Have you seen HBO’s “>The Leftovers? It’s a masterclass in how a television show can be fascinating and annoying and brilliant and subpar all at once. Most of all, however, the show is meant to be disturbing. Towards that end, the opening title sequence of the first season has a series of fresco paintings that display human misery, anger, sexuality, and despair.
The second season’s opening, by contrast, has a sort of spacey Seventies vibe to it. There’s nothing intrinsically grotesque or bizarre in the imagery. Rather, it’s the theme song that makes it uncomfortable — for me, and I suspect for most of the people who watch the show.
The song is Let The Mystery Be, written and recorded by Iris DeMent in 1990. Her voice, compared by one writer to a sheep’s bleat, has the power to “make you cringe”. when you hear it. The actual opening sequence is above. Give it a listen and see if it just flat creeps you out.
Keep in mind, Iris DeMent is a very nice lady who was raised as the youngest of fourteen children and who suffers from stage fright and who apparently does all sorts of charitable work. Why, then, is her voice and musical approach so upsetting? Obviously, it’s her flat white-trash rural delivery, the hopeless and slightly tuneless way she delivers the last syllables of each line. It’s every Grace Zabriskie character of the past twenty years rolled up in one song, every Flannery O’Connor story you’ve ever read, the Misfit killing the old woman while dispensing bon mots (bons mot?) in his pitiless Southern drawl. If you can’t imagine Iris placidly cutting the throat of a chicken — or a child — when she delivers that line “buncha carrots and little sweet peas”, then you have less imagination than I do, my friend.
The question is: why is that accent and delivery so upsetting? My guess is that it’s not upsetting for everybody — obviously, she has a record deal and a lot of fans. It’s only upsetting for those of us who were raised in an urban environment and for whom the authentic rural accent is associated with Deliverance. I’ve been exposed to forty-four years’ worth of media created by people who despise rural America and who are not shy about sharing that opinion.
Here’s the same song, more or less, only now it’s a performance video so you can watch Iris play and sing. Doesn’t this change your opinion of the song and the person a little bit? Sure, she’s country, but she’s not some terrifying old woman holding a machete. Even so, watching the video is a bit unsettling, because our media typically associates images of cheerful and/or placid country folk with impending evil. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we simply can’t trust anybody who lives on a dirt road or who wears a flannel shirt non-ironically.
Now, just for contrast, here’s the infamous Birdman “Fire Flame” video, which is meant to simultaneously display Birdman’s “100 million dollars” from his records while implying that he is still in the drug business and continuing to threaten violence against his critics
I have to say that I don’t find that video unsettling or eerie at all. All the tropes of a Birdman performance — the face tattoos, the degradation of Black women, the inexplicable clothing — are perfectly familiar and comfortable to me. I’ve seen them in one form or another since I was born.
Intellectually, I know that Iris DeMent is probably a much nicer person than Birdman. If I had to leave my son in the care of either Iris DeMent or Birdman for a week, I should pick Iris. But I have to say, my first impulse would be to hand him over to Birdman. So think about that as we pick up steam in this election season and the rhetoric about racist/terrible/subhuman rural whites reaches its usual fever pitch. If you, like me, have a sort of baked-in distaste for the country and its people, where did you get that distaste? Is it real, or did you just absorb it from the media? And if you did, in fact, absorb it from the media, what agenda was being served by that?