Virulent Word of Mouse

May 31, 2011

The revolution will not be televised, but it might be your ring-tone

Filed under: Essays,Uncategorized — Shane Greenstein @ 5:06 pm

The revolution will not be televised. The phrase has been paraphrased many times. It has become routine, and almost safe. And it took on new meaning in popular conversation when the Arab spring erupted in Egypt and Tunisia, and the revolution really was on television — as well as You-Tube, Facebook and Twitter.

Do you know its origins?

Gil Scott Heron invented that phrase. It is the title for an angry and sardonic poem, written in the heat of youthful rebellion.  Oversimplifying, the poem tells the listener not to look to mainstream sources for the social revolution they seek. It will not be found in the slogans and routines of the existing media structures (the full text of the poem is at the end of this post).

The phrase surfaced again last week upon the news that Scott-Heron passed away. I do not know have anything profound to say about his passing. Yet, I did notice something odd about how the Internet has changed my memory of Gil Scott Heron. That is the basis for this post. Scott-Heron’s passing illustrates it.

To wit, the rise of the Internet has not changed death. Death is still not for the living. The Internet has changed one thing about death, however. It has changed the way the dead are remembered by the living.

An update to my memory

I still remember the first time I heard a recording of Heron declaring that the revolution would not be televised. I was in college, visiting a friend. My friend pulled out a piece of vinyl and played it on his stereo. (Yes, this happened quite a while ago).

I sat there transfixed. Heron ridiculed the present age and its detritus, rebelling against meaninglessness. I knew rebellion, much like any young male, but had never heard rebellion mixed with such expressiveness and urgency. I did not understand the poem, had no benchmark for it. It was neither high art nor even pop art, but it grabbed my attention, holding it.

Look, I do not want to lie. Even when I was an angry young man I did not stay angry for long, nor really act on it while the heat lasted. Today I look back on this moment from the safety of my middle class academic existence. Scott-Heron would not approve of the life I live today. But Scott-Heron never really intend to speak to me in the first place. At the time I first heard him I was just an impressionable young kid from a sheltered background.

Still, Heron might have approved that the poem helped someone take a step closer to understanding the vast range of the human experience.

Last week, after Scott-Heron died, many commentators talked about how Heron inspired many rappers and other song writers, such as Stevie Wonder. Many talked about how the rhythm and verve in his verse borrowed from many traditions, such as Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

Several commentators talked about how Scott-Heron’s phrase had become a part of common language. Go ahead and put the phrase in a search engine. Many writers have have penned variations on it. The anger has been drained. The phrase has descended into parody.

To my surprise, none of the commentators I read said anything about Scott-Heron’s prescience. Scott-Heron wanted his audience to NOT look to mainstream media for information or direction. He wanted them to look elsewhere to bring about social change. In many respects, Scott-Heron got what he wanted. The mainline media did not bring about change, but some non-mainstream sources played a role. Facebook, Twitter and other online tools have upended communications. In some places this has helped bring about revolutionary change.

A few days ago, after Heron’s death, I went on the Internet to find the lyrics and a recording (including at the end of this post). I found both, plus a You-Tube video.

I also found a little piece of myself.  That surprised me. The text was not exactly how I remembered it. Listening to it felt a bit like visiting my parent’s home and coming across a cardboard box full of artifacts from college. Handling the artifacts brings back thoughts. A picture of a bunch of friends brings a jolt. The picture looks familiar, but many details jump out, as if fresh.

To be sure, the refrain was the same. The revolution will not be televised. I had recalled the basic theme correctly.

Yet, much of the poem brings up dated events, referring to events in the 1970s, such as Watergate. It also includes celebrities and slogans and ad campaigns that would not make any sense to anybody under the age of  forty

It made me recalibrate what I thought I had known.

Here is the video from You-Tube. Someone has conveniently found pictures for the lyrics. Seeing the faces and references does bring something back. Take a look. How much do you recall? I wonder what Scott-Heron thought about having his composition matched with such visuals.

Here are the lyrics. I got this off a site that offered to sell me the song as a ring tone for my phone. Automated hucksterism. *sigh* The revolution will not be televised, but it might be your ring-tone.

Text of the poem

You will not be able to stay home, brother.

You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.

You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,

Skip out for beer during commercials,

Because the revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be televised.
The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox
In 4 parts without commercial interruptions.
The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon
blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John
Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat
hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be brought to you by the
Schaefer Award Theatre and will not star Natalie
Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia.
The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.
The revolution will not get rid of the nubs.
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised, Brother.

There will be no pictures of you and Willie May
pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run,
or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance.
NBC will not be able predict the winner at 8:32
or report from 29 districts.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
brothers in the instant replay.
There will be no pictures of Whitney Young being
run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process.
There will be no slow motion or still life of Roy
Wilkens strolling through Watts in a Red, Black and
Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the proper occasion.

Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville
Junction will no longer be so damned relevant, and
women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
The revolution will not be televised.

There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock
news and no pictures of hairy armed women
liberationists and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose.
The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb,
Francis Scott Key, nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom
Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink, or the Rare Earth.
The revolution will not be televised.

The revolution will not be right back after a message
about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your
bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised,
will not be televised, will not be televised.
The revolution will be no re-run brothers;
The revolution will be live.

4 Comments »

  1. Greetings:

    Heron’s phrase is still safe!

    (1) Call me a cynic, but I am not sure that we can say yet that there has been a fundamental change in the power structure (esp. in Egypt). If a revolution has started … “this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

    (2) Channel such as Al-Jazeera may have played a role on putting it on the tube but such channels are not beholden to the establishment in Egypt and Tunisia. Perhaps this is Heron’s point.

    Comment by Zia — June 4, 2011 @ 4:20 pm | Reply

  2. keen observation. in the iranian situation the people are now the media. in my opinion i have never looked highly upon twitter until now and how it is being used now in iran. think the developers envisioned this?

    Comment by HMS Home Warranty — June 6, 2011 @ 7:56 am | Reply

  3. So why is the line “women will not care if Dick, finally gets down with Jane” in print, yet as Scott Heron speaks his lyrics he says “women will not care if Dick finally screwed Jane” HMM.

    Comment by December H. — March 27, 2013 @ 5:53 pm | Reply


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