END-OF-YEAR MANIFESTATIONS: "Little boxes, on the hillside..."

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 30, 2021

John Madden was very well-liked: NFL legend John Madden died this week at age 85. At the New York Times (and elsewhere), his death was front-page news.

Why was Madden so well liked? In that lengthy front-page obituary, the Times' Ben Shpigel explained it the way many others did:

SHPIGEL (12/29/21): As inclusive as he was beloved, Madden embodied a rare breed of sports personality. He could relate to the plumber in Pennsylvania or the custodian in Kentucky—or the cameramen on his broadcast crew—because he viewed himself, at bottom, as an ordinary guy who just happened to know a lot about football. Grounded by an incapacitating fear of flying, he met many of his fans while crisscrossing the country, first in Amtrak trains and then in his Madden Cruiser, a decked-out motor coach that was a rare luxurious concession...

For more than 20 years, that bus shepherded Madden to and from his assignments, a fulfillment of sorts of a favorite book, “Travels with Charley,” by John Steinbeck, who had driven around America in a camper with his poodle. 

By common agreement, Madden was well liked—was even "beloved"—"because he viewed himself...as an ordinary guy." Also, because he conducted himself that way in his interactions with regular people. 

Giant fame and giant wealth didn't seem to have gone to his head. His tendencies may have tracked back to the circumstances of his youth:

SHPIGEL: Madden was born in Austin, Minn., on April 10, 1936, the oldest of three children, and the only son, of Earl and Mary (Flaherty) Madden. His father was a mechanic.

When John was 6, his family moved to Daly City, Calif., a working-class suburb of San Francisco whose proximity to the city offered adventurous escapes for sports-crazed boys. With his close friend John Robinson, who would become the head coach at Southern California and of the Los Angeles Rams, Madden hitched trolley rides into town and then sneaked into Kezar Stadium and Seals Stadium to watch football and baseball games.

His family was of modest means, but Madden was resourceful. He scrounged for gear in rummage bins and fashioned his baseball bats by taping together pieces found at semipro games. Opportunities for minor-league baseball beckoned—the Red Sox and the Yankees expressed interest—but Madden, from his time caddying for the well-heeled at the San Francisco Golf Club, had come to equate success with a college education.

Madden grew up in working-class Daly City, in a family of modest means. Roughly a decade later, Malvina Reynolds wrote a song about the little houses of that city's urban sprawl, and about the "ticky tacky" people said to be living inside them.

The Reynolds song became well known. Its lyrics started like this:

Little boxes, on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes all the same

There's a pink one and a green one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same

And the people in the houses
All went to the university
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same

And there's doctors and lawyers
And business executives
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same

We don't know why Reynolds would have thought that the people inside those little houses were a bunch of doctors and lawyers. In our experience, Daly City was much more a fog-infested working-class suburb, just as the New York Times said.

In fairness to Reynolds, she may have written her song that way so it wouldn't seem that she was mocking the working class. But our tribe sometimes tends to enjoy characterizing and mocking Others in extremely large groups.

Madden grew up in Daly City in the 1940s and the early 1950s. As of the summer of 1960, one of our  aunts was living in one of the very houses, in the highly visible Westlake development, which Reynolds described and mocked in her song.

Those houses were indeed quite small. Except for the various pastel shades they'd been painted, they did all look just the same.

That said, we'll venture a guess:

The people living inside those houses weren't all made of ticky tacky. Also, they didn't all look just the same!

Our question today is simple. Can you see a possible problem with Reynolds' well-known song? 

At the time, we probably couldn't. Opinions may differ today.

At some point, Tom Lehrer apparently described Little Boxes as "the most sanctimonious song ever written." That doesn't mean that Lehrer was right, but all too often, within our tribe, the possible problem lurking here may persist, even today.

The late John Madden was very well liked. For background on the Reynolds song, you can just click here

Tomorrow: Top question of the past year!


24 comments:

  1. “she may have written her song that way so it wouldn't seem that she was mocking the working class.”

    Or, maybe, if you read carefully:

    ‘And the people in the houses
    All went to the university
    Where they were put in boxes
    And they came out all the same’

    It is a critique of American culture. She explicitly attacks the university for making everyone the same, robbing them of their individuality.

    She critiques suburban sprawl, where every house looks the same and is dehumanizing in its regimentation, and a blight on the landscape with its shoddy construction.

    But leave it to Somerby to interpret that as an attack on the working class by snooty liberals.

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    1. Right, this song was written around the same time as the book The Organization Man came out, which was about the homogenization of individuality in large corporations, before men were allowed to wear anything other than white shirts and ties. Conformity was a big issue in those days. Another example is the film "No Down Payment" about the individual problems and social pressures of people living in identical suburban homes after WWII.

      Somerby is our age, so he should know better.

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  2. Meh. In a way, the upper-class suburbanites who haven't done a single day of honest labor in their lives are indeed made out of ticky tacky. As well illustrated in Weeds

    But sure, we'll give it to you, dear Bob: not all of them. Some, we assume, are good people.

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  3. Speaking of narrative and storyline:

    https://nomoremister.blogspot.com/2021/12/conservatisms-master-narrative.html

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  4. "By common agreement, Madden was well liked—was even "beloved"—"because he viewed himself...as an ordinary guy." Also, because he conducted himself that way in his interactions with regular people."

    This sounds like storyline and narrative to me. People aren't liked only because they are humble, but also because they take an interest in others, don't cause controversy, behave themselves and don't exhibit bigotry, are honest in their dealings with others, and because they have a genuine interest in others -- much as Bill Clinton did (regardless of his other failings).

    Perhaps he was also well liked because of his football knowledge, since that knowledge brought him winning teams. And perhaps he is considered well liked because no one ever asked others about him, aside from sports figures. Did he treat his office staff well, did his wife and children love him, did he have any friends outside football, how did his neighbors feel about him? How did the black players on his teams feel about him on a personal level? I don't know and I'll bet Somerby doesn't know either. After all, Joe Paterno was well liked too, until he wasn't.

    Madden is a figure from a different era, one in which social media, twitter and cell phones didn't broadcast one's every personal problem and action to the general public. Perhaps he was considered well liked mainly because he had a good publicist (who kept things that might have made him less well liked out of the news).

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  5. "Madden, from his time caddying for the well-heeled at the San Francisco Golf Club, had come to equate success with a college education."

    Somerby truncates his quote, but it sounds like Madden passed up those minor league opportunities in order to go to college, which would place him among the people (the elite) whom he is criticizing today.

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  6. Somerby says that the Daly City "little boxes" were occupied by working class people when he was there (early 60s), but he was there years before those neighborhoods became more diverse and less middle class.

    "To be fair, back in the 1960s, this description [middle class homogeneity] was presumably accurate. In particular, the Westlake neighborhood in Daly City was originally a whites-only suburb after the misguided fashion of Levittown, New York. You can imagine watching the all-white families coming and going from their newly built tract houses and thinking, This bland architecture sure has produced some bland people."

    The neighborhoods have changed substantially since then, according to this description of the "little boxes":

    https://thebolditalic.com/what-a-classic-folk-song-gets-wrong-about-daly-city-becfcb4ddded

    There is also an interesting phenomena in which anyone without a college degree tends to think of himself as working class, regardless of income, whereas those with college degrees classify themselves as middle class, again regardless of income. So mh's comment about the song attributing university education to those living in the boxes means the inhabitants most likely considered themselves middle class and not working class.

    Then there is the matter of housing prices in the bay area. Even in the 1960s, modest housing cost more than elsewhere. That situation has only gotten worse since then.

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  7. It seems unlikely that Madden lived in Westlake, the suburb described in the Little Boxes song. For one thing, he lived in Daly City in the 1940s & early 50s. Westlake was built in 1948 and annexed to Daly City, which implies that there were other houses unlike the little boxes (invented by Henry Doelger) preexisting in that community. It seems most likely that Madden lived there with his family, not in the new tract housing subsequently called Little Boxes by Reynolds:

    "Developed by Henry Doelger, Westlake is notable for its monostylistic architecture, created by a core team of designers to encompass nearly every building in the development. For this reason, Westlake has become an icon for architectural blandness, exemplified by its endless rows of boxy houses, which were the inspiration for Malvina Reynolds’ folk song "Little Boxes," an anti-conformity anthem in the 1960s.

    Despite its detractors, Westlake has enjoyed considerable publicity over the course of its 60-year history. In the 1950s, the neighborhood's architecturally innovative schools began appearing in national magazines, such as Life, Architectural Forum, and Fortune. In the 1970s, one national magazine named Westlake one of the ten best suburbs in America. In 2003, the New York Times ran an article about Henry Doelger and his impact on history, citing Westlake as one of his most iconic neighborhoods.[5]"

    Somerby is working extra hard to portray Reynolds (a presumed liberal) as a class-bigot because she mocks those living in homogenous architecture as bland. But that assumes Madden lived in those little boxes and it isn't clear that he did, nor that anyone "working class" did, including Somerby's aunt (whose income is unspecified).

    Somerby himself went to school in Palo Alto, a ritzy suburb near Standford University. His family did have money, which may be why he pretends to care so much about liberals mocking the working class -- or maybe he just wants to portray liberals as hypocrits and suggest that working people should vote Republican since the libs don't really care about them -- which is conservative narrative and storyline all the way down. In fact, Somerby might as well be Donald Trump, the supposed billionaire who REALLY REALLY cares about the working class voters, while stiffing them at every opportunity, cheating them in his fake university and abandoning them to covid and the authorities after they participated in his insurrection on 1/6.

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  8. "At some point, Tom Lehrer apparently described Little Boxes as "the most sanctimonious song ever written." That doesn't mean that Lehrer was right, but all too often, within our tribe, the possible problem lurking here may persist, even today."

    Tom Lehrer didn't believe that any protest song had the capacity to change anything, because it was largely preaching to the choir and because people didn't tend to see themselves in the lyrics, even when they fit. He thought all protest songs were sanctimonious.

    https://www.casualhacker.net/tom.lehrer/jmazner/lehrhtml.html

    He wasn't part of the leftist folk music scene and he said that he might have voted for Eugene McCarthy except that he met the man and that caused him to vote for someone else. Not exactly a prototypical liberal even in his own time period.

    I doubt that Somerby can name one current song that features liberals mocking working class people for being what they are (working class). We liberals do not even write satirical songs mocking Trumpies. Even Randy Rainbow stays focused on the politicians, not The Others who send their hard-earned money to them. (Setting aside that most working class people these days are not white and not uneducated.)

    Back in the late 1960s, the working class unions (electricians, plumbers, machinists, meatcutters) required apprenticeships that were only available to those who had a referral from an existing union member. That meant that such opportunities stayed within families and extended families. It also meant that black and hispanic people were excluded because they were not part of such families. Of course, women were explicitly excluded by union rules. The use of the term "working class" as a proxy for white is a legacy of that time period. That did change, with difficulty, but now there is greater diversity in working class jobs, just as there is diversity among the people now inhabiting those little boxes, and among those going to college, or becoming football coaches. Madden is a throwback to a time that isn't necessarily typical of today's working class people (who Soemrby pretends to both care about and speak for).

    This is all nostalgic bullshit given today's realities.

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  9. Somerby doesn't say whether his aunt was working class. I suspect she was not.

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  10. Once again Somerby has taken a song that I liked and tried to ruin it.

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    1. Let's give "The Daily Howler" credit, it spared us Bob having a career as a pop music critic.

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    2. That Cecelia, is what is sometimes called “a joke.” It’s probably safe to be thankful now that Bob didn’t relate Dylan’s “Percy’s Song” to the Potter Case. Guess he doesn’t do the bootlegs.

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  11. If Reynolds was trying to rap a specific place, She might have indicated that in the song. But She didn't. Anyone familiar with it might have thought of it many times driving pass a housing development that does indeed look like some kind of metaphor for conformity. I was born into a development of small houses that was designed for GI Bill guys like my Dad, happily this was not the case. Whatever.

    Tom Lehrer was something of a putz, as Bob has noted at length more than once. This song could only afflict the humorless, an exercise in satire both gentle and biting.
    So, it looks like we will get out of 2021 without Bob's promised apologia for poor, tormented Donald Trump. That will be an exercise in self parody to kick off the new year in style.

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  12. Madden was a successful teacher and coach, and an example of Irish humility you could add.

    We can try to see him as a role model, but millionaires can't be trusted just cause a few won the lottery with compassionate X-Men superhero tendencies. For every nice Madden inspiring people there's a newly minted CEO setting up a tax haven etc. The individual won't change the system, he can just not make it much worse. Sometimes the games are too real.

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    1. Irish aren't humble.

      "The so-called Irish temperament is a mixture of flaming ego, hot temper, stubbornness, great personal charm and warmth, and a wit that shines through adversity."

      https://arlenestaffordwilson.wordpress.com/tag/irish-personality-traits/

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    2. Hey genius, I was talking about Irish culture, not their skull shape. Modernity, how does it work?

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  13. "With his close friend John Robinson, who would become the head coach at Southern California and of the Los Angeles Rams, Madden hitched trolley rides into town and then sneaked into Kezar Stadium and Seals Stadium to watch football and baseball games."

    Why do people consider stealing trolley rides and entry to sporting events to be cute instead of theft? This doesn't speak well about his character, but Somerby holds it up as evidence that Madden was a nice guy.

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    1. University of Southern California is also referred to as the University of Spoiled Children, because wealthy kids go there. But they have had a longstanding problem with corruption in their football recruiting and problems with police by their players. Despite changes in staff, the recruiting problems have continued, suggesting pressure from other sources.

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  14. In my opinion, if all webmasters and content writers were as good as you, the website would be more useful than ever. Let's experience the classic games

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