JK Rowling and the Ongoing Iconoclasm

An iconoclast is a person who opposes long held, widely established cultural figures, beliefs or institutions. While the term typically invokes the image of statue smashers or book burners, everyone from the self-styled New Atheists to the feminist movement could fall under the term. While it doesn’t necessarily imply someone who destroys culture for the sake of having no culture I won’t deny that most people I’ve seen or met who are iconoclasts seem to have that motivation underlying their behavior. And iconoclasts don’t refer to people who only seek the overthrow of a single aspect of culture – they’re usually after broad chunks of it – so broad destruction is the outcome either way. 

The desire to change a widely held belief or system isn’t bad by default, but when the urge moves beyond removing one or even a handful of cultural institutions it becomes dangerous. Culture is what binds groups of people together, and if its destroyed we’re left with individuals who must sort each and every conflict between one another in detail. You get anarchy, and in anarchy the powerful always wind up pushing around the weak. Culture must be changed carefully, and only when some new system is on hand that can fulfill the role of the old system being removed as well or better, otherwise collapse is immanent. We see this over and over again through history, most strongly in the French Revolution but in many other revolutionary ideologies in other places. 

In modern Western culture we seem to be undergoing an iconoclasm, a wholesale destruction of institutions on all fronts. Family, marriage, religious organizations, longstanding cultural traditions, respected historical figures and even gender roles have come under the lens of the iconoclast, singled out as backwards and old fashioned by vandals who mouth platitudes to justify their gleeful destruction of things precious to others. In the midst of this mob, J.K. Rowling has an interesting place. 

Rowling is a longstanding feminist, meaning she believes strongly in the movement most responsible for destroying the notion of family as a biologically knit, indivisible unit of mutual care and protection and replacing it with much flimsier notions of consent based emotional bonding. Now, understanding notions like emotional bonding and strong friendships (now mysteriously called ‘found family’) is very important but it doesn’t speak to the same kinds of relationships family does, the kinds of relationships that spring from a bond you can loosen but never sever, and which will mark you for good or ill for the rest of your life. The nuances of this could fill books, but such an endeavor is not my purpose here. Suffice it to say that, on this score, Rowling is herself an iconoclast, joining with those who have carved through old understandings of relationships and biological realities wholesale. 

Rowling is also a cultural figure in and of herself. She’s the wealthiest author living, possibly the wealthiest of all time, and her meteoric ascent atop the Harry Potter franchise has reshaped the publishing world ever since, likely continuing to have impacts for decades to come. She’s the reason publishing companies now account for theme park attractions in their contracts. Many of the current generation of iconoclasts themselves see her – or at least her work – as a cultural icon. 

Which is awkward, as Rowling is also a biological essentialist when it comes to gender. The modern iconoclasm has claimed even biology and sex as icons to shatter, and a feminist of Rowling’s stripe demands that men and women be separate and distinct things, opposed to one another in a constant battle of power and oppression. The two notions cannot coexist, and efforts to strip Rowling’s name from the cultural totems she set up are ongoing. 

In a way, it’s fascinating to watch. As an author myself I understand why it’s so hard to strip the creator away from her work. While I never followed the Harry Potter franchise myself I know that every creative work has a great deal of the author in it and that reality, combined with the fact that Rowling benefits from every new person who engages with her franchise in any way, leaves most of the modern iconoclasts divided with themselves. They still love Rowling’s work but now she represents an icon they must destroy. 

So far Rowling has weathered every attempt to tear down her work launched against her. But, given the attitudes displayed by so many of these rabid destroyers, it’s only a matter of time before the entire Potter edifice is thrown into the bonfire and all loyalty of youth and sentiment is lost. I strongly suspect that not even Rowling will survive that point, and her cultural influence will rapidly vanish unless she can find some new, more stable portion of the culture to anchor in. 

The lessons of this disaster are few and troubling. Even an author 100% in tune with the cultural zeitgeist can lose sway in an instant. There’s little loyalty to creators in the general public, only loyalty to creations. And destruction of old institutions is a very shaky foundation for someone looking to set up one of their own. These aren’t exactly cheery thoughts for those of us looking to tell stories that will hopefully endure into the future. While I doubt anyone reading this will ever have the level of cultural influence Rowling does, these are things worth thinking about. 

For my part, I hope that leaving iconoclastic fury to others and focusing exclusively on building and protecting my own corner of the cultural landscape will fortify my own work better. 

Speaking of which! The time for essays has come and passed. I’m preparing my next project for you all now! I’ll be taking next Friday off, then coming back in two weeks with the Forward of Night Train to Hardwick, the second installment of the Roy Harper adventures. If you read and enjoyed Firespinner I hope to have your attention here as well! Thanks as always for reading! 

Shaking and Straining – Of Circumstances and Art

My favorite band of all time is Five Iron Frenzy, a little known third wave ska band of the mid ’90s and early ’00s. I was introduced to the band when I was eleven or twelve and just starting to form my own tastes in music and it was also the first band I won a convert for, introducing a fellow Boy Scout named James to their music a few years later. When the band went into retirement in 2003 it was the end of an era of my life. I still have all their albums save their first, and listen to them on a semi regular basis. Thanks to poor messaging I missed the opportunity to back the Kickstarter for FIF’s first reunion album, Engine of a Million Plots. But I did catch the campaign for their latest album, Until This Shakes Apart.

The contrasts are quiet interesting. Where Million Plots is one of the strongest albums in FIF’s discography, Until This Shakes Apart is… not.

The music of Five Iron Frenzy evolved a lot during their roughly decade long absence from the scene. It became a bit more melancholy, a bit less recklessly optimistic. That’s understandable, given the changes in outlook age can bring, but even with the change in tone Million Plots featured the same irrepressible energy I’ve always associated with the band and added a kind of seasoned wisdom to them that was pleasing and wholesome. Lyrically outside of the disappointing “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia” the band’s songs kept focused on the kind of big picture storytelling I’ve always associated the band with. The songs are about the human condition, how it leads us astray, and, to a lesser extent, how we escape our worse natures and strive for our better.

Engine of a Million Plots plays much like a story. Many of the tracks roll into one another and tell us about the dangers of hubris and blind escapism, while reminding us that holding out for the good things does eventually pay the biggest dividends, even if it isn’t always fun.

Shakes Apart is much more focused in the here and now. The music is almost lethargic, it feels like a slog to listen to sometimes. The lyrics are also very based in the present moment. Where Million Plots talks about the timeless parts of the human condition, Until This Shakes Apart is focused on the unique circumstances surrounding its creation. There’s a place for that in art, no doubt. But that place was rarely the music of Five Iron Frenzy.

It’s true, tracks like “Giants”, “Goodbye, Goodnight” and “The Untimely Death of Brad” had points that ring true even now, some twenty years after originally written, but even those, while based on immediate events, drew out timeless truths about the human experience. On the other hand, tracks from Shakes Apart like “In Through the Out Door”, “Lonesome for Her Heroes”, “Renegades”, “Tyrannis” and “While Supplies Last” share the dull, unpleasant, scolding tone of “Zen and the Art of Xenophobia”, displaying a disdain and lack of empathy for their targets that is ugly and frankly laughable. Granted, third wave ska was heavily influence by punk, a truly dreary, scolding, self important genre of music, but for the most part FIF had avoided punk’s worst tendencies until now.

Shakes Apart does manage to hit some highs, with “So We Sing” bringing a little of FIFs old optimism back and “Auld Lanxiety” is a very potent reminder of the power of music to bring comfort. “Homelessly Devoted to You” is a wonderful, sweet love song and “One Heart Hypnosis” lampoons our addictions to social media brilliantly. “Like Something I Missed” and “Huerfano” are wonderful, fun tracks to listen to. But all told, that leaves about half the album below par and much of that steeped in a very offputting shroud of self-righteous lecturing.

Most notably, the silly, irreverent, purely humorous songs that were Five Iron’s strongest brand for decades are entirely absent from this disk. Even Million Plots had “Battle Dancing Unicorns with Glitter.” Perhaps over the years something has been lost.

And perhaps it was merely circumstance. Million Plots was written and released during the Obama administration, when many of the social and political goals FIF advocated for were coming to fruition. Shakes Apart was primarily written during the Trump administration, a dark time for the self styled progressives that fill the bands ranks. It was disappointing and trying for those progressives I know in my personal life, even though I found little changed for me personally from the administrations of 44 and 45. It wasn’t uncommon for them to become bitter, preachy and caustic. Most art became that way as well. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Five Iron was caught in the flow.

Perhaps they can turn things around with their next album, if one arrives. We’ll have to wait and see. Still, it was an interesting outcome, and I felt strongly enough about it to add this review to my scheduled essays. I hope you got something out of this. See you next week.