Night at the Dream Factory: Lady Gaga and Selma

sound-of-music-photo1Good for Lady Gaga. She climbed every mountain, forded every stream, and found the conventional approval she apparently had been seeking all along. On Sunday night at the Academy Awards, she sang her heart out in homage to Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music. And perhaps we learned something about her. We could hear the little girl (“Gaga”) who wanted to be a princess (or at least a “Lady”) just as Andrews went from the hired help to marrying into wealth in the film. Lady Gaga embodied the songs themselves. Sure, perhaps “follow every rainbow” was a shout out to her sexually variegated fan base, but she sure sang it straight. And maybe that’s one of her points—maybe the days of using winking, camp, and irony as the outsider’s defense are passing. Even Selma, Alabama has same-sex marriage now.

Of course, the message of The Sound of Music, and of “Climb Every Mountain” in particular, is the same one that guarantees the status quo and puts the onus on individuals to determine their own fates. The corporate/political version of the message goes: “work hard and you will find your dream—and buy these products to help you achieve it despite your stagnant wages.” The Hollywood version is: “just believe in yourself and your dreams will come true.” Combine the two and you get the Walt Disney Corporation. These ideas may only be continually presented to the American public and animate every television commercial because, with the sharp exceptions of 1941 and 2001, the United States has been geographically immune to the worst international conflicts and invasive atrocities of the past hundred years and depends on American Snipers to keep it that way. But that’s another story.

It felt strange to see The Sound of Music itself celebrated. At a moment when the civil rights movement was reaching its peak and while the production code was just beginning to crumble, The Sound of Music kept the fairy tale alive while treating Nazism as some species of bad manners. The Captain and his brood of charming/irritating children had to take a nature walk in the Alps in order to reach safety. They climbed every mountain—get it? (In fact, the Trapps took a train to Italy, where they had citizenship.) Meanwhile Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, filmed in 1963, had difficulty finding a U.S. distributor because it employed nudity and treated the memory of the Holocaust as its main theme. It finally found release in April 1965, a couple of months after The Sound of Music won five Oscars. Such were the Sixties in the Dream Factory.

But Lady Gaga found her dream. Besides any anxiety she might have felt before she unleashed her big moment of personal triumph on the unsuspecting millions watching at home, she must also have pondered how she could follow what had just happened on Oscar night. It didn’t quite seem fair to her, and I wonder why producers deployed The Sound of Music tribute so late in the show (the three hour mark or so, I think—I had been sucked into the Oscars’ stagnant time continuum long before). A production number such as this would seem to be perfect for the first or second hour, but instead it appears to have been timed to douse what had transpired immediately before. It is not Lady Gaga’s fault, and she gave a terrific performance anyway, but it is as if the producers knew beforehand which song would win the Oscar, and acted accordingly.

The Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights, 1965. Photograph by James Kareles.

The Selma-to-Montgomery March for Voting Rights, 1965. Photograph by James Kareles.

That song, “Glory” from Ava DuVernay’s Selma, received a reading from co-composers John Legend and Common—along with a solemn marching choir reenacting events at the Edmund Pettus Bridge—that caused genuine tears in the many audience professionals who are paid to cry on cue for a living. Then they doubled down by using their acceptance speeches to decry systemic injustice, including black incarceration rates and the U.S. Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act—the very act for which protesters marched and died in Alabama in 1965. In other words, Selma is about something more than achieving one’s own dreams.

It is hard to climb a mountain when you are being pushed off the trail at every step.

The disputed leader of the Selma movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., knew something about dreams and mountains as metaphors. His dream had not been to marry a baron, but to see the United States live up to its creeds of equality and democracy. He may have articulated that dream at the March on Washington with the personal pronoun in 1963, but he spoke for millions who suffered discrimination and he did so in order to pressure the U.S. government into passing civil rights legislation with teeth.

After Selma and the successful drive for the Voting Rights Act, King became increasingly critical of the U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, acutely aware that there are no fairy-tale endings in the long fight for justice. Common’s contribution to “Glory” rehearses this to the extent of referencing the recent Ferguson protest. In his last speech, in Memphis in 1968, King allowed that he had indeed climbed every mountain, but knew that much more work remained to be done. “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” he said. “Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.” Then, taking on the role of Moses: “And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” James Early Ray made sure of one thing. He murdered King the next day. selma

We tune in to the Oscars, I think, because we hope that given its live nature, something rich and maybe extraordinary will happen beyond gawking at the sharp tuxes and deep-plunge necklines (there goes J-Lo again!). And inevitably, the post-mortems from across the culture express disappointment. But John Legend, whom I had tended to see as a kind of generic awards-show soul act, and Common, who isn’t on my playlist either, delivered in a big way, along with their chorus and DuVernay’s film, which is emphatically about dreams and the climbing of mountains and the terrible price that must be paid by everyday people to make a better world. Lady Gaga’s audience, fifty years later, has found that they can be themselves in part because of it. That’s just one way a dream can come true.

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