The Breakfast Table

Call Me Michael Cosmos

Dear Liza:

I also think that story about Mongolian last names was terrific. All around it on the front page of the Post, as you said, were lies and deceit. On the other hand, a whole nation simultaneously choosing new last names for themselves showcases the human capacity for creative invention in a singularly unwicked form. I only hope more of them will follow the lead of the old cosmonaut who picked the name Cosmos, instead of simply using their fathers’ given names. Either way, there’s a formidable Anthropology Ph.D. dissertation to be written about Mongolian surnaming sometime soon. (And if any of you Mongolian readers out there are interested in an alliance, I spell my name with a “c” and two “f”s.)

Americans, I think, have long itched for just this sort of nomenclatural revolution: For years, hippies have had kids named Sunshine, and Black Muslims have had kids named Tariq. Nowadays, Jews have kids named Sinead and twentysomethings can’t seem to give enough of their babies octogenarian-guy names like Irving. Creative types from the beats to hip-hoppers, and from Marilyn Manson to the artist formerly known as Albert Gore Jr., all seem to revel in reinvention. Now imagine if they all had the power to declare themselves patriarch of, say, the Van Halen dynasty. Or, in exchange for a small annual fee, the Borders Books and Music dynasty. Think of the possibilities: If George W. Bush really wants to combine his two imperatives of establishing an independent identity from his parents and wooing the NAACP, he could choose Mfume. What name would you choose?

On the subject of people creating their own cultural identity, I’m fascinated with this morning’s New York Times story about low-power radio. It seems it’s not just for punk rockers any more. According to the story, the battle to grant broadcast licenses to a new category of low-power FM broadcasters highlights divisions within the GOP. Big-business broadcast-industry supporters hate the idea, because it means their chain stations will face competition from pipsqueaks. A bunch of religious Republicans, though, love it–because it means they’ll be able to compete with those atheistic chain stations.

This is one of those beautiful places where far left and far right agree and don’t sound spooky. What all the constituencies identified with the push to approve low-power radio share is a desire to drop out of American popular culture–with its corporate-dominated music industry (punk rock types), its obliteration of region (community types), and its moral rot (religious types). What’s sad is that coverage of the campaign to have the FCC okay micro-broadcasting has focused so exclusively on the arty types who support it. You don’t have to be a hipster to be wary of the culture industry and like a little local distinction. And since religious folks and folklore-scholars are a lot more palatable to the Congress that decides on things like low-power radio, maybe it’d be a good idea to put the least hip activists at the movement’s fore.

On the other hand, rockers and Christian conservatives can sometimes seem like kissing cousins. A story in the Post this morning quoted Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich praising his fellow musician, the gospel-music-writing Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. Ulrich is on Capitol Hill to lobby against Napster, which he says hurts Metallica’s bottom line. I don’t use Napster, but I do know that back when Ulrich’s band was good, I bought at least three of their CDs. And I was only willing to spend money on the band–which rarely got on the radio–because I loved the Metallica mix that my friend Mikkel broke copyright law to make me during the summer after 10th grade. So, I think Ulrich is shooting himself in the foot vis à vis his next generation of potential fans: Kids won’t buy his CDs unless they’ve heard ‘em first, and most of those ways break copyright law. I wonder what he thinks about low-power radio. Would he charge those tiny stations royalties? What if Hatch were one of the DJs? Whose station would you rather listen to–Hatch’s, or Ulrich’s? Me, I’d choose Gen. Cosmos over them any day.