Loudon Wainwright III: Social Studies

Loudon Wainwright III
Social Studies

THE AMERICAN LEFT needs another humorist only slightly less than it needs another tenured cultural theorist. But a genuine comedian is another thing altogether, and who better for the job than a scion of the Westchester, New York, gentility-turned-folkie impersonator, one whose mug has been contorted into a crowd-pleasing grimace for the better part of two and a half decades? On this compendium of topicalia, culled from a decade of recordings for that patron of insurrectionary hip, NPR, Wainwright's need to amuse verges on mania. Besides the gleefully arcane word-find of the "O.J. Fun Page," the CD booklet includes midsong footnotes as obsessively didactic as those compiled by David Foster Wallace. For a single line of "What Gives," the singer explains, "Thanks to the magic of modern technology, both Natalie Cole and Hank Williams Jr. have been able to make recordings and videos with their legendary albeit dead fathers."

The actual songs on Social Studies tend to be less wry, as in the harried ode to Simpson, "O.J.," complete with slide whistles, crowd groans, and a cash register. Still, unlike, say, Calvin Trillin's doggerel in the Nation, Wainwright is genuinely funny. And he keeps his point of view under careful consideration: Like any thin-skinned, financially secure boomer, Wainwright takes the political personally rather than making the personal political. Here bad politics is a matter of taste. The prefabricated Beatles reunion is as absurd a shock to Loudon's system as Jesse Helms's censorious aesthetics. On "Carmine Street," about watching the L.A. riots on television from the tenuous security of a New York City apartment, he captures a typical middle-class mind state rather than merely documenting the event, lending insight to the liberal pieties he seems merely to mouth.

It's fitting that this fortunate son should sound most like himself as he slavers across caste at Tonya Harding, "the slut who moved next door." The only woman in a starring role (and the only character outside the ruling elite), this slyly misbehaving Harding caricature throws Wainwright's political cartoons into high relief. His powerful men are either stooge buffoons ripe for lampooning or stodgy bystanders waxing ineffectual--a line that Loudon himself straddles. The curse of white-male privilege is that you either act and are assumed to be a fool, or look on with slumped shoulders and a spectator's sigh, assuming yourself powerless. The fringe benefit, of course, is that such assumptions never erode a single grain of that privilege.

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