The Sideshow Influence (Part Two)

Clockwise from top left: Amy Winehouse; Donna Reed; Jesse James; Tom Hanks.
Clockwise from top left: Amy Winehouse; Donna Reed; Jesse James; Tom Hanks.

The sideshow influence is highly visible in the realm of celebrity, and in the category of celebrities that appear to share common lineage with freak show performers, there is an unwashed yet attractive quality.  To say unwashed in this sense is not necessarily to say unbathed, though that may be the case.  Here, rather, the description of “unwashed” has to do with a socially subversive quality, the opposite of which is clean-cut and polite.  It is Amy Winehouse versus Donna Reed.  It deals with the adoption of an appearance or persona with roots in subculture instead of mainstream culture.  Take as example the outlaw motorcycle fabricator, Jesse James (not to be confused with outlaw robber Jesse James, though there may be striking parallels).  He is more infamous than famous, a designation that was always somewhat in place but was made concrete by his public headlong plunge into marital infidelity, the victim of which was a perceived “nice” girl, casting James even more solidly as a villain.  Yet we watch him anyway.  There he is, on a television rerun, with his tattoos, muscle shirts, slicked-back hair, and bad attitude, cracking wise and insulting everyone within tongue’s reach.  And the entire time, though amidst a swirl of antagonism and snarkiness, James emits a dark charisma, negativity notwithstanding.  There is something electrifying about his presence.  There is a feeling that, if any time was to be spent around this guy, I would need him to approve of me, for reasons known only to a therapist.  His reference would not look good on a job application, but his acquaintanceship would sure be exciting.


Now consider the much-maligned carnival worker, i.e., the carny.  The image that comes to mind will vary from person to person, but it is safe to assume it will be a marginal character, probably dirty and evil-looking (whatever that means, “evil-looking” being a fluid concept that changes from era to era and among the classes).  In spite of the sweat-stained seediness of the soiled-jean-and-undershirt-clad, greasy-haired vagabond that I imagine, it must be admitted that, beyond the revulsion, there is a sense of freedom that is very attractive.  It may be a thing projected onto the carny from my imagination, but it is there, and the reason why is unclear.  Is it attractive precisely because it would be out of character to espouse such a lifestyle?  Is it the vicarious thrill of glimpsing a freedom only hitherto imagined?  It matters less whether the carny actually feels free.  It is the perception of freedom that matters.  Like many of us, these scandalites tend to wallow in the grip of one vice or another.  The difference is, their shortcomings are on display in a way ours are not.  The carny inspires an odd mix of curiosity and disdain that enthralls.  So it goes with notorious celebrities, like Winehouse and James (whose names put together that way make them sound like an indie-rock duo).  Some accept these marginal figures, some reject them, but they are never fully embraced by the general public in the same way as someone safe, like Tom Hanks, is.  Their names tend to come with a caveat:  “She’s a good singer, but…”, or “He builds good motorcycles, but…”  Whereas a celebrity of Hanks’s status may get an unqualified “He’s such a good actor.  I just love him.”  Then everyone piles into the minivan and heads home from the movie theater.


By definition, a sideshow happens outside the main tent.  The sideshow influence is the observable phenomenon that takes place when the denizens of the freak show begin to surface inside the tent.  It is not necessarily a bad thing; the main tent could use some variety.  Expand this freak show metaphor to the culture-at-large.  In the vast seas of clean-cut, conservatively dressed men and women expanding and contracting according to the rhythms of the workweek, it is becoming more common to spot a figure of James’s or Winehouse’s ilk, and our collective visual palate may be all the better for it.  These people remind us that life has a gritty side, which is as integral to the whole enterprise as the urbanity for which so many strive.  Chaos is just around the corner, waiting to encroach upon our neatly groomed exteriors and carefully appointed schedules.  We can resist it, accept it, or embrace it, but we cannot make it go away.  Hardly a character from popular media has expressed this notion better than radio deejay Chris Stevens (played by John Corbett) from television’s Northern Exposure.  Upon being asked why he had done something illegal, Stevens replies, “People need to be reminded that the world is unsafe and unpredictable.  And at the drop of a hat, they can lose everything, just like that…chaos is out there, and he’s lurking, beyond the horizon…sometimes you just gotta do something bad, just to know you’re alive”(“Spring Break”).  Maybe the adopted outsider status and anti-conformist posturing of certain groups of people are the very ways in which those people realize they are alive.  Whether it is bad or not, who are we to judge?



Works Cited


Amy Winehouse.  Digital image.  People.  2007.  Web.  11 March 2013.  <,,,00.html>


Donna Reed.  Digital image.  Women large jaw.  N.d.  Web.  11 March 2013.  <>.


Reality star Jesse James.  Digital image.  San Marcos Mercury.  14 Sept. 2012.  Web.  11 March 2013.  <>.


“Spring Break.”  Northern Exposure:  The Complete Second Season.  Writ. Joshua Brand, John Falsey, and David Assael.  Dir. Rob Thompson.  Universal Studios, 2006.  DVD.


Tom Hanks On HBO Pics.  Digital image.  Your Stuff Work.  2011.  Web.  11 March 2013.  <>.


The Sideshow Influence (Part One)

mstrip3aAt the intersection of circus culture, rock culture, biker culture, and intellectual culture, a current flows–distinctly American in its independent spirit–just outside the mainstream.  It is rooted in the gypsy-like traditions of social drifters and outcasts, with their penchants for exaggeration, drama, and garishness, often with a dark bent.  It is a mindset cultivated on the fringes of polite society.  A style that harkens back to the days of the traveling freak show, in which a barker peddled to passersby some fantastical grotesquery just inside a tent, has managed to manifest in a variety of creative ways, from amusement park rides to tatted-up rockers to modern-day hipsters.  The accoutrements of the marginalized have surfaced on Main Street.


Attached to this broad-yet-identifiable style are a tough-minded pragmatism and a generous autonomy, and a willingness to embrace differences–even flaunt them–rather than tamp them down.  An assertive stubbornness shows in this countercultural questioning of much-accepted standards, seeing if what those standards are based in is anything more than just widely adopted prejudice.  One may find traces of this influence in places like the French Quarter, or at roller derby bouts and horror festivals, and lest it be thought that dark is synonymous with evil, let it be remembered that evil often wears a guise of moral uprightness–the guise of which is rooted in middle-class Victorian manners, which ironically is the exact time period when we begin to see the emergence of the traveling sideshow.


An early glimpse of this freak show aesthetic came to me in the late 1980’s in the form of a thrill ride at the now defunct Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Panama City Beach, Florida.  The rides at this park could have been culled from any carnival—a tilt-a-whirl, a scrambler, something called a trabant—but they were given nuance by their housing within structures unique to their location.  The particular ride in mind was cheekily named Dante’s Inferno (not the only amusement ride with that name–see Coney Island), and it consisted of a black dome with a giant devil’s head attached whose gaping, fanged mouth served as the entrance.  The ride waiting inside could have been anything; the real fun was assured by the ride’s outer shell and the anticipation arising from waiting in a line that entered a wide, demonic grin and disappeared into a scream-filled darkness.  Yet the demonic visage was unthreatening.  Darkly playful is a fitting description.  No one standing beside those massive molars possibly could have felt they were in any real danger, and therein lies the key to the sideshow sensibility.  This is just the type of cheap thrill offered by the traditional traveling freak show, where much of the excitement is generated before one ever enters the tent.


The freak show remains an actual thing, perhaps most famously at Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York.  The major difference in the modern version of this historically notorious event is that the culture of it seems to be as much a part of the presentation as the performers themselves.  It is difficult to imagine the freak show without its particular trappings, such as the posters that illustrate the talents of the featured “freaks”.  These posters tend to present flat, almost cartoon-like figures with exaggerated and sometimes monstrous features.  The settings are depicted in lurid colors (lots of rich reds, ghastly greens, and pallid yellows, all with black outlines), and the descriptive text is rendered with elaborate, out-of-date fonts.  The focus has shifted from human deformities (like a third foot) to extreme feats and radical appearances, such as a sword-swallowing woman covered in tattoos.  Without this shift, it is questionable whether a freak show aesthetic could survive in our politically correct era.  Prolific chronicler of off-Broadway productions, Simi Horwitz, offers up an additional explanation for the sideshow’s enduring presence:  “The sideshow is pure Americana, a performing arts offshoot that has not yet been gussied up.”  It belongs to the world of folklore and myth, a realm once-removed from the subconscious.  It is a genre largely forgotten by time, written off by the tastemakers of contemporary society.  Their outsider status has enabled them to fly beneath the conventional radar for so long that a tremendous freedom of expression and identity has been allowed to thrive.


This is where we begin to see parallels between the sideshow and a host of other subcultures.  There are the tattoos so prevalent among bikers and rockers; the daredevil tactics of skateboarders and freestyle bicycle riders; the theatricality of actors and actresses; the racy routines of burlesque dancers; the physicality of roller derby girls; the graphic style of comic book artists; and even the bohemian pose and scruffy dandyism of hipsters.  All of these groups are marked by tight-knit inclusion–either you get it, or you don’t.  The majority of these groups eschew middle-class mores, regardless of upbringing, viewing such concerns as either disingenuous or as part of an establishment that does not have their interest in mind.  Likewise, these groups provide outlets for those who must find their identities outside the mainstream.  If current trends are any indication, this includes a significant part of the population.  The sideshow is alive and well.




Work Cited:


Horwitz, Simi.  “Sideshow Performers Define Themselves in the Modern World.”  24 Aug. 2011.  Web.  24 Aug 2011.





A Defense for Aging Skaters

After college it appeared I had outgrown skating, taking only a casual interest in the rare televised tournament.  In our society, skating is not really encouraged into adulthood.  This attitude may have its roots in skateboarding’s origins in youth culture.  Admittedly, young people embraced it first.  To be accurate, young people invented it—at least the version of it that has endured.  Commerce also did its part in skateboarding’s nascent days to entrench in the public psyche the notion that the hobby was only for the adolescent.  An early trend that lends credence to this theory, explained well in documentaries such as Dogtown and Z-Boys and Rising Son:  The Legend of Skateboarder Christian Hosoi, was the tendency of skateboard manufacturers in the 1960’s to market their products as toys.  Skateboarding was viewed by the general public as a fad, much like the hula hoop.  Many of the early available deck models were not even made of wood.  They tended to be short and narrow and molded out of artificial materials such as fiberglass or nylon, perhaps further preventing the activity from being taken seriously.


By the rise to prominence of such skaters as Christian Hosoi and Tony Hawk in the 1980’s, skateboarding had taken on a life of its own as a subculture complete with its own music and magazines, and it had moved well inland from the west coast.  I can remember sitting at a friend’s house in my hometown in northwest Tennessee, listening to The Misfits and flipping through a copy of Thrasher Magazine.  I marveled at the tricks chronicled in that magazine’s pages, the whole time knowing I was too afraid to try most of them.  Underneath this pressure to do tricks, though, was the simple joy of riding.  In retrospect, I realize that what I really outgrew was not the desire to skate but rather the desire to do complicated and possibly injurious maneuvers on concrete.  As I would discover, the desire simply to ride remained strong.  It was only dormant.


In my early mid-thirties, I saw a video featuring and narrated by Andy Kessler, a New York City street legend.  He was riding an elongated, level deck, which looked more like a surfboard than it did the smallish, oblong trick boards I had ridden in college.  The deck also was fitted with rather large wheels.  This was my first true exposure to longboarding.  I believe I had seen a guy here and there on a longboard, but it did not capture my imagination until I watched that video.  All Kessler was doing was making his way through Manhattan at a relaxed pace, dodging pedestrians and taxicabs.  It was not aggressive or rebellious, adjectives commonly associated with skaters.  In fact, he almost seemed polite as he slowed when necessary or gave a group of walkers a wide berth; he even stayed in the bicycle lane much of the time.  It was just a man doing something he loved.  At a certain point in the video, he describes a short ride from a subway station to his destination as the best five minutes of his day.  Perhaps that is when something clicked in my mind, and I began to realize how much I missed just riding.  I missed the casual side-to-side carving on a sidewalk or slow street and the way things are taken in visually that you just do not get from a car window, or even from walking.  The world glides languidly past, and the unity between board and rider becomes second-nature.  Riding becomes like breathing.  In an article about Kessler, following the skater’s untimely death from an allergic reaction to an insect sting, author Bret Anthony Johnston defines the essence of skateboarding as “the act of focusing so intensely on the body that you feel liberated from your physical form.” This comment resounded at a level untapped since undergrad school.


It began to matter less and less that I was in my thirties and having a resurgence of interest in an activity that many associate with the teenage years.  It had become obvious that the logic behind that type of thinking was flawed.  After all, adults still jog and ride bicycles.  Those activities do not have an age limit.  Neither should skateboarding.  It is all a matter of perception, and I had reached a point where I was ready to trust my instincts.  Soon after watching that inspirational Andy Kessler video, I put in an order for my first longboard.  I have never surfed.  Tennessee does not provide many opportunities for surfing.  But when I am on my board, carving from curb to curb down some gently sloping street in a quiet Nashville neighborhood, I get the sense that the only real thing separating me from what a surfer does is the sound of my wheels vibrating on the pavement.  This may not be accurate, but surely the meditative state achieved is similar.  Surely, there is some truth to Johnston’s description of skateboarding’s essence, something to which a surfer could relate.  At any rate, riding provides a genuine elation and a soul connection, a way to transcend earthly limits and tune in to the spiritual.  It often has been the best part of my day.


*To see the Andy Kessler video, click here and scroll to the bottom of the article:


Works Cited:


Dogtown and Z-Boys.  Dir. Stacy Peralta.  Sony Pictures Classics, 2001.  DVD.


Johnston, Bret Anthony.  “The End of Falling.”  The New York Times, 13 Aug. 2009.  Web.  13 Aug. 2009.


Rising Son:  The Legend of Skateboarder Christian Hosoi.  Dir. Cesario Montano.  Image Entertainment, Inc., 2006.  DVD.