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Interview with John Strausbaugh
- By Richard Byrne ’86

John Strausbaugh made a name for himself as an editor and a journalist, but it is in his books on American popular culture that he has created a body of work that skewers sacred cows (the zombie-like persistence of classic rockers), tap dances on third rails (the history of blackface) and finds profundities in the seemingly trivial detritus of pop culture (Elvis cults).

When I ask Strausbaugh how he decides on book topics, he observes that many of his works “have been about the convergence of pop culture and larger culture. Pop culture and politics. Pop culture and religion. Pop culture and race. Pop culture and how it impinges on things that people take more seriously. Because American culture is only pop culture. We don't have any other culture. So I take it very seriously.

“As far as the books,” he continues, “the ideas come to me and I start looking into them. And then I think, ‘Well, I better talk someone into publishing a book so I can keep looking into it.’"

In the course of a recent interview, Strausbaugh talked a bit about each of his five books and what prompted him to write them.

Alone With the President (Blast Books, 1992)

The cover of Strausbaugh’s book on the collision of the American presidency with celebrity culture from the 1960s onward features the most famous picture of a president and a celebrity: a photograph taken of Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley during Elvis’ visit to the Oval Office. Elvis left with a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs that can still be seen at Graceland.

“Me and my very good friends, Ken Swezey and Laura Lindgren, the publishers of Blast Books, would get together and talk about certain topics all the time,” Strausbaugh recalls. “We talked about Elvis all the time and that became an Elvis book. But before that, we talked about all these pop and rock stars going to the Oval Office to meet the President. My thesis was that it's called ‘popular democracy’ because it's a ‘pop culture democracy,’ and our politicians are pop stars. So, of course it makes sense that Vikki Carr and Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys end up in the White House. And it culminated in a movie star becoming president.”

Alone With the President emerged from Strausbaugh’s research into presidencies and celebrity at presidential libraries. “I just traveled around to all the presidential libraries from Kennedy on,” he says, “poring through thousands and thousands of photos and picking the ones I wanted to use…The Reagan Library weren't too happy about it. But everyone else got the point.”

When I mentioned that presidential libraries now boast numerous exhibits that capitalize on just the sorts of connections between pop culture and politics that Strausbaugh pointed out in his book, he argues that it is part of a larger trend: “Presidential libraries are going the way all archives, libraries and museums are going. They're P.T. Barnum-izing themselves. They all realize that Barnum had the right idea 150 years ago.”

E: Reflections on the Birth of the Elvis Faith (Blast Books, 1995)

Book 4

Strausbaugh’s meditation on the growth of the cult of Elvis Presley grew not out of his love for The King, but his interest in the study of religions.

“I've always been interested in religion and religious beliefs, because I don't have any,” he says. “Especially the wackier cults. Some survive and turn into what we consider established religions. But they all started as personality cults. I don't think there's one that didn't. So here you have this secular religious cult. And that was an opportunity to talk about belief and religions and cults. It's not just about Elvis. None of the books are "just about." Black Like You isn't just about blackface. Rock 'Til You Drop isn't just about the Rolling Stones.

“I started out not having all that great an interest in Elvis himself,” Strausbaugh continues. “I was interested in the worshippers. The fans. The true believers. But as I was getting into it I became an enormous Elvis fan -- and an enormous fan of the fans. Almost everyone I met was really nice, really kind. They have this belief that if you are a true Elvis fan, you live by Elvis' principles. If nothing else, Elvis was an excruciatingly polite man, so they were very polite. It was very interesting to hear them talk about it. Read all their fanzines. I could have kept doing it for a long time.

I ask Strausbaugh whether or not the cult of Elvis will be around in 100 years.

“Who knows? I said in the book that 99 out of 100 cults fail,” he says. “They're around for some number of years or a couple generations and then they just go away. So it's hard to predict that. On the other hand, it's amazing that the Mormons are still around. Because that was founded by one of the wackiest religious founders ever. He was talking in his hat. And they became a major American religion. So who knows? It's possible.”

Rock 'Til You Drop: The Decline from Rebellion to Nostalgia (Verso, 2001)

Book 2

Adopting the position that the best defense is a good offense, Strausbaugh’s attack on the aging boomer rock and roll industry was a pointed polemic about what he called “colostomy rock.” The music of youth, sex and rebellion, he observed, becomes anything but that when 50 and 60 year-old men flounce around onstage, replaying the hits of 30 summers before. The book drew angry reaction from some of its targets, including Who guitarist Pete Townsend and Mick Jagger –whose picture adorned the book’s cover.

“I had done a couple articles along that line,” he recalls. “I had done an article on the 30th anniversary of Rolling Stone, where I said that they were having their 30th birthday party and who else outside of Rolling Stone cared?"

Strausbaugh argues that book got such a strong reaction from many music fans because of the outsized passion of classic rock fans. “I learned a long long time ago, in the 70s and early 80s, when I wrote something, just in passing, about how overrated Creedence Clearwater Revival had been,” he recalled. “We got more letters that week. People even took out ads to denounce me. I realized that you could say things about people's mothers that would get them less angry than saying something about their favorite pop artists. We take those people extremely seriously. They become part of our lives. We love them more than our mothers.

“They're our saints,” he continued. “Our gods. Our heroes. Our mythology. What else do we have? Movie stars. Rock stars. Celebrities. We don't have anything else. There's that whole book – Leo Braudy's Frenzy of Renown – that says celebrity has been serving that function since Alexander the Great."

The power of boomer rock has even won over subsequent generations, observes Strausbaugh.

“The most interesting arguments I had were with younger fans,” he says. “I remember one that went for a half hour – before he stormed out because he was so mad at me – with a guy who had just been to see the Allman Brothers a month before. He thought I was saying he was an idiot for having enjoyed himself. And I said, ‘No. You can enjoy anything you want. But you didn't see the Allman Brothers.’ In fact, there wasn't even an Allman brother on stage at that point. It was, like, the bass player, or something. It was a bunch of guys doing business as the Allman Brothers. And as long as you enjoy that, fine. But you did not see the Allman Brothers. And if you go to see the Rolling Stones this year, you won't be going to see the Rolling Stones. You'll be going to see a Rolling Stones tribute band, and not a very good one. There are many better in New Jersey."

Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture (Tarcher, 2006)

Book 3

Blackface has been a flashpoint in American culture for the last 50 years or so, but Strausbaugh’s take on the history of this most controversial entertainment phenomenon drew plaudits from the Washington Post and the New York Times.

A key point in Strausbaugh’s exploration of blackface is how permeable the boundaries between black and white are in American culture. Blacks and whites, he writes, “mock and mimic one another, are by turns attracted to and repulsed by one another, sometimes love and sometimes hate one another, sometimes fight and sometimes embrace. It is a culture no high-minded purist could love, and no wishful forgetfulness will amend. All this will continue for as long as America is America.”

As Strausbaugh recalls in the book, he had little interest in blackface until stumbling on a performance by Shirley Q. Liquor, a contemporary blackface artist, in New York City in 2004. “I was stunned that there was white gay man doing blackface in 2005,” he says. “I had very little concept of the book before that."

What stunned Strausbaugh more, however, was discovering how large a cultural phenomenon IT had been throughout American history. “I did not realize, before I started looking into it, how enormous it was,” he says. “Because it's that kind of history, that has been very heavily edited and censored, in our lifetimes anyway. One of the things that I had to do was go back to earlier sources, and see how people were thinking and reacting to and writing about it then. Because only scholars have dealt with it since the 1960s. And there's no point in reading what scholars have written about it. Or very little point.”

Strausbaugh adds that “it's also amazing to think about how many ways blackface still exists in our culture. And that scares the shit out of people. And that's why we still can't deal with it. It's always very downplayed in histories of American popular culture. It's presented like: ‘There were a couple of guys in blackface. And then there was Al Jolson. And then it stopped.’ That's not true at all. It was our first pop culture. And it became a global phenomenon. It went on for decades and decades and decades.”

Sissy Nation: How America Became a Culture of Wimps & Stoopits (Virgin Books, 2008)

Book 1

In a return to the polemical style of Rock ‘Til You Drop, Sissy Nation was a forceful attack on what Strausbaugh perceives as a softening-up of American culture. Contemporary America is a place that the author dubs as “Fundadome,” and he warns that “unless we stop acting like such sissies, soon enough some lean, angry barbarians from somewhere out Beyond Fundadome are going to overrun us, ramming their bayonets in our lard guts like fingers poking the Pillsbury Doughboy, only we won't be giggling.”

Historically, Strausbaugh observes, the process “started after World War II. We've been going downhill ever since the postwar era. We're becoming more and more sissified. More and more scared. More and more isolated. And more and more insular. You can see it throughout our culture. It's not everybody, but it is the culture that we all live in. And work in. And operate in. It's the end of the empire…. We've abandoned Halloween. We've abandoned hitchhiking. We put labels on everything so we don't hurt ourselves. We put helmets on our kids when they're walking down the street.”

When I ask whether his book had any effect on stemming the tide of American sissification, Strausbaugh all but admitted defeat.

“I live in New York, so this may be sissy central. I can't walk in Manhattan now. Every man under the age of 35 is feminized, wearing his man purse, walking down the street with his ears plugged in and both hands working his mobile device... Everybody is a bubble boy now. I can't see how that's not a huge problem. Why aren't more people worried about this?”

Want to know more about Strausbaugh’s books? Check out his website where you can find excerpts, reviews and links to buy them online.

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