As nasty as he wants to be.
One evening last summer I walked into the neighborhood record store and asked a kid working the floor for the dozen most offensive recordings they had: orthodox racist, sexist, antiwhite, whatever was in stock. The staff got into it; the young black clerk, reassured by the presence of Guns 'n Roses in my first half-dozen tapes, came up with a few of the more obscure misogynous rappers. Toting up the bill, the balding, longhaired, fortyish manager wished me happy listening; I looked skeptical. Beaming, confident he'd done me a good turn, he pointed to three of the cassettes: "You'll love the Diceman," he assured me. I spent the next few days trying to figure out why so many people do, and I'm left with some uneasy suspicions about why comic Andrew Dice Clay is uniquely hateful to, well, people like us.
Andrew Dice Clay was born Andrew Silverstein thirtysomething years ago and has attained his celebrity by striking a series of poses as the Diceman. These personae are neither stable nor consistent, but in Clay's act the accent, much of the idiom, the references to high school but never college, to plastic-covered furniture and Cheez Whiz, are a pretty explicit self-identification as a member of one of the classes for which media critics seem to have remarkably little enthusiasm. The Village Voice, ordinarily tireless in its admiration for voices from below, genuinely abominates Clay and his audience: A Voice critic wrote something about Clay's drawing his fans the way rotting mead draws maggots, and at The New York Times Jon Pareles, reviewing Clay in concert, sounded like a man covering a Nazi rally in late Weimar.
This sensibility is not unique to the Voice and the Times: among my politically corerct students, where elaborate political pieties sometimes seem mandatory, the only unchallengeable ethnic epithet is "guido." The Voice writers, Pareles and some left lit-crit people (not to mention The Nation's own Christopher Hitchens) generally exult in what they take to be the subtly nuanced views of 2 Live Crew's sexual politics or Professor Griff's observations on American Jewry, and practically everybody exhibits a solemn regard for the political acumen of Public Enemy's fans. Clay is not as vulnerable to yahoo sheriffs as 2 Live Crew is--he is white, and he recorded his act on a major label--and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, although it has genuine cause for alarm, has little chance of pressuring Clay to fire anybody connected with his act. But Clay's audience has one striking distinction: It is the only social formation politically correct to despise.
Clay's act is at first glance a monotonous torrent of abuse, a very clumsy series of borrowings--sub-Rickles melded with faux-Bruce--and a few hopelessly failed attempts to do Foxx or Pryor in whiteface. A second look shows it to be more various, considerably darker and difficult to characterize. Some of Clay's humor is misogynous and racist, some of it is vicious and much of it is infantile at best. His partisans' extraordinary enthusiasm for dirty Mother Goose rhymes-- they chant them in unison--pretty much baffles me. But the interesting question remains: What other elements in it account for his rise? Clay can connect powerfully with people--it is presumably the palpable strength of that connection that so disturbs his critics--but we must not conlcude that it is only what is vile in him that moves his audience. Critics on the left should be a little less eager to assume that an immense popular success is due only to the baseness of ordinary people.
The saddest things about the nightclub act are a loathing of all sentiment, which Clay takes for sentimentality, and--the harshest note, the one that has been pretty much purged from his movie, The Adventures of Ford Fairlane--a concealed but knowing hatred of the world Clay and his admirers actually live in, the public streets and lower-middle-class and working-class bedrooms of the modern American city.
On the evidence of the act and the audience's response, sex is inevitably something that makes people lie and scheme, and the figure of the Diceman is that os omeone too guileless or too powerful to have to dissimulate. The pairs of women in the Philadelphia club audience--the one on the videocassette--seem to find this a hilarious articulation of an unadorned male id; an example would be the character of the Diceman expostulating something to the effect of, "Whaddayuh mean, yuh didden know I wanned tuh fuck yuh--I bawtcha a pizza, didden I?" Clay himself occasionally finds this situation less hilarious than do his auditors; he ends one bit with the grim-voiced admonition, "I didden make the rules, I just abide by 'em." I think Clay hates something about sex in America--not the act itself but any cant about it and much of what people do to get some. This part of the act is not simple misogyny.
Compared with 2 Live Crew, whose sadomasochistic fantasy seems "ironized" and "parodic" only in the imagination of certain professors of English, the harshness of Clay's language seems unremarkable; interestingly, the Diceman noisily boasts about committing sexual acts (cunnilingus, anilingus) that 2 Live Crew just as noisily scorns as unmanly. Some of Clay's explicitly misogynous material (and Eddie Murphy's as well) seems driven by a terror that a former wife will get her mitts on his new wealth. While threats to their sudden, still improbable fortunes agitate Clay and Murphy, Clay and his hero Sylvester Stallone can lapse into garish sentimentality about being deserving little men who've made it to the top of the heap. Clay's teary mush on Arsenio Hall seemed first to baffle and then disconcert his fans. These private dreads and personal enthusiasms rupture the connection between performer and audience, the latter having no wealth imperiled by former wives and no sudden celebrity to dull its cynicism about happy endings.
Clay is generally taciturn about bosses, working conditions and most other realities of working- and lower-middle-class economic life. These themes make their way into the act only obliquely, as in the imprecations the Diceman screams at a panhandler, something like, "Whaddayuh think you're gonna do wit' a quawduh, start yer own fuckin' business? Why don't you go rob somebody and earn your money, you fuckin' piece of shit." I read this as a coded double admission, first that neither panhandlers nor Clay's listeners have the wherewithal to start their own business, and second that the thought of violence--the imagined violence of mugging, the rhetorical violence of Clay's comic persona--may be a more appealing response to a situation of defeat than broken-spirited pretenses of civility.
Clay's audience may well suspect that it is not going to make it out of the old neighborhoods and into the better suburbs, that the unionized jobs are diappearing, that the older cities they adorned are ugly and savage, and that the Japanese are buying up midtown, but a lie about a happy ending, a consoling marriage and family of one's own remains too dangerous to tolerate: That lie is still enraging. Above all else, clay assaults any coyness, even any optimism, about sexual love. The loathing of romance as idiotic cant is too harsh to be sustained even by the comic persona; both the film and the video end with cloying, mawkish fantasis of the Diceman come upon True Love. Clay's audience is scarcely immune to romantic glosses of its situation, or to anodyne visions of True Love; it is rather surfeited of them, and Clay may function as a horrid doppelganger of Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen can mourn the losses of the world of work and celebrate sexual love, but the Diceman's universe is a harsh refuge from dangerous deceits, the ones that break the heart.
The figure of the Diceman comprises at least three personae; the scornful cynic is the most prominent. The one made up of "attitude" is also interesting: It is the fantasy of an explicitly lower-class white male endowed with an magical immunity from the powerlessness of his social situation, who never has to shut up in the face of superior social authority or the power conferred on another by one's own sexual desire. Attitude is angry pridefulness, summed up in the insistence that "Dice don't get fucked, Dice does the fuckin'." Another persona is a buffoon crossed with an urban bumpkin, replete with malapropisms and fatuous assertions of charm and sophistication. This is a very old comic type indeed, and part of its effectiveness is due to a very real fact that many members of Clay's audience know: that they cannot negotiate without risk the variegated social world where there are manners, untensils and plenty of people to mark a kid from the old neighborhood for a vulgarian and a fool.
A portion of the old nightclub act is quite viciously racist, though not chiefly against blacks; in the video, Clay seems possessed of a sad desire to have the kind of authenticity and street authority he attributes to blacks, and in the clubs he confines himself to celebratory remarks about the size of black penises. The tone sometimes reminds me of Eddie Murphy's affection for Italian kids who have just gotten out of a Rocky flick, with an implication that working-class black and white city dwellers are not absolutely alien to one another.
Clay is viciously racist against Asians, takes his shots at Muslims from the Middle East and excites his audience when he fantasizes about a sign in airports warning. "If you don't know the language, get the fuck oudda the country"; he exhilarates them when he adds the afterthought that the sign should also be printed in Spanish. I suspect that for Clay's audience, the first two groups are those to whom the economic future belongs, a future from which the audience has been disinherited, at the end of what is no longer an American century, in a society no longer even imaginable as uniformly "middle class." The bit about Spanish, the ridicule of immigrants who can't speak English, seems a despairing attempt to inflate the value of the only cultural capital his audience is certain it possesses.
In the most recent audio release, part of Clay's audience seems to have moved up-market a bit and another to have flown in from Western climes. The out-of-towners do not have the urban, East Coast, ethnic and blue-collar accents of the audience on the first album and the video; their laughter seems less inflected by anote of comic recognition, and the elements in the crowd who want the old stuff, the Mother Goose rhymes, seem to annoy Clay. These trends seem likely to continue with the attempt at a national movie audience, and will probably make the Diceman a bit less gritty; I suspect that the buffoon and the sexual vulgarian will crowd out the knowing, angry tones that sometimes creep into Clay's act.
I do not mean to deny that much of Clay's act is very nasty and in no way funny, nor do I elide that humorless nastiness in order to conceal it. But I do find it noterworthy that for the ranking of lower orders the academic and journalistic left has contrived a curious division of favor: One subordinated social formation has been sentimentalized while another has been demonized.
This moral hierarchy of slum street over outer borough is not new; it dates back at least to the sixties, when some of the fathers and uncles of Clay's audience were heaving bricks at antiwar demonstrators and noisily cheering for Nixon. Just now, when the fault lines in the Republican coalition are rumbling, when the Governor of New Jersey is gambling on the class consciousness of the young people who cheered the Diceman at the Meadowlands concert, the pleasures of devising and maintaining this moral hierarchy may be something we should learn to do without.
Frederic Paul Smoler teaches history and literature at Sarah Lawrence College.
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|Title Annotation:||Books & the Arts; Andrew Dice Clay|
|Author:||Smoler, Fredric Paul|
|Date:||Oct 8, 1990|
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