In fact, people protesting such entertainment were far more likely to be mocked as overly sensitive, judgemental scolds. I was a sailor based in California at the time and I know I used to sing along with that song at the top of my lungs and never gave it a second thought. The same goes for plenty of other groups with equally violence-prone and frequently misogynistic lyrics. But hey… it was the seventies and eighties, right? Ozzy was on stage biting the heads off of bats and you couldn’t be successful in music, movies, television or comedy unless you were objectifying and occasionally beating up some women. It was all in the heart of our culture. And if I ask all of you who have listened to your share of AC/DC over the years if you’ve ever sung along, I’d wager that a bunch of you are shuffling your feet and staring at your shoelaces right about now.
Flash forward to today. Where do we stand now? Is this a badly needed course correction finally bringing us closer to a state of compassionate intellectualism? Or are we in the midst of swinging the scales too far in the other direction? Actually going out and murdering women for money or groping their breasts while they’re asleep were just as wrong then as they are now, but what about the rest of the cultural sensitivities? I laughed at all of those jokes on Saturday Night Live in the seventies and eighties with the same enthusiasm that I belted out off-tune renditions of Dirty Deeds.
So was I a monster back then for laughing at and singing about such things? Were we all monsters? We’re currently undergoing the long overdue process of admitting that women have been abused terribly in all walks of life and that such abuse must be called out and the abusers brought to justice. But are we now going to regulate our speech and thoughts to the point where any potentially offensive humor or dramtic depictions in music, film and television is erased from the landscape? Jokes about stupid fathers with “dad bods,” dumb rednecks and even lawyers are all still fair game (though the attorney jokes become less popular when you either get arrested or your spouse files for divorce). So obviously our outrage is situational.
It’s a lot to think about. We’re clearly in a time of change, and some of this change was very, very badly needed. But change also comes with risk. A wise person once described evolution as a violent process that leaves scars in its wake. Cultural evolution is no different. Returning to the point I asked you to keep in mind at the top, let’s acknowledge that Senator Franken’s physical, sexual assaults on his co-star are not now nor were they ever acceptable and he’s going to have to pay the price for that. But we’re also bringing down the boom on aspects of his comedy career as well. In terms of those jokes and skits, consider the fact that Al Franken came up in that former time I spoke of above and will now bear the scars of this revolution. But also remember what he said about that Leslie Stahl joke. Back in the day, “he thought it would be funny.” And guess what. So did almost everyone else. And he was just doing his job.
Let’s face it. This going to be a bumpy ride and we’re only just now approaching full speed.