PRINT April 1991


Not long ago, America’s most influential and beloved popular artist celebrated his 80th birthday. It was, as the rituals of the rich and famous go, a modest affair: the Manchurian Candidate takes a well-deserved curtain call among old friends. But the interminable movie the star produced continues to unspool, even though he has left the screen. The real celebration is much more lively, taking the form of a belief system and its symbols, the giddy unease of wartime made into the crowd-pleasing hit of the year/decade/millennium. It’s an epic of violence and forgetting designed, as critics enthusiastically report, to make America feel good about itself again—a fitting epilogue to the project the actor-candidate termed “National Renewal.” But as the nation is renewed as a glorious synthesis of studio and multiplex theater, manifest destiny reveals itself as a strain of Wild West futurism, B-picture sci-fi: ghost-riding space invaders infiltrate the American Dream and are captured by it as, disbelieving but secretly impressed, they ask out loud, “What is this place?”

“WELCOME TO THE TERRORDOME,” blared Public Enemy’s new single as 1990 began. It was the rap group’s attempt to address—maybe exorcise is a better word—the controversy surrounding anti-Semitic remarks made by the group’s former “Minister of Information,” Professor Griff. As an entity dedicated to raising political consciousness, Public Enemy’s handling of the Griff affair (his offhand contributions to the deathless theme of International Jewish Conspiracy got him bounced from the group only to be reinstated and then pushed out again) was at best confused, at worse craven.

Now was their chance to set the record straight. Leader Chuck D was in peak form, a man drunk on the power of language and weaving all over the road: one minute comparing Public Enemy’s few black critics to the race-betraying assassins of Malcolm X and Huey Newton, the next declaring “It’s weak to speak and blame somebody else / When you destroy yourself.” But if the spirit of “Welcome to the Terrordome” was more schizophrenic than ambiguous, the four lines at its heart were neither: “Crucifixion ain’t no fiction / so-called chosen frozen / Apology made to whoever pleases / Still they got me like Jesus.” Without warning, Chuck D had taken up Griff’s logic and imagery to bait Public Enemy’s attackers, cheerfully deploying the image of the Jew as Christ-killer—one of the most reactionary ideas in Western Civilization now revived by a band of radically Afrocentric rappers.

Those lines, surely, were more opportunism than doctrine. “Lyrical terrorist” Chuck D was only doing his job: maintaining his credentials of militancy, creating provocation from the nearest materials at hand. Such outrage, furthermore, was conceived in terms of a liberatory antidialectic wherein every action provoked an equal expansion of freedom. But the words were still chilling. And if Public Enemy tried to depict themselves in “Welcome to the Terrordome” as marked outsiders in a media dictatorship, they more convincingly demonstrated their fatal complicity: Chuck D shouted his innocence, speaking for a race oppressed by chains of mythic Otherness it had worn for four hundred years, but the words that jumped out of his mouth invoked the Otherness of another oppressed people. Meaning to speak unmediated truth, Chuck D allowed his voice to be displaced by Western lies predating slavery, their source the same social order he sought to denounce.

A blind drama of crisis and recuperation unfolded in the deceptively abstract space Public Enemy dubbed the Terrordome. The moment the song passed beyond pulp thrills to reserve Chuck D a place on a jerry-built cross, the frame that it assembled fell apart. Instead of a combat zone, Public Enemy found themselves in a reification factory, and the song re-formed as a bizarre success story. The record emerged from that factory as a vehicle of mystification; the components of its making—motivation, passion, intellect—were gutted for spare parts. And the Terrordome hit the road on wheels of pure capital, a complacent pleasure machine, its self-destructive rumblings merely disguising the way capital moves unscathed from one crisis to the next. In this triumphant process, victims become customers. A record is a product, and the product renders morality as currency, a means of buying time, protection, affect. Moment to moment, order recuperates disorder, and values are broken down and reinstated on the level of myth. “Black to the bone my home is your home / So welcome to the Terrordome,” a fast fierce voice proclaims, the high drama of the outsider exchanged for the pop fantasy of belonging while nobody—not even the speaker—is looking.

But an astonishing piece of black music had identified and critiqued the Public Enemy discourse years in advance. A 1977 work by Parliament conceptualized a present—simultaneously theirs and ours—in which George Orwell and James Brown were brought together to diagram, then reject, the underlying assumptions of industrialized leisure. Deliciously bizarre as this notion was, it was made even more so by its presentation as dance music: a funky jam on themes of struggle and hegemony. Most of which was implied in its mysterious, entirely irresistible designation: Funkentelechy vs. The Placebo Syndrome.

“Yo, this is Mood Control,” the voice of Parliament leader and auteur George Clinton announces at the outset of the song “Funkentelechy,” “sayin’ you might as well pay attention, you can’t afford free speech.” He could be M.C. for a Big Brother telethon, his suave rules of disengagement —“Heads I win, tails you lose”—a backdrop for the real work of domination: “The pimping of the pleasure principle.” But as the 11-minute number unfolds, the unitary narrative voice succumbs to irony and doubt; it is encircled by interruption, digression, contestation.

The concept of funkentelechy virtually defined George Clinton’s mission in the 1970s: redressing the separations modern culture is built upon, extrapolating from the sensual materiality of funk to its realization in the contingencies of being. The musical dynasty Clinton shaped was so fecund his sprawling, shifting group simultaneously released records under two names, Parliament and Funkadelic. Their fairly distinct aural identities were joined by a common thread: the ’60s spirit of the carnivalization of everyday life. P-Funk’s music posited blackness as noise against the bland tyranny of white reality, funk as an invasion directed at a dysfunctional—and, need I say, dysfunktional—society. Dismantling the structures of sexuality (if not gender) and race, P-Funk made the apparatus of the American social world seem less real—at least less binding—than the science metafiction conceits Clinton was dreaming up: Afronauts, cosmic slop, cloned children of production.

As negations of the existing order, these efforts were sheerly utopian. But secreted in their utopia was a quiet sense of how susceptible their joyous noise was to “the subliminal seducer,” the recuperative order that found its calling in “the pimping of the pleasure principle.” Clinton acknowledged the power of the Placebo Syndrome in order to defeat it, but in the end, P-Funk’s weapons—“mood decontrol,” personal illumination—would prove as fragile, as provisional, as they had in the ’60s. Simulations and controls were now facts of life, of the good life: limits en-suring that ecstasy was contained within the flat field of consumption.

A dozen-odd years down the road, George Clinton’s beats are sampled by uncounted rap groups and his vision is brushed aside by most. Between the demise of funkentelechy and the rise of the Terrordome, the placebo mentality has expanded well past the realm of entertainment—or, rather, has extended that realm beyond recognition. No longer content with music, this newly empowered principle migrates from its home in the mainstream of white America (television and religion, movies and commercials) to claim even refusal and the marginal as its domain. Clinton’s forebodings of music as social control—a commodity of pseudo-pleasure, like luxury cars or drugs—no longer warn of a threat to individuality. Such threats are now public policy, so ingrained as to have been forgotten; “individuality” is returned to us as a marketing strategy for soft drinks and sneakers. Behind the equal intensification of apathy and all-purpose hostility that this shift represents is a paradigm. One with an honored name, a ready smile, the nearly insupportable mystique of the last individual: Ronald Reagan.

TODAY REAGAN SURVIVES as the ghost of his former self: ectoplasmic enigma, universal symbol for everything and nothing. He fades from memory, as though his celebrated lapses in that department had become contagious. His administration is absorbed in the chronology of a nation, its deeds or misdeeds already a closed chapter. Reagan is again what his enemies wanted to believe he was all along—a mere celebrity, a has-been movie star who came almost by chance to host the country’s most popular political serial.

But as the Reagan Era takes its place among the unfinished national projects—Roosevelt’s New Deal, Johnson’s Great Society—it was designed to supersede, its animus goes forward. Reagan the man disappears, but the paradigm is transformed: a harmless ghost acquires the power of desublimation and is reborn as Betelgeuse, id with a secret agenda. The id of false consciousness, perhaps, but in the lives it enters, questions of authenticity have become meaningless. In the name of Ronald Reagan, the power of fantasy has become synonymous with power itself.

For many, the Reagan years were a waiting game. You held your breath, counting the days as a prisoner did a sentence. You kept faith in whatever fashion you could afford to, looking for signs of the uprising that had to come in the wake of this repressive tide—a mistake, a fluke, an accident of history. Horror became habit, until it was as reassuring as Reagan’s persona. Months passed, then years. The Constitution was not dismantled, social programs were hacked at but limped on, the U.S. mounted neither a Central American invasion (Grenada was tongue-in-cheek muscle-flexing: proof even imperialism had a sense of humor) nor a limited nuclear war. Polls showed that Reagan’s massive personal appeal didn’t extend to his policies. He had been taken up as a pop figure, so it was easy to figure he was as disposable as one: eventually the issues he’d evaded and the betrayals he’d managed would catch up with the country. Endure a couple terms and the bad dream would be finished; the damages would be superficial, not institutional. Everyone would be able to start breathing again.

In due course, the dragon—unslain, almost unscathed—returned to his lair and people began to emerge from theirs. But the landscape was changed, its outward resemblance to America before Reagan concealing polarities and divisions that had been gleefully exacerbated. When people inhaled, dragon’s breath filled their lungs.

Fear and indifference, projection and denial permeated the nation, not as side effects of policy but as the agencies through which policy was made. This was fear of a black planet as realpolitik: struggles in the third world treated as fronts for Soviet aggression, underprivileged minorities at home made into symbols of potential disorder. In 1980, then-rival George Bush had derisively labeled embryonic Reaganism as “voodoo economics.” But by 1988, Bush himself would be proudly swept into office on the bat-wings of such voodoo, its province no longer economics per se but the whole of life reduced to a tyrannical economy.

Nationalist governments around the world imagine themselves the last line of defense against chaos, the public enemy within. But Reaganism (and its twin sister Thatcherism) worked to make oligarchy seem reassuring and generous—a system of rewards and punishments that anyone could profit from if they cooperated. Above all, Reaganism shifted the mode of oligarchy from magisterial to managerial: everyone knew his or her place (or lack thereof). Every place had its function. Thus the black underclass existed, and was expanded, to supply images and statistics of horror for the nightly news—a pool of human detritus mirroring what would become of society at large if anything happened to the ruling class. As the matrix of authority, Reagan allocated resources and managed scarcity. Money went to the rich and poverty to the poor, but in the process, innovative variations of dominance appeared as if unbidden. The thinking was magical, not political: when a crazed tabloid headlined “Reagan Uses Occult Powers to Run U.S.” it was only blurting what The Wall Street Journal was too discreet to report. So it was that as the urban underclass grew more desperate, its desperation was transformed into a national resource. The dispossessed were deputized to police the fortunate and citizens became aliens in their own land.

Judged on political terms, much of Reagan’s supposed agenda ended up compromised (his promise of sweeping moral changes), abandoned (his promise of a balanced budget), or enacted with disastrous results (his deregulation of the S&L industry). Only those were never Reagan’s terms, which were always cultural. His revolution was intended—and carried out—on the level of sensibility. Reagan’s purpose was to change how people imagined themselves, how they made sense of their lives, how they talked to one another. His presidency was a performance, just as his critics charged, but one of sufficient breadth and conviction to disperse its energies across the spectrum of our collective life.

Reagan enacted an epic narrative that amounted to a remythologization of the country and its conscience. He did not articulate a precise vision, nor did he need to. He was that vision made flesh—or so he appeared, and against the serene ubiquity of his presence, anything contrary to appearances registered as absence, nothingness. The boundaries of the United States were redrawn to the contours of fantasy and nostalgia, its geography dissolved by a history born out of Hollywood’s biographies, Reader’s Digest anticommunism, and tremulous renditions of the national anthem. But there was another side to Reagan the instinctive mythologizer, everywhere at home in an America of his own device. You glimpse the other Reagan slipping through the back door of Laurie Anderson’s 1982 song “Big Science,” the guise of a Free World–running Walt Disney falling away. In its place is the observant, methodical Man with No Name: “Everywhere he goes he stays—a stranger.” The stranger has a motto straight from the American Eden’s tombstone: “Every man for himself.” And ranging freely between the mythic frontiers of science and the Old West, the veneer of sentimentality gone, he looks for an elusive, deferred gratification: revenge.

Such gratification was never far from the surface of Reagan’s time in public service. From his election as governor of California in 1966, he mapped an America where peace of mind was tinged with retribution. His opponent then wasn’t really Pat Brown or later Jimmy Carter, it was the whole sensibility of the 1960s counterculture—an open sore on the idealized body of history. The decade set loose an army of public enemies—hippies, rioting blacks, antiwar marchers, civil-rights workers, feminists, homosexuals, campus radicals, drug users, sex fiends, deviants of every stripe dancing in the streets. Reagan understood these disparate elements as a single entity and their emancipatory gropings as a concerted assault on all the myths he cherished. “It came out of the sky,” chortled Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1969, which summed up Reagan’s sense of the weird, manic carnivalization of life that had broken out all over the world: alienation was inconceivable except as the province of aliens, ergo agitators and the disaffected must be some kind of Martians.

Fear of those pansexual, multiethnic Martians was the platform Reagan always ran on, even in 1980 and 1984, when the ’60s were well buried. As president, he took for his mandate the eradication of all real memory of the ’60s—the formulation and installation of an alternate history in which the decade had never happened. The project fed on the resentments of those who hated what had come out of that era and lived for the chance to get even. But Reagan also grasped that the ’60s had produced a mythological language that at least as structure was not so far from his own. Despite its dislocations, the counterculture had carried its own baggage of piety, escapism, and blind faith. As possibilities had spiraled, they had outdistanced their actors, who had begun to look for solid ground instead of an indeterminate field. The ’60s drifted into the long hangover of the 1970s, the moment unseized, chances blown, imaginations spent—but the era’s mythologies, divided up into user-friendly fragments, multiplied freely as styles of nostalgia and sentiment, a discourse of containment. That discourse was Reagan’s too. The ’60s were a corpse—doomed, earnest Jimmy Carter proved that—but Reagan had waited too long to settle for pushing aside the remains. He was going to feast on every morsel of dead meat; now it was his turn to rock and roll.

His election in 1980 set the table; John Lennon’s murder was the first course. Not that there was any literal connection—it only felt like some sick kismet was at work. (On a metaphoric level—and pop events, as Reagan’s victory and Lennon’s assassination both were, are spawning grounds for metaphor the two events made perfect sense of each other.) Lennon had helped shape ’60s aspirations toward a new world, a world that never came to pass; as early as 1968, his “Revolution”—all along, a Nike commercial waiting to happen—was a retreat from engagement, the first step on the road to sanctity that ended in the universal-brotherhood bromides of “Imagine.” Saint John’s voice had been silenced long before he went to sociopolitical heaven. But Reagan was finding his, and what his voice said was reassuringly familiar: “Imagine. . . .”

Maybe the Beatles had been bigger than Jesus. What mattered now was that Reagan would be bigger than the Beatles—he would beat Lennon on his own turf (or under it, as the case may be). When Reagan was shot by a similarly star-struck psychotic (pop’s appetite for remakes and sequels being insatiable), he shrugged off his wounds with a heroic grin. It was as if he had absorbed not only the bullets directed at him, but the ones that had cut down Lennon: in the ancient logic of ritual, abruptly transposed to the covers of the newsweeklies, he had outlived his enemy and claimed that enemy’s symbolic properties for his own. Now Ron could begin his own revolution, with America at his feet.

In Reagan’s “Imagine,” the vision of hope was cleansed of its easy universalism and given a home in an imaginary U.S.A.-as-owner-and-sole-proprietor-of the-Free-World. “Our optimism has once again been turned loose,” he announced in 1980. “And all of us recognize that these people who keep talking about the age of limits are really talking about their own limitations, not America’s.” What was being turned loose, of course, was capitalism: the expansion of the marketplace into every sector of life. Capital unbound, experiencing itself without limits, is a vehicle of inhuman appetite. It produces artifacts of commonality from the shared ruins of community, then sells them to the displaced as souvenirs. Every man for himself, whispers the inner voice of capital; a stranger everywhere he goes, the Man with No Name comes to be at home with estrangement. Reagan brushing off “the age of limits” at one end of the decade and Guns N’ Roses proclaiming their “appetite for destruction” at the other were salivating over the self-same prospects: innocent nihilists dreaming separate versions of a single voracious dream.

In his Reagan’s America, Gary Wills notes, “If capitalist ‘conservatism’ cannot be rooted in the real past it works to obliterate, then it will invent a deracinating past, a nostalgia for the new, a substitute history to lull us in the time machine that travels on no roads, reaching goals no one could plan.” The forces of “optimism” Reagan set loose upon the American landscape were seductive, indiscriminate. They proved what the ’60s had only implied—namely that sensibility could have a deeper, more resonant impact than policy. The difference was that when an Aretha Franklin or a Bob Dylan laid siege to the mainstream, they didn’t have the full authority of the state behind their performances. Reagan completed the transformation of the pop world from a place of surprise to one where surprise existed only to be subsumed. The mainstream sucked the margins right into its contented maw. Movements (rap, speed metal, “post-Modern” rock) devolved into career options, pale fire next to dazzling constructs of “nostalgia for the new” like Michael Jackson’s Thriller. There Jackson reinvented himself as the archetypal Reaganite star: an enterprising cipher hotly pursuing, or pursued by, a world of total deracination. As Jackson obliterated his history—his physiognomy, his blackness—in plastic surgery and brilliantly synthetic music, he was born again as a glamorous android. Sexless but almost pornographic, he was another innocent nihilist, a wholesome freak, the ultimate domesticated Martian.

The mainstream’s source was the union of cultural with economic fantasies, but it flowed in a circle, washing the signs and symbols it engulfed into Reagan’s lap. Thriller and Rambo and name-your-poison were driftwood in the zeitgeist, but the zeitgeist was the chief executive’s domain: anyone entering it had to pay with their autonomy. Something as trifling as Madonna’s “Material Girl” suddenly crackled with fetish and debasement when it made the charts, like a blow-job given to secure a tax shelter. But something as bitter and unreconciled as Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” turned innocuous when it hit the airwaves, its despair converted into the currency of optimism—the swelling background music to the president’s landslide reelection victory.

People internalized an interesting lesson in the 1980s: it was easier to desecrate something powerless than something powerful. It was also more fun, because there was less risk, and more profitable, because it was socially sanctioned. This was the buried message of Reagan’s traditional values: the adoration of power, the loathing of difference, the timeless allure of violence. Reagan could declare a public-relations war on drugs while carrying out a clandestine one on the poor; he could gorge the military and starve education; he could extol freedom and piss on the Constitution. He was, after all, as much an idealist as Springsteen or Lennon, but his ideals were joined to institutional action.

When Public Enemy indulges in some casual Jew-baiting, or Guns N’ Roses singer Axl Rose decries “immigrants and faggots” and other non-Aryan troublemakers (i.e., Martians), they aren’t rejecting the dominant culture: they’re serving as its opening acts. When Chuck D and Rose then insist they have nothing personal against anyone belonging to these groups, however, they are quite sincere. Pop has become a belief system, a structure of myth, and they are simply performing one of its rites—the rite of controversy. It’s a passion play in a Las Vegas showroom, but it’s just a warm-up for the headliner. Soon he will appear at the mike, hair still ungrayed, seeming almost too young, too natural—is that really him or another one of those look-alikes?—and he will begin a song, to roars of approval. “We built this city,” he croons, pausing to savor the applause, the sweetness of the moment: “We built this city on rock and roll.”

“We Built This City,” the 1985 hit by Starship (né Jefferson Starship, né Jefferson Airplane), was well modulated, catchy, and hopelessly unctuous. The song distilled the Reagan Era to a sterile frieze: three decades of rock reached a blissful culmination in the marriage of ideology (pop as belief system) to corporate dynamism (pop as marketplace). The music was tastefully loud, with Vegas-lounge synthesizers oozing across chrome-plated guitar chords, the voices of Mickey Thomas and Grace Slick rising like steam off dung. The line from the Airplane days had been a straight one: Starship was plying the rhetoric of protest here too. But the muddled call to take back the beat or the night, or maybe the country, was couched in dulcet corporate tones: the song was already the commercial jingle it would become in 1990, softened into putty by studio musicians, only the chorus retained (albeit slightly revised) as a misty-eyed session baritone gently exclaimed on behalf of ITT, “We built this business to build your freedom.”

In the video for “We Built This City,” an ethnically mixed group of anxious-looking young people is milling around a mock-up of the Lincoln Memorial. All at once, the marble Abe comes alive, springs to his feet, and with all the emphatic dignity he and the make-up department can muster, sings along: “We built this city on rock and roll.” Yes, indeed. In the modern logic of ritual, abruptly transposed to the democratic vistas of MTV, Ronald Reagan had survived not only Mark David Chapman’s bullets but also John Wilkes Booth’s. By the same mechanism, he could claim the Great Emancipator’s mythic properties as well as Lennon’s. Now Honest Ron could complete his occupation of the city that rock built. He would abolish the mysteries of freedom, equality, desire, of America, that had erupted into public life in the 1960s. In their stead, he would give us eminently reasonable facsimiles.

THE MYSTERIES THAT REMAINED were those of power and money, and they found expression in the mythic city built by another kind of rock—cocaine. From this underground economy came the shadow version of America in the 1980s: life-styles of the poor and desperate. Crack was the go-go growth industry of the decade, an infinitely bullish recontextualization of the junk-bond market. The cheap fix, after all, was the cornerstone of Reaganomics—the ecstatic high of tax cuts and deregulation, a bottomless supply of cooked and diluted numbers to meet the demand for hope and make tolerable an incalculable deficit and untold privation. In that climate of excess and paranoia the only ground rule was “Don’t underestimate the other guy’s greed.”

That’s a line from the 1983 remake of Scarface, an atrocious but prophetic movie that rearticulates an old subcultural mode for a new generation: the gangster esthetic. Written by Oliver Stone and directed by Brian De Palma (both would go on to allegorical expiations of the Vietnam war, with Platoon and Casualties of War respectively), it’s a three-hour-long stab at the ultimate gangland tragedy—at making the rise and fall of Cuban refugee-turned-coke-king Tony Montana (played by Al Pacino as a murderous cartoon) into an emblem of American corruption and hubris. Indeed. Past the mixture of inert sensationalism and crypto-liberal sentiment (well, sediment is more like it), Scarface gives in to its Republican-punk underpinnings. A Frankenstein with upward mobility, Tony Montana could sum up his obsessively profane world-view in two phrases: “Don’t fuck with me” and “Fuck you.” The critique of corruption (Montana defines capitalism as “gettin’ fucked”) is so purply one-dimensional the one-dimensionality becomes a turn-on. Scarface is a zombie opera, but its protagonist has a program: every zombie for himself. Blown to bits in the end by a firestorm of bullets, his death is luxurious—he’s hit over and over again, but keeps lurching forward, cocaine-saturated bloodstains covering him like stigmata. He’s a moronic angel of death who shapes his life as a form of revenge and lives only for the last word: “I take you all to fuckin’ hell.”

I hadn’t thought of Scarface in years until I heard N.W.A.’s 1988 album Straight Outta Compton, rap’s masterpiece of the gangster esthetic. N.W.A., of course, stands for Niggers with Attitude—enough attitude, in the case of their “ Tha Police,” to attract the attention of the FBI. But Straight Outta Compton is scarcely a radical record: it cozies up to so many reactionary racial stereotypes it might as well be the work of an F.B.I. infiltration-of-rap project. Numerous impressionable or plain disingenuous people bought the band’s line that they were providing the unvarnished dope on the Los Angeles Vietnam they came from. But N.W.A.’s vision of random street warfare is as objective as a military briefing—as if Bob Dylan had enlisted to perform “Ballad of the Green Berets.” The real destination of Straight Outta Compton is Hollywood: it’s a dream homage to Scarface, the work of die-hard fans who’ve edited out the distractions of plot and cut the phony moralizing. They go right for the throat, the good stuff: tautly rhythmic montages of programmatic violence, bad-ass self-congratulation, hypertrophic misogyny. In this movieland Compton, the shrewd young entrepreneurs of N.W.A. show that they can beat the multinational studios at their own merchandizing game: the bullets are blanks, the bodies stuntmen, the carnage special f/x, but the hate is as real as box-office receipts.

The fullest—and emptiest—account of the gangster esthetic is The Geto Boys, the self-titled album by a group that includes one member who has taken the name Scarface. The music too is peppered with sampled dialogue (expletives anyway) from the movie. “F#@* ’Em,” the first but by no means last bow to the inexhaustible poetry of Stone and De Palma, sets the tone. “Assassins,” “Trigga Happy Nigga,” and of course “Scarface” itself supply connect-the-dots authenticity, while for young lovers there’s “Let a Ho Be a Ho,” “Gangster of Love,” and “Size Ain’t Shit” (this rarest of rap boasts stems from the fact that Geto Boy Bushwick Bill is a dwarf).

The most notorious song on The Geto Boys is “Mind of a Lunatic,” a sociopath’s narrative of a rape that ends in the victim pleading for her life and the rapist laughing in her face as he slits her throat, then raping the still-warm corpse again for good measure. It’s sickening but not shocking: “Mind of a Lunatic” is an offshoot of a mainstream where sexual violence is big business. It draws on splatter films, leering made-for-TV psychos, and tabloid serial-killer fantasies—the routine diet of pop images the Geto Boys grew up on in the projects of Houston. All they’ve done is translate those images into a more graphic idiom, dropping white culture’s sanctimony about its commercial nihilism. The gangster esthetic isn’t a new mode of realism, but a new hybrid of unreality. Urban brutalization has been remythologized in media-generated terms, horrors reified into a horror show: drive-by shooters dream they’re Scarface in the middle of a Mad Max apocalypse, munching popcorn and loading their AK-47s with live ammunition, as capital’s victims become its spellbound audience.

It is only fitting Ronald Reagan should turn up in the Geto Boys’ “City Under Siege.” Reagan and Bush, the song smirks, were down with Noriega: “The motherfucker that needs to be tried is Ronald Reagan’s ass.” It’s a good line, but like Reagan’s best lines, it exists in a self-created cultural vacuum. The Geto Boys’ extremism is neatly calculated, a placebo—they know which buttons to push in their audience and which lines not to cross, they know what their constituency wants to hear, and in what tones. The siege mentality Reagan nurtured through his malign neglect of the cities was and is a means of consolidating power—playing into his audience’s worst instincts. The war on drugs is a front for a war of attrition: eating away at people’s autonomy through surgical strikes at targets like education, health care, and housing. At the same time, it is a war of impoverishment aimed at the social infrastructure of imagination, empathy, and desire.

When Reagan talked about the contras as “freedom fighters” he was performing a debasement of language, a small act of terrorism. When people convince themselves the Geto Boys are also freedom fighters (not committing murders or rapes, merely making them into quasi-erotic entertainments), they are succumbing to Reagan’s virus. (Public Enemy’s Chuck D says of them admiringly: “I think they drop more science than anybody out there.”) This debasement of language is unfree speech, a structure that indoctrinates experience to replicate internally the symbolic order that addresses it: what Orwell dubbed Doublethink, what George Clinton called the Placebo Syndrome.

With the start of the war on Iraq, we entered the final phase of Reagan’s campaign against the sensibilities of the 1960s and their abortive glimpse of freedom. As a beaming George Bush announced that war had been joined and the television networks went to round-the-clock coverage, it seemed the previous ten years had been nothing but a dress rehearsal for this moment. Here a real horror show unfolded hour to hour: live TV brought into your living room the state of siege (incoming Scuds for dinner), the eroticized hardware, the great tide of national consent. Now the Vietnam war is re-fought again, but not in some steroid-drunk action pic; it is retranslated, but not into a rap-record chant-along. This time we’ll support the president, who in turn promises he won’t “tie the hands of the military.” The drama of crisis and recuperation shifts into high gear: freedom is threatened, but America saves it and is redeemed. An alternative history is written in the sands of a distant public enemy.

But Operation Desert Storm is only beginning. Despite the application of the gangster esthetic abroad, the real field of operations is the home front. Demonizing the idea of dissent, a program of pacification sets the stage for a time when the escape of a good war can no longer divert people from the failing voodoo of Reaganomics, when jingoism will need to be turned inward against civil unrest. Dissolution will have to be managed, contradictions suppressed, all Martian impulses kept in check. The energies—the appetite for destruction—Ronald Reagan released are lived out in acts no one can acknowledge, directed toward a future where time flows backward into a “new world order.”

In the meantime, we wait, divert ourselves. I put on my CD of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet (another theme of the war heard from) and listen to something called “Burn Hollywood Burn”: an attack on racist motion-picture stereotypes featuring a guest appearance by ex-N.W.A. rapper Ice Cube, but there’s no irony meant and none taken. Public Enemy have learned more from Hollywood than they care to let on—contrary to their press agents, the Terrordome welcomes them with open arms. That is Reagan’s purest legacy: everyone is invited to this fantasy America, but on his terms. I would put on a Parliament-Funkadelic album, but that sweet, contentious music is hard to hear now. The notion of funkentelechy persists, even thrives in the case of the Jungle Brothers’ 1989 Done by the Forces of Nature—only their mysterious voices seem to call from lonely, stoic exile, not beckon to a carnival of earthly delights. Something like Funkadelic’s 1978 One Nation under a Groove could be from another lifetime. It’s a message in a forgotten tongue: the groove is in other hands, the nation George Clinton serenaded is no longer on the map.

Howard Hampton is a writer living in Apple Valley, California.