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"The Lessons We Learn"
by Jeanne Rosen Sofen

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Wallace Baine

Deep White

      Go ahead. I dare you.
     Sure, I’ll bet you a hundred dollars – hell, let’s make it a million.
     It sounds easy enough – all you have to do is find one person, just one, from my high school graduating class who remembers me.
     I’ll even give you a head start. I’ve got my high school yearbook lying around somewhere – Millbrook High, Raleigh, North Carolina (Go Wildcats) – completely unsullied by autographs. You can have the damn thing.
     Millbrook was one of those sprawling, profoundly ordinary suburban high schools that pumped out battalions of generic young Americans each June. My graduating class numbered about 400 – or 4,000. I don’t remember exactly.
     My last day at Millbrook, I sat in cap and gown in a folding chair next to one of the most stunningly beautiful girls the school had ever produced, thanks solely to the blessings of alphabetical order. She was basking in the moment and I clearly remember her joyfully chattering with everyone in her vicinity – OK, almost everyone – including the girl sitting on the opposite side of me. The two girls grinned and guffawed and gossiped, all the while looking straight through me as if I were a plate-glass window. I sat there with my eyes closed, trying to will myself to disappear into a wisp of vapor.
     I need not have bothered. At that point, to my classmates, I was already the invisible boy. Growing up, I was shorter than other boys my age, and skinny, with an outsized head made even bigger by the helmet haircuts popular in the 1970s. I looked like a lower-case letter i, in a hallway full of capital letters.
     This is not a sob story. At least I wasn’t fat or effeminate or hick-ish or obviously carrying any one of a number of damning mannerisms that were roughly lumped under the heading – and I’m resorting to ’70s-speak here – of “spaz.” Those kinds of kids were subject to daily torments and humiliations that, being invisible, I avoided. There was one kid with the misfortune of being born with a sizable port-wine stain birthmark on his face. After bearing witness to what he lived through, I vowed to myself that if he were ever on trial for being a serial killer that I would testify for the defense.
     Being white, essentially friendless, comfortably suburban and stuck in the ’70s made me vulnerable to a particular scourge of the times, and I went much further down that path than I’m comfortable admitting.
     If I had been blessed with an older brother – let’s call him “Derek” – I might have been spared some scarring experiences. All he would have had to do was slip into my room one night when the parents were away with a dime bag and a couple of Jimi Hendrix albums, and I would have been inoculated against what I, without Derek’s help, eventually was delivered to – a magic castle of ersatz emotion and infantile sentimentality served up by the music industry.
     I call it “Deep White.”

     There are many children, around the ages of 4 or 5 or even older, who will eat nothing but white things – potatoes, noodles, string cheese, white bread, white rice, and, of course, anything with sugar. As parents, we know that the whiteness in foods is a pretty good indication that we’re dealing with empty calories and bad carbs, and we work hard to introduce colors in our kids’ diets.
     Most children outgrow the white-food phase, and as adults, we tend to recognize that white foods have a kind of child-like appeal. They’re undemanding on young palettes. They tend toward sweetness and softness. But as kids mature and begin to take in the variety and diversity of the world, many of them come to see white foods as insipid, tasteless, even damaging to the body and mind, or at least we hope they do.
     Well, there’s a cultural parallel to that – or at least there was in the 1970s, the era of Donny Osmond and Marcia Brady. And though I was a pretty good eater as a child, culturally speaking, my diet for a distressingly long time was the equivalent of a turkey sandwich with mayonnaise on Wonder Bread, with a big glass of milk.
     The first time I fell in love, I was probably 13 or 14. The girl lived in my development, a dozen or so houses down the street and, though I was largely invisible to her too, for a while there, I knew her daily whereabouts both at school and at home much more than I had a right to. “Stalker” was not a word we used much back in those days, but there were distinct advantages to being an invisible boy, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.
     But it was weeks before it hit me that the girl I hopelessly adored looked a whole lot like a teenaged Olivia Newton-John. Today I think of her as Olivia Newton-Junior
     I wasn’t mature enough to realize by that point how far I had gone Deep White already. While my male peers were thumb-tacking on their bedroom walls the famous red-swimsuit poster of Farrah Fawcett – herself an icon of unassailable whiteness – I had for a while been collecting magazine photos of ONJ in all her Bambi-eyed beauty.
     The gateway drugs were afternoon re-runs of “The Partridge Family” and “The Merv Griffin Show.” But the real narcotic stuff was to be found in the realm of music. From the age of 8 or so, I had become a devout consumer of 45-rpm singles and it was in that form that I had invited the most severe wretchedness into my life.
     Deep White was a unique state of cultural purgatory. If I were, for instance, an African-American who decided to go Deep Black – or Deep Latino, Deep Jewish, etc. – I’d find myself getting ever closer to pain and struggle and the socio-political context that I would recognize as the authentic cultural stamp of my people. Deep White is only to be found in the opposite direction, farther away from relevance into some candyland of goopy schmaltz and puerile pleasures, whipped into such frothy lightness as to be almost insubstantial. Of course, not all avenues into whiteness necessarily lead here. My parents, for instance, were Southerners who came from a cultural background that included Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Conway Twitty. That stuff at the time was anathema to me, but it at least had a kind of salt and gristle to it that might have kept me grounded to reality. Instead, I got lost in the land of marshmallow.      

     There is a certain generation of Americans who will instantly cringe when you utter the words “Seasons in the Sun.” Some might even flee the room with their hands over the ears in a vain attempt to hold off a long-dormant but particularly agonizing earworm.
     “Seasons in the Sun” was a pop song from 1974, recorded by somebody named Terry Jacks. To a saccharine sing-song melody, the song’s first-person narrator lets loose on maudlin death-bed reflections as he expires from some undiagnosed disease: “Goodbye Papa, it’s hard to die/with all the birds singing in the sky.”
     As a piece of art, “Seasons in the Sun” has never been surpassed in sheer awfulness. It is a dirge of shallow, even creepy play-acting at the anguish of impending death, and is nowadays universally reviled by decent people everywhere. Rumors are that today it is only played in Guantanamo and in the holding cells in Vladimir Putin’s basement. But, in its time, the single sold more than 14 million copies. Somebody voluntarily was coughing up hard-earned money for that song, a lot of somebodies.
     One of them was me. A pre-teen kid has no defenses against this kind of bad music. In the land of sterile suburbia, “Seasons” was what passed for poetry and I’m afraid to admit that it drew me ever deeper into unearned tragedy. It was to genuine grief what Cocoa Puffs were to genuine food, a cheap simulacrum of profound experience.
     And yet it was only one of a kind. Songs of shameless mawkishness were peddled as emotional pabulum to a population perhaps unable to assimilate the traumas of Vietnam, Watergate and the destruction of American cities. I don’t know. Ask a sociologist.
     All I know is that I collected these cheesy songs like most kids collect baseball cards – “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” “Run Joey Run,” “Honey,” “Shannon,” “Alone Again (Naturally),” “Rocky,” “Daddy, Don’t You Walk So Fast,” “Blind Man in the Bleachers,” a relentless cascade of overboiled woe that I took to be as moving and genuine as “Anna Karenina.” And what were black kids listening to at the same time? “Freddy’s Dead,” “What’s Going On,” “Livin’ For the City,” “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” songs of real social resonance that today embarrass no one.

     My parents had no clue how deep I had gotten myself into this stuff. They probably figured I was making friends and gradually learning about the agonies and ecstasies of the real world through those relationships. How could they have known I was lost in a golden fog of tamely erotic fantasy based on “Sister Golden Hair” and “Chevy Van”? Would they have interceded if they knew I was circling Olivia Newton-Jr.’s house down the street on my bicycle, silently daydreaming about sitting outside her bedroom and singing “Make It With You” to her? (That last song, by the way, was recorded by a group called Bread. That’s right – Bread. Some of these schlock peddlers, like the drug dealer who’s paid off the cops, didn’t even bother to disguise their malevolence).
     Are my folks complicit here? This was the ’70s, remember. Unlike today, opportunities to interact with the media in those days were very limited. When I sat watching Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” gaping agog at the singers of ABBA wearing glittery tunics so short it essentially qualified as just going pantsless, I did so in the family room, in full view of and with the implied permission of Mom and Dad. It didn’t help matters when they would themselves indulge in the enjoyment of John Denver, John Davidson, John-Boy Walton and all the other blindingly white Johns of the period. Clearly, they were enablers.
     Decades later, as an adult, when I found those old 45s and looked through them, I came across such unspeakable names as Shaun Cassidy and the Bay City Rollers, “Kung Fu Fighting” and “Disco Duck,” and I wondered if I just burst into my corner drug store every Friday with a $5 bill and bought the first records I could reach without even looking at them. This was clearly evidence of junkie behavior.
     Obviously, I wasn’t alone in the Wonka-esque mindscapes of Deep White, though it certainly felt like it at the time. It captured millions precisely because it offered more than just entertainment vacuum-sealed from the socio-political chaos of the times. It was a worldview, where “Everything is Beautiful” passed for t
heology, where “Afternoon Delight” was sexual liberation and “Dust in the Wind” was existential philosophy.
     It may have sold itself as wholesome, but really it was more like cynical innocence, to coin a paradox. It produced culture from the American musical tradition the same way Wonder Bread is made from whole wheat – denatured, bleached, aimed at uncomplicated and infantile tastes. Was it actual lust I felt for Olivia Newton-John? It was a species of it, to be sure. But it was a plastic-wrapped lollipop lust that arose not from the animal earth like a previous generation of boys might have felt for Tina Turner or Janis Joplin, but from a factory, as different from real lust as Cool Whip is different from whipped cream.

      It was only after I left Millbrook High and moved far away to college that I was able to shake my Deep White addictions. And when I finally threw them aside, I did so with great force. I cannonballed into the deep end of great ’60s rock from Pink Floyd to the Who. I slurped up Bob Marley and Burning Spear. Drank in the college-radio vibe of Talking Heads and the Replacements. I ate gluttonously of blues and jazz and funk, and I converted to the punk ethos in something approaching zealotry, as if repeated listens to the Ramones’ “Rocket to Russia” could cauterize every last neurotransmitter that had been previously devoted to the Captain & Tennille.
     Deep White didn’t exactly disappear—Taylor Swift carries the banner today—but it has evolved, finally surrendering to black influences, however tepidly, with Whitney Houston in the ’80s and the boy bands of the ’90s, and targeting its audience ever narrower on the demographic scale such that today it draws its soul-sapping power mostly from pre-teen girls and those who choose to experience the world as if they were pre-teen girls.
     This is no lament to growing up white. It is instead an acknowledgment that privileged whites had an entire cultural arena of juvenile sentimentality into which they could retreat to escape the thorny business of living in a changing world, an arena that other people just didn’t have. And I believe a line can be drawn from the artificially sweet wholesomeness of Deep White culture of the ’70s to the socio-political realm today that allows millions of people to deny obvious realities.
     Most of us who have grown up white in America have some sort of history of childish obsessions, be they Barbies or comic books. But these days, there is no shame – in fact, there is a kind of glory – is coming clean about your love for Barbies and comic books. The music of Deep White is, by contrast, beyond the redemption of cultural re-appreciation. It exists on the outer fringes of YouTube kitsch, as something to howl at in a room full of hipsters. The plague of classic rock radio has made many of us despise the music of the ’70s solely on the basis of endless repetition. But even classic rock radio has quarantined Deep White. “Billy, Don’t be a Hero” is so deeply entombed in the hall of bad-art abominations, cool will never touch it.      

     Fans of Olivia Newton-John will surely remember her starring role in the film version of “Grease,” and her transformation after that from sweet Polly Purebred to winky, sultry sex kitten, writhing around in a Jane Fonda leotard in an effort to “get physical.” It was one of the more laughable career makeovers in pop-music history but it also symbolically brought to a close the more virulent ’70s era in Deep White.
     As for my Olivia Newton-Junior, I would like to believe that she moved to New York after graduation, dyed her hair black and became more like Chrissie Hynde Jr., but I don’t know what happened to her and I never will. If I did see her, I would have to convince her that the two of us had some shared history, and then forgive her for not remembering me.
     Then, I would tell her that it was not until college that I was able to shed my invisibility cloak and became a person worth knowing, never quite escaping my white privilege but never again bathing in it either. It was in college when I figured out how to fill in the colors to my personality, and find the colors in my surroundings.
     Up to that point, I was just a white boy stick figure on a blank piece of paper. No wonder no one could see me.

Wallace Baine has been covering the arts and entertainment scene in Santa Cruz County for the Santa Cruz Sentinel for 20 years. He has won national awards for his columns, and is the host and creator of the Gail Rich Awards, honoring artists and arts supporters. He is the author of the collection "Rhymes With Vain." He likes saying "Mozambique" and gets really weird when he's carrying more than $20 in his pocket.

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Wallace Baine

Jeanne Rosen Sofen

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