Venting Spleen, Casting Aspersions: Music and Comedy at the End of the American Empire

Stand-up comedian Eddie Pepitone and Paranoid Style singer-songwriter Elizabeth Nelson are close friends who work in different spheres of the entertainment-industrial complex. While Pepitone is a regular presence on popular TV shows like Maron, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Nelson has been effusively covered by media outlets like NPR, Rolling Stone and SPIN, both traffic in charged political discourse that frequently cuts against the risk-averse preferences of their chosen fields. On the occasion of the Paranoid Style’s new six-song EP Underworld U.S.A., the two discussed the implicit challenges of maintaining integrity while working within a corrupt system, the attitude of audiences when confronted with politics, and what it’s like to provide the divertissement as we edge closer to the end times.

ELIZABETH NELSON: Things are pretty grim. The former chairman of Exxon is Secretary of State and we are relieved that he may not be fully insane. In the 80s and 90s the corporate takeover of American life was a looming threat discussed amidst a handful of astute theorists. Now it is the functioning reality of a governance that has been cheerfully divided up and distributed to moneyed interests like a splendid Christmas ham. I assume you’re pleased?

EDDIE PEPITONE: Well the 80s and 90s were the beginning of the hollowing out of our little democracy. It started with Reagan and went to Bill NAFTA Clinton! Hey, but who’s paying attention to history!? What’s stunning is how many people think Trump is the beginning of fascism. He’s the result of many, many years of corporate plunder and spineless Democrats and greedy, racist Republicans. The concentration of wealth, the monopolized media, basically a march toward a fractured Republic. We are broken! So, of course I’m pleased because as a comic I live on the fringes of an extreme society. What could be better than satirizing this insanity. People are on edge, desperate and afraid. Those who aren’t are soulless or living in extreme denial, locked in a magic kingdom of their own making. As a comic I get to poke at people’s bubbles! Of course I’m pleased. I get to be their mouthpiece for their rage and fear! Tremendous fun.

EN: The idea that Trump is not new, and that he really represents the furthering of a long, drawn-out process is something that has really come out during our conversations, and it’s a sentiment that made its way onto my new record. The ascension of Trump is really only shocking if one has failed to follow what has taken place over the past several decades in the courts, in the agencies, the banking sector and the State houses.

Anyway, as a former labor organizer, a significant part of my initial attraction to your work was the pro-labor sentiment that is shot through a great deal of your critique. Did you grow up around the labor movement?

EP: Yes, my dad was a union man with the New York City Public School System. He was active in the union, Albert Shanker was his boss. My dad gave me a copy of Ferdinand Lundberg’s The Rich and The Super Rich. It inspired me. Lundberg was scathing about the working class being diverted by “amore” and “ballgames” whilst getting fleeced by banks – the super rich. I think the climate is so bleak for labor that it might spark a revolution of sorts. The minimum wage battle among fast food workers was encouraging as far as people coming together. Also, we have to come out of this period of the new Gilded Age with a vigor and revolution! We just have to or it’s perish!

So, as a former labor organizer you have first-hand experience with the struggle of bettering things. Do you direct your music specifically to that cause or do you just write from your heart and let it take you there?

EN: It’s tricky. When I write I always tell myself that these are rock songs and not policy papers. They have to succeed as songs and if they fail on that level then it doesn’t make any difference how subversive they might be, because no one is going to listen. Having said that, I do feel that it is incumbent upon me that Paranoid Style songs in some way imbue the revolutionary spirit. I don’t subscribe to Paul McCartney’s view that there is nothing wrong with silly love songs. I don’t understand that, because if you work hard enough you can have a silly love song that conveys something meaningful about our society as well. I think of Leonard Cohen’s “In My Secret Life”, which functions as a love song and also a referendum on the human capacity for both cruelty and mercy. That’s achievable, if you’re willing to work at it. I’m working at it.

I’m curious to know, when you are pitching a TV program or special, how much do you lead with the political content? Is it a liability to let your politics show when you are in those meetings?

EP: When I pitch a show to a network the last thing they want to hear is anti-corporate sentiment. I tend to lead with “a working-class man who is struggling, living with his father…”. The suits who rep the networks want Walking Dead/ Breaking Bad/ Larry David-type stuff. With comedy, they want toothless fun for the most part, you know where everyone in the show has a nice job, house and car somehow. I have no idea what America these people live in but it’s not real, and it’s not anything I experience. I mean, I would love to do a show that represents the gutting of this country by the greedy sons of bitches who run the military, the banks and Wall Street.

EN: Wow, I’d watch that show! Come to think of it, I live that show!

 EP: So, the idea of a rock band to me is the ultimate in subversion, in leading the charge to revolution. My fave part of music is that it cuts to the chase and goes right to the id. Do you let that primal part of yourself dictate the “message” or do you feel you need to civilize it?

EN: Punk rock is pure id. I write songs that vent spleen, cast aspersions. devolve into fantasias and level plausible social critiques in two minutes or less. I possess that terrifying power. It is all very loud and catchy and forceful. I happily stand by the work, but I question if music is really the kind of thing that should be the animating force behind a revolution? I appreciate the role of the Velvet Underground in Vaclav Havel’s ascendancy, or the role the Clash played in Thatcher’s London. But I also worry that people look too much to musicians and entertainers. I hope I have insight, but I don’t claim to have answers. I feel like we require serious people with serious qualifications to achieve substantive reform. I’m just a soundtrack.

EP: What’s your feel about audiences these days? Are they ready to rumble, do they have the revolutionary spirit, or do they want a nice cup of hot cocoa and a nice house?

EN: Well, this is kind of related. I’m grateful that we have a small but loyal following, and the people who really engage with the band tend to be politically active and socially aware. But there is another kind of audience for the sort of music we make that views politics as a kind of lifestyle accoutrement. They run in hip circles and give lip service to progressive ideas, but by and large I think they are far more interested in marking certain boxes socially than actually wrestling with structural inequality. That’s why I have such respect for people like Jon Langford and the Mekons, who play amazing music but more importantly really throw their shoulders into their community. They aren’t fashionable, they aren’t fodder for the music business lifestyle publications, but their work will always have deeper resonances.

EP: Why aren’t there more musicians like Billy Bragg or the Mekons who really trumpet the message? Where are the musical Martin Luther Kings?

EN: Man, I know. Most of the relevant energy in political music is in hip-hop. Run The Jewels and Kendrick Lamar are great. Aesop Rock did a brilliant record called Labor Days about the union movement a few years back. But we don’t get a lot of rock and folk music that is willing to get at what Billy Bragg is getting at. I think it’s a lot to do with the music press – the lead publications who come on as left-leaning but are mainly just transactional and gross and will make their accommodations. A lot of the real stuff you never hear.

What are comedy audiences like? What do you do when you encounter an audience who just wants charming anecdotes that never mention prison camps? The advantage of punk rock, on some level, is that it has license to simply be abusive towards its audience when the situation merits it. That seems harder in stand-up.

EP: Yes, I find club audiences in general to “just want to have fun!”. Escape the drudgery of the mindless tedium of horrifically boring jobs of shuffling papers and pretending to give a fuck about their co-workers. The people who are doing terribly financially want to hear a lot of dick jokes or relationship humor and the last thing people who are making a lot of money want to hear is the plight of the poor in a comedy club. I’ll tell a club crowd the American Empire is finished and most of them will look up at me with a blank stare. Of course, there are some people who are angry and fed-up, and that seems to be growing, and they are into the takedown of the capitalist war machine. They are just not in the majority. So, what I do is charm them with self-deprecating material, hopefully get them on my side when they see how flawed I am, then try to talk about our cancerous democracy.

EN: Getting the audience on your side is so important. I usually lead with telling my audiences how good-looking they are, as you once sagely advised me to do. On a related note, it’s churlish, but I subscribe to the idea that cell phone cameras at performances are an utter scourge. I think they are a form of mediation between audience and performer designed to inherently water down any visceral connection by introducing a third medium into the equation. Also, they usually sound and look dreadful. Do you have an attitude about people using their phones while you perform?

EP: No recording of performance! The clubs usually enforce that pretty well. I want to know that what I’m doing is in the here and now and it’s mine. I absolutely want control over my performances. And it is actually scary to see someone filming you without permission. Like Big Brother is watching. All these cameras don’t make up for a life that isn’t well-lived! I agree that people don’t live in the moment, they instead live to make a name for themselves as “people who are living exciting lives and at great events.”

EN: Lou Reed wrote in 1989, “Don’t believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.” By current standards, that seems generous. I wonder how you take in your news and how you factor in the implicit corporate bias.

EP: Yeah, I get my news from Democracy Now with Amy Goodman and then my contextual analysis from Chris Hedges, Noam Chomsky and publications like CounterPunch. I actually have to consciously stay away from CNN and MSNBC because it will rot my brain and start having me agree with them as they have an argument between the right and the far right while making it seem they are righteous torch-bearers for democracy. Corporate media is insidiously numbing!

Speaking of numbing: we are both big sports fans. How do you justify your time spent on watching all these endless games that are basically a commercial for the military, misguided patriotic hogwash and winner-take-all mentality? It seems sports has become more and more an arm of the corporate state.

EN: I pondered this a lot especially a couple weeks ago when the Nationals blew Game 5 against the Cubs, which put me in a concerning state for several days. The truth is I was indoctrinated young into sports and it gives me the kind of thrill and despair that I can only otherwise associate with serious drugs. The high I get from my teams winning is like cracking open a 24-ounce can of pure serotonin. So, you can see that I have problems. But the larger point is absolutely true. The NBA seems pretty cool, MLB is at least run by the player’s union, but the NFL is essentially a dress rehearsal for Francoist Spain. And I consume it in insatiable abundance.

EP: Last thing: being an artist is an uphill fight. What keeps your flame burning?

EN: I can give you two reasons. First, I’m ornery and persistent. I don’t like giving up on things and I believe in the band and I just happen to have the sort of personality that really likes to see things to the bitter end. The second reason is the incredible people I’ve been fortunate to meet as a result of pursuing this insane, money-hemorrhaging enterprise. Literally every time I release a well-reviewed, poor-selling record, the net result is that I end up meeting more kind, like-minded, creative and brilliant people. That’s how I met you. That’s really all the reward I need.