Decoding T.S. Eliot with the lyrics of 112

In 2005 I was a tenth grader taking Honors English at a high school in suburban Maryland. It was my favorite class of all time, due entirely to the fact our teacher was a Korean John Keating without the pansy sensibilities who taught us psychoanalysis in preparation for The Catcher in the Rye, and once gave a graded assignment on how convincingly we could lie. It was a very progressive class, probably fucking assuredly against the wishes of the administration, and the image I always come to when there are discussions of state-wide curriculum and censorship and providing only the blandest, most sanitized, ‘age-appropriate’ version of literature to students. Sure, that class got a little unorthodox at times, but you think I ever forgot about the potential meanings of a green light after that shit? That the “caul” in Caulfield is a protective covering around an infant’s brain? That antidisestablishmentarianism is the longest word in the English language? That “being nauseaus” is grammatically incorrect? No. Our working definition of art, “art is art because the artist declares it as such” is one I have never forgotten, and the only useful definition I have encountered in my life. That class was the sole reason for some major life decisions and the only reason I survived my ill-advised jaunt into college level English.

Anyway it’s second semester, we’re doing a unit on T.S. Eliot, and the time comes to tackle “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” We work though it, line by line, analyzing the structure and the use of punctuation and the potential metaphors. Until we reach line 122

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

At which point my teacher promptly clams up and mutters something about being too adult or too inappropriate or being fired if he divulged its meaning.

There’s no faster way to rile up a bunch of fifteen-year-olds more than to deem something too inappropriate for consumption. Especially when you’ve already told us about your run-ins with the Chicago mob in a church basement. Now we know it must be good.

I can’t remember if he implied it was a sexual act, or I just deduced that because if you’re not allowed to talk about it it’s always a sexual act. Sitting in my uncomfortable faux wood, not-still-a-child-but-not-yet-an-adult sized desk, my mind was racing. Anal sex? Too tame. Someone must have shit on someone. Cleveland steamer? Cleveland steamroller? Dirty Sanchez? But a peach doesn’t seem like it signifies poop, too clean. What does a peach signify? Something soft? Feminine? Maybe he’s gay? Maybe it’s gay sex? That doesn’t seem salacious enough. And he’s talking about a chick the whole time. Maybe he’s not really into her and he just wants to get with a dude? Was gay sex salacious in 1915? Maybe he wanted to do something with a guy’s ass. Maybe it was a salad tossing reference.

You have no idea how many times I Googled “do I dare to eat a peach?” in the following years.

I considered it a mystery lost to time, or at least lost until I was old and classy enough to one day invite my teacher out for a beer and ask him what the fuck that peach shit was about. I graduated high school with honors. I went to university, where I majored in film largely solely due to our afternoon screenings of Citizen Kane and The King of Comedy. Seasons changed and I became an adult with an adult-sized ironically smaller desk, and I spent my time looking back at what was, because being an adult apparently means spending all your time thinking about being a child. I needed something. I was yearning for the nostalgic comfort that could only be provided by the pulsating R&B slow jamz of the early 2000s, the soundtrack of the awkward dry humping of a middle school dance. I obviously turned to 112’s seminal totally forgotten hit of 2001, “Peaches & Cream.”

Holy shit.

It’s cunnilingus. Just some straight up, no frills, downstairs action. The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock was that motherfucker wanted to go clam diving. Everybody knew that “Peaches & Cream” was about those sultry motherfuckers in 112 wanting to take the south bound bus downtown and at 13, we were only a tiny bit scandalized by it. For years I’d been pondering the horrible shit the forefather of modern poetry was into, which at this time had escalated to a Tijuana donkey show and a blood sacrifice, and instead all he wanted was something you could jam to a song about at an eighth grade dance.

Shake that Bear: In Defense of Brickleberry

Brickleberry's Malloy cooks with AIDS

Leave it to me to be pissed off by a listicle. This morning I read an article on Salon titled “The 7 most offensive TV shows ever”  a typical minimally researched Buzzfeed-y slideshow with a vague-yet-provocative, shareable headline. For purporting to be the definitive account of “ever,” the list doesn’t even cover the history of television. The earliest program is from the ’90s, so apparently Beulah was just fine, sorry NAACP. But anyway what annoyed me was the justification for the inclusion of the Comedy Central cartoon Brickleberry.

The line of thinking seemed to be that the inclusion of taboo subjects like violence, rape, stereotypes, racism, sexism, were fine as long as they were pursued for some end, which is left totally undefined. There’s an implication noble and ignoble intentions exist, Mad Men and Game of Thrones being examples of acceptable forums for the exploration of the forbidden while Brickleberry uses offense for the sake of offense and is therefore hollow and valueless.

I’m all for the existence of a spectrum of morality, and no doubt centuries of art criticism is based on assigning moral/societal value to works under the guise of objectivity. That seems to be the inherent problem with any form of criticism or journalism or human existence; we can’t get away from our own biases. But claiming that a critically acclaimed drama is ‘allowed’ to push boundaries, while a comedy show is too irresponsible to be trusted with that sort of power,  seems like a flimsy argument even for a listicle. For one, it’s elitist, the only programs deigned respectable enough to push boundaries by critics are those with the critical stamp of approval, a concept of decency that just perpetuates its own taste and point of view.

Not to mention it completely ignores context. Lets remember one show includes a talking bear.

The article’s specific criticism is that the use of the taboo in Brickleberry  is unacceptable because it is “nihilistic.” I realize nihilism is associated with depressed mall punks and the kinky Germans from The Big Lebowski, but I’m pretty sure the actual concept of nihilism is not exactly apathetic. In fact, I’m pretty sure nihilism is the view that some or all aspects of the human experience are a construction, therefore there is no absolute truth to be used as a barometer for human action or thought or achievement or morality, which is a pretty damn radical mode of thinking.

And coincidentally kind of similar to Brickleberry.

If everything is offensive then nothing is. Inundated by jokes about abortion, plot lines about bestiality, characters that so embody racist and sexual stereotypes that they become stereotypes of stereotypes, in Brickleberry all benchmarks for morality are lost, like a moral sensory deprivation tank. Whereas instances of rape in Mad Men or Game of Thrones are shocking because they mark a departure from the norm, the environment of Brickleberry creates a flattening effect. Brickleberry uses taboo subjects so excessively that events with a natural tendency to create dramatic effect are transmuted into neutral events merely in service to the plot. Bear rape and picking up the mail become equally mundane. It’s not amorality, but the experience of moral relativism. Societal norms about what subjects are approachable and how they can be spoken about are stripped away. Brickleberry isn’t celebrating rape or violence or racism, but it is doing a number on the hierarchical structure and labyrinthine code of ethics we must abide by in order to talk about them.

You don’t get a monopoly on meaning. I recognize taste is subjective, but too often people want to regulate who is allowed to say what and how it is said. Rape, violence, sexism, racism, homophobia are all unfortunate parts of the human experience, and dictating that only Kenneth Brannaugh in a powdered wig is allowed to mention them is like saying the patricians get to use 26 letters of the alphabet while everyone else gets 20.