Dé Domhnaigh, Eanáir 25, 2009

Jesus Christ Superstar

Ever Since "JCS" first appeared as a double-LP in 1970, there have been many who have noticed that the opera's non-believing composers, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, nonetheless adhered too a couple of nefarious old Passion Play conventions; namely the "gay Herod" and the "conflicted Pilate", that don't mesh up with the available historical record.

The "conflicted Pilate" is based mainly on John's account of Jesus' trial and condemnation. It was written at the time of the definitive split between Judaism and Christianity, a split that was as nasty as relations between the two faiths have been ever since; and the fact of the matter is that the vacillating governor of dramatic tradition simply doesn't gel with the historical record of the actual Pilate. The admittedly sketchy accounts of the man depict him as a ruthless bastard with no qualms over crucifying the innocent.

"His blood shall be on us and on our children!" Has this ever struck you as a terribly odd thing for an angry mob to spontaneously shout out? When the conflicted Pilate washes his hands he does so for all of Rome and all of the nations of Europe and North America that were spawned by it. The conflicted Pilate serves to rationalize antisemitism, and more importantly serves to wrest ownership of Christianity away from its birthplace and place it firmly in the hands of the Caucasian West. Jesus Christ was a member of a conquered race, executed by an outside imperial power in a manner meant to squash all cries for self-determination and allow Rome to spread its "superior civilization" unimpeded. The United States is just the latest in a long line of imperial Western powers that should be very glad that Pilate has washed his hands for us. No need to worry about where the blame for the death of Jesus lies. The savage natives killed one of their own because they lack our advanced sense of mercy.

Equally false and pernicious is the gay Herod. The real life Herod Antipas was more enamored with vagina than a Catholic schoolgirl is with her own, yet the bastard daughter of Freddie Mercury depicted in "Superstar" is part of a dramatic tradition that goes back centuries. Magnificent gayness and catty skepticism are blended so that it becomes difficult to tell one from the other, which is exactly the point. If you share my habit of lurking on right-wing evangelical message boards you will find that it is still common to accuse non-believers of homosexuality, not because of any swishy personality traits of this or that atheist, but because atheism itself is perceived as inherently gay. Non-religious people are, of course, disinclined to believe in divinely mandated gender roles, and so are much less likely to be bothered by those who deviate from traditional gender roles.

Male supremacy ordained by God The Father is the only justification for male privilege based on anything more than undisguised thuggery, and equating rejection of male privilege with rejection of manhood itself has always been the means of keeping men with a rebellious streak or overdeveloped sense of fairness in line. To deny the Sky Father who sows the seeds of all creation is to castrate yourself.

But where was I? Oh yes. "Jesus Christ Superstar" featuring cinematic o.g. Ted Neely in the title role, was in Lincoln last night, and it was really good, even great. The thing about it though is that, in spite of knowing better, I couldn't stop myself from expecting epically badass. Neely can still wail, but is clearly aging, James Delisco had fire as Judas, but was just a little off in conveying the delusion and frustrated intelligence of a budding sociopath. Cristina Sass nearly atones for all of the small flaws as a perfectly fine Mary Magdalene.

The music was a bit over polished throughout. One of the things that makes "JCS" so enduring is that Webber and Rice were able to do rock far better than any of the gaggle of art-rock dweebs from the same era were able to do opera. The composers understood 70s funk and psychedelia well enough to know just what snaps, pops, and snarls would give the precise emotional cues to the players. The music of the original LP is dirty, brimming with menace, lust, anger, and the bitter poison of accepting fate. It is in the soundtrack where the nonbelievers' Jesus lies and adherence to old conventions becomes the stuff of academic twaddle. This is the music of jungle ritual, the dance that symbolizes our abusive love affair with death. None of this going home to God shit. This is music for fucking the black.

But anyway, I just wasn't getting that from the music of the show, and I don't know whether this is because the producers were overly-reverent or because of my own hyper-familiarity with every note. My mother was thirteen when the vinyl version of "JCS" was pressed,and her teenage enthusiasm for the work was passed on to me. I've lobbied to have the discs, leather album cover and all, passed on to me through her will, and I really don't think she has any choice in the matter.


art-rock snob said...

reacon you aint heard Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh...

Joshua Beran said...

Are you a video game character come to life with your own secret pigeon language?