You know, I really struggle when somebody asks me to define postmodernism. The thing is that by its very conceptual nature, postmodernism surely can’t (or even should) be defined. But I usually come up with something lame like no absolute truths, or postmodern is not modernism, blah, blah, blah…
But last night, on Australian TV, I think we experienced postmodernism in all its tumescent glory.
You see, there was a TV show that was on for more than twenty years, back in the seventies, eighties and nineties, called Hey Hey, It’s Saturday. It was cancelled in 1999, mostly because of sagging ratings, but also because the channel executives decided that Australia was ready for a different form of entertainment (this was back when the people who ran TV stations knew about TV, not money). One of the sequences on this program was called Red Faces, where amateur performers could get up and perform in front of an in-studio, and Australia-wide audience.
Most of these acts were pretty lame, which was part of the appeal (Disclaimer: even I appeared on the show in 1988). A former frontman of an Australian pop group called the Skyhooks, was one of the judges (Red Symons), and the acts would try to be entertaining enough to avoid having Red give them the gong (which subtly suggested that their five minutes of fame was up).
So, in the past few weeks, Australians have been subjected to a bit of a nostalgia trip, with Hey Hey, including all the old cast members, being dusted off for a couple of reunion episodes on Wednesday nights. Everyone is back, the material is the same, nothing has changed, everything old is, well, still old… again. It has also been revealed today, that over the past two episodes, 2.1 and 2.3 million Australian watched episode one and episode two of the revivals/reunion specials. So, by my calculations, that’s about 10 – 15 per cent of Australians watched the show.
Just to recap – a show that was cancelled in 1999, that was called Hey Hey, It’s Saturday, has returned to the station that cancelled it, and has been showing on the past two Wednesday nights. Little has changed (I think the puppet ostrich who was carried over from the original morning kid’s program didn’t appear, because the person who operated the ostrich got into trouble with the police at some point between 1999 and 2009).
Pretty weird, huh? But no, it gets weirder…
On last night’s episode (episode two of the two reunion specials of Hey Hey, It’s Saturday, being presented on Wednesday nights), got on to Red Faces and performed an “updated” version of their act, the Jackson Jive. Five performers came out in blackface, dressed in white suits, and sung some songs by the Jackson Five. Then a sixth person came on, in blackface, that had been whitened, and played the role of Michael Jackson.
Harry Connick, Jnr, who was a guest judge on the program, understandably, was appalled by what he saw. Eloquently, he said that, “… I know it was done humorously, but we’ve spent so much time, trying to not make black people look like buffoons, that when we see something like that we take it really to heart, and I know it was in good fun… if I’d known that it was going to be part of the show, I probably wouldn’t… I definitely wouldn’t have done it.”
I agree with Harry. I was under the impression that our humour had moved beyond racial stereotyping, and the reality is that blackface was a means of establishing the archetype of the African-American, and to some degree was an appropriation of the African-American culture, through a distorted white lens.
As I said, I thought we had moved on, however, the comments on Australian newspaper sites, and blogs, suggest otherwise… which worries me somewhat. One of the strangest things has been a xenophobic response to Harry Connick making the comments, with people arguing that he has no right, as an American, to express his view about the racism inherent in the performance.
Why not? He was there, he had to respond.
But, today it has been revealed that the person playing the black/whiteface Michael Jackson, is an Indian, plastic surgeon, and that the group had first performed the same act, with a blackface Michael Jackson on the same show, twenty years ago!
So, not only did we have a show wallowing in the nostalgia of the past, with no irony (which might cancel out the postmodern interpretation), but we also got a person who might also experience racial stereotyping, who was a plastic surgeon (there is definite irony there), doing an act that they have been doing (or revived) for twenty years, in white blackface.
Methinks my head is going to explode…
And 2.3 million people watched it. Is it so bad, that it has become good? Perhaps the lack of awareness of the irony, particularly on the part of the host, makes this even more postmodern… I’m still grappling with that.
Did the entire population tune in because they could see the irony, or did they watch the program and let it simply wash over them without even reflecting on what they were watching, using a version of the classic, “it’s just TV, don’t take it so seriously”? Or am I expecting too much and completely out of touch with the modernist/postmodernist Australian population?
But, at least I now have the response I need the next time somebody asks me to define postmodernism. I’ll point them toward this.
A more modernist version of this article is available at ABC Unleashed.
For those modernists, who would like me to define postmodernism (thus establishing a “truth”), I might say my interpretation of it is a cultural, intellectual, or artistic state embodying and embracing complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, diversity, interconnectedness or interreferentiality. I adapted this definition from Wikipedia, which is probably one of the best examples of postmodernism.