"In a So-Called Civilized World":
American Pop Primitivism and The Cramps

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900 - present), Spring 2002, Volume 1, Issue 1
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2002/white.htm

Jonathan David White
George Washington University

Primitivism, the artistic representation and celebration of ancestral or colonized "tribal" peoples, plays an important role in American popular culture and gains its momentum from the philosophy that technology and technological progress is alienating or destructive and that primitive peoples, who have remained closer to nature and thus further from the damaging effects of society, are more noble and pure. Such varied cultural artifacts as "caveman" films (such as One Million B.C. and Cavewoman)—Hollywood's versions of African and pre-Columbian Native American life, novels (such as Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear), and the macho mythology of the "Men's Movement" all belong to the tradition of American pop primitivism. The avant-garde, psychobilly, cult band The Cramps uses this symbolic archive of primitivism to critique middle-class white life and the world of work and social responsibility.

In 1976, The Cramps, known for their kitschy stage show, began a music career in New York City. There they created their unique rockabilly sound combined with strains of instrumental rock, surf, sixties punk, and pychedelic music. Lux Interior and Poison Ivy, the band leaders, call their music the "Big Beat from Badsville" and have recorded it at Sam Phillips' Sun Studios and, more recently, on Epitaph. The lyrics of songs performed by The Cramps, are often explicitly concerned with primitivism's generic "vision of Tribal Life . . . an internally homogeneous society located somewhere out beyond the frontier of the Civilized World" (Price 54). In different Cramps songs, this wilderness inhabited by primitives may be situated in Africa, on some quasi-Polynesian isle, or in Neolithic times, but these primitive environments are always at the same time signified as Middle America. The metonymies of primitive identity by which the natives are designated as other are connected with European American cultural phenomena, as in the juxtaposition of pagan cannibal archetypes with suburban American feasting ritual:

Well, they're doin' a dance that no one's ever seen
And they're barbecuin' real human beans. ("The Natives Are Restless")

Similarly, links are established between the contemporary American social order and the primitive's tropical forest:

Well, the city is a jungle
And I'm the beast. ("Goo Goo Muck")

Tarzan drove his Stingray
Through the fiberglass jungle
Swung from high-tension wires. ("Saddle Up A Buzz Buzz")

Not only is the city a jungle, but the jungle is a city; in "The Natives Are Restless," the cannibal persona's home is referred to as "my neighborhood." The Neanderthal persona who sings in "Caveman" uses mass transit rail:

Cave train down town
Caveman get down.

Primitive and civilized worlds become mutual signifiers; in some way, white Middle America becomes the site of primitive behavior.

The Cramps' evocation of a primitive "night-world" is closely related to their exploration of a hidden life that is explicitly American, in which the erotic and diabolic coexist with the familiar. Beneath the visible phenomena of American life seethes a hidden cosmos of experience:

Well, there's more things in Tennessee
Than's dreamed-of in your philosophy. ("Cornfed Dames")

The Cramps' vision of this secret America corresponds with primitivism's "standard rhetoric of fear, darkness, pagan spirits, and eroticism" (Price 37). Their colligation of American sexuality, violence, and demonic spiritualism should be read in the context of what Price terms "the night side of man" (37). In The Cramps' lyrics, images of diabolism, violence, sexuality, all characterize a night that is structurally opposed to culture or civilized law:

Oh, when the sun goes down and the moon comes up
I turn into a teenage Goo Goo Muck . . .
Yeah, I'm the night head hunter looking for some head
With a way-out body underneath that head. ("Goo Goo Muck")

In the American night of this song, sunset precipitates a lycanthropic transformation into a being whose name suggests at once a 1950s B-movie monster, something like The Blob, and a kind of personified semen appropriate to the verbal conjunction of oral sex with "primitive" and murderous headhunting. Sex, violence, monsters, night. Sexuality is figured as demonic, whether homoerotic—

When I shaked my hips in the Inner Sanctum
Satan gave me tips and then I thanked him. ("Creature from the Black Leather Lagoon")

or heteroerotic—

Gonna get lei'd with that fire round my neck
And those She-Devil kisses, oh, hell, what the heck. ("Aloha From Hell")

Although names from Protestant mythology are used for the conventional evil spirits of primitivism, their presentation to the exclusion of the redemptive spirits of that mythos returns these familiar western mythologies to a "pagan" frame.Familiarity with the erotic and the diabolic is an index of maturity and sophistication in The Cramps' terms, of privileging knowledge rather than the benighted ignorance with which "civilized" western ideology generally codes primitiveness. The Cramps' pop primitivism does not privilege as enlightened the condition of the civilized subject; instead, the diurnal world of faith and reason is coded as naive, and the superstitious understanding of eroticized violence and darkness is understood as wisdom:

Well, you might think
The world is sweet and fine as sugar candy,
But I myself believe in
Whatever comes in handy. ("Daisys Up Your Butterfly")

As a song of innocence and of experience, "Daisys Up Your Butterfly" inverts the usual hierarchy of primitive and civilized epistemologies. Images of the commercially manufactured "cute" or "innocent," particularly in the formulation constructed to signify the virginal experience of young girls—daisies and butterflies—become sexualized images of penetration: "daisies up your butterfly." The song interprets nature not as pure and stainless, but as wild, brutal, and reproductive; in other words, the primitive cosmogony, rather than the worldview of civilized people, is an accurate and useful model of the universe. This revelation figures the special access to the "real" available to the American primitive; this construction of the primitive worldview as an accurate depiction "a so-called civilized world" ("What's Inside A Girl?") lays the foundation for pop primitivism's elaboration of what may be termed "primitive privilege."

This primitive privilege is a pivotal component of The Cramps' negotiation of pop primitivism. American pop primitivism describes a mythical relation to the world of work and exchange. The "night side of man," as Sally Price describes the subject matter of primitivist representation, is a sphere diametrically opposed to the working day. Georges Bataille contends that sexual activity and violence are both forms of disruption of the work-process, which become associated with the noumenal world because of this perceived transgression of the labor imperative (41-48). The characterization of the nexus of eroticism, violence, and monsters from the spirit world—the three central subjects of Cramps lyrics—points to the ideological function of pop primitivism as mythic form of escape from the matrix of labor and exchange.

The American primitive defines himself as the non-laboring hedonist: "No, I ain't no farmer, that's no fun / Run some tractor till the work's all done ("Cornfed Dames"). Instead, the American wilderness of night in which the Cramps' primitives are situated is a vacation-world, a place given over to the gratification of the desires necessarily deferred in work socialization: "Most of the time work is the concern of men acting collectively and during the time reserved for work the collective has to oppose those contagious impulses to excess in which nothing is left but the immediate surrender to excess, to violence, that is" (Bataille 41).

Thus it should appear as no surprise that the night world of man is often figured explicitly as a vacation:

Gonna take a week off, gonna go to hell,
Send you a postcard, "Hey, I'm doin' swell,
Wish you were here, Alo-ho-ho-ho-ha from hell." ("Aloha from Hell")

This identification of "the night world of man" with touristy vacations, and therefore with the hospitality and travel industries, reflects the widespread use of pop primitivism to mythologize commodified leisure. Primitivism is used to construct leisure not as an industrial sector, but as some primal, pre-capitalist experience outside the world of work, commodification, and reification. The hedonic rewards of the trip to the Polynesian-theme bar or Hawaiian island are inflated commensurately—as categorical escape from the market and the world of reified labor. The primitivist mythopoetic force with which leisure is imbued is ideology in the sense of "a 'representation' of the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (Althusser 87). The fictive representation of individuals' relations to leisure, and specifically to the potential for leisure to permit a temporary escape from the world of commodification and exploitation, signify the operation of larger ideological structures concerned with repackaging for people their own relations to the inescapable logic of the market.

In the ubiquitous pop primitivism created by the travel industry to promote its products, the vacation-site is not just another territory, but a magical utopia. The Cramps explicitly reconstruct this very myth, while travel ad Hawaiian-style music plays in the background, in a song about the mystic isle of Kizmiaz:

Flamingoes stand easy on bended knees
Palm trees sway over tropical seas
While azure waves and lazy breeze . . .
It lies on the horizon in a golden haze
No one believes their eyes, the legend says. ("Kizmiaz")

This, then, is the lost horizon of the domain of primitive privilege; rather than be constructed as a subordinated and despised condition, primitiveness here is imagined as a utopian paradise where work is unnecessary and exchange replaced by simply taking what one wants—in short, the American primitive's condition is more representative of extreme wealth than any other relation to the world economic order.

Just as the primitive world is constructed as outside the system of coerced labor in late capitalism, so it is also represented as being substantially external to the world of reified value and the market of exchange. In opposition to the civilized individual to whom he speaks, the self-identified "primitive" persona enjoys pleasures that have not passed through the market:

The things I do, you'd never try
What I get free, you have to buy. ("Primitive")

This quatrain connects the primitive's illicit sexual knowledge with his participation in practices not contained within the matrix of market exchanges. In traditional primitivism, the inability of primitives to calculate material value in the same way in which official appraisals are conducted in the West is the sign of the ignorance and evolutionary backwardness of the native—one of the most important stories in the creation of primitivist mythology of all kinds is the story of the very bad trade the primitives made, giving away some precious resource for only a few trinkets. This is itself a sign of the primitive world as a kind of escape from, as a zone outside, the grid of material practices common to the "developed" capitalist regions. In The Cramps' "Jungle Hop," there is such a story:

Trade the skins of ten giraffes
For one beat-up phonograph
Now they dance and do the bop
They rock all night to a jungle hop.

What is significant in this tale is the exchange of labor for leisure; a close examination reveals that the primitive world certainly is subject to the contingencies of collective work (giraffes must be hunted and skinned) and the paradigm of trade and exchange.

The ideologically disruptive dimension of The Cramps' utilization of the traditionally conservative discourse of American pop primitivism consists in their avant-garde practice of making the seams show; in their manipulation of the representational practices governing the primitivist imagining of the leisure industries, The Cramps ultimately laugh not at the escapist fantasy they propose, but at the civilized, hardworking listener's prospects of participation in the dark paradise: "You could swim all the way from Alcatraz / To Kizmiaz " ("Kizmiaz"). Should the listener make the miraculous swim between these islands, escaping from the penal institution that operates as a metonymy for all the practices of repression and reification from which the latter Polynesian fantasy isle promises utopian sanctuary, the joke is still on the fugitive: "kiss my ass." This vision of the offered primitive world of leisure repudiates the idea that the civilized worker can enjoy that primitive life for a month each year or two evenings each week, that the night-world is available as a reward for a job well-done as citizen and employee.

There is nothing subversive or satiric, however, about The Cramps' presentation of the other half of the mutual signifier equation—African or Polynesian "primitives." The paradigmatic mutual signification of the city and the jungle, of the "civilized" and the "primitive," while never ceasing to brand as "other" any member of an African or Polynesian culture, assimilates the imagined experience of such people to the categories of urban or suburban American life. Pop primitivism has the rhetorical power to marginalize and de-humanize the individuals and cultures branded with the mark of the native; while primitive privilege is very much the valued cultural property of the American bourgeoisie, this prerogative is in no way shared with the "primitive." Pop primitivism reinscribes the subaltern tribal individual as possessor of neither subjectivity nor history.

This fact is particularly visible in light of the pop primitivist assertion that, in effect, primitives have no language, except insofar as they can use names stolen from civilized language and therefore articulated as a kind of broken English. In "Caveman," a song whose lyrics constitute the persona of a contemporary neolithic man, The Cramps utilize "the syntax of babies and 'primitives' in racist discourse" (Haraway 146):

Look man, make tool
Caveman no fool . . .
Beat rock, hunt meat
Caveman rock beat.

When a primitive like the Caveman persona speaks, it is without saying "I"; instead, a proper name appears, demonstrating that the speaker does not possess self-reflexive consciousness, but instead relates even to himself or herself as a feature in the civilized subject's index of alien names. Alternatively, the objective case "me" is substituted for "I," signifying the primitive's permanent inscription as the acted-upon other, even in his or her own speech: "Me Tarzan, you Jane." Primitives are linguistically incapable of constituting a subjectivity.

Additionally, primitive speech may be distinguished from our own civilized language by the absence of verb conjugation—there are neither persons nor tenses, made still more evident by the disjunction with the projected third-person identity of the speaker ("Caveman rock" not "Caveman rocks"). Primitives exist in a world without history; events cannot be related in time to the speaker or to one another. Primitive life is a changeless, ahistorical relation to physical survival ("Beat rock, hunt meat"). These two conventions of primitive speech deny the speaker the power to constitute an identity or to occupy a historical position.

The superposition of primitive and civilized cosmologies in Cramps lyrics gives rise both to a critique of conventional representations of leisure and to a conservative reaffirmation of the racist and imperialist codes of primitivism as an artistic mode. Pop primitivism, even in its avant-garde formulation through The Cramps, never confronts the original systems of racial, cultural, and national hierarchy that primitivism represents and structures—indeed, while this discourse may be appropriate to oppositional representation of some aspects of the culture and political economy of America, it is inherently unable to assess critically the relations of dominance that the developed nations and multinational corporations have established in their encounters with indigenous peoples.


Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses." Contemporary                Critical Theory. Ed. Dan Latimer. San Diego: Harcourt Brace                Jovanovich, 1989. 61-102.

Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. Trans. Mary Dalwood. San                Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986.

Haraway, Donna J. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of                Modern Science. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Price, Sally. Primitive Art in Civilized Places. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.

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