post cover

George Bush is only for now

On Avenue Q and the long legacy of 1990s ironic detachment

logo

Emily VanDerWerff

Jun 01 2020

19 min read

0

One of my favorite showtunes is “For Now,” the concluding number of the Tony-winning musical Avenue Q, which ran on Broadway from 2003 to 2009, then ran off-Broadway from 2009 to 2019. The show, if you’re unfamiliar, posits a sort of Sesame Street for 20somethings, set in a neighborhood populated with both puppets and humans who learn important lessons about entering adulthood.

“For Now” sums up the musical’s ultimately sunny message: Nothing in life will last forever. You are going to be fine, no matter how terrible your current circumstances seem and no matter how much you might long to go back to college. “For now, we’re healthy. For now, we’re employed. For now, we’re happy, if not overjoyed” goes one sample lyric. (It brims with the bouncy sincerity that is the hallmark of Robert Lopez, who co-wrote the show’s music and lyrics with Jeff Marx. Lopez and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, have gone on to write lots and lots of songs you know, like “Let It Go” and “Remember Me” from Coco. Marx still works steadily but also didn’t write “Let It Go.”)

Caption
Here’s the final off-Broadway cast of Avenue Q.

The crescendo of “For Now” builds to a sequence where the company shouts various things that are only for now, like so:

Sex!
is only for now
Your hair!
is only for now
George Bush!
is only for now


The below video will give you a sense of what the number is like (though it’s not from a stage production):

Avenue Q isn’t plotless, exactly, but it has about as much story as any given episode of Girls, except replace most of the characters in that show with puppets. “For Now” works so well as a closer to the show, because it’s a reminder that — as nearly the last lyric in the whole show goes — “Life may be scary, but it’s only temporary.” When you’re in your 20s, right after college, it’s easy to dwell on things that feel like they might last forever, but none of them will. You’ll figure it out. You’ll become better at being you. You’ll have new problems, but those will only be for now as well. You’re going to keep going up and up and up.

I still love this song as much as I did when I first heard it in 2007 (when the show’s terrific touring cast swung through Southern California). But it’s also a lie, steeped in an ironic detachment that poisoned so much of the culture I grew up in.

When George W. Bush left office in early 2009, replaced by Barack Obama, the creators of Avenue Q held a contest to replace the “George Bush!” in “For Now.” They called for fans of the show to contribute their own spins on the lyric, with options ranging from “recession” to “Prop 8” being the contenders. In the end, the show’s producers ultimately decided that “George Bush” worked better than any possible replacements and decided to just stick with it. (Honestly, I would have loved to be in the house the night after Obama won the election to hear the reaction to “George Bush” in the moment.)

That decision wasn’t the end of the story. Over the years, many things have swapped in for “George Bush” in “For Now,” and in the last several years of the show, somewhat appropriately, “Donald Trump” took the place of “George Bush,” providing an unexpected symmetry. Two Republican presidents, both assumed to be broadly disliked by the theater-going audience, both things that are only for now. (Here’s a really great timeline of Avenue Q lyric replacements.)

“For Now” isn’t the most famous song in Avenue Q (though it should be). No, the most famous song in the show is either “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (“Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes/ doesn’t mean you go around committing hate crimes”) or “The Internet Is for Porn” (the title is really the most representative lyric). Both of these songs have dated strangely since the musical launched. “Internet” became dated because, while the internet remains a wonderful repository of porn, the idea that it’s primarily for that has largely slid by the wayside. (And if nothing else, the portrayal of the internet as either a wonderful new invention or a den of sex-soaked depravity feels extremely early 2000s.)

But “Racist” is dated in the more telling, more interesting way, which is going to loop back around to “For Now” (I promise). It is, simultaneously, a chuckling eye roll at the notion of overstepping PC culture, an attempt to argue that microaggressions are no big deal (though it would never call them microaggressions), and a satire of both of those views, one designed to make the audience complicit in its central assertion (that we’re all a little bit racist).

The number is built around broad stereotypes — particularly immigrants from some East Asian countries who struggle to pronounce some words in English — but some of those stereotypes are imagined ones for monsters, aka many of the puppets in the show’s world. These monster stereotypes occasionally track neatly onto specific things in our world (like monsters apparently have colleges that are just for monsters where non-monsters can’t attend) but often are more general in scope (like one character’s assertion that two monsters must be related).

If you read the lyrics on Genius, you’ll find the annotations are filled with people arguing about what the “true” interpretation of the song is. Does “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” mean to tell us that we should stop caring about microaggressions and other racist things that don’t rise to the level of hate crimes? Or is it creating a rich and layered satire of anti-PC comedy, by turning the idea that “everything’s a little bit racist” into a literal children’s song? After all, children’s songs almost always present overly simplistic morals, and many of the other songs in Avenue Q present overly simplistic morals, too. “Racist” just might be doing that.

My interpretation of the song skews more toward the idea that we’re being told not to care about racism beyond brutal expressions of it than the idea that the show is mocking this attitude. But you can read it either way, and that’s not what I’m here to argue anyway. No, what I’m here to argue is that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” is one of the last major cultural expressions of a particularly pernicious idea from the 1990s: Caring isn’t cool. What’s really cool is being above it all.

The most famous example of “caring isn’t cool” comedy is probably the still-running Comedy Central series South Park, a show that has, at times, been genuinely brilliant satire (the 1999 movie is terrific) and has, at other times, been a herald of our current age of entropy.

The most charitable interpretation you can make of South Park is that Trey Parker and Matt Stone were really great at presenting racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice ironically, to poke fun at society’s foibles. They put these ideas in the mouth of Cartman, their most obviously awful character, then made sure to end each episode with a heavy-handed lesson that usually skewed toward some form of “Give people a break already!” an idea elastic and formless enough to encompass both anti-racism and racism.

Even under this most charitable interpretation, however, you have to grapple with the idea that a lot of people took the ideas South Park espoused incredibly seriously, deciding that, sure, it was cooler not to care about climate change or voting or systemic racism or whatever the show was taking on that week. (I really don’t want to see this show’s Covid-19 episodes.) Lots of people saw Cartman’s racism and anti-Semitism not as an elaborate ironic goof but, instead, as something to emulate to win comedy points. The more times that basic idea was repeated, the more the irony chipped off and revealed just actual bigotry.

To give credit to Parker and Stone, recent seasons of the show haven’t exactly done an about-face on these ideas, but they have seemed a little embarrassed with some of the show’s prior episodes (particularly regarding climate change). Parker and Stone are still libertarian dung-flingers, which can be a lot of fun if you’re unlikely to get covered in dung but can be exhausting if you are. But they seem a little more aware that their own point-of-view is ever so slightly myopic, possibly because both have become fathers.

And it’s also more and more possible to read Parker and Stone as part of an overriding cultural context — ironic bigotry was kind of the thing in the 1990s and 2000s, to the degree that when James Gunn was briefly fired from the third Guardians of the Galaxy film, it was for ironically edgy tweets he had made before he became a steward of the Marvel Studios brand. Parker and Stone weren’t the heralds of this movement; they were just its biggest beneficiaries. Tons of comedians with some degree of cultural weight came out of this world. Many of them remain significant cultural figures, even if they’ve completely changed their comedic voice. (Sarah Silverman is an obvious example of one figure who completed that shift.) Parker and Stone are notable for being the two guys who are still sort of operating in that mode and still largely popular.

Outside of South Park, Parker and Stone’s most lasting cultural contribution might be the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, which opened in 2011 — somehow still less than 10 years ago! — to wild critical acclaim, lots of Tony Awards, and a general sense of Parker and Stone vaulting from potty-mouthed class clowns to part of the American mainstream. (They were already there, I would argue, but having a hit show on Broadway still carries way more cultural clout than having one on Comedy Central for pointless, New York-media reasons.) The show treats its Mormon characters lovingly. But when it comes to the Ugandans they’re meant to be missionaries to, well, I’ll let Vulture’s Helen Shaw describe it:

The sequences in Uganda are grimly unfunny, especially as black actors are forced to sell jokes about curing AIDS by sodomizing babies. The romantic interest Nabulungi (Kim Exum) is the brightest girl in the village, and she thinks that “texting” means typing on a broken typewriter. That’s not a joke about poverty or disenfranchisement. That’s a joke about an African woman being an idiot. In 2011, some critics called the show out for its painful racism, but not many. The assumption was that the offended parties would be Mormons.


What Shaw (whose whole piece is worth reading) gets at here is an idea that would have felt revolutionary if a critic had earnestly shared it in 2011 when Book of Mormon opened but which feels closer to a mainstream opinion in 2020: The media is too susceptible to taking the emotions of white people seriously and writing off people of color with legitimate grievances with the status quo. The humanity of an imaginary white Mormon who will probably never see The Book of Mormon is easier for many white Americans to conceive of than the humanity of a black theatergoer sitting one row ahead of you and not laughing at the jokes about Ugandans. That person, a white theatergoer might conclude, should just lighten up already! Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes!

Now, it makes sense that the ironic bigotry of 1990s comedy culture wouldn’t truly make it to Broadway until 2011. It’s one of the most hidebound of cultural institutions, to the degree that when In the Heights debuted in 2009, at least some of the reviews seemed as if they believed Lin-Manuel Miranda had invented hip-hop. (I would say that finding a way to make hip-hop blend with the rigidity of the Broadway musical is a pretty impressive accomplishment in and of itself, but that’s getting off track.) And yet if you look back at Avenue Q, you’ll find a kind of dry run for much of what The Book of Mormon took and turned all the way up to 11.

Parker and Stone didn’t just go to Broadway all on their own. They brought in someone to help them craft The Book of Mormon into something Broadway ready. And the person who helped them was Robert Lopez, the co-writer of Avenue Q.

Caption
And here’s the touring cast I saw!

I don’t write any of the above to suggest that Lopez is, like, a secret architect of the Trump meme machine (as some have wrongly argued about Parker and Stone). His post-Book of Mormon career has been largely spent working with Disney, and if nothing else, “Let It Go” is the kind of self-realization ballad that indicates both a strong understanding of character and of classic songwriting structure. Lopez is really good at what he does. He just spent a lot of time working in an idiom that deliberately sought to remove culpability for a Broadway audience that was most likely whiter and richer than the average American population. (And, hey, I’m an avid Broadway theatergoer, and I am also whiter and richer than the average American population.)

No, my point is that a lyric like “George Bush is only for now” — a lyric in a song I fucking adore, one that taught me a lot about getting through rough patches — can only be swapped out for a lyric like “Donald Trump is only for now” if you are relatively sure that once either man leaves office, you will be fundamentally okay.

Equating a president you don’t like with bad sex or bad hair is a position of extreme privilege. So is the idea that everything in life is only for now. It’s only “for now” if you have the expectation of America as a ladder that keeps going up and up and up. That’s true for me, but I’m white, and I have (a small amount of) money. I have the luxury of believing my setbacks are only temporary.

Yes, it’s worth understanding that every bad situation we get into indeed is only for now, and yes, it’s worth understanding that in the vast sweep of human history (or even just within the vast sweep of your own personal history), things will change. The end hasn’t come yet, so there’s no reason to expect it will come tomorrow. Humans are terrible at many things, but we’re really good at pulling out a last-second win after being down by 500 at the half. (Of course, as climate change reminds us, we have to have a perfect record of winning these impossible come-from-behind victories, while an existential threat only needs to win once. Do we really want to be the Dillon Panthers but as a species? I would hope not, but that seems to be our m.o.)

Assuaging our fears by saying that things are only temporary, however, is all well and good if you’re trying to help people get through something truly dark and terrible, trying to help them imagine a light on the horizon even if it’s pitch black. It’s harder to stomach if you’re treating bad things, horrible things, brutal things as things that happen largely to other people, if they’re merely characters aside your own story, who should really just learn to take it easy. Can’t we all just get along?

It is so easy to believe that everybody’s problems are like your own when you don’t face any real problems. It’s so easy to numb yourself to the horrors of the world because that might require examining your own culpability. I love “For Now” so much, and it’s a song that found me when I needed it most. But it’s a song designed to placate people like me, to turn a haircut or a president into a boss in a video game.

Where I live, just across the freeway from downtown Los Angeles, the whir of helicopters and blare of police sirens have been omnipresent sounds this weekend. The mayor instituted a curfew this evening, and anyone caught in violation of it could be arrested. The city feels not like itself, breathing and alive, but like a brute force attempt to impose some other, more sterile city over the one I love.

A friend of mine was biking home from the store today and wound up driving straight into a group of protesters. She joined them, because what else was she going to do? She ended up on the front lines, staring down a line of cops with weaponry drawn on the protesters. If they were meant to be peacekeepers, she said, she didn’t feel at all protected or peaceful.

She and I took a walk around downtown. Storefronts were missing windows, the Shake Shack looked like it would be closed for a bit, and the words “Fuck cops” were spray painted everywhere. Local news had sold me on untold devastation, but it mostly looked like some broken windows that will be easily replaced in time, a temporary setback to the gigantic wheels of gentrification.

It is a failure of imagination to think that all problems are inconveniences. It is a failure of empathy to believe that others experience life as I do, as a series of steps carrying me toward some uncertain but hopeful future. It is a failure of understanding to assume that optimism is the natural offshoot of being an American, because there are so, so many things that have deep roots and will not be so easily torn out of the ground to build something better. Doing so is the work of my lifetime, and your lifetime, and our children’s lifetime, and their children’s lifetime, and—

But don’t get distracted by that, not yet. Caring isn’t pointless, and complacency is the enemy of anything good that is also lasting. Our lives are temporary, yes, but there are so, so many things that are not only for now.

Subscribe now

What I’ve been up to: I explained HBO Max! It’s a really confusing mess, and I honestly am still not entirely sure what the purpose of naming it “HBO Max” was. But I guess everyone will soldier bravely on, pretending that the world understands why this thing is what it is.

But why aren’t HBO Go and HBO Now going away forever, to be replaced by HBO Max? The simple answer is money — it makes some financial sense for WarnerMedia to have some percentage of HBO subscribers who never get upgraded to HBO Max (whether because their cable providers don’t have deals in place to let them do so, or because they never ask or care to be upgraded). Since those subscribers are paying the same for a product with less content than HBO Max, they’re in essence subsidizing the massive HBO Max library without gaining access to it.

Think of all of those people who continued to pay money to AOL for years longer they needed to, simply because they thought of it as “the internet.” In some ways, the continued existence of HBO Now and HBO Go in a post-HBO Max world operates on a similar principle. Both will continue to exist because people either don’t know they can upgrade or don’t want to. (At a press event I attended in January, HBO Max head Kevin Reilly insisted that plenty of people will prefer HBO Now, because they won’t want all of the added programming on HBO Max. He claimed to have data supporting this. I’m skeptical.)


Read me: I am so very sad that it took me this long to get around to Kyle Turner’s excellent and massive history of Glee in 10 songs. The piece is from 2018 originally, but I love Turner’s use of these songs to chart not just the show’s history but all of the ways it failed its best characters.

Glee’s pilot and what Glee ultimately became (after, say, episode 10) are not the same thing; they barely exist on the same plane of thought, of existence, of television making. The pilot debuted in May 2009 on Fox, an advanced preview for some, but a test of the waters for the network; could you bank on a clear-eyed pilot that was about a bunch of losers coming together in a notoriously uncool group and make it funny and weird and a little heartwarming, without being saccharine? With the tune of nearly 10 million viewers, it sounded like a yes. That the pilot premiered a full three months before the actual fall premier was a sharp marketing move, a clever way to attract fans and invite them to self-define as “Gleeks”. Murphy and Falchuk could get away with what amounted to a musical version of Alexander Payne’s Election, if somewhat tamer, if you got the right kids on board.

Assembling a group of capital D Diverse misfits — like the theatre kid equivalent of Tracy Flick, Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), the aimless jock, Finn (Cory Monteith), the gay kid, Kurt (Colfer), the disabled kid, Artie (Kevin McHale), the goth, Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz), and equally ambitious Mercedes (Amber Riley) — and calling them the “New Directions” meant 1) constructing a purposefully identifiable lake of dweebs and 2) calculating the possible internal tensions. Mostly, people cared about the first part.


Watch me: We’re mere days from the 30th anniversary of one of my favorite childhood movies: Warren Beatty’s truly gorgeous, truly demented Dick Tracy, the kind of blockbuster only a ‘70s titan would make. Matt Singer wrote about the film last week, and I wrote about it for the 25th anniversary in 2015. The movie is on HBO Max, so if you have access, definitely check it out.

And another thing… Looking for a way to support the protesters around the country? This Google doc will help you get started. And if you want to read about how TV wrongly makes us think of cops as heroes, check out one of my favorite pieces of TV criticism from the 2010s, Laura Hudson’s terrific dissection of Blue Bloods.

This week’s reading music: “This Year,” The Mountain Goats

Episodes is published at least once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

Read more posts like this in your inbox

Subscribe to the newsletter