Singer-songwriter Tom Lehrer introduces his 1965 song “So Long, Mom (A Song for World War III)” in a style familiar to classical music fans. “This year we’ve been celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Civil War, and the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and the twentieth anniversary of the end of World War II,” he says in a Jeff Goldblum drawl. “So, all in all it’s been a good year for the war buffs.” Unmentioned but understood is the fact that, by 1965, the U.S. had also formally entered Vietnam. With all of the media “capitalizing on nostalgia,” and World War III seemingly inevitable, Lehrer then launches into an effusive George M. Cohan-style rag:
But while you swelter down there in your shelter
You can see me on your TV.
While we’re attacking frontally, watch Brinkley and Huntley,
Describing contrapuntally the cities we have lost.
No need for you to miss a minute
Of the agonizing holocaust. (Yeah!)
A few years later, Vietnam’s reputation as “the first television war” was cemented. “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” gave nightly updates on territory gained and lives lost. Americans watched the devastation from their living rooms. In short order, Lehrer’s lyrics became more sincere than ironic.
Which, of course, was the point. Satire, as Philip Roth once described it, is a moral outrage turned into comic art. Brevity being the soul of wit, Lehrer’s song is able to interweave the intersectional issues of the mid-60s that ultimately led to a collective reexamination of military intervention and heroics. In just under two minutes and 30 seconds, it is more effective than any op-ed. Over the last decade, that same spirit has made Twitter a studio for turning moral outrage into comic art, 280 characters at a time.
It took just 275 for musician Jennifer Wu (tweeting under the handle @zenwuzen) to do so last week, in the wake of both the Atlanta spa shootings and the belated announcement of the death of James Levine. Wu changed her Twitter name to Metropolitan Opera, donned the guise of the company’s bio and avatar, and tweeted:
The Metropolitan Opera condemns violence against Asians. Racism has no place in the arts.
Tonight’s free Nightly Met Opera Stream of Madama Butterfly conducted by James Levine features Anna Netrebko as Cio-Cio San. Available March 17 at 7:30PM ET until March 18 at 6:30PM ET.
“I really didn’t think that it was going to reach beyond my little circle of classical musicians who all vocally hate racism, sex abuse, and their defenders,” Wu explained in a statement to VAN. “But I just didn’t care to see another habitually feckless and delayed response from this massive institution that relies on stories of violence against Asian women to sell tickets every year. So I preempted their impending platitudes to prank my friends.”
Thanks to the algorithm, the tweet had a modest success beyond Wu’s 800 followers. Some opera fans missed the outrage entirely, seeing this in their feed without fully grokking the background of Peter Gelb’s leaked, and laudatory, email to the Met staff in praise of Levine; Anna Netrebko’s unapologetic defense of black- and yellowface in productions; or the missteps that the Met—and many other classical musicians and institutions—have made in the genre of performative allyship.
Dressed up in the mundane language of marketing copy, Wu crucified the “y=ax+b” formula that is the basis for many social media posts made by classical musicians and institutions in the wake of public tragedy: a = a statement condemning the moral atrocity underlining the tragedy while claiming solidarity with the affected population; x = a ham-fisted connection to a relevant performance or recording that can be promoted on the coattails of the larger sentiment; and b = that one Leonard Bernstein quote.
This frustration went beyond the pressure cooker brought on by lockdown, where almost all communications are now held online to often caustic effect. Allegations of sexual abuse against James Levine broke in late 2017, lending credence to a decades-long whisper network. Anna Netrebko’s defense of blackface in a production photo from “Aida” happened in 2019. Four years of a Trump presidency brought many issues—especially around racial and gender inequity—to the fore. And, concurrently, the oldest members of Gen Z entered adulthood and became active participants in the cultural ecosystem. With or without social media, a reckoning around changing social norms was inevitable.
But social media has at the very least changed the rules of the game. Satire thrives on Twitter, where the medium is the message and in an age where comedy has, in the words of media scholar Lilie Chouliaraki, become the “go-to source for civic understanding.” For many, the Met’s social media posts have displayed the gaps in its own civic understanding. The company, which began offering nightly streams from its archives last year in response to lockdown closures, recently offered a two-week salute to Black History Month that included Wagner’s “Das Rheingold,” an odd choice to many given the composer’s racism and antisemitism. Even more obvious was a series of streams to celebrate Women’s History Month, composed entirely of works by men.
Ire directed at the Met—or any brand, really—on Twitter isn’t new. Yet Wu’s version of shadow-parody (a genre of choice for comedian and “Daily Show” correspondent Jaboukie Young-White) seems to have been a tipping point. The Met, which rarely responds to criticism on social media, tweeted that “an account unaffiliated with the Met tweeted out false information under the guise of the Met. Please disregard all information. Tonight’s free stream of Anna Bolena will proceed as planned at 7:30PM ET.”
Shortly thereafter, Wu’s account was permanently suspended. A statement from the company’s press office clarified: “When the Met’s Twitter account was impersonated we took action to suspend the account as it was giving out incorrect information to the public.”
Either way, the Met’s tweet (sent out to an audience of over 243,500 followers, roughly 304 times Wu’s audience) drew more attention to Wu’s original joke than it likely would have seen on its own merits. Even the most viral posts on Twitter have a relatively brief life cycle. Yet this public comment, combined with Wu’s suspension, gave her original tweet the shelf life of a Twinkie. When the company eventually made its own official statement on the Atlanta spa shootings, “calling for an end to hate crimes against the Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander communities,” several users noted how similar the actual statement was to Wu’s satirical version. This underscored Wu’s original point, as well as the efficacy of her medium. “Satire is a species of humor that works through impersonation,” Justin E.H. Smith wrote in 2019 for the New York Times, “taking on the voices of others, saying the sort of things they would say, using one’s own voice while not speaking in one’s own name.”
If all of this feels like a quantum entanglement of linguistics, reading too closely into a handful of lines and over-analyzing meaning and intention, there’s a point to that as well. The closer satire gets to its target, the harder it is to distinguish one from the other. What Smith calls “the toxic disinformation of our era,” or even merely the overabundance of neutral information, has muddied the waters.
This muddiness has, in previous incarnations, benefitted opera, an art form that is built around legacy and memory while simultaneously embracing a cultural amnesia. Many who would argue that even the most perfunctory reassessment of works like “Madama Butterfly” is cancel culture run amok are generally also those who stress the importance of ignoring the story and focusing on the music. This is how opera music “makes its empire and steals the glory,” as Catherine Clément wrote in her 1979 book, Opera: The Undoing of Women. In an overabundance of neutral, even beautiful information, it’s easy to leave one half of the work’s meaning obscured and orphaned. This practice doesn’t bode well for a world that, moving more and more online, has also become increasingly reliant on text.
Shortly after Wu’s tweet was made, shared, and deleted, composer John Harbison took a similar “art for art’s sake” approach in a tribute to James Levine:
The AP notice announcing the death of James Levine, at 77, in California, states that he ‘Ruled over the Met,’ and was fired for sexual impropriety.
These things are true—but something more could be said about one of the consummate artists of our time, who died stripped of his daily work and the company of his colleagues. Not to argue that penalties must not be exacted, now with fresh precision, for the anti-social behavior of which he is accused. Still, I hope a few will remember Levine and his ‘Rule’ of the Met for his extraordinary gifts as a teacher—Socratic and patient—and his parallel gifts as a supportive friend to his co-workers and colleagues. Few of us escape consequences for our worst mistakes, but people are more than the worst things they have ever done, and, even in today’s culture, Levine’s obituary can serve to return us to his performances.
Fortunately in the arts a legacy can be left, and returned to, burning clearly as Itself, set free by the passage of time. I am sure that many who had the opportunity to hear James Levine at work will be able to rejoin his recorded legacy with gratitude, re-encountering the welcoming and rigorous spirit that produced those performances.
The remembrance gained traction on (where else?) Twitter when it was posted to the official account of fellow composer John Adams, along with the preface that it was an “eloquent comment.” Following a critical response set to the tune of “read the room,” the tweet was deleted. Adams’s Twitter bio notes that his account is managed by his publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, so it’s unclear whether a member of the Boosey staff made the post independent of Adams, or if he wrote it himself.
To me, reading the tweet on Friday morning, it was also momentarily unclear whether Adams’s statement was sincere or satirical. (It’s hard not to have a slightly Onion-esque read on things from an account with the handle @HellTweet.) At the end of a week with so many statements covering all gradations of the spectrum, it was hard to tell. Which was a signal amid the noise: If social media has created an easier way for classical musicians and institutions to engage with their fans, it has also created an easier way for their fans to respond, often en masse. Some of that pushback and disagreement is legitimate. Writing off all disagreement as a form of overly-woke cancelation may seem like the most cost-effective measure, but it’s also an act of willful disregard.
That’s also something that needs to be reckoned with sooner rather than later. It seems morbid to write this—but the last year has been nothing if not a time of enhanced morbidity: Levine won’t be the last artist to die and leave behind a complicated legacy that will be dissected and disseminated in the real-time, market-driven feedback loop of social media. To quietly excise these legacies, to distance an institution from them, is a zero-sum game in this dynamic. To punch down in the face of moral outrage over this threatens to blow up the pipeline to new audiences that institutions saw the potential for in social media ten years ago. More moral outrage simply begets more satire. The noise increases.
This, too, is cyclical: By 1967, Tom Lehrer had all but retired as a performer. The Vietnam War, and its extensive media coverage, made it harder for him to see the humor through the outrage. As he would start saying after 1973, satire died when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Henry Kissinger.
They made an opera about him, too. ¶