Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Jewel, Tupac, and the crooked teeth that grew from concrete

"Is this art or entertainment?" Jewel Kilcher once asked herself after a gig.

Most of course know her as simply “Jewel,” yet another of an endless string of celebrities whose mononymity screams pretense.   (Madonna? Cher?  Diddy? Tupac?)  Or maybe her question reveals a certain sense of self-awareness, one that is often bitch-slapped out of the way by the hubris of celebrity.  After all, the “pop” in “pop song” means “popular,” whereas we tend to ascribe the more serious status of “art” in historical retrospect, when we have had the time to assess cultural impact, staying power, and so forth.

Jewel is also known for having one of the most famous books of pop-star-penned poetry in the market, the much-maligned A Night without Armor.  I wonder if it would have been so maligned if critics had not gone into the review process already knowing that Jewel was a pop-star trying to cross over.  Could she have gotten a fair trial?  Poet David Beaudouin observes: “There are people out there who have labored in the fields, teaching and writing. She hopscotched over a lot of grief that most poets have to deal with,” and laments the trendiness of the popstar-cum-poet, a phenomenon he calls the “Barnes-and-Noble-ing of American poetry.

I remember the first time I saw a colleague using poetry from slain rapper Tupac Shakur in a high school English class.  She used the poem “The Rose that Grew from Concrete.” See the original here -- most websites and teacher handouts get the format and "spellings" wrong:


Publisher Simon and Schuster extols Tupac’s verse thus: 

His talent was unbounded, a raw force that commanded attention and respect. His death was tragic -- a violent homage to the power of his voice. His legacy is indomitable -- remaining vibrant and alive. Here now, newly discovered, are Tupac's most honest and intimate thoughts conveyed through the pure art of poetry -- a mirror into his enigmatic life and its many contradictions. Written in his own hand at the age of nineteen, they embrace his spirit, his energy ... and his ultimate message of hope. 

Really?  I mean, I used “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” in my English 9 classes to illustrate some basic figurative language devices (personification, metaphor), but I would never ascribe to it the status of high art.  Of course, Simon and Schuster has to sell books.  Do they really believe what they say in their blurb?  Is what they have to say a legitimate analysis of Tupac’s oeuvre?  Or is this just the publishing and poetry-consuming power elite (few if any of whom, perhaps, look like, talk like, sound like, or share any life experiences with Monsieur Shakur) hyper-exoticizing and over-romanticizing Tupac’s existence? By elevating his musings to the status of literature, we effectively put him in a museum case, safely on the other side of a velvet cordon; he is not one of us, therefore he is special. Aren’t we progressive, inclusive and hip?

Jewel, on the other hand, gets no such love. 

Forget that she lived for a decade in a van, plying her trade, the hardest-working girl in showbiz.  Her poetry is dismissed, more often than not, as amateurish.  Maybe it is.  Johns Hopkins University poetry professor Allan Grossman, while he considers Jewel to be a legitimate “American modernist poet,” confesses that:

… the subject matter is often simple, and most likely will appeal only to young people. That makes sense, given that some of the poetry in A Night Without Armor was written while Jewel was in her teens.  (Tamara Eikenberg, The Baltimore Sun, June 24, 1998)

But wait… Tupac’s verse was written “in his own hand at the age of nineteen, [and] they embrace his spirit, his energy ... and his ultimate message of hope.”  Doesn’t Jewel’s “amateurish” poetry convey, you know, any of that good stuff?  Or is there some other reason for elevating Tupac’s status?

Hold the phone, I take that back.  Jewel’s experiences do get romanticized a bit. Sayeth The Guardian UK:

Jewel has crooked teeth. This may seem unremarkable, but among American celebrities, it is a bit like having three legs. Jewel's teeth have become a kind of symbol of her 'unspoiled' upbringing, of her naturalness. Her teeth, and her undemonstrative taste in clothing. 

In the end, it all comes down to image, doesn’t it?  It’s all marketing, brand-enhancement.  Apparently, the poetry is secondary.  I don’t know if it’s relevant, but Jewel’s teeth are now straight.  Tupac, as far as I know, is still quite dead.

Is the life (or the death) of a poet relevant in assessing the “literary value” of the poetry?

I’m just A.S.K.ing…

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